Thursday Mail Bag
By this time next week, the Maple Leafs will either have won a couple of hockey games and ended their terrible slide or they’ll have slipped even deeper into the large hole they’ve dug for themselves in October.
But I really don’t believe they’re this bad. Moreover, even lousy hockey teams usually feature a player or two that either excels amidst the mediocrity or plays so selfishly that they’re able to rack up some good numbers.
Right now, there’s not a Leaf having a decent year, let alone a good one. That has to end at some point.
More important, sometime during the upcoming five-game trip, one or both of Vesa Toskala and Jonas Gustavsson will be back in the net for the Leafs. While Toskala hasn’t been good this season, he’s better than Joey McDonald, and Gustavsson offers a real possibility that the Leafs might own a true No. 1 goalie if they can ever get him healthy.
So by this time next week, the Leafs may have a win, their goaltending may be coming back together and somebody, either a forward or a defenceman, will have started to make a positive impact.
That’s all progress. Unless, of course, none of it actually happens.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q; Damien, with the Leafs going 6-3 in the pre-season using all the "younger guys" - I know it was only pre-season - but their team game on both sides of the puck was more exciting and the effort (hustle) was there game in and game out. (I enjoyed watching them, now not so much). I think the time has come for Burke to forget about the contract issues he has and bring back the "Young Guns". Let's see what they can do for the year and if we end up in last place we still have Phil Kessell (not a bad first rounder). Please Mr Burke let's reload the guns and restart the hunt.
Mark Pettigrew, Kitchener, Ont.
A: Well, for starters, I think you’re going to see all of those younger players as the year progresses. In fact, Tyler Bozak has already played, Viktor Stalberg is on the roster and Christian Hanson is working on his game in the AHL. If you’re referring to Nazem Kadri, it was clearly the smart move to send him back to the OHL. All you have to do is look at the struggles Luke Schenn is having this season to understand being rushed as an 18-year-old often causes a lot more problems than seem evident at first.
That said, I think, Mark, that people should also understand clearly now that the pre-season has only a passing resemblance to the regular season. So successes in September don’t necessarily translate into successes in October and beyond. Really, going 6-3 in the pre-season meant nothing, which also means that evaluating players solely on how they played in those games doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Stalberg deserved to make the NHL roster, but he’s not quite the same scoring star anymore now that he’s facing live bullets, is he? Making decisions based on those exhibition tilts rarely helps.
Q: Hello Damien. I was just wondering how a team that went 6-3 in the pre-season can look so bad a mere few weeks later. The Leafs were really very good in the pre-season as we saw, and it's about more than just winning. The team was in synch, they were skating, hitting, and fights were far more spontaneous than staged. Could the OT loss to Montreal have broken the confidence of a team so soon? Or is this just a case of the world's worst slumps all happening at once? Should they just bring up half the Marlies' roster and see what happens? I am at a loss, and I follow this team very closely. Your thoughts?
Joe Scott, London, Ont.
A: To some extent, I already answered this, suggesting that far too much is made out of pre-season results. I mean, you have to look at the opposition roster as well, and its rarely truly an NHL calibre squad. You can’t be fooled by that.
In terms of the current losing streak, most teams will have a streak like this during the season. It’s just magnified when it happens right out of the gate. Look at New Jersey. The Devils lost six straight in late March/early April last year, but they were still a 106-point club. The Leafs simply haven’t had NHL calibre goaltending for most of the season, and that colors everything. That said, where’s the effort? Where’s the urgency and the desperation? People wonder about why this team doesn’t have a captain, a designated leader. I wonder more about whether there are too many players on the current roster that can’t be led.
Q: At the start of the season I agreed with the "competition" philosophy instilled by Burke and Wilson but now I'm starting to think, is it really that beneficial? Competition is great but job security is also great. These players look too tense out there, reminds me of a fugitive always looking over their shoulders, eventually they will make a mistake. Your thoughts?
Justin Minks, Toronto
A: I don’t see tension. I see uncertainty, confusion and players stepping outside their areas of responsibility and making errors. Much of this is caused by the goaltending problems. You see Mike Komisarek running around because he’s getting little help from the forwards and knows if he even allows a shot on his goal, it may go in. Internal competition on any team is always a good thing, doubly so on a club like this on which so few have accomplished much if anything at the NHL level.
Q: RE: the NHLPA. Gretzky seems to have some time on his hands and does have some clout. Was he active in the PA as a player, and would he be of any help to this ship of fools?
Steve H., Sudbury, Ont.
A: I can’t imagine Gretzky would want any part of this. Moreover, Glenn Healy has made it clear that the current administration headed by Ian Penny seems to believe Gretzky did not contribute significantly to the health of the union during his playing days. Why would Gretzky want to help these morons?
Q: Love the blog and perhaps the only independent view on the Leafs in the city. Last year, the Leafs could have sent Schenn back to junior after 9 games and not have it count towards service time for free agency.
Is that option still available? Could they send him to the Marlies now and if they keep him their all year, save a year of service time? If so, I have to think that would be the best thing for everyone. The kid is game, but physically and mentally a step slow in the NHL and that is not a knock on him, considering he's 19 and not supposed to be ready. To put him with his peers where he can develop under less pressure this year and get tons of special teams minutes seems like the way to go regardless of whether the Leafs think they can make the playoffs this year. Surely Exelby and/or Frogren can do no worse than what Schenn has shown so far at the NHL level.
James Hodgins, Stouffville, Ont.
A: Yes, they can send him to the Marlies. But it would still count as a year on his existing contract. See, that’s another problem with elevating 18-year-olds so quickly. They become free agents by age 25. So while Colorado, for example, can understandably be excited that Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly have made the grade so early, both will be free agents at 25. How does that help a team trying to build its way back to contention? Moreover, what does it gain? The Leafs weren’t going to win the Cup last year with Schenn and the Avs aren’t going to win it this year with Duchene and O’Reilly. Colorado, at least, has attendance concerns, and so it can argue it needed these young faces to start winning over fans again. But the Leafs have no such concerns. They just did it to try and prove they’d picked well in the June draft by sacrificing picks to move up and grab Schenn. It’s not exactly blowing up in their faces - Schenn is still a very good prospect - but the down side of the decision is now becoming clear. And he’ll be a free agent at 25. But I would indeed have him in the minors now. The kid has a lot to learn and needs to feel as though he can be a dominant player, just like he was in junior.
Your comments on 'The Reporters' with respect to the in-game entertainment at Leafs games was dead on! Thank you for being my voice. I've been to many games at many different rinks around the league and I can tell you that the Toronto 'show' is a national embarrassment. I mean seriously, this is supposed to be the heart of hockey and you go to a Leaf game and you want to fall asleep. In, addition, they try to dumb down the audience during breaks with loud rap music and cheesy giveaways where the audience just sits there dociled out of their minds and stare at the big screen. Somehow they need to bring back some tradition.
You go to a Rangers game and it's awesome compared to this. Please be more vocal on this topic. This is hockey mad Toronto and we should represent so much better.
Darren Burton, Toronto
A: Thanks Darren. Maybe I just see too many Leaf games, but what I see in terms of the in-game entertainment is nightmarishly bad, often boring and frequently juvenile. It’s another expression of MLSE’s contempt for the customer, but as long as the customer continues to buy, why would MLSE possibly change?
Q: Hi Damien,
Can I ask what is the deal with the 16, 17 year anniversaries for Toronto teams? First with the Blue Jays, and now, watching the Rangers game last Saturday, the Leafs feel the need to honour a team that accomplished what exactly?
Being a passionate Toronto sports fan, I could maybe understand the Blue Jays celebration, as they actually won something, but the Leafs?
Everyone else is already laughing at us Leaf fans, and it certainly isn't going to get better with these celebrations of "almost" great teams, that came close to having a chance to win something.
Last time I checked, there was no Dean's list, or honours award for a C student. I can't wait for 5 years from now, when we see Gary Valk and Travis Green paraded out, for helping get one win over the halfway mark to the Stanley Cup in 2001.
David Taylor, Calgary
A: On one hand, I agree with you. Moderate accomplishments should not be treated like monumental achievements. I think the Leafs hit rock bottom in this regard several years ago when they feted Tie Domi for his 1,000th NHL game. At the same time, I don’t mind an ex-Leaf dropping the puck or being acknowledged at a home game in a small way. Players should feel special to have worn the jersey. I just wonder why the only highlight these people seem to have of Felix Potvin is a fight he once had with Ron Hextall.
Damien Cox answers your questions in The Spin, only at thestar.com.
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