Thursday Mail Bag
There’s never any shortage of hockey optimism at this time of year. Everyone’s unbeaten. Every team is tied for first. Even the longest longshot can point to some team in history and believe it could be that team this season in the NHL if everything goes right.
It’s the time of year for best-case scenarios. If so-and-so stays healthy. If this kid or that rookie is ready. If, if, if. . .
The only team without major ifs seems to be the defending champion Red Wings, but the champs almost always look that way, don’t they? Their excellence is still fresh in our minds, and with specific respect to Detroit, this is a team that lost little - Dominik Hasek, Dallas Drake - and appears to own a slew of new, young talent.
Columbus is still looking for its first playoff berth. So is Wayne Gretzky, at least as a coach. Optimism is high in Montreal, the centre of the hockey universe this year with the draft, the all-star game and the 100th anniversary of hockey’s most successful franchise.
So too do many hold out hope for the Maple Leafs, if not to win a lot of games, then to continue a process of adding young talent over a period of time to mould the club back into contender status. The Leafs have as many question marks as any team in hockey, so naturally, they’ll be the primary focus of the mail bag again this season. We had phenomenal response from interested readers around the world last season, and look forward to more of the same. Passion for the sport and NHL teams in Canada has never been higher, a passion reflected every week in this mail bag.
So let’s get started. Just 82 games each for 30 clubs to go. Then the playoffs. Then a chance to look back and be amazed as just how little we understood when it all started.
On to this week’s mail bag:
Q: O Tanenbaum.
When will this guy learn just to shut up! Honestly - if he doesn't realize he can't win no matter what he says - he has the temerity to lay an egg like the one this week about a consistently competitive team? Teams are turning themselves around in less than an off-season with their management teams knowing how to position themselves in this salary cap era - witness the Flyers and this year the Lightning. I guess it's the burden of the Leaf fan to be thinking about a March trade deadline in October - thanks to Larry's competitive streak, no doubt - but wanted to know - will the Leafs be able to trabe Kubby and Vesa at the trade deadline - and I guess Yzerman coming in is simply a pipe dream now? Your thoughts?
Gerry Willan, Voorhees, N
A: This is going to sound like a bit of a broken record, but no-trade clauses, and the ability of the Leafs to get around them, will again be a major factor in how the club is able to turn veteran assets into futures. Both Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina have no trade clauses. Nik Antropov doesn’t, and he’s an unrestricted free agent in July. If the season goes as many believe it should - and as many desperately want it to go - the Leafs will have ample opportunities at and before the February trade deadline to so some very interesting things to help the club.
Steve Yzerman, in my mind, would be a tremendous executive catch for the Leafs. Yzerman’s resume is growing, and he’s smart enough after his years in Detroit to know that surrounding yourself with good people is how to develop a winning team. It’s not just about one guy. Chairman Larry Tanenbaum, however, has already rejected Yzerman as a potential candidate, saying the team won’t go with another rookie again. Why Tanenbaum had to throw one of the country’s national hockey treasures under the bus to make a point about John Ferguson Jr. is anyone’s guess.
Q: The Leafs have some fast players (Blake, Moore, Grabovski) and some good forecheckers and puck retrievers (Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Mayers). I believe that they are going to spend a lot of time in the other team's zone but score very few goals because they lack anybody who has proven they can score consistently at any level. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Jacob Hadwen, Montreal
A: Sounds about right to me. The league, we are told, is reviewing the nature of goaltending equipment, so there’s no relief coming from that area. The Leafs were 11th in goal-scoring last season with 2.78 goals per game, but missed the post-season. Their lineup, minus Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker, suggests the club is going to see its offensive production decline to some degree. Of the league’s bottom 10 offensive teams last year, four - Boston, the Rangers, the Devils and Anaheim - still managed to make the playoffs. Those four teams, however, all had team goals-against averages at or below 2.62, while the Leafs were at 3.12.
So if you’re a Leaf fan hoping to see the club do better, the greatest chances lie in a dramatic improvement in team defence. One way to do that is to have a strong forecheck and at least spend time in the other team’s zone, and I’d agree that the Leafs may have some forwards capable of being persistent forecheckers, if not prolific scorers.
You have clearly stated your thoughts on how the Leafs should handle Luke Schenn. Ron Wilson has almost agreed with you but has stated that if he plays well enough to be in the top 4 then he might stay. Considering that Schenn has looked pretty good so far and that breaking the Leafs top 4 defencemen is nothing to brag about; would you agree with Coach Wilson that if he is in the top 4 that he should stay? Would you not trust an experienced coach like Wilson to make such a decision on a young player? This is not the same old management making the same old mistakes. This would be a new experienced, successful and respected coach making his best judgment. So I must ask, if Wilson chooses to keep Schenn based on his play would you still believe that the Leafs should send him to the Marlies "no matter what"?
Scott Rambeau, Toronto
A: Scott, just to clarify, Schenn can’t go to the Marlies. He would have to go to junior. If Wilson made the judgment to keep him, then sure, I would respect that it was coming from an experienced hockey man. But here’s the problem; you don’t leave that kind of decision up to your coach because he’s paid to think about today, not further down the road. So even if Schenn is better right now than, say, Mike Van Ryn, and therefore Wilson might wish to keep him around, I would argue the best interests of the kid and the team aren’t really being served. Beyond that, the consistent problem in Toronto over the years I’ve covered the team is that youngsters are rushed along not necessarily because they’re ready, but because it's in the interest of some hockey executive to make it appear as though he drafted the right kid - look how fast he’s in the NHL!! - or to use a quality young player as evidence that a bona fide rebuilding program is truly under way. In other words, politics and public relations considerations end up taking precedence over hockey rationale. I can’t say we’ve seen enough of Wilson in Toronto yet to know whether he’ll be immune to that.
Q: Hello Damien,
I've always appreciated your honesty when discussing the Leafs. In your opinion, what's the best we can hope for this season? A high draft pick? Sundin changing his mind and making a mid-season comeback? Or that the season can't be over soon enough?
Raymond Young, Toronto
A: I really think there’s lots to hope for, primarily a team that becomes much harder to play against and manages to be competitive through a new commitment to team defence. It might not be pretty, but if Leaf fans see a team that can be in the top 10 in the league in team defence, that’s concrete progress.
Individually, I think it will be intriguing to watch players like Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Mark Bell and Jamal Mayers, who seems like a very classy guy. Fans can also watch Alex Steen, Matt Stajan and Carlo Colaiacovo closely for signs that they can truly be important pieces of the puzzle down the road.
Finally, Leaf fans can hope team management sticks to an intelligent game plan of rebuilding. That should include moving some veterans for prospects and draft picks at the February trade deadline. Remember, Philly got Braydon Coburn at the trade deadline in ’07, and now he looks like a future Norris Trophy winner. So if the Fletcher regime is on its toes, there will be real opportunities out there.
As far as Sundin, whether he comes back or doesn’t come back won’t change the situation much either way. It’s undoubtedly better for the franchise to move along. A top draft pick would be ideal next June, but even if the season is a losing one, it doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be a lot of interesting things to watch and some important developments to assist the future growth of the team.
What do you think about Mikhail Grabovski? Do you really think he should be heading up the first line? I strongly believe there are others, such as Alex Steen that should get the opportunity to eat up the 18-20 minutes first line players should receive.
Kevin Black, Whitby, Ont.
A: Can’t say I know enough about Grabovski at this stage. Nobody does, really, other than the fact that Montreal couldn’t find room for him in their lineup and dumped him for a draft pick. Many players use a new opportunity with a new team to excel, particularly if they are gifted offensive players who don’t get a good chance to play on the top two lines because too many talented players are ahead of them. So really, nobody can say yet what Grabovski may or may not be able to do.
Steen’s a different question entirely. He’s been given multiple opportunities with the Leafs and, to me, has been a significant underachiever. Somebody told this kid somewhere along the line that he was a star and he believed it. If Grabovski gets Steen to work harder and start putting his talent to better use, then that alone will be a good result. More competition without the lineup for minutes can only make the Leafs a better team.
Q: Hi Damien,
I don't know how much you follow English football, but did you read recently about Newcastle United? The owner (Mike Ashley) and his director of football were meddling so much in the manager's (Kevin Keegan's) affairs that he resigned. This upset the fans so much that they campaigned against Ashley and he is now being forced to sell the club, much to the delight of the fans.
What is there stopping Maple Leafs fans from doing something similar? Is it just a cultural thing and Canadians are too nice? Or would those in charge just ignore any such protests and render them pointless?
Alex Cunningham, Richmond, UK
A: Fabulous story, huh? Putting power back into the hands of the people who pay the fare! Good stuff. In terms of its potential application to the Leafs and MLSE, I’m not sure there is any, outside of the fact that Richard Peddie is probably on a plane right now to go and try and purchase Newcastle.
The nature of the corporation that owns the Leafs and the nature of market gives MLSE an enormous cushion against any potential fan dissatisfaction. Moreover, I don’t think we’ve really seen any demonstrable unhappiness on the part of large chunks of fans; in fact, there’s an endless queue of those wanting to buy tickets. Sadly, with the way in which MLSE is diversifying into other sports, condos and arena management, the Maple Leafs are gradually becoming a smaller and smaller piece of its business. That’s not good news for hockey fans looking for ownership accountable to the fan base.
Q: Considering Mats Sundin's "holdout" caused the Leafs brass to hold out on spending money all the way up to the cap, just in case he chooses to come back, thus preventing the Leafs from being encumbered with bad contracts and veterans we don't need. Shouldn't we be thanking Sundin for not retiring in April? Because you just know that Fletcher would have thrown the money at someone foolish if he could have.
Robert Buckler, Oshawa, Ont.
A: That’s an interesting take. Hadn’t looked at it that way. Interestingly, if rumours are to be believed, Fletcher was prepared to give a big chunk of that money to Mathieu Schneider, at least on a temporary basis. Seems that dough might be burning a hole in the Silver Fox’s pocket!
Q: Hey Damien welcome back!
I'm curious if you have heard anything about the job that Joe Nieuwendyk is doing for the Leafs. I ask, only because I think with Nieuwendyk, the Leafs have a chance to be a little more progressive when it comes time to hiring a new GM. By all accounts Joe has been billed as a very intelligent hockey mind (young by executive standards) and with Cliff Fletcher on board he would have a true mentor-like consultant that he actually trusts.
As opposed to bringing in someone like say, Brian Burke who'd inherit a front office largely built around Cliff Fletcher. Joe Nieuwendyk could take this year to ease into the position much like Carbonneau did as coach in Montreal and Brett Hull is doing now in Dallas.
Is it possible or at least good idea?
Joe Dunleavy, Pickering, Ont.
A: I think it’s very possible. Nieuwendyk, as long as I’ve known him, has always come across as a bright young man interested in learning the game. If he wants to put the time in, slog across wintry highways to watch juniors skate and ingest the nuts and bolts of management, there’s reason to believe he could develop into a strong hockey manager over the course of three or four years. We talked about Yzerman earlier, who has a two-year head start on Nieuwendyk - I wouldn’t count last year in Florida for much - and is going to be a hot GM candidate for somebody next summer. Nieuwendyk could, over time, mirror that kind of management development. But it really depends if he learns to like it. Don’t forget, Doug Gilmour was in that type of role before, and found he’d rather go back to coaching. So it will probably be two years or more before we really understand what Nieuwendyk’s future might be with the club. Right now, the rising managerial star within the organization might well be assistant GM Jeff Jackson, who has also taken over the GM role with the AHL Marlies.
Every Thursday, Damien Cox answers your questions in The Spin, only at thestar.com. Click here to submit a question. ****Note: please follow the link above to send a question to Damien. Questions posted in the comments section may not make it to the mailbag. Thanks.**