Thursday Mail Bag
In his fifth pro season, 25-year-old winger Ryan Hollweg is finding his “style” of hockey a great deal more under the microscope with the Leafs than it ever was while skating for the Hartford Wolf Pack or New York Rangers.
Given that this is the same Toronto franchise that honoured Tie Domi when he played his 1,000th NHL game, Hollweg might be a little surprised at the manner in which his efforts at overt aggression are being dissed by the locals. In fact, the overwhelming majority of those who responded to this blog this week on the Hollweg incident against the St. Louis Blues on Monday condemned the truculent winger for his on-ice decisions.
Surely, this isn’t the notoriety Hollweg was seeking in his first season with the Leafs. Whether he’ll be able to redeem himself as the season rolls along given the determination of Cliff Fletcher et al to keep him on the roster will be intriguing to watch.
That the Leafs now feature players like Hollweg, of course, is a commentary on the current plight of the franchise. Leaf fans, watching another fabulous ceremony from Montreal last night celebrating the glories of hockey's greatest franchise, certainly have cause to wonder on a daily basis, "Why not us?"
Now on to this week’s mailbag:
Q: Hey Damien,
Why was Cam Neely a no brainer for the Hockey Hall of Fame and no one talks about the another premier power forward of the same time, Wendel Clark? Clark was not too far off for points per game Neely(.95 points/game, .54 goals/game,1.79 pm/game)vs Clark (.71 points/game, .41 goals/game, 2.13 pm/game). Clark was in a much tougher hockey news/fan market, had terrible ownership, didn’t have Ray Bourque, and when healthy had the most impact of any player night in and night out. Clark could skate, score, hit and fight and one year was able to score 46 goals in 64 games. In their prime I believe Clark would have been a very close second to Neely as the desirable leader of any NHL team.
Glen McMinn, Halifax
A: It’s an interesting argument, well, interesting as long as you look beyond the stats. In the points-per-game category, Neely’s figure is actually more than 30 per cent better than Clark’s, so I wouldn’t call that “not too far off.” Neely had 395 career goals to Clark’s 330, and Clark played 67 more games. Neely had 20 more playoff goals. Neely had six 30-plus goal seasons and three 50-goal seasons. Clark had four seasons of 30 goals or more, and no 50 goal campaigns. So statistically, Neely was way ahead.
Both were physical power forwards. Both could scrap, both were team leaders. Neely’s teams, in general, were much better. Both suffered through injury problems, and might have been even more productive as NHLers had they not been hurt so often. In the end, the stats demonstrate Neely was the better player by a fair bit; true Leaf fans might feel differently, and that’s what being a fan is all about!
Realistically, what do you think is Luke Schenn's ceiling as a player? Adam Foote? Does he have the ability to develop become an offensive threat?
Jeff W, Ottawa
A: I haven’t seen enough of Schenn to do anything but guess, and that guess would be that if Schenn could become for the Leafs what Mike Komisarek has become for the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs would be pleased indeed. Foote, I think, was an exceptional warrior who, over time, developed an ability to contribute at the offensive end. If Schenn were to become Foote, the Leafs would be blessed indeed, particularly since Foote has proven to be such a durable player over the course of his career. Whether he’ll turn out to be a player that was worth trading up to draft ahead of some other gifted players, well, only time will sort out that discussion.
At this point, however, everything is projection with Schenn. He might be Foote, he might be Luke Richardson, he might be Aki Berg. All kinds of variables, from injuries to the team’s future to contracts, will have an impact on his future.
Q: Hey, Damien. A question about scouting. It seems it's always Detroit that gets the kudos for their drafting record, but is this really fair? Yes, Detroit has drafted well. Very very well. But is that good scouting, or a lot of luck? If Detroit really knew Datsyuk (171st) and Zetterberg (210th) and Holmstrom (257th) were really going to be that good, would they have waited so long to take them? Or would they have grabbed them earlier? And Lidstrom (53rd) and Franzen (97th) were certainly not taken early either. To me, if Detroit really had such high hopes for these players, they would not have waited so long to take them and risk someone else grabbing them. To criticize the Leafs, as many do, for poor drafting...well, that case can be made for many teams. I really think it's more a combination of rushing prospects along and the huge spotlight that is Toronto. While Detroit is a good hockey town, I get the feeling that the players themselves can fade into the background pretty easily there.
Ron Gillespie, Listowel
A: I think it is fair that the Wings get loads of compliments for their scouting, although it’s also funny that for a number of years they really struggled to draft successfully in the first round, taking Anders Eriksson, Yan Golubovsky, Maxim Kuznetsov and Jesse Wallin in successive years from 1993-96. Your point that if they’d known how good Datsyuk, Zetterberg and others were that they would have taken them earlier is well made. But the point is that they DID take them when other clubs didn’t. It’s not a fluke when you do it as consistently as Detroit has done, and doing so well in the later rounds has allowed them to get by without being terribly effective in the first round. Finally, what the Wings also do is take these draftees and patiently develop them – other clubs might not have been so patient, and thus wouldn’t have reaped the benefits Detroit has.
Q: Mr. Cox,
It seems that everyone wants to compare the Leafs to the Red Wings. Although it is natural to want to emulate the best organization in the league, I don’t think that it is feasible to expect MLSE to be able to achieve the type of stable ownership and management structure that they have had in Detroit over the years. I think it's better to compare the Leafs rebuilding effort to the rebuilding that has taken place in Philadelphia over the past year and a half.
I see the Leafs and the Flyers as similar situations. Both Clarke and Quinn took a gamble coming out of the lockout that the league would not carry through on their commitment to the new standard of rule enforcement and stuck with slow, less-skilled players, expecting the clutching and grabbing to come back quickly. Although it is obvious that things have moderated over the past two seasons in the calling of games, it was losing that gamble that put the Flyers and Leafs in the situation that they were both in two years ago.
The Flyers brought in an aggressive GM who made some decent trades (for roster players, not just draft picks) and signed one big free agent prize, but probably more importantly, some fairly young, mid-range free agents that helped their team right away. The Flyers are now a relatively young, competitive team that looks like a Stanley Cup contender for years to come. Why not try the Flyers formula?
Stephen S., Welland
A: Well, as I argued at the time, the opportunity for the Leafs to emulate the Flyers really was last winter, but they were unwilling or unable to use the veteran assets they had to make futures deals like the one Philly swung to land Braydon Coburn. Also, it’s important to remember that while the Flyers sank badly two seasons ago, the year before they were a strong regular season club and had a base of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and others to build upon.
I think the Detroit comparison is more of a long-term proposition, to make a concerted effort to patiently draft and develop players to make a club successful for years, not just a blip here and there. I’m not sure why you say it’s not “feasible” for the Leafs to achieve the same consistency in ownership and management that Detroit has; that’s the model worth pursuing, and there’s no reason the Leafs can’t pursue it. They just choose not to, preferring instead to change direction every three or four years.
Q: Damien, thanks for giving us your thoughts in your daily blog and your weekly mail bag. Can you help me here? Everyone keeps talking about the statements that Tannenbaum made about the Leafs preferring to put off a championship and suffer through five years of losing, if it meant being competitive in the long term. Aren't the Leafs currently in the five year (or longer) cycle and no Cup to show for it?
A: That one made me chuckle, if only because L.G. is so right, that it's difficult to figure what part of the cycle the Leafs are in at the best of times. I guess they would tell you that this is Year One of a new rebuilding effort. Unfortunately, they pretty much wasted the first three post-lockout seasons trying to chase the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth every year rather than intelligently build a team truly able to pursue a championship. But your point is well made, and I think there isn’t a Leaf fan, looking back at the past 41 years of history, who wouldn’t have found the losing a lot easier to take had there been one or two championships.
Q: Hi Damien,
Question #1: Why are you so hard on the Teachers Pension Fund all the time? What would you have them do exactly? Go out and scout some junior players? Draw some Xs and Os on a whiteboard? Lace up their skates and do some backchecking?
Of course I'm kidding, but it seems to me their only role is to control the purse strings and the Leafs always had plenty of money to spend before the salary cap. In the current salary cap era, we should have even less to complain about.
Question #2: How bad does it look to have the league's richest franchise well under the salary cap? It's been mentioned before that Sundin's lack of a decision is the best thing that could happen for the Leafs. By keeping $7M in cap space open for his possible triumphant return, the rebuilding Leafs have a justification for saving cash by remaining well under the cap.
Otherwise, if Mats had retired or played elsewhere and the deep-pocketed Leafs didn't spend to near the cap, I think the optics would be terrible. How many franchises would love to be at the cap but can't do it?
(Disclaimer: I am married to a teacher and hope to retire comfortably off her pension. So I encourage all you lemmings, uh... Leaf fans to continue to purchase overpriced tickets, beverages, jerseys and condos.)
Eric E, Toronto
A: Well, the answer to the first question is that I believe quality ownership does more than just sign the cheques. It puts the right people in the right management structure and lets them do their jobs, something MLSE, regardless of its makeup, has just been chronically unable to do. They’ve been the corporate entity that owns the Leafs for 10 years, and they’re already on their fourth general manager. When John Ferguson was fired, MLSE sought to hire a new full-time GM and president; after a search, they found neither, and settled for turning interim GM Cliff Fletcher into a full-time GM again after firing him a decade earlier. All that tells you much of what you need to know about MLSE, and the teachers pension fund have been the majority owners since 2003. So they’re the ones ultimately responsible.
Re the second question, it is interesting that the amount the Leafs are under the cap will nicely help pay for the cost of buying out Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft, plus the cost of paying $2 million to Bryan McCabe before trading him to Florida. I guess the fair answer is that they don’t have a roster worth paying more than $48 million to, and it's reasonable to assume that when the Leafs can put a better team on the ice, they’ll probably be a cap team again.
Q: It has been reported that Leafs’ coach Ron Wilson expects the team to block more shots this year. Here’s my question: is shot blocking all it’s cracked up to be? Yes, reducing the number of shots on net should reduce the goals-against. But do you think the cost, i.e., players lost to bone bruises, hairline fractures, and nagging foot injuries, deserves more attention?
Brian Aukema, Prince George, B.C.
A: Interesting point. I guess the answer would be that often foot injuries from shots have little to do with actual shot-blocking, but are just accidents that are part of the game. You don’t actually have to intend to block a shot to get hit by a puck in a bad spot; in fact, one of the most frequent foot injuries seems to be when a forward is in the attacking zone and is hit by one of his own team’s shots. To me, shot blocking and the rise to the level it's currently at has hurt the game, stifling offence to a significant degree and allowing teams to pack their defensive zones down low and producing hockey that isn’t all that interesting. That said, shot-blocking can also be inspirational for teams, and in the NHL today, it's an indispensable tool for top-flight defensive teams.
If, by some miracle, the Leafs are playing well come the half way mark of the season, and by playing well I mean near or slightly over the .500 mark, and Sundin decides he wishes to play in Toronto again, do you think that it would still be a good idea to have him back or take a pass for the sake of developing a new team chemistry and a new direction?
Jamie Hubbert, Ottawa
A: Jamie, I guess my answer is the same as it’s always been, and that is whether Sundin returns or doesn’t return, it’s not going to make a significant difference. As Ron Wilson has said repeatedly, the team missed the playoffs three straight years with Sundin, so I’m not sure why he’d made such a significant difference now.
I hope Sundin, if he returns, goes someplace else where his terrific skills can be put to good use. It’s time for the Leafs to turn a new page, and for No. 13 as well. His number will still be raised to the rafters of the ACC one day, and he’ll deserve it.
Since the leafs have considerable cap space and actual money available to spend, doesn't it make sense to try to relieve some teams of bad contracts in return for some draft picks or prospects? I believe the New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks did something quite similar a year or two ago. Do any players on teams that are more strapped for cash and/or cap space than the leafs jump out at you as potential trading partners?
Neil Poutanen, Guelph
A: The Leafs had to work so hard to get rid of Bryan McCabe’s contract, I can’t imagine they’d be particularly willing to take on another team’s problem. That said, I understand your point, and certainly the Leafs were interested in taking on Mathieu Schneider’s contract from Anaheim if it meant they could get their hands on prospect Bobby Ryan. Right now, teams are sorting out what they have, but the New York Rangers are one club that has a number of forwards – Petr Prucha, Patrick Rissmiller, Nigel Dawes, Dan Fritsche – that are currently having a hard time getting into the lineup, and the Rangers would also like to free up some room to sign Brendan Shanahan. So they might be one of those types of teams that could be a potential trading partner in the scenario you describe.
Q: News flash: The Leafs will be miserable this season. Fine. Can you please explain how a team that some (ie, Sports Illustrated) project to be 30th in the league, a team spectacularly devoid of major talent, costs this much? I would have thought such a dearth of talent would bring a team closer to the salary cap floor.
Frank Paonessa, Richmond Hill
A: Well, at $48 million the Leafs are about halfway between the floor and the cap. I guess the answer to your question is that when you are paying big money to non-core talent your payroll is going to feel the impact. Jason Blake ($4.5 million), Niklas Hagman ($3 million), Pavel Kubina ($5 million), Jeff Finger ($3.5 million) and Mike Van Ryn ($3.35 million) together represent more than 40 per cent of Toronto’s payroll, and none are core players on any good team in the league. Overpaying for good to average players has been an ongoing issue for the Leafs since the NHL adopting a salary cap.
Q: Hi Damien, I see your reasoning with why the Leafs should send Luke Schenn back to junior. However, I also see the reasoning to keep him here. I grew up with the idea that the only way to get better is to play and practice with people that are better than you. How much can you learn when your competition isn't much of a challenge anymore? In a season when the expectations for the Leafs are low, why not let Luke Schenn stay in the NHL and hone his craft against the best the world has to offer?
Varun Chakravorty, Brampton
A: Who says the Western Hockey League isn’t much of a challenge for Schenn any more? Suddenly he's too good? He was a second-team all-star last year, not the league’s best defenceman, and the obvious challenge now would be to become a dominant force in the WHL, the leader of the Kelowna Rockets and a big-time player at this year’s world junior hockey championships in Ottawa. I disagree that the only way to get better is to play and practise with better players. That’s one way, but it's also a way that young players can quickly lose their confidence and puts limits on their game. If Schenn, for example, goes back to Kelowna, he’ll play nightly on that team’s power play. In Toronto, he’s going to play the role of a stay-at-home defenceman and rarely see time on the power play. To me, it’s not a question about whether Schenn CAN play in the league, it’s a question of whether he SHOULD play in the NHL, and whether that’s the best way to develop his skills to the highest possible level.
Every Thursday, Damien Cox answers your questions in The Spin, only at thestar.com.
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