Thursday Mail Bag
|MICHAEL STUPARYK/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO|
|The Great Eye be focused on Brian Burke for a while.|
Poor Mats Sundin. He’s going to have to put up with a little less attention from the Toronto media for a bit.
This Brian Burke story’s going to take up everybody’s time.
Sundin, of course, couldn’t care less, and probably would welcome less scrutiny. But the compelling pre-season question - what will happen first, Burke to Toronto or Sundin back in the NHL? - seems about ready to be answered, with Burke’s move east from Anaheim the answer.
If Burke’s half the negotiator I think he is, he’s going to drum up a market for his services as best he can, no easy chore partway through an NHL season. Theoretically, after all, 30 jobs are filled with executives doing their jobs, and Burke’s good friends will pretty much all of ‘em.
But friendship is friendship and business is business, and Burke knows the market for his services, with the scent of a championship in Anaheim still in wind, will likely never be greater.
So are there really other teams out there that might be willing to dump their current GM and hire Burke now?
Maybe. None will say so, of course. The candidates, purely theoretically, would be Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Ottawa.
Boston has the second best record in the East and would seem to be unlikely to unseat GM Peter Chiarelli. Ottawa is spinning its wheels at 6-7-2, but dumping Bryan Murray for Burke would be drastic even for Eugene Melnyk, and that move might tale Burke more north than he’d want to go, and to a very small market.
Philly? The Flyers haven’t played well this season. Paul Holmgren got them a long way last spring, but remember Burke was once a Flyer farmhand and his brand of blood ‘n guts hockey would play well in a city where the Phillies have raised the bar for everybody.
Then there’s Chicago. This is purely a guess, but if there’s a team that might go aggressively after Burke right now, it might be the new-look Hawks. This is a team that dumped local hero Denis Savard as head coach four games into the season simply because they understood that Joel Quenneville, who was in the organization, was a better coach.
President John McDonough, hired away from the Chicago Cubs by Rocky Wirtz as one of his first acts after the death of his father, Dollar Bill, is an aggressive executive who has turned the Hawks into a hot ticket in the Windy City, a team that has sold out every game this season. All Chicago’s games are now on local TV, the team has a franchise-record 14,000 season tickets and will host the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field this January.
Ambition is back in the air in Chicago, and without putting too fine a point on it, McDonough didn’t hire current GM Dale Tallon, and after the Savard firing, clearly wouldn’t hesitate to upgrade if given the opportunity.
At the end of the day, the Leafs still address more of Burke’s needs/wants than Chicago or any other club. But Burke will want to quickly construct alternative scenarios to improve his negotiation position. And make no mistake about it, this is going to be one heckuva negotiation.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
While it's hard to consider any Leaf "underrated" the way things go around here, I'm surprised more isn't said about Nik Kulemin's play. I'd say his rookie campaign is going at least as well as Luke Schenn's, and even though he's the third best player on his line he shows a lot of smarts, above average ice vision, and is among the most physical of the Leafs forwards. Am I overrating him? What's your take on Kulemin? Any chance you could rank the Leafs rookies 15 games into the season?
John Bastedo, Oakville
A: It’s so early, and the challenge of the NHL, particularly for newly arrived Europeans is the length of the season and the sheer grind of it all. Kulemin has shown some flashes, and I love the release on his shot. Clearly, he’s still becoming acclimatized to the NHL and North America, and language is an issue in that record. It makes sense that as he gains a comfort level he’ll be more productive. I’m not sure I see him as a physical player as you do, but he doesn’t seem to shy away.
Based on their play so far, if I were to rate the Leaf rookies I would give Luke Schenn the highest marks, followed by Mikhail Grabovski, Kulemin and the now injured John Mitchell. It’s a promising group.
Q: Hi Damien,
I remember when the Leafs played the Islanders in the playoffs in 2002, Jason Blake was a little juggernaut out on the ice. He was hitting everything in sight. Granted he's 6 years older now, but I feel like with the way he's playing now, if he doesn't score, he's just a complete non-factor in the game. What has happened to the energy that he once played with? Is he incapable of playing with any amount of physicality anymore?
Varun Chakravorty, Brampton
A: The Leafs would like to know the answer to those questions because this sure isn’t the Jason Blake they thought they were buying. Two factors clearly changed in Blake’s world after signing with Toronto. First, he accepted an enormous contract that came with expectations that he could be a front-line NHL scorer, expectations that were probably unfair. Once he decided that’s what people were expecting him to be, he focused his energies on goals rather than being the annoying piss-pot he’d been for a number of years on Long Island.
Second, he had a scare with cancer. Everybody responds to these challenges differently, but as a young man with a family, it had to be a difficult time. Moreover, it had to be a physical challenge, or at least make him wonder about his body standing up to the rigours of the NHL.
It didn’t take too long time for Blake, meanwhile, to regret signing with Toronto and to loudly make others aware of his regret. Paul Maurice played the heck out of him despite a lack of production last season, but still Blake threw the coach under the bus at the end of the season. Put all those factors together, and perhaps its possible to put together some understanding of why this signing has gone so very wrong.
Q: I enjoy reading your articles even though I usually thought you were just Leaf bashing; but you always seemed to have a consistent point, until now. How can you change your opinion on hits from behind? Your blog states that it's unavoidable. I agree in most cases. Your blog states that Van Ryn should hold some responsibility. I agree, as he has to be prepared for the hit coming. But you bash Ryan Hollweg to the bitter end about the two hits from behind that was half as bad as the hit on Van Ryn. Repeat offender? Yes but if it's unavoidable, it’s bound to happen again for a guy who is trying to earn his money by finishing his checks, just as you stated Kostopoulos was. Hollweg’s hits were the same, the guy turned. Just plain crazy how you can justify if for some and not for others. How do you explain that?
Jeff Iles, Minden, Ont.
A: Fair questions. I don’t believe I’m being inconsistent, but perhaps I have articulated my point-of-view clearly enough.
To make it clear, I’m all for taking a strong stance against hitting-from-behind. If I were writing the rule book, all hits from behind would come with majors and game misconducts. If that were the case, you’d see very few. Nowhere in my blog did I say that hits from behind are unavoidable, so that’s just putting words in my mouth.
The problem is, not all hits from behind are the same, and they are seen very differently by fans and analysts, particularly when the players involved play for teams for which folks have a rooting interest. To a Leaf fan, the Kostopoulos hit looked as bad or worse than Hollweg’s hit on Alex Pietrangelo. To a more neutral eye, Hollweg’s was worse, and he’d done it so many times previously. While some readers have taken issue with me calling Kostopoulos a first time offender while the league called him a repeat offender, the fact is Kostopoulos’ previous suspension was a one-game ban for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of a game, not for hitting from behind.
The crucial element, and the most difficult, is the responsibility of the player being hit to protect himself. I’m certainly not of the blame-the-victim constituency, but at the same time, if an error in judgment by a player causes him to be struck illegally by another player, is it completely fair to blame just the player doing the hitting? Clearly, over the past 20 years the way in which players shield and protect the puck around the boards has changed drastically, with players far more likely to turn away from defenders and face the boards as a technique to maintain puck control. I don’t have an answer to this issue. But in my opinion, Van Ryn exposed himself to Kostopolous’ hit in a way that Pietrangelo did not. But again, that’s my opinion, and it will obviously differ from yours. I don’t think there’s inconsistency here on a issue that has isn’t always black-and-white.
Q: Hi Damien,
Do you think, had the Leafs not dumped guys like Tucker, Wellwood and McCabe and just allowed coach Wilson straightened them out, the Leafs would have been a stronger team? Or did they really have to go to remove the stench in the locker room? Just looking at how he's getting so much more out of what little he had, if he was able to squeeze that out of those Muskoka boys, we would have more attractive trading assets to continue to build upon.
Drew M., Willowdale
A: Ideally, sure. Certainly the Leafs couldn’t have received less if they’d hung on to all three, given that the sum total of assets gained through the departure of all three players was defenceman Mike Van Ryn and some cap flexibility.
I’m not sure, despite his recent run of success, that Wellwood would ever have brought about a great return in a trade. Tucker and McCabe, meanwhile, needed to be excised from the Leaf dressing room because of their status and influence, and the fact a fresher, more upbeat atmosphere is now quite evident in their absence suggests getting them out of town was successful in that regard. Tucker was a rapidly declining asset, and he certainly isn’t burning it up in Colorado. McCabe was still capable of being a 25-minute per night defenceman, but he didn’t seem comfortable playing in Toronto any longer and he was sucking up a huge amount of cap space. In both cases, the Leafs paid too much and held on to the players to long. In the end, it comes down to correctly assessing the talent you have, and it both cases, the Leafs erred.
Q: Hi Damien,
I enjoy your blog and articles and usually find myself agreeing with you on most issues. I heard you on the radio this morning and was surprised to hear that you didn't support no touch icing. I believe the NHL should adopt this rule to save injuries like to van Ryan and Foster's broken leg last year. How come you don't support no touch icing?
Chris DuHart, Newmarket
A: I recognize the danger inherent to the pursuit of the puck by two players. At the same time, there’s danger all over the place on a hockey rink, particularly an NHL rink. It’s my belief that the numbers of injuries on icing plays are few compared to boarding in other parts of the ice, head shots and fighting. If the injury factor is the crucial part for you, well, there’s a lot of other areas that create more injuries that you should be looking at before icing.
Moreover, a race for the puck is an inherent part of the game, and quite often a player who is able to hustle and negate an icing call either creates a scoring chance for his team or gains strategic ice position for his team. Agreed, it doesn’t happen all the time, but it certainly happens. Finally, aesthetically I’ve never liked no-touch icing. The puck heads down the ice and every player just stops. All this said, I can’t say this is a hot button issue for me. If they went to no-touch icing in the NHL, it wouldn’t critically alter the game. I just hate to remove something that allows hustle to make a difference.
First off, I love how hard the Leafs work under Ron Wilson. There appears to be more accountability from the players. There's also more energy & excitement which can be attributed as much to the energetic young players that dominate a roster as Wilson's changing of the culture.
Actually, I'm not convinced that the culture of this team has changed. I've always thought the biggest problem with the Leafs is on their defence. In general the Leafs of Pat Quinn, Paul Maurice and the others have always been more concerned with out-scoring the other team and then stopping the other team from scoring.
This year it appears to be more of the same. If Wilson can't get this team to commit to defence then regardless of how many goals they score can't it be assumed that Wilson's message is not sinking in? The culture is not changed?
Jerry Darryl, Waterloo, Ont.
A: An interesting point. For starters, I think this “hard-working” theme has been oversold. The Little Hockey Team That Could gets old in a hurry, and let’s face it, at this elite level, maximum effort is the least that’s required. I don’t necessarily believe last year’s Leaf team wasn’t trying; they were just pursuing individual agendas rather than a team concept.
Re offence for defence, I think you’re bang on. Look at the way in which folks have responded to a Leaf team this season that has scored a surprising amount of goals. It’s as if offence for its own sake is as good as winning. I guess folks would prefer attacking, creative hockey to defensive hockey if the result, in the end, is going to be the same. So you can blame this succession of coaches, but maybe they’re just delivering that which this particular market seems to value more than ultimate success.
Q: Hi Damien,
Please keep up the good work. My concern with the Leafs is that they seem patently unable to develop talent within their organization, or they give up on players far too early. Case in point is Kyle Wellwood. Instead of giving him up for nothing; why wasn't an effort made to rehabilitate him? It appears certain that assets such as White, Tlusty and Colaiacovo are going to lost for a middling round draft some time throughout the season. A look at the Marlies will show that there is absolutely no talent there that has NHL potential, with the possible exception of Pogge, (and even that may be a dubious proposition). Of course I am no expert, but teams like New Jersey and Detroit seem to be able to draft and develop players without having the first overall pick in the amateur draft every year.
I am not as impressed with Wilson as everyone else. He had the most talented team in hockey in San Jose and couldn't even get out of his division. It shouldn't be a surprise how much better that team is now he is gone. I suspect we will have 2 or 3 more years of turmoil, Wilson will get fired, and we'll start all over again, no further ahead.
Don't you agree that the most serious failing of this organization is their inability to stick to a long term plan and follow it through?
Mike Milner, Orillia, Ont.
Q: Yup. But that’s what happens when you have a new GM every three or four years. The plan and the philosophy is constantly changing, and so are the types of players wanted. Even know, with the Leafs now featuring speed and lots of Euro talent, you can expect the approach to change substantially if, as expected, Brian Burke takes over as soon as next month. Burke values pursuit, aggression and North Americans, so the Leafs will again be changing course.
In terms of “giving up” on players, I think there comes a certain time with all players that a decision has to be made. With a player like Wellwood, if the effort towards conditioning isn’t there, you might want to go with another athlete. I think it's a wee bit too early to say the Leafs made a terrible mistake with him. But every team has to make choices - you can’t just continually carry players, particularly in a salary cap era. Detroit finally decided to stop waiting for Kyle Quincey. Montreal had enough of Mikhail Grabovski. Anaheim might have been prepared to say goodbye to Bobby Ryan. Columbus decided to move Nikolai Zherdev. I think it’s less about the players you let go than the ones you choose to keep and develop, and quite clearly the Leafs haven’t been nearly as successful as other franchises in that regard.
Q: I don't get it. I just saw Kostitsyn run over Grabovski, and both were visibly agitated to the point that if the refs weren't there they would have ripped their heads off. Before that Koivu knocks him down and gives him a little cheap shot. According to the commentator when Grabovski was asked if he had any friends left on the Habs, he said no. What's the deal? I love this guy; high energy, works well with his line, is on a tear offensively, exactly the kind of guy who may not ever get any all-star consideration but one you want on your team. Why the bad blood? What did Grabovski do in Montreal to make them hate him so much, and will that ever become a problem here in Toronto?
Nicholas Hung, London, Ont.
A: Well, in that game, clearly Grabovski angered the Canadiens in general with a dirty little butt end of netminder Carey Price. But there’s history here, particularly, it seems, between the Kostitsyn brothers and Grabovski, possibly because all three were offensive players vying to get a leg up in the Montreal organization for years. Last season, Grabovski made his unhappiness with not playing in Montreal obvious, and at one point flew out west ahead of the team to meet with his agent and discuss his status with the Habs. That would have made a number of veterans unhappy. Whether any of these surfaces in Toronto is anyone’s guess. Right now, Grabovski is playing and producing and seems happy. Maybe tomorrow he’ll be a Belarusian version of Jason Blake. We’ll see.
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.**