Thursday Mail Bag
Not a bad start for Brian Burke, huh?
Not only did the Maple Leafs win their first two games after Burke was named president/GM on Saturday, but now the heat is totally off the hockey wing of MLSE after the firing of Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell on Wednesday.
Ever since Bryan Colangelo arrived in Toronto, he was the corporate golden boy, and those who were running the Leafs were viewed as rank amateurs by comparison. Now Colangelo’s judgment in both retaining Mitchell and believing his team was better than its record has shown appear flawed, and finally a little more scrutiny is likely to be applied to the Raptors GM and his record.
Burke, meanwhile, arrives in town with at least the rest of this season and next season as honeymoon periods while he seeks to put his stamp on the club. Nobody will be looking for much in terms of results in the short-term, and now the Leafs will be viewed as the MLSE department with the hot new executive.
Of course, Burke has lots of company in the new blood department. As an astute reader, David Seigel of Toronto, points out, Toronto may have experienced an unprecedented event over the past six months with the firings of the head coaches of all four major pro sports teams. The Leafs canned Paul Maurice, John Gibbons was let go in June by the Blue Jays, Rich Stubler was axed by the Argonauts in September, and now Mitchell.
All in six months. That's one heck of a Grand Slam, Seigel writes.
To the new boys - don't go signing any long-term leases. In this town, it's apparently what have you done for me lately, or even better, what did you accomplish 15 years ago.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Hi Damien,
I had the opportunity to catch Saturday's 4-2 Leafs win over Philadelphia. I tried to keep an eye on Luke Schenn. Granted, it was only one game, and I'm certainly no expert, but what I saw was someone who was competent, made a good first pass, and took care of his own zone reasonably well. In short, a competent defender. What I didn't see however, with exception of one memorable shift in the second period, was a "Human Eraser" which I believe was his nickname prior to being drafted. Just wondering if there is potential for this "Human Eraser" to still develop, considering he is being rushed for no good reason by the Leafs, or if he is realizing that he ain't playing against kids anymore?
Sohail Gandhi, Collingwood, Ont.
A: I guess it depends what you mean by human eraser. If you’re looking for someone to be laying out one opponent after another with thundering hits, I think that’s unrealistic to ask of an 18-year-old player. But Schenn has been a physical player in pretty much every game, and if you’re looking for a young man who will eventually develop into a shut-down type of D-man, one capable of playing every night against the top forwards of the opposing team, that’s realistic. Even though he’s showing some hints of tiring as the season wears on, there’s enormous potential here.
Some have twisted my belief that Schenn should have been returned to junior for contractual and developmental reasons as a suggestion that the kid’s no good, which couldn’t be more wrong. Ditto for the fact that I’ve wondered whether giving up two extra picks last June to move up and draft him fifth overall wasn’t a very expensive deal for a talent-thin team like the Leafs to make. That also shouldn’t be taken as a negative comment on Schenn’s ability. We won’t know if he was better than what the Leafs would have been able to draft at seventh overall for years. All in all, he appears to be steadily developing right now in the NHL, and the final results of moving him to the NHL at the tender age of 18 won’t be evident until we see what he becomes by age 23. Of course by then, he’ll be two years away from unrestricted free agency.
Q: Hi Damien,
Can the Leafs still release Luke Schenn for the world junior tournament in late December or is it too late? There is no need for him right now as the team is definitely looking like a bottom 5 team.
Ray Chen, Toronto
A: My understanding is that they can release him for the world juniors, but only if he can attend Team Canada’s selection camp, which starts next week in Ottawa. The Canadian juniors haven’t been airlifting in players just before the tournament since back in the early 1990s when Eric Lindros, Kimbi Daniels and goalie Trevor Kidd were brought in late to the competition in Fussen, Germany, and the Canadian team finished well out of the medals.
I’d love to see Schenn join Team Canada. But GM Brian Burke told me this week it’s unlikely because he’s playing too much and too well for the Leafs.
Q: Despite the hype surrounding the Leafs, my mind is elsewhere in the NHL. Minnesota looks to be a solid team at the moment, but they're doing it without their top scoring threat, Marian Gaborik. What gives? He's missed 20 games in a row when I type this, and the only information being released is that he has a lower-body injury and isn't skating at all. Will he be back anytime, or can you shed some light on his situation? Because Minnesota looks like a team that could do some damage in the playoffs if he's healthy.
Jim G., St. Catharines, Ont.
A: Gaborik skated for the first time yesterday after missing the past 22 games with an undisclosed “lower body” injury, believed to be a groin injury. It’s not clear when he’ll be back, but it seems certain that his absence has thrown a severe complication into the Wild’s plans to either sign him to a new deal - he’s already turned down $8 million per - or trade him by the March trade deadline. He’s an unrestricted free agent next July.
The Wild are third in the Western Conference despite being without him for most of the season, but its hard to see them contending for the Cup unless Gaborik returns to contribute or is traded for assets that can contribute. It’s a marriage that’s gone sour, and Minnesota’s options are dwindling.
Q: I keep reading that the Leafs will deal Antropov because he's a UFA next summer. Is there any chance they'll re-sign him, or he'll want to stay? What kinds of dollars are out there for him, and from whom? What would he bring at the trade deadline?
Nick Martin, Winnipeg
A: There’s a chance, but it wouldn’t make a lot of sense. He’s in the final year of a two-year deal that pays him $2.1 million this season, pretty cheap by NHL standards for a 28-year-old player coming off a 26-goal season. He looks capable of replicating those numbers this season if he can stay healthy, which would probably see his salary jump to $3.5 million to $4 million next season, or even higher. You’d have to believe he’d also be looking for a multi-year deal, probably five years. Would it be smart for the Leafs to make that kind of salary cap commitment for this player? No. That’s why they need to move him before the deadline. I would imagine they could get a first round pick and a good prospect for him. He and Tomas Kaberle are the best cards the Leafs will have to play before the deadline.
Q: I read that the draft class Toronto had this year could prove to be a good class if all players turn out to what they could be. My question is how are Jimmy Hayes, Mikhail Stefanovich and Jerome Flaake doing? I know Jimmy Hayes was once touted to be a top 10 pick in last years draft. How far away do you see these players from getting a chance?
Patrick Savoury, Rose Blanche, NL
A: The Leafs have high hopes for Hayes, a 6-foot-3 winger that many had ranked as a high first rounder last June before his rating plummeted. He’s got six goals in 13 games for Boston College and was named yesterday to the selection camp of Team USA for the upcoming world junior championships. We’ll see if he makes it. As far as the Leafs, you’d have to believe they’d leave him in college for at least two more seasons, then give him at least one year with the Marlies. So he’s at least 3-4 years away.
Stefanovich is a point-per-game player for the Quebec Rempart juniors, while Flaake is a winger in the German league for Cologne. Their futures as Leafs would be anyone’s guess, and it’s way too early to tell if either will even be able to play for the Marlies down the road.
Q: With the economy in the dumper and continuing to spiral down, there's been a lot of water-cooler talk about what happens next year when the salary cap goes down. So the question is, does the CBA state that if the cap goes down, all salaries will be reduced accordingly based on the % that it drops? Or will there be many players without jobs next year because of all the long term high dollar contracts that have been given out in the past few years will now eat up the majority of teams salary space?
Steve Hukari, Burlington, Ont.
A: Without getting too complicated, it’s the second scenario that would be true. If the cap goes down, it doesn’t affect individual salaries, but it would impact the cap space of individual teams. Right now, the Leafs are about $9 million below the $56.7 million cap. If it falls to, say, $52 million, they’d be about $3 million below, but individual salaries would remain the same. Players would only be affected on an individual basis by how much they would have to give back to the league in escrow payments if overall player costs exceed a certain percentage of league revenues. If those revenues are plummeting and salary costs remain static, well, it’s not hard to figure out that the players are going to be writing some cheques to Gary Bettman.
Q: Hey Damien,
If the goalie is the most important position in hockey. And with Martin Brodeur about to set the all-time shutout and games one records and therefore create a case that he is the greatest ever goalie. Can we start referring to Mr. Brodeur as the greatest hockey player ever? And if he's not the best, where do you rank him both as a goalie and overall player?
Ben (not related to Brian) Burke
A: Interesting question. I don’t think you can compare goalies and skaters in a “greatest player ever” debate any more than you can compare pitchers and outfielders, or wide receivers and defensive tackles. Who was better, Terry Sawchuk or Frank Mahovlich? It’s just too difficult to compare them. That said, I agree that goalies are the most important players on any team, so it does seem strange that when you hear the best players of all-time being listed - Orr, Howe, Gretzky, Lemieux, Richard - no goalies come up. As far as Brodeur, he’s certainly one of the top 10 best to ever play, and right there with Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek as the best of his era. If he ends up obliterating the record book, it’ll be hard to deny him the ranking as the best of his time.
Every Thursday, Damien Cox answers your questions in The Spin, only at thestar.com.
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