Thursday Mail Bag
It does make you wonder.
Yesterday in The Spin, I wrote about the Leafs needing to give chances to young players down the stretch and to give Andrew Raycroft an occasional start – once every three games – as a means of taking a look at those players and sensibly taking advantage of their predicament in the standings.
To some, this was a suggestion to “tank,” which I’ve always taken to mean quit or surrender or try not to win.
These are NHL players on the roster, yet some believe playing those players is tantamount to trying not to win. Winning the next game is all that matters, apparently, rather than taking a longer view and understanding that steps backwards now can create opportunities to move forward later.
Was Philly tanking last year when they traded away Peter Forsberg and Alexei Zhitnik and played younger players? The nature of pro sport is that the best young talent is made available to the worst teams, and to fail to understand and take advantage of that system whenever possible is simply being blind.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Hi Damien,
Please help. My hockey Ego had written off this season way back in November. Not so much because the Leafs were a bad team (which they were) but because on paper as well as on the ice there were (and continue to be) at least 8 teams in the Eastern conference which are superior to the boys in blue. I also knew way back in the fall of ’07 that if this team wanted to build up for the future it was going to come at expense of moving Mats Sundin. Well, the trade deadline has come and gone and Mats Sundin is still the captain of this hockey team. Kudos to him for not taking the easy way out.
That being said, Sundin has stirred and awoken my hockey Id: the very part of my sports-brain which seems to control 90% of 'Leafs Nation' 24/7. Prior to, and since the deadline, Mats has played at a level that just seems uncanny for a man his age. Cliches aside, he has defied his critics, placed the fate of the team on his aging shoulders, and seems intent on dragging them into the playoffs despite the fact that most of his supporting cast wouldn't crack the 3rd line on a real contender's roster.
My Ego tells me he'll end up a tragic hero and ultimately fail as the odds seem impossible. And yet, my Id continues to hope, knowing what a great storyline it would be if Mats could get us into the post-season (not just on the team level, but because it would put egg on MLSE's face) because really, almost anything can happen at that point.
What I need you to do, kind sir, is:
a) to snap me out of this newfound optimism. and
b) tell me what the chances of Sundin being nominated for the Hart trophy are. He's obviously not the best player in the league, but other than Ovechkin, I can't think of anyone more deserving.
Dav Werminski, Richmond Hill
A: Well, talk about laying your Jungian self on the line. First of all, it’s not wrong as a fan to hope your team makes the playoffs, but the Leafs aren’t going to. Moreover, if they did, it certainly wouldn’t put egg on the faces of the MLSE brass. To them, it would be evidence that they know what they’re doing and a chance for playoff revenue.
Second, Sundin isn’t going to come close to winning the Hart. In fact, I’d say he’s not even the Leaf MVP this season. To me, that honour should go to Vesa Toskala.
Q: So can we qualify Mats Sundin as loser in the NHL? I know he’s got Hall of Fame numbers but at best he gone to 2 Conference Finals, largely not to his play but due to the play of his goalie, Cujo. Plus I believe he has missed the playoffs, going to be 5 times with the Leafs and another 3 years with the Nordiques, so in is 18th season or so he has missed the playoffs 8 times, almost 45% of his career.
I think its easy to be the best player on bad teams and the fact the he did not want to get traded to a contender proves he never will/never could win a championship in the NHL?
Ankur Arora, Mississauga
A: Sundin’s no loser. He won gold at the Olympics. In the NHL, he’s been a reliable, durable and productive player for many years. He’s not Mario or Wayne or even Stevie Y, but he’s a Hall of Famer. Accepting a trade would have helped the organization, yes. But Sundin earned the right to stay and complete the terms of his current contract.
Q: Hey Damien, I just wanted to know what you think the best gameplan would be for the Leafs going into the off-season. Who would you try to move? Who would you keep? Do you think Fletcher (or whoever else is in charge) will actually make the difficult decisions like buying out McCabe and Tucker? I know that Wellwood and Stajan are RFAs next year, what do you think the Leafs are going to do with them? And what about Blake? Do you try to trade him or keep him around and hope he has a better season?
Julianna Ruffolo, Angus, Ont.
A: Julianna, I can’t go through the entire roster, but here’s what I can say. This organization has to get a new president and GM in as soon as possible. The decisions you’ve mentioned cannot be left to Fletcher and a caretaker administration. Why buy out Tucker, for example, if the new boss thinks he can trade him or make him better? So the game plan has to be to get the new front office team in place ASAP. If this thing drags into July or August, it’s a joke.
Yourself and others have commented on the disconnect between the Leaf hockey club and their management. The first striving for an unlikely playoff spot and the latter hoping for a free-fall. Well you can't expect the players to not try so this becomes more about the coach than anything.
I would have to put myself in Maurice's corner on this one. If I were him I'd be trying to wring every last point out of this team. He has no endorsement from the new GM and I don't think he wants to start spending time with the grand kids - so he's keeping the pedal down, until he either gets an extension (ain't gonna happen) or gets fired. You've made your views on this clear but how would it look if they pitched Maurice to install an interim stooge to put the reigns on the team and land it softly at the bottom of the standings?
Ross Maudsley, Richmond Hill
A: I don’t think there’s any way the Leafs can look worse than they are now. Moreover, Maurice coached a non-playoff team last year and has coached this team to bottom third of the NHL standings. His ultimate fate isn’t going to be tied to the final 14 games and how many of those games he wins.
Q: Damien: The management of MLSE has shown in the past that they are not shy about doling out huge amounts of cash to repair serious misjudgments. I am referring to the millions spent by the Raptors to rid themselves of Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning and Lenny Wilkens. Since the Leafs have essentially put an extra $20 million or so yearly in profits into the MLSE coffers due to the salary cap restrictions, how likely is it that they will use this money to pay off the likes of Kubina, Tucker and possibly McCabe? How much of a cap hit does the team take in such a case?
Paul Ingersoll, Indian River, Ont.
A: The cap hit can be spread out over a number of years, but that also means it's an impediment for that long. It’s a lot easier to buy out Tie Domi and Ed Belfour than it is to do the same with players on huge, long-term deals. The number one objective has to be to trade as many of the Muskoka Five as possible and get something back in return. Buyouts are a last resort, and I’m not sure there’s a point to using it unless you have a larger plan in place.
Q: Do you ever get legitimate, non-Leaf-bashing questions? How about two: How do you think the East playoff picture will play out for the last 3 or 4 seeds? What do you make of the Ottawa situation? Personally I blame Murray for not backing his coach and not properly disciplining Emery.
Brad Hewton, London
A: I get some non-Leaf questions, but there’s a ton of passion and interest about that hockey club, that’s for sure.
The east is so tight it’s hard to say. Washington is pushing hard, and it’s looks like both the Caps and the Carolina Hurricanes may qualify for the playoffs, leaving one of Philly, Buffalo or even the Rangers out. We’ve talked about the Ottawa situation many times, and I’ll say this. Ray Emery hasn’t been a good teammate, but there’s a lot more wrong with that team than just a tardy goalie. I just don’t know if you’re going to win with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley combining for $14.5 million in payroll every season for the foreseeable future.
Q: When did Brian Burke become the T.O. media answer to the problems that plague the Leafs? Good with the media yes, however, after so many years falling out in the first round in Vancouver, he picks up Bryan Murray's Ducks, adds a Brad May or two and wins Mr. Murray's cup. Does Burke really have the resume to re-build a team without direction like the Leafs? I suppose the name at the top of the resume is more important at this point than the skills and references at the bottom.
Jared Brown, Toronto
A: Well, winning a Cup gets you to the top of most lines in the hockey world, particularly those that have had 41 years to form.
Q: Hi Damien.
I've been going over the whole Leafs rebuilding/tanking the season saga and one thing that strikes me is that everyone seems to think Stamkos is the miracle solution to being competitive next year. The "plan" everyone seems to want is to get Stamkos, shed contracts and be good to go.
I think the tragedy for the Leafs is that they haven't hit rock bottom yet. They are too good this year to finish in the bottom four, they don't have young guys in the system, they have too many expensive veterans on the cap in 08-09 (and might very well go out and sign more over the summer).
Isn't it more realistic to aim to truly hit rock bottom next year (there doesn't look like there's much to look forward to anyway) aim for Tavares, and be in a much better position with the cap and with talent to start the 09-10 season?
Larry Tonet, Toulon, France
A: Larry, I’d say that’s probably pretty close with what’s going to happen, whether the Leafs want it that way or not. I don’t think Stamkos is a savior, but he would be a very useful building block, that’s for sure.
Q: Hi Damien,
I thought your analysis of the Richards/Hossa trades were spot on. As a Habs fan, I was relieved that we didn't get Hossa - why mortgage the future for a guy you might lose in the summer who's known for folding like a cheap suit come playoff time?
Which leads me to my question. Given he was apparently available, I think that Olli Jokinen was actually the best player up for grabs at the trade deadline. He's "Sundinesque" - big, fast, skilled, classy - so why didn't he inspire the same frenzy in NHL GMs that Hossa, and to some degree Richards, did?
Geoff Read, Thunder Bay, Ont.
A: Well, he’s 29 years old and has never played a playoff game. He has two more years on his contract at $5.5 million and $5.25 million, and teams are leery of term. Finally, I think Florida wanted to keep him to make a last charge at the playoffs.
Click here to send Damien a question and he'll answer a selection in his mail bag every Thursday in this space.