Thursday Mail Bag
First the second-NHL-team-for-Toronto watch, now the Mats Sundin watch. Or at least more of it.
It’s been a week for phantom hockey stories in these parts, and the passion for the NHL and all things hockey is such that people get very, very excited. The second team story, of course, has been hanging around for decades, and right now it feels like the same with Sundin and his long-awaited decision.
Quit or play. Pick a team. That’s all people want to see happen now, which is why you get folks downright angry with the former Leaf captain, suggesting he shouldn’t be doing exactly what he’s doing, taking his time with an important life decision.
Me, I think any one of us would love to be able to sit back, take a few months off, kick back and decide if we wanted to continue working, and if so, where.
Wouldn’t that be sweet. So far from being ticked off with Sundin, I’m envious, and kind of impressed that he’s pursuing all of this at his own speed on his own timetable. That’s freedom we’d all love to have.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Mr. Cox,
When a player is said to have a "reputation for poor conditioning," like Kyle Wellwood, is it simply laziness on the part of the player, or rather a euphemism for off-ice issues, such as excess? Was Ray Emery "poorly conditioned"? Was Theo Fleury? John Kordic? In an era in which players are given access to the best trainers and equipment, I find the notion of poor conditioning hard to believe.
Riley Sutherland, Montreal
A: Interesting points, and I think you’re right to some degree, that conditioning has become the convenient excuse in the modern era to replace “the flu,” usually the reason given to explain the absence of players who either didn’t want to play in the Philly Spectrum or were hung over from the night before. Today, sending players down to the minors for “conditioning purposes” usually means anything but trying to get them into shape.
I do believe that players are much better conditioned today than at any other time in history of the NHL. That said, there are always going to be those whose fitness is at the top level, and those whose fitness isn’t as good. Even with all the modern technology and training resources, it’s still largely up to the individual to push himself. That’s why I’m always suspicious of teams that blame injuries for hurting their chances. At least to some degree, the healthiest teams are usually also the fittest.
Q: Hi Damien,
With the recent economic downfall and an ever present prediction of recession I am hearing that the salary cap could potentially be lowered by almost $7 million. Are the player contracts guaranteed? I remember when the lockout ended a portion of player salaries were kept in escrow until they could be linked to league revenues but in past years the cap has exploded and now players are making the same as pre-lockout days. How will the pending recession look for teams who are already in financial trouble?
Are we going to see high priced players essentially being "laid-off" because of their salaries or will we see a high amount of buy-outs?
Danny Thomas, Vanvouver
A: The basic answer is that yes, contracts are guaranteed, but under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. That means a player can’t just be released without having to honour his contract, but it also means players, depending on their age, can be bought out of their contracts, usually for 2/3 value.
But if what you say is true, that the cap is going to drop, teams with the most flexibility will benefit. Teams with outsized contractual commitments may have to buy out players or send them to the minors where they are paid their salary but it doesn’t count against the cap.
The escrow, by the way, still exists. I believe this year the league is holding back 13.5 per cent of his paycheque, perhaps an indication NHL authorities believe revenues will indeed be down.
Q: Hi Damien,
Glad to have you back bloggin' about the Leafs. I heard the Leafs have nine good defencemen on their team this year. I only see one I'd want on my team (Kaberle) and one with some potential (Schenn). I have no idea who these other 7 good defence are, but assuming they exist 9 is too many. Who is on his way out of town? Is there any market for these guys?
Considering Anehiem couldn't give Schneider away on waivers you'd have to assume the big tickets like Kubina, Finger, Van Ryn might be all but untradable ballast on this team. So will they give up on: Colaiacovo, White, Stralman, or Frogen?
Bradley Meldrew, Toronto
A: I tend to agree with you, and I find it maddening that people seem to blindly accept the Leafs’ contention that they have this over-abundance of NHL quality defencemen. I think they’re about four deep – Kaberle, Kubina, Finger, Colaiacovo – and even that group contains only one, Kaberle, who would be a top four on any of the NHL’s best teams. The team says defence is a strength; I would argue there’s a long way to go before you can say the Leaf blueline as significant depth and quality.
That said, the Leafs aren’t alone. So I think there is a market out there for experienced defencemen, and for solid prospects, say Stralman, who comes at a very affordable rate. But Kaberle, and possibly Kubina, are the only veteran defencemen who would fetch a good price at the trade deadline.
Q: Hi Damien,
Do you think that the Leafs scouting staff is a good one compared to the rest of the league? They were able to select players such as Stralman, Pogge, Kulemin, and Vorobiev in the latter rounds, it just seems that they could have drafted more players if they had more selections since our GMs tend to trade away picks like candy.
Kent Wong, Toronto
A: I don’t think the Leaf staff has the track record, but I also agree the constant trading away of draft picks has made it very difficult to build up a significant warehouse of young talent. You praise them for the four players you mentioned, but not one of those players is a proven NHL performer yet.
Folks are happy with the play of Luke Schenn, and for good reason. But to move up in the 2008 draft and take the Kelowna rearguard, the Leafs gave up the seventh pick in the draft, a second rounder and a third rounder. To get Mikhail Grabovski, they surrendered a second rounder next summer, which could be among the first picks of the second round. It’s hard to blame the scouts completely for failing to produce talent when so many picks are traded away, particularly now at a time when the club is supposed to be rebuilding.
The comparison between Toronto and Detroit will continue as long as one is a successful organization and the other is the Leafs. Do you ever wonder what the Leafs corporate ownership is thinking when they saw the banner get raised the other night? What goes through their minds, assuming some of these guys are actually watching? I mean you cannot blame the current group for 41 years of frustration but you have to admit it is truly an achievement not to have even made a final (much less a Cup). Sorry, onto an actual question.
Back to the Detroit comparison, with respect to scouting, is it an issue of just not sending people to see the games that apparently people in the Detroit organization are watching or do we just have a very poor (or small) group of talent evaluators, in relative terms of course. I thought I read somewhere that MLSE is cheap with their scouts, don’t pay for trips, mileage, or cellphones, etc. but you never know if it’s true or if a writer is just trying to make a point.
I’m sure you have relationships with many on the Leafs scouting staff so I just wanted to get your opinion since it is one that I respect greatly.
Ken Hurwitz, Toronto
A: I’m sure members of the Leaf ownership group envy the Wings. However, they just either don’t know how to replicate that type of organization in Toronto, or don’t want to make the necessary sacrifices, such as actually hiring hockey people and letting them do their jobs for an extended period.
As far as the scouts, my understanding is that the Leafs treat their people as well as anybody. That said, with the buckets of money they have under the salary cap system, and with the team far below the cap this year, I’ve always contended that the Leafs should spend heavily, find the very best scouts in the game and lure them to Toronto. Believe me, scouts move, and they can be attracted by dollars. That, however, has never been the Leaf approach.
Q: Hi Damien:
I'm a San Diego Chargers fan, and read that SD General Manager A.J. Smith (chosen by Fortune 500 or some other mag as one of the top three GMs in all sports), used the Indy Colts and New England Patriots as templates for how to build a LONG-TERM, successful NFL team (one that is continually competitive, over a stretch of years).
Similarly, whom would you rate as the top three NHL teams - and why - for the Leafs' brain trust to use as templates as they go down the road to rebuilding toward long-term, ongoing success?
Stu Royal, Erin
A: Detroit, New Jersey and Montreal. Dallas and the Rangers have done good jobs as well. It’s about drafting well and showing patience. With no disrespect to young Schenn, I doubt the Wings, Devils or Habs would have him in the NHL this season. Those teams understand it takes time to develop players, and that an ability to play in the NHL at age 18 isn’t the end goal. As well, there is great management continuity with the Wings, Devils and Canadiens. These are teams that have had the same people in place for two decades or more. In Toronto, if you last five years you’re considered a lifer.
Q: Since the tear down of the Leafs core has already been taken care of, when can we expect the signing of a new franchise player(s)? Are they looking to pick up a Jordan Staal or Marian Gaborik if deals can't be made with their current teams?
Scott Clarke, Toronto
A: Gaborik, while hugely talented, doesn’t make sense. Too expensive ($8 million plus), too injury-prone, not perceived as a leadership type. If the Leafs were three years along in their rebuilding, Gaborik would be more logical. Staal is an interesting possibility, and I wonder right now if Pittsburgh would accept Kaberle and Antropov for Staal. That said, I’m just not convinced yet that Staal is truly a franchise player. I think he’ll play in the league for 15-20 years, but that’s a different thing.
Outside of that, teams are aggressively locking up their top 24-27 year olds these days, which means few are hitting the open market. Gaborik is an exception to this rule. But trading for such a player, particularly a youngster from a team that wants to try and win now (Alexei Zhitnik for Braydon Coburn) can still happen. Otherwise, drafting a franchise player is still the best way. The Leafs believe Schenn is such a player, and either John Tavares or Victor Hedman might also be such a player in the ’09 draft. That's the best and cheapest way to do it, always has been and always will be.
Every Thursday, Damien Cox answers your questions in The Spin, only at thestar.com.
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