Brian Burke made it clear this was what he’s going to do, and now he’s going to do it.
You may not agree with gooning up the Maple Leafs. But Burke has never hid the fact that this is a very big part of his plan, and he has a Stanley Cup ring to use as evidence that his approach works. Moreover, the NHL has created an environment in which fighting is tacitly approved, mostly because the powers that be lack the strength to take this nonsense out of the sport.
Brad May’s acquisition, really, was necessary to do something to begin the process of toughening up the Leafs, if only because Burke was having a heck of a time doing something more meaningful. May can’t play much anymore, but he sure tries hard, even at age 37, and Ron Wilson has probably had quite enough of players without enough get-up-and-go every night. Before last night’s game was two periods old May had a boarding penalty and a fight, so he seems to understand what his role is. Burke, meanwhile, wants muscle and he wants guys who can fight, and he has never hidden that as a goal with this team. Can’t say I like this approach, but the league loves fighting and Burke’s had success with those tactics.
To me, the more significant move was the decision to send Nikolai Kulemin to the minors. To often in recent years the Leafs have brought in European players and awarded them roster positions without having them earn them first. Alex Steen would be the perfect example. Kulemin, meanwhile, wasn’t producing, and you can’t demand that others serve an apprenticeship within the organization while others get a free pass.
(Note from Editor: To those who insist Alex Steen should be considered a Canadian not a European, give your head a shake. He may have been born in Winnipeg, but the point is he played four full seasons in the Swedish Elite league - where he lived - and has skated for Swedish national teams. His citizenship is not the point. The point is that some Euros come to North America and stay in the NHL largely because of the threat that if they are demoted, they will head back to Europe rather than play in the North American minors. Their status, then, is somewhat different than that of Canadian junior player who has no similar leverage.)
Burke wants internal competition for jobs, and he wants a higher competitive level from each and every player. The Leafs sure didn’t play particularly well in Montreal, but they did show more spirit and fight, and that’s a start.
On to the mailbag.
Q: Hi Damien,
Over the Christmas holiday I was chatting with a friend and we agreed that the performances from players under the age of 25 in the NHL this year is simply phenomenal. From the elite (Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, Phaneuf, Price, Getzlaf, Parise, Kovalchuk etc. etc.) to the "mere" all-stars (Carter, Richards, Fleury, Hemsky, Kane, Toews, Backstrom, Vanek, Kessel, Green, Weber, Whitney, Mason, Ward etc. etc.) ... well you get the point. My buddy and I agreed that we're witnessing an explosion of young talent rarely seen in the NHL.
In fact the only analogous era we could come up with was the mid 80s when you had players like Lemieux, Yzerman, Roy, Bourque, Stevens, Francis, MacInnis, the entire Oilers lineup really, leading the way.
I think that in part the explosion in the 80s can be attributed to the WHA and expansion (more professional teams meant more paying jobs meant more gifted athletes chose hockey as a career path). But I'm not so sure that expansion in the 90s can be counted as a factor in this talent explosion. What do you think accounts for it?
I think your point about Hockey Canada shifting focus to skill development certainly helps explain the Canadian contingent. Also, the change of rules in The New NHL(tm) certainly allows for a faster, more creative (often smaller) type of player to flourish (teams aren't drafting only Lindros and Pronger clones). But beyond that I'm a stumped.
What do you think? Or is this just a demographic anomaly?
Neil Therriault, Toronto
A: Well, I think there’s lots of possible reasons. For starters, young players, at least the best ones, come into the league now trained and fit to compete at a high level immediately. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, for example, didn’t come in to the league as young men who would have to look after their bodies better or get bigger and stronger. They were essentially ready to go.
The game has changed significantly in the past five years. I remember watching Crosby at the Memorial Cup in London, and watching opponents hook and hold and interfere with him, and wondering whether he’d ever get a chance to reach his full potential in the awful style of hockey that was dominating at the NHL and other levels of hockey at the time. Well, the NHL lockout allowed the game a chance to change, men like Colin Campbell and Mike Murphy helped engineer that change, and what we have now is a game in which all skill players, and all these young skill players, can actually compete in a league in which skill is appreciated and allowed to flourish.
This generation of young stars also came along at a time when much of the old guard – Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, Francis, Messier – was departing. So there was room for these kids to acquire marquee status, particularly since many played for teams that had been down in the standings for a long, long time.
So those are some possible ideas. As far as Hockey Canada’s push for a country-wide philosophy of skill, I think you’re seeing the generation of players who benefited from that come through the junior system now, players like those who skated for the national junior team this year. Perhaps that means that in five or six years, we’ll see yet another influx of young stars. NHL teams would sure like that, for the current collective bargaining agreement makes those players a lot more affordable than veterans.
Q: Hi Damien,
If the NHL season was to end today, the Leafs would have the sixth pick overall in the draft. Since it appears that they are not quite weak enough to contend for the first or second pick, which quality junior players might still be available at the sixth spot? Is this year's draft considered a very deep one in terms of quality players?
Dave Brown, Truro, NS
A: For starters, the Leafs have 42 games to play, lots of time to plummet in the standings. Given that they are likely to dump one or two or more quality veterans over the next two months, this is a club likely to be weaker for the final 20 games of the campaign.
It sure looks like there will be talent at least through the top 10 this year. After John Tavares and Victor Hedman, players like Magnus Svensson Paajarvi, Evander Kane, Jared Cowan, Brayden Schenn, Zach Kassian, Jordan Schroeder and Matt Duchene are going to available, and there’s no shortage of scouts willing to rave about these players. Looks like a deep draft to me.
Q: Hey Damien,
After their elimination from the WJHC some commentators have blasted the Americans for sinking lots of money into their hockey programs but gaining little to no return on it. As much I like "Yankee bashing" I just don't think that's a fair analysis. USA Hockey has made great strides in producing some high draft picks many of whom are producing at the NHL level.
In my eyes, preparing players for strong NHL careers is far more important than the chest thumping that occurs after winning a medal. What do you think? Shouldn't the ultimate success of any country's hockey program be on the long-term success of the individual players who have gone through their programs?
Joel Christens, Pickering
A: I think it’s both. Developing outstanding individual players and athletes is certainly an objective, and if you do that, so do your chances of developing winning teams and capturing medals at international competitions.
Can’t say I’m an expert on USA Hockey. I do know that there are a lot terrific hockey players and programs in the U.S., but also I’ve often heard complaints about the role politics play in the assembling of national teams. What’s unusual about the U.S. is that they have big peaks – Lake Placid, the 1996 World Cup, etc. – but no consistency. The Americans might go years, for example, without winning a medal at the world juniors, and then win gold. It’s rather difficult to figure.
In terms of what you’re asking, the priority for USA Hockey should be developing players for national teams, and trying to achieve success for those national teams. I wouldn’t think developing players for the NHL should be a priority in of itself. If USA Hockey does a good job, NHL prospects will naturally be produced.
Q: Apparently, the Leafs brought Justin Pogge up to jerk him around. How can he be properly "looked at" after only one start? Your thoughts.
Steve P., Toronto
A: I think the plan all along was to give him one game, then send him down no matter what. The idea is to keep the carrot in front of him, keep him working. Leaf management was very impressed with how he played in that one game, and the plan now is to do that five or six more times this season – bring him up for one, then send him back down. But if anything, the Burke administration is more encouraged than ever that Pogge might be the real deal.
Q: Happy New Year Damien,
With Joseph having won his 450th game, which of these scenarios do you believe is most likely to occur before the end of the season:
a) Burke trades Toskala, calls up Pogge and installs him as the starter with Joseph as the backup
b) Burke quietly pushes Joseph out the door, calls up Pogge and he backs up Toskala the rest of the way or
c) Neither scenario occurs and the Leafs go the rest of the way with Toskala and Joseph. Thoughts?
Ray Young, Toronto
A: I think c) is the likeliest answer; that is unless somebody decides they have to have Toskala and offers up a lot. Otherwise, the Leafs are likely to sit tight with their goaltending until the summer, at least.
Q: Hi Damien,
I wanted to get your feed back on our dilemma in Kansas City. People here still want a hockey team and the NHL has pushed us off to be forgotten! We built a brand new, state of the art arena in 2007 and have watched it stay empty without a team. The man who promised to land us our franchise, William "Boots" Del Biaggio bilked banks and private investors out of tens of millions of dollars to pay off gambling debts, bought a stake in the Nashville Predators and financed a lavish lifestyle. He's since been charged for fraud.
Meanwhile, our arena sits empty. All of our suites were sold out almost two years ago when the Penguins used our city as leverage, so we don't have the same problems cities like Nashville have. Kansas City is full of hockey fans and we have waited patiently only to be ignored by Gary Bettman. Will there ever be expansion clubs added or franchises moving in the future? There could be a local ownership group headed by former Baseball Hall of Famer and hockey fan George Brett. Do we have any hope? Does Bettman care about us anymore or did he and Mario Lemieux use us to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh?
KC Hockey Fan, Kansas City, Missouri
A: This sounds like a similar tale of woe as that of my hometown of Hamilton, Ont., another city that once built a rink and believed the NHL would come. The NHL never promised anything to Hamilton, and to my knowledge, has never promised anything to Kansas City. Of course, K.C. once had a team, and to be honest with you, there are few in the hockey industry that believe the rebirth of the Scouts under that or any other name would be a success. But maybe none of us know the market.
Right now, there appear to be major fires burning in Phoenix, Tampa Bay and Nashville, and I would imagine that the best chance for K.C. would be to pounce if one of those teams goes belly up. If you’re waiting for Bettman to “care” about your city and deliver a team, however, you’ll be waiting a long time.
Q: Is it me or are the Ottawa Senators deliberately tanking the season to get a shot at drafting Tavares? At this point, I can't see them leapfrogging the Leafs in the standings.
Also, is there a venue in Toronto to host the Winter Classic against the Senators or Canadiens? What is the likelihood that the Leafs could host this event?
Gary Allen, Fort Frances
A: First question, no, the Sens aren’t tanking. They just stink and hope to turn it around in the second half of the season.
Second question, no, there really isn’t a venue in Toronto. Apparently, at the conclusion of baseball season the Rogers Centre retractable dome is locked for the winter. I guess BMO Field might work, but it’s very small. So unless they want to skate in the harbour, it doesn’t look likely.
Q: The powers that be have greatly reduced the fighting at the minor hockey level in recent years. Why then do we all of a sudden say that it is OK to fight as soon as they get to the OHA level and then beyond into pro?
I keep hearing that fighting allows those in the game to police themselves and reduce the amount of stickwork and cheapshots etc. I would bet that there are more cheapshots and other garbage in the line of scrimmage of a football game in one quarter than there is in an entire hockey game. Yet in football, there is no fighting and if you do you are ejected from the game.
I have long been against fighting in hockey and I sincerely hope that this tragic accident puts us on the path to its elimination from the game.
Finally, I reffed a Midget A game between Port Perry and Whitby last night. Prior to the game, a minute of silence was held in memory of Don Sanderson. Just 10 minutes into the game we had a fight where both players first instinct was to try and remove the others helmet. Sadly, these players I guess have moved on.
Larry Arbour, Whitby
A: Look, fighting is in hockey for very simple reasons. Some people like it, and some believe it sells tickets. All the other stuff is rationale and silly excuses. Sadly, I don’t believe Don Sanderson’s death will make a difference. The forces of fighting in hockey are dug in; they’ve seen it cut back, and now they’ll fight to the death to make sure it doesn’t disappear entirely.
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.**