Man, it used to be more fun to cover the NHL. You know, back in the days when trades weren’t a rarity, or only confined to certain times of the year, but a possibility at all times.
It wasn’t even that long ago. When Joe Thornton was traded to San Jose just three years ago, the deal occurred in early December, just three months after the NHL had emerged from a season-killing lockout. But with the implications of the salary cap becoming more emphatic with every passing year, including the possibility (likelihood?) that the cap will go down soon, it’s as though a chill has gone through the league.
What have we had so far this year? Lee Stempniak for Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiaicovo. Darryl Sydor for Phillipe Boucher. Hardly earth-shaking moves. Free agent signings, whether they take place in July or January, are now the biggest transactions in any hockey year, while trades are generally confined to a couple of weeks preceding the winter trade deadline, and then again at the entry draft in June.
Not sure whether Gary Bettman agrees, but there’s a growing number of people who believe this logjam needs to be cleared. Trades once generated news and controversy for the NHL, which is a league that needs all the attention it can get. Leaf GM Brian Burke has for several years now been a champion of allowing teams to take on salary commitments in trades, which used to be allowed but is strictly verboten under the current cap system. Maybe that would work. Anything’s worth trying.
Now, on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Hi Damien, My question is simple and may clarify the story surrounding Mats Sundin for everyone in Leaf Land and how he should be received on February 21st. I believe the real truth surrounding Mats is the Leafs said thanks but no thanks.
"You didn't or wouldn't play ball with us so now we're not going to play ball with you now". Tit for Tat. I feel it is reasonable to identify why Mats didn't want to leave. Perhaps he thought they had a legitimate chance to make the playoffs and as we both know once they start, anything can happen. The other was his heart belonged to the Maple Leafs.
He has always been a positive force with the Leafs and no one can question his commitment to the organization. He also was given a "no trade" contract so it was his right to exercise it. Even Brian Burke, the new GM, says those things should be honoured.
Personally I wish he had of accepted the trade and then have Leafs resign him a free agent last July. We both know that didn't happen.
I recommend that the real story be identified, that it was the Leafs who rebuked him, not the other way around. If that is the case, then he only deserves the real appreciation and acknowledgement for the times whereby he provided us all with true entertainment. (ie A rare feat the night he scored his 500th goal, short handed and in overtime.) I doubt many other 500th goals included as much drama or significance. Just a thought, but the real truth needs to be known. Not everything is as it appears. In this case I truly believe it was he who was rejected. He does not deserve to be admonished or rejected for a second time of Feb. 21st when Vancouver visits Leafland.
Dave Strachan, Uxbridge, Ont.
A: Interesting thoughts, Dave. But really, you’re just speculating upon what you believe to be the “real” story, and there’s not really any facts to support your version. Does it really matter any more? When it came down to Sundin’s return, Vancouver wanted him badly, while the Leafs were no longer interested in re-signing him. In the summer and fall, however, Cliff Fletcher probably would have done a deal with Sundin if he’d been ready to return at that time. So it really came down to timing and circumstance, critical factors in a transaction like this. Based on what he said, Sundin was torn about the Leafs, tired and discouraged by the losing and lack of direction, but also emotionally tied to the club after years of playing in Toronto. It wasn’t an ugly divorce by any means, and those who would boo the classy former captain when he returns Feb. 21 were probably inclined to boo him before he left.
Q: Hi Damien,
I hope your holidays went well. I'm starting to notice a trend with the Leafs. They always seem to take the long way in order to get what they need. For example, instead of hiring the highly available Scotty Bowman, Dave Nonis, Colin Campbell or even Bob Nicholson to run the Leafs they waited almost a whole year before hiring Brian Burke.
Likewise, instead of using their top ten pick at the draft to select a dynamic forward like Cody Hodgson, they gave away their second round pick to move up a couple spots and draft a stay at home defencemen. Don't get me wrong, I really like Luke Schenn. But it seems to me that the Leafs are going to great lengths to prove that they’re "re-building." What was wrong with the obvious, easier to get to choices?
Jack Priderstein, Waterloo, Ont.
A: Actually, they gave up their second and third picks to move up to draft Schenn. I’ve tried to make the point for months now that was a heavy price to pay, and probably unnecessary, yet any time I do I get emails complaining that I’m slogging Schenn or ripping his talent and potential or saying he’ll be a bust. Actually, I think he’s a terrific prospect who will be a solid stay-at-home defenceman in the league for years. My question has always been whether you have to get more sizzle when you’re drafting that high, and there are certainly those who would argue Schenn’s “sizzle” is that he’s a strong personality and excellent team player. To me, those are qualities you can find lower in the draft. Up high, you go for the top-end skill, if possible.
If Schenn had been there when the Leafs drafted seventh, his selection would have made more sense. But for a team desperately short on prospects and young players to sacrifice two draft picks to move up two slots when there were very good players available - Colin Wilson, Mikkel Boedker, Hodgson - was a move the Leafs just didn’t have to make. That said, they’ve got Schenn to build around now, and Burke’s job is to find a way to get back the picks that Cliff Fletcher gave away.
Q: Hi Damien,
I'm going to show my ignorance regarding junior hockey.
What is the reason for the London Knights giving up so much in return for John Tavares?
Three players, four 2nd-round picks and two 3rd-round picks; is that not a lot for a player that very likely will be playing in the NHL next year?
I can only assume that the financial windfall of having Tavares for the rest of the season and the playoffs is quite substantial for the Knights.
Or am I missing something in regards to the business side of junior hockey?
Todd C, Burk's Falls, Ont.
A: I’m sure there’s a profit motive, and certainly London’s chances of going deep into the OHL playoffs are greater with Tavares. The Hunter brothers also want to take a stab at another Memorial Cup. The Knights are an organization that has been able to consistently find good talent in recent years. They undoubtedly know that if drafting 18-year-olds is a bit of a crapshoot for NHL teams, drafting much younger teenagers is even more of one. So they went for talent now and a chance to win it all.
I got into a heated email exchange with a certain hockey columnist a while back and I'm just wondering if you could comment on it: I said to him that before the start of this season, the Ottawa Senators were expected to be a decent team (gathered from what I read in hockey pool magazines, listened to radio shows, etc.) and that having a bona fide first line means they have hope of still getting into the playoffs (unlike, say, Atlanta or NYI). The columnist had the view that I was dreaming - not that I care about the Senators - that it was obvious the Sens would suck and he called it perfectly.
I really chalked up their difficulties last year to the Emery situation. As a sidenote, I would like to see them keep losing to the point where they'll made a big trade just to create some interest back in the trade front of the NHL. I miss trades.
Without using hindsight, would you say the Sens problems were obviously predictable? I just don't remember anyone predicting they'd be in the bottom three of the league. Thank you.
Jacob Lee, Victoria
A: I believed and wrote the Sens would miss the playoffs and was in the clear minority for doing so, but I never believed they would be as dreadful as they have been. I don’t know which columnist you’re referring to, so I can’t comment on that. My question about Ottawa has always revolved around making the decision to commit so much and for such a long term to Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, neither of whom has ever struck me as a franchise type player, at least not so far in their careers. When the Sens were hot at the beginning of last year and had locked those two up to long-term deals, I wondered if it was really possible both contracts would turn out to be smart deals. Now it looks like neither will.
Q; Last season after the draft, Cliff Fletcher responded to a question relating to Nik Antropov in which he said that he was not interested in trading Nik Antropov because Antropov was a player around whom the Leafs could build. Do you think that was just Fletcher spin to explain away why he did not trade Antropov? Do you think that Brian Burke feels the same way?
Also, what leverage do you see the Leafs using to convince Kaberle and Kubina to waive their no-trade clauses at the trade deadline (when the Leafs can get maximum value) instead of waiting to the draft to trade them (when their no-trade clauses are not in effect but the value of draft picks is at its highest)?
Finally, if the Leafs were to send Jason Blake to the minors but instead, he decided to retire, would the Leafs have to absorb his entire salary as a cap hit because of his age?
John Hunt, Harvard, Mass.
A: I really can’t tell you what Fletcher was thinking. I never understood his plan, to be honest, and for that I’ve been accused of disliking him personally. That’s not true. I just didn’t understand what he was trying to do - Antropov was a terrific asset to move last winter when he still had a full year on his contract - or what the long-term vision was.
With Kubina and Kaberle, the leverage is only to get a trade to a contender rather than be moved to a less appealing destination in the summer when their contracts will allow them to be traded without their permission.
Re Blake, my understanding is that since he was younger than 35 when he signed, his contract wouldn’t count against the cap if he was waived or if he retired.
Q: Damien, could you crystal ball this one for me? OK, the Leaf management staff sits down as a team to map out a three-year strategy to reshape a hurting franchise. Under Brian Burke's leadership what would the process look like? How much input would be sought? Would they look at a year one acquisition of impending free agents and then year two and so on? Would the same thing happen with trades? I realize that there would be a myriad of scenarios but how would it play itself out?
Ken Warden, Kitchener, Ont.
A: Ken, this is an awfully complicated question. In general, I think what you’re going to see is a two-pronged approach. First, Burke will try to bring in a different type of player - bigger, more physical, North American - in order to change the team’s personality and culture. Second, he will try to re-stock the prospect cupboard, which will take two to three years. What this will mean as far as free agent signings and trades is less clear, but I can’t see the Leafs being a major player in going after marquee athletes until the summer of 2010 at the very earliest.
Q: If the NHL wants more scoring why have offsides? Wouldn't eliminating offsides increase scoring? See N.L.L. for an example of a league with no offsides and lots of scoring.
Phil McKrackin, Toronto
A: Well, the NHL doesn’t really seem to want more scoring. Moreover, I don’t think anybody wants to see a game where players could just loiter in the offensive zone while the play is going on in their own end. That would just fundamentally alter the game.
Q: Hey Damien, I was wondering, can you possibly trade a for an injured player, for example can the Maple Leafs trade for Marian Gaborik since he's out for the season and he's not gonna sign with Minnesota; maybe we can get a bargain for him like we give them a second round or something cause they'll probably want something other than nothing.
Antoine Rose, Scarborough
A: You can trade for an injured player. But it wouldn’t make sense to trade anything for Gaborik at this point because he’s an unrestricted free agent unless you wanted to have first crack at signing him in June. And the Leafs wouldn’t be interested.
Q; Hi Damien.
I have to admit to enjoying a hockey fight from time to time, especially if the player from the team I am rooting for wins. I still have fond memories of either the 99 or 00 season where Domi enraged the flyers to clear the bench, and somehow he was the only Leaf not involved in the fracas.
Guys at work also love to sit around the computer and watch classic fights on YouTube, Wendel Clark, Probert, Semenko, Kordic, etc. (many before helmets were mandatory).
But that being said, I don't think the danger it poses to the players is worth it. I also have to wonder why it’s allowed at all, from a legal point of view. Why is not considered assault? (excluding boxing and martial arts tournaments) I don't know of a single profession where you could be assaulted and its not against the law.
I am sure that the well established culture of hockey would prevent it from happening, but what is there to stop a player who gets attacked on the ice from pressing assault charges? Does it have to get to the point as it did with Steve Moore? What about Akim Aliu having his teeth knocked out by team mate Steve Downie?
There is internal punishment by the league, but why does that prevent the laws of 4 provinces, 17 states and 1 District Federal District of the USA.
The law is the law, and I don't think NHL operating procedures or a collective agreement have the ability to circumvent state/provincial/federal law.
Arthur Bailey, Toronto
A: I guess the answer revolves around the issue of implied consent, that by participating in a game players implicitly consent to be body-checked, hit by pucks, tripped, cut and, in some cases, become involved in fights. It’s an issue that’s been argued about for decades, and the reality is that the law has already shown it is willing to step in – Marty McSorley, Todd Bertuzzi - when it feels laws has been broken. Whether this has made a positive difference is open to debate. I’m just amazed more hockey players haven’t been charged for the things they’ve done inside the boards.
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.**