A good set of Stanley Cup playoffs unfolds like a good novel, with compelling characters and teams slowly revealing their strengths and weaknesses over time, some touching on old battles won and lost, with the precise ending of the competition anything but clear in the opening rounds.
This, quite possibly, already looks like a very good set of playoffs. The defending champion Ducks are bloodied but certainly not yet beaten, while their opponents in last year’s final, the Senators, have been obliterated in four quick games by the rising stars from Pittsburgh.
Presumptive league MVP Alex Ovechkin is finding the going rather more difficult in the post-season, Montreal rookie goalie Carey Price is channeling Ken Dryden and the Sharks and Flames are playing one hell of a series, with a winner not yet evident.
Then there’s the best story of the post-season so far, the Nashville Predators.
Nine months ago they were destitute and in disarray, with Jim Balsillie’s failed bid having highlighted the franchise’s chronic problems. One by one, regulars Tomas Vokoun, Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timmonen and Scott Hartnell left town without being convincingly replaced, and it looked like hard times lay in the immediate future for the Tennesseans.
But GM David Poile did what he always has done, sticking to his draft-and-develop principles and ideas of slow, gradual growth, and the Preds found their way into post-season play at the expense of Vancouver and Edmonton.
Last night, they hung on by their fingernails to beat the No. 1 seeded Detroit Red Wings on home ice to deadlock their Western Conference series at 2-2 after the Wings had won the first two games.
Suddenly, the Wings appear to be in trouble, as much or more so than the Ducks, and the Preds are penning a potentially extraordinary hockey story.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: I'm sure I'm not the only asking this, but I was wondering if you have any insight in to who the Leafs have their eye on with the #7 pick in the upcoming draft? I don't know much about many of the players available, except for Stamkos and Drew Doughty (both of whom they obviously will not get).
Any opinions as to who of those outside of the top 5 would be a good fit for Toronto? I keep looking at the mid-season rankings and stats for the potential picks and I really don't see anyone great available at #7.
Mike Crough, Milton, Ont.
A: I can’t say I have any unique insight, although I’ve talked to scouts and to the Leaf chief scout, Dave Morrison, and there appears to be a belief quality players will be available from slots 7-10, as well as higher than that. I can’t imagine the Leafs would go into the draft focusing on getting a forward, defenceman or goalie, so it really will depend on their ratings, as it should.
Boston University centre Colin Wilson might be a solid pick, Kitchener speedster Mikkel Boedker (Danish born) a little riskier. It also depends on whether one of the higher rated players – Russian forward Nikita Filatov? – falls in the draft. Then there’s 6-foot-7 defenceman Tyler Myers, a project with a big upside. As well, it will depend on whether the Leafs will have their new president/GM in place by the draft, and whether that person has an opinion on the draft. It probably doesn’t really answer your question, other than to say there should be a good prospect available with the No. 7 pick.
Q: Hey Damien. I've heard some rumours that the Leafs may try and trade up to number two or three in the draft this year, but that would obviously require quite a lot in return. What's the smart move this year? Trade up and give up some young talent, or hold on to number 7? Will Luke Schenn still be available at 7? Also, as someone who has seen the Kitchener Rangers play quite a bit this year, I can say that Mikkel Boedker is the real deal. He's a great skater and offensive talent, but is also very smart defensively and plays the point on the power play. If he's still available, there's no question it would be a good choice.
David Smith, Toronto
A: If I were the Leafs, I would do everything and anything to get to No. 1. Otherwise, they might as well stay with the seventh pick, and it’s quite possible a prospect like Schenn might still be there. From everything I hear, Boedker will be.
Q: Hey Damien,
I like your columns and the mailbag, but I've got a question for you that I'm afraid you'll have to respond to in the negative.
Is there any conceivable way the Leafs could convince Tampa to part with their pick? I'm thinking anything they ask for is worth it, really, but there's nothing they could really want from the organization. Your thoughts?
Richard Weiss, Toronto
A: Two thoughts. It’s always worth a try, and you might be able to build a package around Justin Pogge, Jiri Tlusty, Alex Steen and something else. But it also seems that Steve Stamkos is the perfect replacement for the departed Brad Richards, and at a much lower salary. So Tampa may not be inclined to move the pick at any price.
I'm convinced that the worst thing the Leafs could do is buy players out just to spend money on free agents this summer in an effort to turn things around quick. This free agent crop just isn't that impressive, and with the multi-year contract trend, plus the buy-outs you'd be tying yourself up financially for the long term in a weak year.
Summer 2009 could potentially have an outstanding crop of restriced, and unrestricted free agents, and the Leafs could have another high pick in their organization following a year of letting their young players play larger roles. The only guys that interest me would be players like Eric Nystrom, Eric Reitz, or Fabian Brunnstrom - that won't break the bank, and might still develop into players that could help this team in 2 or 3 years when the games matter again.
What would be your approach to free agency this summer, and whom, specifically, would you target come July 1?
Johnny Bups, Brampton
A: The Leafs certainly shouldn’t be in the bidding for big names at big dollars, but there may be some good deals out there, so I wouldn’t say they should ignore the market. As far as what the summer of ’09 may or may not hold, I think we’ve seen that teams are more likely to lock up their UFAs and RFAs ahead of time, so imagining the availability of players based simply on when their contracts expire is a mug’s game.
Now that the Leaf season has mercifully ended, how does the organization handle any Mats Sundin contract negotiation? Do you tell him to take six weeks off, go get married, whatever, and come June 1st, see what his agenda is for 08-09?
I personally don't believe he will be back with the Leafs until December (if at all). If he is still hesitant to sign at the start of June, do you ask him to waive his NTC again and see if you can get a conditional mid-round pick for the right to discuss contract with him (from a team that may want to sign him before the draft a la Philadelphia's deal with Nashville last season)? The condition being that if he signs prior to July 1, the pick gets upgraded to a first rounder in 09. Does Mr Sundin waive his NTC at that point? What would be the best way for Mr. Fletcher et al to handle this situation?
Mike Gilmurray, Owen Sound, Ont.
A: I think there are any number of possible routes to take with Sundin, with the most important element being that the Leafs need to get in charge of this rather than simply waiting for Sundin to dictate his terms.
You could pay him $4 million for a year and give him another NTC. Or you could pay him $7.5 million but don’t give him an NTC, which in my mind would be better. Sundin remains the best asset for the Leafs only if they can use him to trade for futures somewhere down the road.
Q: Hey Damien,
My question stems from the constant sea of rumours regarding Brian Burke's possible placement as the Leafs' next GM. Given that Burke has a full year left on his contract with Anaheim, would the Maple Leafs be forced by the NHL to offer some form of compensation to the Ducks should he decide to make the move to Toronto, or would he simply be allowed to leave his current deal if he so wishes?
Pat Herrington, Saint John, N.B.
A: Teams can no longer demand compensation for coaches or GMs or any other management personnel. If Anaheim gives another team permission to talk to Burke and he wants to go, they’d be able to get out of paying him the final year of the contract, but that’s it.
You've mentioned in a previous column that it almost seems like the worst recipe for success with the Leafs is to make too many players too comfortable.
Do you not think that Cliff Fletcher's decision to allow Anton Stralman to play for Team Sweden at the upcoming World Championships rather than returning him to the Marlies is further evidence of the coddling that the Leaf players receive. The Marlies are a strong team with a good chance to win the Calder Cup. Stralman is their best defenceman.
One positive that MLSE could deliver to long-suffering Toronto fans would be a championship for it's AHL franchise.
How do you think Stralman's Marlies teammates feel about his deserting his team at such a critical time? Fletcher should have dismissed Stralman's wish to join his fellow countrymen by telling him "You are under contract to the Maple Leafs organization- you better decide where your loyalties lie".
Al Harris, Oakville
A: Interesting question. While I understand your point of view, the world championships is a grueling, tough tournament, and Stralman is likely to get as much out of that as he would participating in the AHL playoffs. Also, if the Marlies go a ways, he might be able to join them later on. Either way, he’s getting good experience and development time, which is all that matters.
Q: Hi Damien,
Couple of questions for you. I read the other day the major MLSE sponsors (Coke etc) have told them to get their act together. This is scary because it would put pressure towards short term fixes for the team. Is there any truth to this?
Second question is do teams have the right to mandate off season supervised training programs? I realize all teams do fitness programs/testing but can you go even further? My thought is if they are going to rebuild why not build the most physically fit team in the league.
Bob Smith, Mississauga
A: I think it matters less in the near future what Coke thinks than what the new hockey boss thinks. If it turns out to be yet another hockey executive who tries to please the board by making the Leafs all about the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, then the Leaf Nation is doomed to more years of mediocrity. I think the MLSE board is finally backed up against the wall and are going to have to actually give the new boss some real automony – at least until Larry Tanenbaum starts insisting Tie Domi should be part of the new management team.
In terms of workout programs, these days 95 per cent of players are in excellent shape. Most teams do give their players off-season workout regimens, but they can’t really enforce those during the off-season.
Click here to send Damien a question and he'll answer a selection in his mail bag every Thursday in this space.