Thursday Mail Bag
Consider this the last mail bag of the pre-Brian Burke period in Maple Leaf history.
Some will find this exciting or hopeful, others - those who doubt Burke’s managerial abilities - might gloomily imagine that the Leafs are no closer to a Cup now than they were before the lockout. Then there’s the realistic notion that Burke will bring a style of hockey to Toronto, an aggressive, in-your-face approach that will prominently feature goons and lots and lots of fighting.
Let’s just say there’s no longer any chance the Leafs will become the Detroit Red Wings of the East.
That said, it wasn’t so long ago the Leafs had all kinds of muscle and used to regularly beat up on their Ontario rivals, the Ottawa Senators. Under Pat Quinn, the Leafs liked to goon it up a fair bit, and this year’s roster was really the first in a long time in which the Leafs declined to dress a recognizable enforcer.
But Toronto, for better or worse, has always loved the policemen, from Tiger Williams to Ken Baumgartner to Tie Domi. Even John Kordic, bless his heart, had fans chanting his name when he briefly wore No. 27 for the club.
Andre Deveaux, then, is the first step of a re-modeling of the Leafs, even though his promotion occurred before Burke has officially signed on the dotted line. We’ll see whether Deveaux can play at all, but we already know through his AHL “play” that he’s capable of doing some nasty stuff out on the ice.
This sure isn’t my preferred style of hockey, and the Red Wings proved last year emphatically that there is another way. Problem is, the NHL seems to be promoting the fights more than ever these days, and at the same time refuses to take tough new steps against head shots and hits from behind, so there’s a vigilante mood out there. While with Anaheim, Burke’s teams helped set the tone for the revival of this style of play and became the first team since the Flyers of the 1970s to lead the league in fighting and win the Stanley Cup.
Until the Leafs get better - and that’s going to take a while - you can bet they’ll take a black-and-blue approach first and foremost, working in the skill as they go along. Burke is expected to arrive Saturday, and the muscle soon after.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Hi Damien,
I have had "75" birthdays, I don't expect to see a S.C. contender in my lifetime. Am I wrong?
Martin Bolger, London, Ont.
A: Martin, you look great! Of course you’ll be around in, um, ah, the short time it will take Burke to turn this mess around. Can’t wait ‘til we celebrate your 100th!
The question behind the question, of course, is how long will it take Burke to produce a winning team. This isn’t a quick turn around like last year’s Flyers, that’s for sure. But it is the Eastern Conference, will makes improvement easier. The decent start to this season had some imagining the club was only a few players away from being competitive, but the reality is, despite whether you think Cliff Fletcher has a done a great job, an average job or a poor job, he really hasn’t started the rebuilding. The fact remains this team has remarkably few top-quality prospects and only five picks in the 2009 draft and five in the 2010 draft. There’s some serious stockpiling of picks and prospects that has to start here before the discussion of producing a better hockey club can even begin. So exercise and eat well Martin - you’re going to have to be patient for a while yet.
Q: Hi Damien,
Now that the Leafs are playing like one of the worst teams in the NHL, losing (Tuesday) night to the dreadful Atlanta Thrashers 6-3, for instance, is there part of you that wants to say "I TOLD YOU SO!!!" to all those fans who slagged you for being a downer in the early parts of the season when the team briefly exceeded expectations?
Second quick question: do you think Vesa Toskala is as bad as he's been this year, or will he return to form?
A: Nah, nobody likes an I-told-you-so. I’ll leave that to the guy on Saturday night to tell you how he had it right all along. For me, I’ve been frequently dead wrong on matters of hockey, and I appreciate fans and readers not throwing that stuff in my face. It’s the right of fans to be ever hopeful and my job to point out the reality as best as I can see it at the moment. Many Leaf supporters just would rather not accept the fact that their team is a long, long way from being good again, but I would also say accepting mediocrity and simple effort the way it was heralded this season simply allows the Leafs to get away with being crappy. The way in which this team was patted on the back for just trying hard this season was quite remarkable. But then, I’ve realized over time that many Leaf fans - not all, but many - aren’t focussed on winning championships, they really just want to win the next game. So a victory or two sends them into a state of euphoria.
On Toskala, he’s better than he’s showing. But he really has never established himself as a bona fide starter capable of playing 60 games or more, and he’s not a kid anymore. Perhaps that adjustment to being the unquestioned starter this season has caused him to unnecessarily adjust his play. I would say that other teams watch the films too, and Toskala’s aggressive tendency to play well out of his crease has exposed him on a variety of situations, allowing teams access to essentially uncovered nets too many times. In the end, he can be a solid NHL starter in a conference that boasts much better goalies like Martin Brodeur, Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist and, it would seem, Tim Thomas.
Q: Hi Damien,
Please explain to us all, if Brian Burke is really that great where are all the other teams lining up to get access to his services?
Zeya Alikhan, Peterborough, Ont.
A: Well, I guess the simple answer is that no other team has an opening a GM right now. I’m certain that if Burke waited until next June he’d have a few more suitors, albeit probably not offering the salary that the Leafs are offering. It’s rare for a quality GM just to spring free in the first quarter of a season like this, so even if there are teams out there who would be interested in Burke, they’re not in a position to do anything about it right now.
Q: I know a lot of Leafs fans who aren't particularly pleased with the work Brian Burke has done in the past. I'm not one of those people.
That said, do you think his presence will dramatically change the infrastructure of this team? Will he speed the operation up, or slow it down using a mindful, methodical process?
To me, the fact that the Leafs have signed Burke means they are not only comfortable with a new regime, but are ready to acknowledge the mistakes of MLSE.
Is there reason to be hopeful?
Anthony Lopopolo, Richmond Hill
A: I truly believe he’s going to revamp the scouting team, both pro and amateur, and aggressively try to re-stock the talent cupboard before moving to add free agents or veterans. This is going to take some time, and I would imagine that if there’s a logical hockey person among the MLSE suits, they understand that Burke is the man who will allow the team to patiently pursue such a strategy. That’s the whole idea - hire a big-name front man and let him take the heat. The issue will be whether they try to convince him to simply get back to the playoffs and the land of post-season revenue rather than patiently building, over time, a truly good hockey club. That’s unanswerable at this moment.
Q: Hi Damien,
If Brian Burke becomes the GM, would he go and sign Sundin? Who you think he will make the team’s captain? Thanks.
Kirupa Kathir, Brampton
A: It would make no sense to sign Sundin from a variety of standpoints, and I can’t imagine Burke would pursue that strategy. What would be the point? As far as team captain, unless it’s Luke Schenn somewhere down the road, the Leafs probably don’t own a player capable of wearing the “C” right now.
Q: Why haven't Toronto given Jeremy Williams a full-time chance in the NHL? When he was in junior hockey he was lighting it on fire. In the few NHL games he has played, he has shown that he can score. Do you see him getting a chance if (when) Brian Burke is hired?
Patrick Savoury, Rose Blanche, NL
A: Sure, he might get another chance. The problem for a young player like Williams is that he’s an offensive player who needs to be put in offensive situations. Unless the Leafs or any club give him a long look in their top six forwards, he’ll never put up the numbers to stay. And it just doesn’t seem likely he’ll get that shot in Toronto, but then again, the new regime may look upon him more fondly, and if bodies start flying out of the city, somebody’s going to get a chance to play.
Q: Hi Damien,
As a snowbird living in the south for the winter I still keep up on the hockey stories, wars, trades etc. I think the trade this week with St. Louis was a good one - both Leafs never ever got it going! Now that Burke is in place, my question is do you think he will be one to pull off a blockbuster in the near future? Blake, Toskala, Kaberle all for mainly draft picks. Enjoy your columns from deep in the south.
Curtis Sleeman, Mesa, AZ
A: Thanks, Curtis. If by a blockbuster, you mean a deal that brings some big names back to the Leafs, then no, I don’t think Burke will do that. But he will be moving veteran bodies to try and stock up on picks and prospects, and I would imagine Tomas Kaberle and Nik Antropov would be at the top of that list.
Q: Hi Damien,
Here's a couple non-Burke questions:
First, any thoughts on why Toskala's been a bit inconsistent? He seems to be able to still put in great games (ie. the 1-0 loss to the Rangers a while back) but now he's letting in soft goals. What's up?
Second, what's up with Dallas this year? They had a great playoff run last year (remember the triple overtime with San Jose? Fantastic) but now they're not so great. Any idea why?
Jonathan Charlton, Springfield
A: Well, we talked about Toskala, and I really believe the time has come to bring up Justin Pogge for a look, if only to put a little urgency into Toskala’s game. Let’s face it, he’s hardly going to be threatened by the presence of Curtis Joseph.
Re Dallas, two factors. Marty Turco has been just terrible in net so far, and many believe the acquisition of Sean Avery has had a major, negative impact on the Stars’ chemistry. Losing Brenden Morrow is just going to make things tougher. That said, they won over a good Minny team on Wednesday, and it certainly can’t get worse this season.
Q: Hi Damien,
Assuming Wilson and Burke can strip the team of any potential this year the Leafs do end up with a shot at the number one draft pick, would they even consider Victor Hedman (defenseman, Swedish) or is John Tavares (centre, Canadian) still the ultimate goal?
Rob N., Halifax
A: Interesting question. When in possession of top picks previously, Burke has drafted a towering defenceman (Chris Pronger) and top-end skill (the Sedin twins). It’s just way too early to begin handicapping this one.
Since you answered a question about the Isles recently, I figured I'd ask a question about the Montreal Canadiens, because despite the fact they are still fifth in the East, the team seems to be in a funk.
What do you think is the main problem with the Habs this season? My theory is that Alex Kovalev this season isn't the same Alex Kovalev as last season, and that's hurt Tomas Plekanec and to a lesser extent, Andrei Kostitsyn.
I think the additions of Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay were good moves, especially now with Kovalev's funk. But I have a concern about Price and despite his pedigree, I just have a feeling he doesn't have the experience to win the big game.
Do you think the Habs have what it takes to win it all this season? If not, what sort of tinkering would you try to do with their lineup?
Kevin Kelly, St. John's, Newfoundland
A: Well, the Habs certainly feel better about themselves after their big road win in Detroit last night. Certainly, Kovalev hasn’t been anywhere near as dominant this season as he was last year, and some of their other skill players are still finding their way. Losing Mike Komisarek on the back end for an extended period of time is going to require others, like Francis Bouillon and Josh Gorges, to really step up their play. But this is a really good team, and GM Bob Gainey will be trying hard over the next three months to find a way to make it better. As far as Price goes, I wouldn’t worry about. He’s just getting better and better.
Q: I am a Sabres fan in Florida and wondering what pieces you believe are missing from the team. They started off strong and are now struggling. They have goaltending, strong offence, and a decent defence. Is it time for Lindy Ruff to hit the road? It seems he can get them close but never seal the deal with a Cup.
Also, why do they sit on their players in the press box when they can package a couple of them for a defenceman or a scorer?
Justin Hacker, Orlando
A: I think this is a good Sabres team with decent depth, but one that doesn’t have a strong identity. Buffalo is middle-of-the-road in everything - 13th in team defence, 19th in goals-for - and not nearly the explosive offensive team it once was. Some forwards - Tim Connolly, Maxim Afinogenov, Drew Stafford - aren’t producing what many believed they would. Goaltender Ryan Miller, meanwhile, is 18th in the league with a .909 save percentage, and they need him to be high-ranked than that. As far as spare players, I’m not sure they have much that would bring big returns at this moment.
Q: What has happened to Anton Stralman? At the end of last year he looked so poised to breakout.
Patrick Savoury, Rose Blanche, NL
A: I think what happened with Stralman is what happens with many young Leafs - people exaggerate signs of promise and expect that a prospect will become a proven player in no time flat. Stralman had a lot of trouble with his defensive game last year and that hasn’t changed. He has skills, particularly speed, but until he can be trusted when the other team has the puck, he’s going to have a hard time staying in the lineup.
I think it's great you answer people's questions like this on a weekly basis. I wish more writers would take the time to do this.
I had a conversation with a friend at the start of the season about how far the Canucks are from contending for the Cup. I believed they were one star forward away given the changes Gillis made. That star forward would be Sundin. But now, I still want to see Sundin come to Vancouver, but I'd rather see the Sedins traded for players like Lucic or Jordan Staal. Do you think the Canucks could go over the top with Sundin and would you trade the Sedins? Thanks.
Jacob Lee, Victoria
A: Jacob, I’m assuming you wrote this before the Luongo injury, and obviously the health of their netminder is the No. 1 issue for the Canucks. They beat Detroit this week 3-2 in OT and looked pretty good doing it. If I was running the Canucks, I’d keep the Sedins AND try to bring in Sundin. Then again, if Boston offered Lucic, I might give up both Sedins to get him. This guy’s special, and you can expect he’ll be a Bruin for a long, long time.
Every Thursday, Damien Cox answers your questions in The Spin, only at thestar.com.
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