Thursday Mail Bag
Gotta love the entry draft.
If spring training in baseball is the time when hope springs eternal, well, the NHL draft has to come in a close second. Everyone’s unbeaten, every prospect is viewed as if they will reach their greatest possible upside and every team has a future.
The Maple Leafs, picking No. 7 on Friday night in Ottawa, are drafting at their highest position in 19 years, and for that, their fans should be somewhat grateful, if only because they haven’t already dealt the pick away. They did that last year, you’ll remember, and even though Vesa Toskala was probably worth it in the end, the cumulative impact of trading away so many top picks and so many prospects over the years has had a sobering effect on Leaf fans.
It shouldn’t work that way. Leaf fans get as excited or more excited than most fans about young players and teenage junior stars. Robbing them so often of the enjoyable process of watching a player mature from prospect to draft pick to NHL regular to NHL impact player just hasn’t been fair.
Fans need hope. And young players always represent hope in a way veterans never really can.
I’ve suggested in the past that the Leafs should place a five-year moratorium on trading away first round picks, even if only to give their fans respite from the perennial wasting of future possibilities.
Let’s face it; if they’d put such a moratorium in place five years ago, would they have missed out on anything? Would they be any further behind than they are now?
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Hey Damien: a quick query about this year's entry draft. While it's hard to predict who the Leafs (a team that, sadly, has very little to get excited about except what looks to be an early plan to have a shot at Tavares in the 2009 draft) might covet with their pick, I'm wondering what TYPE of player they're looking for. There are some talented forwards in this deep-looking draft as well as some possible top-four defenders. Any word on what - or yes, maybe even who - the Leafs are after?
Jamie Baker, St. John's
A: Teams are always very secretive about the types of players they’re looking for. Well, not all teams. Detroit GM Ken Holland makes it clear the Wings look for skill and value skill above nationality, aggressiveness, position and just about everything else. With the Leafs, however, management and scouts change so frequently that they’ve been unable to put such a philosophy in place over the years and make it stick.
In terms of “type,” hopefully you don’t mean position, because what you may need as a team now may have little or nothing to do with what you’ll need in two or three years when the player you’re drafting in ’08 might be ready to play. With the Leafs, Cliff Fletcher is temporarily in charge, Dave Morrison is in charge of the amateur scouts, the whole organization is in flux and there’s not a whole lot to go on. So I won’t lie to you – I really don’t know what type of player the Leafs are looking for. Based on their drafting record over the years, I’m not sure they do, either.
Q: With Nikita Filatov saying he can play in North America this season what are the chances he drops to seven and do you see anyone that the Leafs like enough to trade back into the first round?
Ray Leiner, Toronto
A: There’s some chatter about Brampton’s Cody Hodgson in terms of trading down, but that doesn’t make much sense. The last time Fletcher did that while running the Leafs he landed Brandon Convery. These guys should be trying to get higher in the draft order, not lower.
Re Filatov, there’s a real chance he’ll drop to seventh, and maybe beyond that. There are so many variables and uncertainties with Russian players right now that many teams are publicly saying they’re being scared off taking Russian players. I haven’t seen Filatov enough to render any kind of judgement. But if I were a GM, my scouts would have to really believe he was significantly better than the next guy on my list to take him. That high in the draft, there’s just too much to be gained and too much to be lost.
Q: Hi Damien,
So the Leafs have an NHL caliber coach; again. Considering the fact that the San Jose Sharks roster would look like an all-star team compared to the current Leafs squad, do you really think his hiring will make much of a difference?
Peter van Hoof, Pickering, Ont.
A: Yes, I do. He’ll make the Leafs a better defensive team right away, which in turn will give them more of a definable personality. If management commits to a slow, gradual building process – they probably won’t – Wilson has proven in the past (Anaheim) that he can succeed with that kind of program.
I guess it would depend on what you mean by making “much of a difference.” Paul Maurice was a good coach undercut by indecisive management above him. Similarly, Wilson can likely make this team into a solid one over time, but if management gets caught up in the chasing the eighth and final playoff spot every year as a some kind of goal he’ll end up just the same as Maurice. Frustrated and cast aside.
Q: Just curious your thoughts on this Hockey Theme stuff. To me, I am very upset with CTV for getting involved at all. Regardless if CBC bungled it's negotiations or not, with all the history of the song on that broadcast I'd of liked to think that other networks would have shown a little respect and left it alone.
While writing this I saw the story on Sportcentre, and heard them play the song. And you might say it's just a song but it just isnt right!
Randy Bush, Toronto
A: Well, let me put my conflict right on the table. I do work for TSN, so I may not be the best person for you to ask. Personally, I would say that the song means an incredible amount to me as a hockey fan and as a Canadian. When I hear it, my mind goes back to being 10 years old and going across the street to watch Hockey Night in Canada with a elderly neighbour because my British born parents didn’t always have the game at the top of their crowded (six kids) agenda. I don’t care where I hear it, frankly – I just know that I want that song to be a regular part of my hockey universe. If its on the CBC, or TSN, or Sportsnet, or if they make it the theme song to Dora the Explorer, it’s all fine with me as long as I get to hear it. Finally – and again, I’m biased – I thought it was an incredibly shrewd acquisition by CTV.
Q: Hey Damien!
In regards Mats Sundin. You seem very negative about him possibly coming back, and I'm wondering why? In theory, this is a team that should be promoting some of it's younger propects - who will be cheap! Mats Sundin's contract then will not be an obstacle, and his unwillingness to have a no-trade clause? So what? If he walks now we get nothing, so what's the difference if he plays the year or leaves now from a "What can we get" perspective? I would think having a solid, quality NHLer like Mats on board to help the young kids, when you aren't losing anything by having him, would be a good thing? What am I missing?
Ron Gillespie, Listowel, Ont.
A: Ron, I’m not sure I completely understand your question. You say that Sundin’s contract will not be “an issue,” and that he won’t demand a no-trade contract. Well, I’d say he’s going to want big money and a no trade, which means the Leafs won’t be getting anything for him again down the line.
It’s not that I’m negative on Sundin. I’m basically neutral. He’s a terrific person and a dynamite player. But it’s not going to impact the team a great deal either way whether he returns or whether he doesn’t. In fact, you could argue that they’d be better off without him because they might be worse. That said, if I was the Leafs, I would get very excited to pay Sundin $7 million next year if he agreed to play without the no-trade clause, because then you could ship him somewhere for big returns next February. If he wants the no-trade, then he deserves a lot less money because he’s worth less as an asset to a team in transition, like the Leafs.
Q: Watching the finals I saw a VERY well conditioned Detroit team and a fairly well conditioned Pittsburgh team. I also saw honest, disciplined, DESIRE. Tell me how the Leafs stack up. Why on the whole, in these two categories, the Leafs aren't even in the same league. What keeps the Toronto from having teams that exhibit these two "winner" qualities?
Ken Van Schelven, Corvallis, Oregon
A: Interesting questions. In terms of conditioning, I’m not sure the Leafs were lacking in that regard last season, although individual players (Kyle Wellwood?) may not have been at the optimum level. You’ll find that on most teams.
In terms of desire, I think there’s real desire and phony desire. Real desire, to me, is found in areas like holding on to the puck to make a play, avoiding long shifts, taking a hit without retaliating and blocking shots. Phony desire is Sideshow Bob antics, pointless fighting, histrionics when assessed penalties and showing hustle only when there is opportunity for goals or assists. I would say the Maple Leafs over the course of the last few seasons had a lot of the phony stuff and not much of the real.
Q: Hi Damien, love the mail bag and your columns.
My question is a broad one I'm curious what you think of about 2/3rds of the current roster, particularly if Sundin becomes a thing of the past. They are filled with media-hyped kids like Steen, Stajan, Wellwood and White. Fact of the matter is I can't see any of these players being top 6 players or even regulars on top NHL clubs.
The talent lies with Kaberle, Toskala and possibly Sundin. Prospect wise they have Stralman and Kulemin, both of whom I believe are the real deal. Tlusty is an up and coming Wellwood I think. Pogge seems to have a natural talent (assuming they quickly reverse the number they did on him this past post-season).
So how bad are the Leafs really? There is endless talk of players with no-trades, however most of them are the only ones with any heart in that dressing room and contracts aside, that helps any team. Whether they manage to pull off this Burke con-job or Foster Hewitt rises from the grave to take over as GM, is there anyway the Leafs can compete in even 2 or 3 years?
Dave Arnold, St. George
A: Well, for starters, they are bad. “A train wreck” is how one of the top GMs in the league assesses the Leafs. Could they “compete” in two or three years? For a playoff spot, sure. For the Cup, no chance.
In terms of your player assessments, I agree with Kaberle and Sundin. Toskala needs to prove it over a number of seasons, and right now he only puts the Leafs in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference in terms of goaltending. Stralman and Kulemin the real deal? How can you say that? Stralman has only played part of one season and shown expertise in only the offensive zone, while Kulemin hasn’t even played in North America yet. Let’s hold off on both of those kids for a while yet. I do like Tlusty’s chances of being a good, viable NHL forward for years. So, really, you’ve got two proven elite players, a goalie who may be a bona fide starter and a bunch of maybes. That doesn’t become a Cup contender in three years, although you can bet the story of the 2007-08 Boston Celtics – 24 wins one year, a championship the next – will have many owners in many sports demanding similar answers from their executives.
Q: Hi Damien,
As usual, I enjoyed your column “Off-base Leafs add good coach,” in Wednesday’s Star. I am unabashedly part of “Tank Nation,” and I agree with Wilson when he says that it’s not about winning only, but about winning the Stanley Cup. But as a member of Tank Nation, I see his hiring with some trepidation because the club now has literally no chance of attaining great heights in next year’s draft - or at least the one pick that counts.
On the flip side, I feel that there is too much ado about Fletcher’s hiring of Wilson, ahead of the hiring of a new GM. Speaking as a manager myself, I hire personnel only for the organization. When a job opens up and an excellent candidate applies for it, although I do gage how well I can work with the candidate, it’s not my number 1 concern. As well, as any manager will tell you, you don’t go into a new situation expecting to fire everyone and then hire who you like. That kind of approach does the business no good, and it does the manager no good - and it kills the morale on your team (as we have seen at MLSE). You have to rate the personnel who are already there, and decide for yourself how well they are doing before making any drastic changes.
A good manager, whether he is permanent or not, will always seek to hire the best. Clearly (some will say debatably) Ron Wilson is currently, of all available choices, the best. I think that, despite the obvious contradiction with his earlier statements, Cliff Fletcher has actually done the right thing. Let’s face it, if we had waited for Peddie and Kirke to put a new GM in place, Ron Wilson would almost surely have been coaching elsewhere by then. Given the Wilson's caliber, his track record and his availability, there is a good chance that the incumbent GM, bless his heart (whoever he is), might have felt that NOT hiring Wilson would actually have been the wrong thing to do.
Paul Hurtubise, Oshawa, Ont.
A: Well, since there’s not really a question, Paul, I guess I can basically say I agree with most of what you’ve said. I certainly didn’t disagree with the hiring of Wilson, just the process through which it was accomplished, and that matters. The best way to ensure the success of a coach is by installing stability throughout the organization, and it’s pretty obvious the Leafs not only don’t have stability, they're planning more major organizational changes in 12 months. When it comes to hockey, as in business, to some degree the process does matter.
Following the NHL draft this weekend, Damien is off to Wimbledon and will be blogging from The All-England Club. The Leafs mail bag will return later this summer as training camp approaches.