The good news for Maple Leaf fans is that tomorrow night, the Leafs will be visiting Buffalo to play a Sabres team that's actually struggling as much or more than they are so far in this young NHL season.
That's gotta be worth something. Or at least a little less worrying for the next 24 hours. Or at least it was before the Sabres knocked off the Bruins last night.
Now here's this week's mail bag.
Next year, Wellwood, Stajan, and Steen are all RFAs. If the Leafs are forced to spend a lot to retain/resign these three, plus Sundin, that doesn't leave much if any for a new free agent signing. With the rest of the team on 2 or more year contracts, that almost forces next year's team to be the same as this year’s. Does that put JFJ in a position where he almost has to trade this year to have any ability to change the roster next year? Thanks.
Brian Stefurak, Toronto
A: Interesting question. I'm not sure, for starters, I share the sense that those three young players will cost the Leafs a lot to re-sign. Not one has established themselves as a bona fide top-six forward, so I can't see any Penner-like offer sheets coming their way. It could happen, but it doesn't seem likely. All are making less than $1 million a season, and only Stajan seems likely at this point to hit the 20-goal mark. How the cost of those three should exceed $6 million next season at this point defies logic. The Leafs hold the hammer on all three as restricted free agents, and if an offer sheet comes along, they can always match.
That said, I think its clear the Leafs lack flexibility for next year if they maintain the current status quo. I think the number I've seen is that they're already committed to $42 million worth of payroll. If this season continues to go sour, there should be opportunities for them to throw some of that cap money overboard.
Q: Hi Damien,
I have a question that I'm surprised no-one has asked before, so I'll let you have a go at it.
If the penalty for going over the cap is a fine and not a docking of points, why are teams not willing to pay the fines to get the best possible team money can buy? I mean if the Leafs can make $80 million in profit last year and still have the gall to raise ticket prices, shouldn't they show the people who pad their bank accounts that they are serious about being a good team?
Jeff Foran, Markham
A: It doesn't work that way. They can't just go over the cap and pay the fines. If found to be over, the league would force them to comply with the cap immediately or they wouldn't be allowed to play. My understanding is any fine would be imposed if, at the end of the season, an audit shows a team has gone over the cap because of injury reserve players, bonuses or other unanticipated or unaccounted for costs.
As a relative newcomer to Hockey (and Canada - moved here from the UK in 1999) I used to think you were rather bitter and twisted about the Leafs in the same vein that Glen Healy is. But when I think back now and review 7 years of following the Leafs, I think I am much more on you wave length now (i.e. the rose tinted glasses are gone for good).
On to my thoughts - coming from UK Sports where there is no such thing as a salary cap and the richest teams are the best teams year in year out - its obviously not just players salaries that you can spend all your money on. The richest teams also employ the best scouts all over the world, they have the best playing facilities, the best coaching staff all the way down to the dude that gives your shoes a good polish. Anyway, so I think the most realistic jab we can make at MLSE is that they do not spend money wisely on everything else not classed as player salaries. With all the money, it should be the Leafs drafting the Zetterbergs and Datsyuks of the world due to the best scouting. It simple surely - who are the best scouts in the business - find them and offer to double their money and work for the Leafs. Not that simple of course - but my point is this. They should spend their millions where they can to improve on the on ice product. And they evidently don't. Thoughts?
Matthew Goff, Toronto
A: Well Matthew, you've obviously been here long enough to figure this business out. Why the Leafs don't do that is indeed a bit of a mystery, but they never have. In theory, they could identify the five best amateur and pro scouts in the game, double their salaries and be done with it. But that's not how they've gone about it, and that's the kind of issue one can bring up when challenged on the notion that Leafs ownership doesn't really pursue winning with all possible vigour.
Q: It is strange to see a team with such terrible defence having players in the top tier of the plus/minus ratings. Looking at the Leafs plus-minus ratings it would seem that their defence is being majorly let down by a brutal fourth forward line and an equally brutal third defensive pairing (take your pick of Stralman, White and McCabe). Is this too simplistic? I would be interested in seeing the stats for goals against by individual (as opposed to plus/mins); a simple sum of the number of even strength goals scored while each player is on the ice divided by his total 5 on 5 playing time. Seeing the outliers on a team would be instructive.
Patrick Smith, Vancouver
A: Agreed; on the Leafs it does seem a bit out of whack. That's where plus-minus can be a bit deceiving, however, so you've got to be careful sometimes and wait to see the numbers play out over at least half a season. Some players have to play against better opposing players, for example, or may be playing with linemates that can't score to save their lives.
That said, these Leaf plus-minus number are weird. Let's keep an eye on them and evaluate further before Christmas.
Q: Monsieur Cox,
Don't you think that all the “head-first-into-the-boards” checks are resulting from the players not being allowed to throw an arm around the guy they're checking without getting called for a hold? I think Burke was suggesting that under these circumstances the holding be allowed as a safety measure. Seems like it would be awfully tricky for the ref to make that judgement call - is it a “protection” hold or merely a convenient way of wrapping up the opponent. As one of the world's top 100 influences in the world of professional ice hockey - do you have any thoughts on this debate? One can sense it won't be long before we have a paralyzed NHLer.
Ross Maudsley, Toronto
A: Well, Monsieur Ross, you're clearly getting bad information if you categorize me in that field of 100 influential folks. I'm just trying to have a bit of influence on the hockey players in my own household.
It is a tricky area, but I think most hits from behind are just stupid, reckless plays, and if given the opportunity to apply a safety hold instead, most of those inclined to play this way would still execute a stupid, reckless play.
I think a two-minute boarding call for a hit from behind is just way too little. Give anyone guilty of such an offence an automatic major, game misconduct and five-game suspension, and I promise you the issue will disappear from the sport.
Q: Just a quick question about taxes on the salaries of Canadian teams. For example, does Mats Sundin lose half of his salary due to the Canadian Tax laws or does he get taxed in his home country of Sweden? If he does get taxed by Canadian standards then is it not a huge advantage for American Teams when negotiating salaries?
Jack Saraga, Halifax
A: It varies from player to player depending on their nationality, play of permanent residency, etc. It's a consideration when contracts are signed, to be sure, and I've been told by various agents that the difference between Canada and many U.S. jurisdictions is negligible.
Q: How long can the Desert Dogs hang on? There is an obvious revenue gap between the haves and have nots. I was in Phoenix last week on business and took in the Red Wings/Coyotes tilt. The arena could not have been more than 1/2 full, with the vast majority of the fans wearing Red Wings jerseys (The Detroit fans refer to the arena as Joe Louis West). The only games on the Coyotes schedule that are deemed premium are Red Wings games.
Our tickets were in the lower bowl (row O on the goal line) cost $55 (Our company's red seats at the ACC have a face value of $191!). This week the Coyotes sent us an email advertising the same seats we had for Detroit at $20. Why on earth is there not a team in Hamilton when the NHL is bleeding in the desert?
Richard Baillie, Oakville
A: I guess the answer is twofold. One, the Coyotes are part of a much larger real estate/commercial development play in the Glendale area, and so ticket prices and attendance figures really only show part of the reason that franchise is in Phoenix. Moreover, it's a large TV market that the league prefers to Hamilton. The Coyotes organization still insists that if it can ever ice a playoff quality team, the fan support will return, because at one point in time it actually was quite decent.
Q: Hello Damien!
Maybe you can shed some light on the responsibilities of the Leafs bench staff. Paul Maurice is the head coach, so ultimately he is responsible, but after him - who on the Leaf bench is in charge of the defence? Should Paul be looking for a better assistant squad? Maybe bring in a more savvy defensive specialist to help with the coaching/development of the defence corps? Obviously Paul knows how to get them to Run and Gun, just seems to have no idea how to get the to tighten up that back end.
Ron Gillespie, Listowel, Ont.
A: I think the basic concept is Randy Ladouceur looks after the D-men, Keith Acton is in charge of the forwards and Maurice co-ordinates the two, with Dallas Eakins in the press box as the eye-in-the-sky. Ladouceur and Maurice have been together since their Hartford days. Whether this very experienced coaching staff is good enough is, of course, rather up for debate these days. But adding more personnel likely would improve the situation.
Click here to send Damien a question and he'll answer a selection in his mail bag every Thursday in this space.