Thursday Mail Bag
Less than two weeks to the NHL trade deadline and not a whole lot of speculation involving the Maple Leafs.
Maybe New Jersey has some interest in Hal Gill after missing out on Mike Commodore. We’ll see. But certainly you’d have to say that if Cliff Fletcher isn’t able to do something of significance, those who argued he was a better executive to manage the Leafs to the trade deadline because of his ability to swing the big deal will have some major explaining to do.
For those clinging to the hope that the Leafs are still somehow going to be a playoff team, games this week against three clubs desperately clawing to get into post-season play – the Islanders tonight, then Boston; and the tough 1-0 loss to Buffalo last night – will demonstrate whether the Leafs were full value for recent wins over Ottawa, Montreal and Detroit or simply taking advantage of higher-ranked teams looking past them.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Maybe I'm wrong but I'm getting the bad feeling that this Leaf lineup is going to look very much the same after the trade deadline as it did before the deadline. All I'm hearing is that nobody on this team wants to waive their no-trade clauses.
If that ends up being the case I'm left wondering what exactly Cliff Fletcher was brought in to do. I figured his role would be similar to the one Wayne Embree filled for the Raptors not long ago, clearing away cap space for the next GM.
I hope I'm wrong but I suspect he'll get very little done before the deadline - What do you think?
William Hare, Scarborough
A: Obviously I touched on this in my intro, but I would say it would be premature to comment on Fletcher’s work until the deadline comes and goes. It may well be that the players the Leafs want to dangle could still be dangling out there in the final hours when other clubs are getting desperate to do something. So we’ll all have to wait. But if Fletcher does nothing, there will be a lot of unhappy campers in Leaf Nation.
Q: Well, when does the flurry of trading activity begin? It's Feb 8 as I write and I'm reading nothing about the great things Cliff Fletcher's doing. Do they all wait right up until the deadline? And isn't that kind of stupid?
Jack Bush, Haliburton, Ont.
A: Oops, there it is. More impatience, which is entirely understandable, Jack. You wrote, obviously, before the Senators dealt for Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore, and that may be a deal that gets things rolling. Peter Forsberg’s decision, whenever it comes, may also grease the market, as will Atlanta’s final determination on their ability to sign Marian Hossa and Buffalo’s decision on Brian Campbell. That said, there is some fear out there that there won’t be many moves, and that would be a disappointment to everyone and, I would think, reason for the league to re-examine some of the rules regarding trades and possibly allowing teams to pay the salaries of traded players the way it was once allowable.
Q: Hey Damien - I enjoy your blog. My question is are you surprised just how bad the Leafs are this season? If you would have told me at the start of the year that Sundin, Antropov, Steen and Stajan would have career years, Toskala would provide better goaltending than Raycroft did last year (not hard to beat) and Carlo would get injured again I would have taken that and been pretty confident about a playoff spot.
Outside of Tucker, Wellwood and Raycroft, who are all playing much worse than last year, why is this team so lousy? Who else is worse? And does any forward in the league give up the puck more in the offensive zone, either by a turnover or a bad shot, than Blake?
Doug J., Vancouver
A: Well, I am surprised to some degree how bad the Leafs are. I thought they’d be in the running for eighth, maybe ninth or 10th. I believed, wrongly, that they were an improved team from last year, largely because their goaltending would be improved. But let’s not exaggerate – Antropov may be having a career year, but Sundin isn’t (he’s still their best player) and Steen sure isn’t. Stajan might be, but he’s still a third liner of moderate impact. I didn’t really factor Colaiacovo into the equation at the start, but I also didn’t factor in the huge step backwards that McCabe would suffer. I thought Blake would add consistent scoring and another pest-like attitude, and he’s done neither. Finally, this team has terrible special teams, and some of that is coaching. But you can’t win with a lousy power play and weak penalty-killing. So while I am surprised the team has done this poorly, the numbers actually do add up to where the Leafs sit.
Q: I keep reading about Mats Sundin and Brian McCabe saying they have no trade contracts and will stay in Toronto. My question would be why? They are playing for a team that appears to be going nowhere now and perhaps for the foreseeable future with no real budding stars in the wings. Should they not want to have a chance to win a Cup? Should they not want to play for an organization that really wants to win, not just fill seats and sell beer? Do they want to stay in Toronto because no matter how well or poorly they play it doesn't seem to matter, the long suffering fans keep coming to the games and the owners make money?
If they moved on they would be doing themselves and the organization a favour, freeing up salary dollars and/or getting young guns and they might just appreciate winning for a change.
George Orser, Ottawa
A: With due respect, George, I think that’s a little unfair. These guys are human, too, and they establish roots in a community and may well simply enjoy living and working in Toronto. Moreover, I don’t necessarily believe its always an admirable quality to be always looking to join a team with a chance to win a championship. Sometimes it takes more guts and determination to try to be part of a solution to a problem. Obviously Sundin and McCabe would prefer to play for a winning team, but I don’t think you can blame them for exercising the parts of their contracts that were fairly negotiated.
Just a comment about Jason Blake. Three or four times a game he will speed down the wing into the offensive zone and fire a harmless high wrist shot that is easily snagged by the opposing goalie or deflected out of play entirely. This play never generates anything more than padding Blake's shot count. As an amateur hockey player I play right wing but shoot left-handed. Everytime I come into the zone on a one-on one I find that sling-shotting a fast shot ALONG THE ICE, usually through the defence's legs is a way more effective play. It tends to catch the goalie off guard and at a minimum offers a rebound. Once in a while you'll even score this way. I know this is a very minor issue with all the Leaf's problems, I just don't know why a skilled and fast player would keep trying that harmless wrist shot that misses the net entirely half the time.
Jesse Thomas Cook, Collingwood, Ont.
A: I agree that Blake has taken far too many shots from the perimeter. I also agree that shooting pucks that goalies can easily catch often neutralizes an attack. Otherwise, it's always problematic to take the lessons of amateur hockey and try to apply them to the NHL. What works in the beer league, in other words, may not work in the toughest league in the world. In general, I think Blake has said publicly he has taken too many poor shots and is looking to change that.
Q: What are the rules for putting a player on waivers who has a no trade clause? Can it be done?
Brian M., Barrie, Ont.
A: Yes, and teams will use that as a threat to get players with no-trade clauses to waive them. After all, if you go on waivers you might end up with any club. That’s why the smarter players are getting no-movement clauses as well, which doesn’t permit teams to use the waiver threat.
Q: Hi Damien,
At this point of the season, who do you think has a better shot at winning the Cup this year: the league-leading Detroit Red Wings, or the defending champs Anaheim Ducks (even though they haven't really dominated this season)?
Rick Tulk, Toronto
A: The Ducks look like they’ve got a great shot to repeat, particularly if Selanne can score despite missing most of the season, and if GM Brian Burke can add a little something more before the deadline. For Detroit, I just wonder if their goaltending will hold up. A playoff encounter between these two teams would be terrific, and right now I’d pick Anaheim to win it. But it would be a seven-gamer.
Click here to send Damien a question and he'll answer a selection in his mail bag every Thursday in this space.