Thursday Mail Bag
Has Mats Sundin fatigue set in?
Not one question in the mail bag about the ex-Leaf captain this week despite the fact most are expecting he’ll be picking a new team sometime this week. Or month. Or maybe next month.
It could also be that since Brian Burke made it pretty clear when he was hired that Sundin was no longer on the Leafs’ radar, there’s not much point for folks in the GTA worrying over No. 13’s future.
I always felt, and wrote, that it didn’t really matter if Sundin came back to the Leafs, or if he didn’t. Either way, it wasn’t going to change the direction in which the club was heading, and that has pretty much proven to be the case.
Now Leaf fans can set their minds fully to wondering who will be the next player to wear the “C” in Toronto, and when that might happen.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Mr Cox,
What kind of player is a Toronto Maple Leaf? The Montreal Canadians have always been associated with speed, skill and a kind of - for lack of a better term - class. In my opinion, the Leafs have always prided themselves on a high-flying, barn-burning, tenacious, rough and tumble style of hockey. Pure "skill" players, while clearly appreciated and understood as critical to any serious Cup contender, have never really succeeded as leaders on this team. Fans seem to demand something more around here. A certain "orneriness," so to speak. Of their captain, and the team as a whole.
With this in mind, and assuming you agree with my assessment, which upcoming free-agents do you think might fit this mold? When do they become available and when should the Leafs sign them? Could an early key free-agent signing or two potentially accelerate the development of some of the teams' younger players?
Louanne Platter, Dallas, TX
A: Very interesting point of view. If you go back to before the first expansion in 1967, Leaf teams were regarded as teams that were generally tough defensively and always pushed a team concept ahead of stars. Or, as Mike Walton or Frank Mahovlich might argue, they actively discouraged players from being creative and imaginative. There were always well known Leafs, from Charlie Conacher to Ted Kennedy to Syl Apps, but Conn Smythe’s clubs were about tenacity and team play, the “beat ‘em in the alley” kind of determination.
Post-67, well, it’s been a mish-mash of philosophies and attitudes, a reflection of the constantly changing management teams. Jim Gregory, with his clubs of the mid- to late-1970s, seemed to have teams that accurately reflected the Smythe model, but then that was all torn apart. Pat Burns revived that spirit again in the early 1990s, but then it disappeared again. So basically, I agree, that if there is historical prototype of what a Leaf player should be, it would be one similar to that sought out by the New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars of the modern era. Big, tough, grinding players with a willingness to get their noses dirty, with quality leaders and excellent goaltending. Over the course of the decades, Leaf teams have generally not been finesse-first clubs, nothing like the Detroit Red Wings of today. Perhaps that’s been to their detriment, but more than anything, it's been a consistency of approach that has been missing. Perhaps Brian Burke, with his long-term contract, will be able to change that.
As far as free agents next summer, I don’t think the Leafs will be significant players at all. Look for them to start being active in the summer of 2010, at the earliest.
Q; Hey Damien,
Several teams out there seem to have some really good young talent like Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago (have I missed any?). In your opinion which of these teams has the greatest shot for winning a Cup or even best upside before the salary cap results in players not being resigned or traded.
George B., Kitchener, Ont.
A: I’d throw Los Angeles into that group as well as an NHL club with quality young talent. You know, this is a great question because between the Pens, Caps and Hawks, to my mind, they are very, very close now in terms of their core of young players and overall ability as a team.
If I were to question one area for all three, it would be goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury proved a lot last season in Pittsburgh, but his inability to remain healthy is a major concern. I’m not convinced Jose Theodore and Brent Johnson can carry the Caps far, nor do I believe the Hawks, still leaning on Nikolai Khabibulin (9-1-4 this season!) necessarily have the stability in goal. So if I were to hazard a guess, the team that secures elite goaltending among these three will be the one to win first, if any of them manages the feat.
As far as keeping their teams together, Pittsburgh already has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin locked up, and the Caps have Alex Ovechkin on a long-term deal, so its up to the Hawks to make sure they can retain Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and others.
This isn't a Leaf question but one that impacts every NHL team including Toronto; it concerns the salary cap and CBA. I'm pretty sure that if a player misses a few games his salary still goes against the cap as well as that of the player that might be called up from the minors to replace him. My question is about players who have long term injuries (say Brodeur in NJ, Gonchar in Pittsburgh) and miss quite a few games. If they are placed on LTIR, does their salary still go against the cap, or is it subtracted from the team's total cap space for the year? I am assuming that the replacement player has his salary go against the cap or is not added because he is playing so many games to replace an injured player? Please help clarify this grey area of the CBA!
Steve Kerley, Stouffville, Ont.
A: Here’s how the NHL’s Bill Daly explained it to me, ‘cause believe me, I’m not CBA/cap expert nor do I wish to be.
Technically, the injured player's salary stays on the cap, but the team has the ability to add replacement players up to the level of the injured player's salary for the duration of the player's injury (replacement salary is really pegged to the injured player - not the club's payroll). The injured player can't be returned to the active roster unless the club has cleared enough room to accommodate the injured player's salary under the cap. This provision only really comes into play for teams who are playing close to the cap.
Hope that helps. My eyes glaze over when it comes to this kind of questions. Pretty sure I’m just not smart enough.
Q: Hi Damien:
Nice article Sat. about Jaime Sifers. My question concerns Jeremy Williams. Why are all the talking heads and the coaching staff so dismissive of him? Wilson said, "He won't play on our top two lines so he has to..." and Doug McLean dismissed him as a "depth player." This kid has been a pure goal scorer at every level including, apparently, the NHL. Also, he seems to be able to skate well enough to keep up with Blake and Moore. Isn't having a pure sniper on one of your top two lines and on your power play a good thing?
Sandy Webster, St. Thomas, Ont.
A: I think there’s more to this than whether Williams can score or not. He can score, although it's intriguing that he’s never been a particularly big scorer in the minors, partly because he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. There’s a belief that he’s lazy, and that he is quickly satisfied with scoring a goal or two here or there and then taking a few games off. Reputations like that, fair or unfair, are very difficult to shake. What Wilson is doing, however, is playing him with veteran NHLers who can skate, rather than as a checker. So this is a great chance for the kid to show he’s got what it takes to stay for good. But he can’t afford to take a game - or a period - off.
I have a question regarding Dave Keon's ongoing dispute with the Leafs re: retiring numbers - from exactly where does the no-retiring policy stem?
The Leafs have had almost every permutation of management and ownership over the past four decades, yet there has been no change in the moratorium on retiring numbers. Is there some legal constraint preventing owners/management from permitting numbers from being retired, or has every single owner/GM of the Leafs agreed with the view that numbers should not be retired (in contrast with every other team in the league)?
It just strikes me as odd that no owner or manager considered changing the policy.
Shahen Alexanian, Toronto
A: Oh, I think it’s been considered. And don’t forget, the Nos. 5 and 6 are retired, although Ace Bailey himself gave his blessing for Ron Ellis to wear No. 6 in the 1970s.
The idea of honouring numbers, but not retiring them, started in the 1990s with Cliff Fletcher and was continued by Ken Dryden. I asked Dryden about this philosophy several times, since his number was retired by the Montreal Canadiens. He supported the Leaf philosophy as unique, and noted that in the post-war years, NHL teams often used numbers to pass the torch from a retiring star to a hot young player. So a young man might show up at his first camp and be assigned the number of an outstanding player from a previous era, and thus team tradition was passed on. It’s an interesting concept. Imagine if the Leafs were to draft John Tavares, and then give him No. 13. Problem with this system is, of course, that most kids come with their pre-packaged, marketing-friendly number. So Tavares would wear No. 91, no doubt.
Anyways, the Leafs could change this policy any time they want. They just choose not to.
Q: Hey Damien,
Just wondering if you can shed any light on the two Saturdays this month that the Leafs don't have games scheduled. This week and the 27th.
Jeremy Huws, Ottawa
A: No light to be shed. Happens every season. The NHL schedule isn’t built totally around giving the Leafs every Saturday night, although it might seem that way.
Q: In the past, it was rumoured that some players refused to be traded to or to sign as free agents with Toronto because of the confused relationship between the owners and the GM. Now that Brian Burke is the undisputed head of hockey operations, how much easier will it be for the Leafs to attract quality players?
TJ, Edwins, Guelph, Ont.
A: I’m not sure anyone can specifically identify players who would not play in Toronto in the past, although I’m sure there were plenty who preferred other, better organized clubs. During the Dryden/Quinn years there were many free agents who signed in Toronto, and believe me, there was lots of internal confusion then.
It was about money then, and the Leafs were willing to pay. Now, with the salary cap, it's less about outspending other teams or more about effectively allotting cap space. Even then, who knew Marian Hossa would rather play for less in Detroit than Pittsburgh or Edmonton? Re Burke, I think he will, over time, make Toronto a place where big name free agents may consider seriously. Right now, players looking to win just aren’t going to pick the Leafs.
Q: Hi, Damien:
(1) Assuming that Burke acquires boat-loads of draft picks, the next issue is how is he going to develop the players drafted with those picks into NHL-calibre players. Do you get a sense that there soon will be changes in the scouting department and player development, especially at the AHL and ECHL levels, and do you also get a sense that the Leafs will try to play one system throughout their entire organization, so that minor league players will know their roles when they are promoted to the Leafs?
(2) Who do you think will be the best prospects (not necessarily NHL-ready)that will be available at or before the trade deadline?
John Hunt, Harvard, Mass.
A: Burke, I’m fairly certain, will look to aggressively renovate the pro and amateur scouting staffs. But he has to assess what he has, first, and he and Dave Nonis will do that over the course of this season.
As far as the best prospects out there, its tough to say right now. Possibly Bobby Ryan in Anaheim. Might Pittsburgh be ready to move Alex Goligoski if, for the sake of argument, they could replace him with Tomas Kaberle? If Vancouver doesn’t get Mats Sundin, perhaps they will have to look at moving goalie Cory Schneider for big-time help up front. Minny might have to consider moving rookie Colton Gillies if they believe they have a good team but have to trade away Marian Gaborik. So at this point, there are just too many variables to really say who might be available at the deadline.
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.**