Thursday Mail Bag
NEWARK—Gotta love the Finns.
Dallas rode a bunch of ‘em to a strong playoff a year ago, and for my money, Niklas Hagman has been the best Leaf this season.
Now he’s the shootout man.
You’ve got to love the guts to try something new on a shootout like Hagman, son of Matti, did Wednesday night at The Rock. He did it with the game on the line, and he did it against the world’s best goaltender.
No guts, no glory. And Hagman got the glory 'cause he showed some guts.
The Leafs haven’t generally had many Finns over the years, so maybe it’s the combination of Hagman and good-natured goalie Vesa Toskala that has the Leafs exuding a new dressing room atmosphere this season. It all just feels a lot more relaxed without a few of the old vets around, less tense by a mile.
The four-year, $12 million deal signed by Hagman as a free agent last summer, meanwhile, so far looks hands down to be the best move made by Leaf GM Cliff Fletcher since taking over from JFJ.
Hagman, only 28, had a career 27-goal year last summer, but arrived in town seemingly determined to prove that was no fluke.
Call him the anti-Jason Blake.
Hagman brings the energy every night. Could he become a candidate for team captain as the season wears on? Could a Finn follow a Swede wearing the “C” in Toronto.
The other particularly noticeable Leaf in the wild win Wednesday night was rookie centre John Mitchell, who set up Alex Steen for a goal, no easy task, had two shots, blocked two shots and delivered his best performance of the season. Not sure what he is yet – second liner or fourth liner – but he’s starting to move his feet consistently and get involved.
In general, as messy as the Leafs looked Tuesday in losing to Tampa at home, they looked aggressive and never-say-die last night at the Prudential Centre – an arena with the strongest police presence outside on the street you’ll ever see at an NHL rink, by the way. Five straight games with 37 shots or more on goal is pretty amazing for a team that doesn’t have a first line or marquee attackers. They’re creating that offence with hustle and desire more than skill, leaving Jersey coach Brent Sutter to lambast his team as “lifeless” after the loss.
The next challenge? The NHL’s stoutest defence, owned by the New York Rangers.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Hi Damien,
I have long hoped for the Leafs to have a single owner or a situation where 'hockey' people run the hockey team. It happened under Stavro for a short time but I think after what happened with the Raptors (Colangelo hiring) we are finally seeing this with the Leafs. Fletcher (Burke eventually, I believe) and Wilson have total control. Scratching veterans is a good example. It was so frustrating to see Chad Kilger or Darcy Tucker play 2 good games out of every 5. I think they’re headed in the right direction, don’t you?
John Fava, North Bay, ON
A: There are promising signs, John, but mixed ones, as well. After a night like last night in Newark, everything looks rosy. Clearly, Wilson has set a tone and grabbed the attention of every player on this team, Problem is, that’ll only get a coach so far. You might get Jason Blake, for example, wondering why he’s sitting out while Ryan Hollweg is maxing out his minutes despite some questionable on-ice decisions. That said, even Hollweg is responding to the coaching staff, as he played very effectively against the Devils. The hit with which he laid out Jersey’s Zach Parise, and the thumping he received at the hands of Mike Rupp was just another weird interpretation of hockey’s “code.”
Defensively, the Leafs are improved, or at least they were until Wednesday night. It’s their ability to generate all this offence, or at least all these shots, that is eye-catching. Partly they’re doing it with clean breakouts out of their own zone, and their overall team speed is clearly catching some opponents off-guard. It’s the energy they are delivering, however, that is largely producing the shots, an energy not seen with the Leafs on a consistent basis for some time.
I would agree that Fletcher does seem to have autonomy that JFJ was never granted. What will be interesting now is how that plays out over the course of the season when opportunities for the Leafs to add prospects and picks for some of their established veterans come up. Is this a team just waiting for Brian Burke?
Q: Hello Damien,
I read your article on Martin Brodeur, and can not disagree, he is definitely the best. I have to almost think when I look at the shutout leaders his accomplishment is even more special when you look at how long ago most of the other goalies played. In a time when a shutout was much more common.
I believe he has benefited from the Devils system, and the Devils system has benefited from a goalie like Brodeur to be able to play that system. Do you think another goalie in place of Brodeur would be able to approach his stats (same teammates, system etc.)?
Keith Kerfoot, Aberfoyle, ON
A: That’s an intriguing hypothetical question. You have to believe Brodeur himself would have preferred someone else to have been in net for the Devils last night as the Jersey defence crumbled and allowed the Leafs 48 shots. I think you can certainly argue another goalie would have had success with Lou Lamoriello’s Devils, but to say as much as Brodeur would be to undermine his special abilities.
First of all, his durability is unique, although certainly aided for years by the way in which the Devils played defence, and for years, he was able to do special things playing the puck that allowed the Devils to augment their trap system. He clearly has a special ability to nail down shutouts, and in big games, there have been few better. Finally, in recent years the Devils haven’t been as good defensively as they were during the Jacques Lemaire years, particularly after Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko all departed in rapid succession. Last year, Brodeur faced the fourth-most shots of any goalie, yet he still won the Vezina Trophy as the game’s best goalie. Given that, and given that he is so far ahead statistically than any other active goalie, I’d argue that it was Brodeur who powered the Devils as much as the other way around.
Q: Hi Damien,
I appreciate your attempts to ground Leafs nation in reality with your opinions. I have more of a comment than a question. I think this year's trade deadline represents the biggest opportunity for Cliff Fletcher to leave his mark on the Leafs for years to come.
Nik Antropov and Vesa Toskala are two key assets that should be converted into future picks/prospects. Antropov can fit in anywhere given his menial cap hit and the Leafs should be able to get a 1st and a 2nd pick for him. Ottawa's goaltending problems are just that - problems. Toskala may be able to pry Brian Lee and Brian Elliott from the Senators.
Anthony Bossio, Toronto
A: Well, basically I agree Anthony. My question, however, would be that if the Leafs, for the sake of argument, were able to continue to compete at their current points pace, would that make Fletcher less inclined to make the sensible moves of which you speak? In my mind, the chances that were blown last winter when the Muskoka Five banded together to blunt any and all trade options for Fletcher are there in a different form this year. We’ve seen over and over in recent years that the Leafs chose not to move veterans at the trade deadline because they believed they were in a playoff race, and that ultimately left them with players that didn’t have the same value when it was time to ship them out.
Antropov and Kaberle are clearly the best cards the Leafs have to play, followed by Toskala. But if the team is more competitive than expected, its not clear whether Fletcher will play them even though that would be the most logical course of action towards developing a championship-calibre club over the long haul.
I keep hearing how Kaberle is arguably the Leafs' only top-4 defenceman. I acknowledge that he is an excellent puck-carrier and passer, but he doesn't shoot the puck particularly well (or often enough to make a difference) and his defence is highly suspect.
How do you rate him on his strictly defensive abilities? In my view, he's eminently worth trading for prospects or picks if some team is eager for a "top-4" defenceman who can't play much defence.
Peter Herman, Toronto
A: I think like a lot of puck-handling defencemen, and Kaberle is one of the better ones, he’s not strong around his own zone, particularly around his crease. Then again, neither was Paul Coffey, not to compare Kaberle to the Hall of Famer. The point is, every D-man brings certain elements to the fray, and the idea is to put together a combination of skills. In Detroit, Andreas Lilja couldn’t score if his life depended on it, but he fits with the Wings’ group of blueliners. Generally speaking, Kaberle over the years has benefited most of those who have played with him because he can handle the puck, move it and skate with it, and that takes pressure off the other guy. Luke Schenn certainly is benefiting.
So, is Kaberle perfect, or even a Norris Trophy quality defenceman? No. But few are, and I think he could play in the top four of any team in the league.
Q: Very simple question: Is Matt Stajan the Leafs current version of Alyn MacCauley? How long do they hold on to him before recognizing his true limits and package him out of town?
Matt Blackett, Toronto
A: I know you sent this question in before Stajan scored three goals in the last two games, Matt, so you might feel differently today. Maybe not. Look, Stajan is one of those players that can be easy to dislike. He’s not particularly big or tough or fast or skilled or anything. He’s a somewhat subtle player, a smart one on his best days, a good third line player. He’s clearly responded to Ron Wilson’s prodding, and the three goals he scored this week were all the result of being within 10 feet of the net. Maybe he’s finding he can do things he didn’t think he could do before.
I’ve taken some jabs this week from readers mocking the fact that I suggested last season that Stajan might be captain material, and that’s okay. I never argued he might deserve such an honour because he was a star, but because he was one of the few who showed real integrity as a person and a player last year when so many of his teammates were diving for cover as the season went sour. I think there are captains out there who are nowhere near the best players on their teams. Chris Clark of Washington would be one. Perhaps Stajan wouldn’t be the optimum choice at this time, but I still have a lot of respect for the young man and believe that if he can elevate his game this season and earn Wilson’s trust on a consistent basis, he can be a leader for the Leafs, whether he wears the “C” or not.
Q: Dear Damien,
I liked your blog on Don Cherry. And since you asked, I think the whole second team in Toronto "story" is ridiculous and I would have shared your instinct to ignore it.
On to my question: what do you think of the Denis Savard firing? On the face of it, the firing seems pretty absurd and unfair. Is there more to the story than meets the eye?
Geoff Read, Thunder Bay, ON
A: I’d say four out of five coaching dismissals are unfair to some degree. It’s a profession that’s tough on those in it because, quite simply, the supply of qualified coaches far exceeds the demands of 30 NHL clubs. The Hawks looked at their organization and decided Joel Quenneville was simply a better coach than Savard, and few in hockey would disagree with that assessment. They probably realized that as soon as an NHL team fired its, coach Quenneville would be the first to get the call, and figured that rather than seeing if Savard could do well this season, they’d go with the most proven coach in Quenneville. Not fair, but certainly understandable, and probably sensible for a team looking to reassert itself in a very competitive sports market.
Every Thursday, Damien Cox answers your questions in The Spin, only at thestar.com.
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