Thursday Mail Bag
It’s pretty much indisputable now that the best thing to happen to the Maple Leafs was that Anaheim got antsy.
|DAVID COOPER/TORONTO STAR|
|Burke's arrival came just in time.|
If the Ducks had chosen to, they could have kept Brian Burke right through to the end of this regular season. Burke’s calculation, after telling them he wouldn’t sign a new deal, was that president Michael Schulman wouldn’t want him to be a lame duck GM all year, and that proved to be a case.
Lucky for the Leafs.
Had that not happened, Cliff Fletcher would have remained in charge through to this coming June, and it's difficult to imagine the damage that might have been done by that time.
Fletcher’s a nice man who owns a Stanley Cup ring and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He is part of hockey history, and that will never change.
But he wasn’t a suitable fit to run an NHL team in the cap era, yet Richard Peddie was prepared to let him to do so. Fletcher gave away viable draft picks like candy last summer (even a fifth rounder was obscene for Ryan Hollweg) to try and put a better team on the ice immediately and in so doing hang on to the “interim” GM position. The last piece evidence that he was prepared to sell the future was the deal that brought Lee Stempniak to town for Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo, a deal that will be even more difficult to swallow next season when the light-weight winger earns a $3.5 million salary.
Yesterday, meanwhile, the league fined the Leafs $500,000 and stripped them of a fourth round pick for the Jonas Frogren signing last summer. The contract was illegal, but rather than running it past the NHL first, Fletcher just did it and now the Burke administration is paying the price.
Whether Fletcher really understood that the deal wouldn’t pass muster is unclear. The new CBA, after all, is a complicated beast. But that this was all done to sign Frogren, a marginal NHLer with suspect foot speed who can’t stay healthy, is ridiculous.
Again, the notion was that Frogren would make an immediate difference, however, and that, not long-term growth, was the priority of Fletcher, which is why Jeff Finger was signed to such an outlandish contract
How’s three more years at $3.5 million hit you today?
Burke may never lack for bluster, but he showed great class yesterday in not making any comment at all that could be seen as a condemnation of the previous caretaker administration for the Frogren screwup, and good for him. It would have been easy for him to roll his eyes at the loss of the very same draft pick that he essentially bought from Tampa for $500,000 in a complicated deadline deal, one that he made sure the league would accept BEFORE he did it, so instead he refused comment and issued an nondescript, let's-move-on press release.
But can you imagine if Anaheim had forced Burke to stay and Fletcher had remained in charge for another seven months? For sure, the Leafs would have been buyers before the trade deadline, looking for any and all veterans, even over-priced ones, that could help push the team into a playoff position this season.
Burke offered many reasons for missing the playoffs this season, but he left out the part that he traded away the team’s two best forwards for draft picks a month ago because it was the right thing to do even if it meant making the team less competitive in the short-term.
Fletcher, on the other hand, might have gone out and traded picks away. In fact, we know he did toy with the idea of dealing away the club’s 2009 first rounder to the Ducks.
The good news for Leaf fans is that while Burke and his underrated sidekick Dave Nonis are aggressive managers, they know the CBA and always make the extra phone call.
They’ll make mistakes. Christian Hanson may be the first one, who knows.
But it won’t be because they don’t have a logical plan or don’t know the rules.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Hi Damien,
Just want to hear your thoughts on Brian Burke's progress with the Leafs thus far. A year-end report card, if you will. I realize that it is pointless to assess the success of the rebuild at this point, but in my own humble estimation, Burke has done well to pick up prospects/AHL players to help re-stock his cupboard. I like what I see so far, but it's early. Your thoughts?
J.P. Nikota, London
A: It’s way too early to tell. I’m not sure outside of Hanson which prospects/AHL players you are referring to, unless it's Jay Harrison and Jeff Hamilton. The reason for Leaf fans to be hopeful about Burke is that he has a plan and has demonstrated before he can make a plan reality. Moreover, he’s running the organization, which means no interference from ownership or Peddie, he has a strong right-hand man in Nonis and has a good working relationship with head coach Ron Wilson. This is the most unified this organization has been in decades, and it will be even more so once Burke restructures the pro scouting staff this summer and continues to sculpt the hockey office to his liking.
Q: Hey Damien, Do you really think that Justin Pogge has what it takes to be a starter or am I just an impatient Leafhead. Nothing to date with his play, Marlies or Leafs, inspires me. Thanks.
Mark Thornberry, Toronto
A: I don’t see it at this point. But I didn’t see in it Todd Gill when he was 22, either, and he ended up having a long, long NHL career. What is unclear to me is whether Corey Hirsch is a suitable goaltending coach to bring the best out in Pogge, and Burke will have to make that assessment this summer. It would be a shame if the Leafs decided they didn’t even want to re-sign the young goaltender, but these are the tough decisions you have to make in a cap world.
Q: Hey Damien,
Is it just me or has Anton Stralman looked much better since his last stint in the minors? He seems to be stronger on the puck and generally makes a good first pass out of his zone or at least carries it out and sets up a rush.
Could his improved play make it easier for Burke to move Kaberle for a stronger draft choice?
Jamie Hubbert, Ottawa
A: Stralman looks the same to me. Fast and a good puck mover, but weak physically and suspect in his own end. That said, the Leafs still believe he’s a good prospect, and teams have asked about him. Tampa was interested in including him in that peculiar deadline deal. So he’ll continue to get a chance, although I have difficulty seeing how he fits the Burke blueline model.
Q: Hey Damien,
Although I don't always agree with your opinions, I always look forward to reading your articles and blogs. Anyway, do you think Ron Wilson should be considered for the Jack Adams award for best coach?
I know he is not the obvious choices, like a Todd McLellan, Claude Julien, Mike Babcock, but I think he has done a much better job with what he was given than these three guys. McLellan inheirited Wilson's work ethic already cemented in the team and if you would have given Wilson Rob Blake and Dan Boyle last year, I'm sure the team would be just as good. Anyways, I think Wilson should be considered for his work this year but if not Wilson then my choice is Ken Hitchcock over any of those other three guys. What do you think?
Kyle D., Burlington
A: I think Wilson has done a very good job with limited resources. But I think you pretty much have to be a playoff team for a coach to win the Jack Adams. If you wanted to consider Wilson, you’d have to look at Peter DeBoer in Florida and Terry Murray in Los Angeles, both of whom have done similarly strong work with mediocre rosters. Wilson just gets a lot more attention because he’s in Toronto. And what about the job ex-Leaf coach Paul Maurice has done in Carolina?
Broadcasters vote on coach-of-the-year. If I had a vote, my top three would be Julien, Hitchcock and either McLellan or Babcock, in that order.
Q: Hi Damien,
First time writer and long time reader. I really think that Wilson and the Leafs are right on the money on trying to win games instead of "tank". You need a winning environment in order for your youth to be successful and losing doesn't always nab you the #1 pick.
My question to you is, what would you look for in the draft if you were Burke? Also, I haven't heard of any top flight goalies in this years crop of players, do you have any insight on that?
A: There isn’t a goalie there they’d take with their top pick, unless they trade down. Burke’s history shows he goes for the best player, regardless of size, nationality or position. I suspect he’ll do the same. He can’t draft an 18-year-old player based on what the team needs now, and by the time that player is truly ready to make a difference in three or four years (at the earliest), the team’s needs may be entirely different. The only thing I would guess is that Burke will make size a priority.
Q: Hi Damien,
Love your column - keep up the good work! I have a question that relates to a mailbag question from last week. It appears that the Leafs will have lots of cap room next year, so here's my idea: the Leafs should sign a big-name guy like Jay Bouwmeester in the off-season.
I understand that he may be looking for $6 million a year, so why not sign him to a 4 year contract at $24 million and pay him $10 million next year (when the Leafs have lots of cap room), and under $5 million in each of the next three years? Or, better yet, why not pay him $10 million next year, $8 million the year after, and $3 million in the remaining two years of his contract? This would give the Leafs a great defenceman at a bargain price in the remaining two years of his contract, and would create lots of cap space for the Leafs to sign free agents when they are (hopefully) poised to make a playoff (... or Cup?) run. I don't know if this would be legal under the current CBA, but I think it would be a great use of all the wasted cap space that the Leafs have.
Aaron McGregor, Kingston
A: The contract would be legal. But if I understand you’re question correctly, you have to understand the cap hit is the average of the contract over its term. So, if as you suggest, Bouwmeester got $10 million in the first year and then $5 million for each of three years, the annual cap hit would be $25 million divided by four, or $6.25 million each year.
The salary would be less, and that’s meaningful in another way, but in terms of using cap space, you can’t do a deal that varies the cap hit from year to year.
Q: Hey Damien,
How many future draft picks do general managers have available to them? For instance, could a GM trade his next 7 first round picks for Ovechkin?
Eric T., Toronto
A: I don’t know of any limitation on the number of draft picks you can trade away, although at some point the league might step in.
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.**