Weekly Mail Bag
Oh, Toronto can be a quirky sports town, if only for the very different way in which the different teams are perceived and handled by the sports media.
Just look at the announcement two days ago that Paul Beeston had, after a long “search” for a new Blue Jays president, decided that he was, in fact, the best man for the job. This was wildly heralded as a good thing, at least partially a reflection of Beeston’s success in baseball more than 15 years ago and the deep, loyal contacts he has throughout the Toronto sports media. He’s a friendly guy who has a lot of friends.
But remember back in 1997 when Ken Dryden pretty much did the same thing? Dryden was president of the Leafs and after conducting a search for a new general manager, chose himself. For this, he was widely mocked, as was the organization. People rolled their eyes at his inability to find a real hockey person to take the job. Interestingly, and you rarely hear this said, the Leafs went on to have a fair bit of success during Dryden’s tenure, although mostly after he handed the GM reins to Pat Quinn.
So why the two standards? Beeston fires J.P. Ricciardi and hires Ricciardi’s right hand man rather than going outside the organization, then hires himself to be president.
But you don’t see one negative or even mildly critical word.
Had Richard Peddie done the same maneuver, he would have been scalded in criticism. Guess it shows that with Beeston and Cito Gaston, the Jays organization believes it can just keep selling the past.
Interesting. Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Watching the Leafs lately, it seems like they're all waiting for someone/something to come in from the outside to save them, rather than stepping up themselves. Everything seems to be "when Toskala gets better" "When Gustavsson heals" "When Kessel's ready". Even this summer it was all about the new players coming in rather than the existing ones doing more. A few years ago when they barely missed the finals and Sundin was out with a broken arm, McCauley and Roberts stepped up. When Sundin was out with an eye issue a year or two later, Lindros filled in. And if you look at Edmonton now, they have mostly the same lineup as last year but are suddenly figuring out that it's up to the guys in the room to win. Is it just that the current Leafs don't have that extra gear or are unwilling to go deeper to succeed?
Mark Harwood, Los Angeles
A: I think what you’re seeing is a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs for a long, long time and doesn’t believe in itself. In Toronto, becaue of the heavy media focus on the Leafs and the NHL, that attitude can manifest itself in players playing not to be noticed rather than to be noticed, and therefore hoping some other player can deliver the big moments. For years, this seemed to be the case with Wendel Clark, and the mantra over and over was that it would be better when Wendel got back from whatever injury he had. Well, it usually didn’t. To me, that’s the great fear with the Kessel situation, that he’ll show up next week or soon thereafter and be expected to be an impact player immediately. I would imagine it would be a month before you really get to see any consistent play from Kessel, and maybe into next season before the Leafs really understand what they have in this player. What we know for sure is that good teams overcome injury problems through depth and performance from players further down the depth chart.
Q: Goaltending. Everyone loves to blame the goalies. Why is that? I'll bet that if we were to get Brodeur or Fleury or even Luongo, they would look just as "average" as Toskala, McDonald, Pogge and even the Monster. There are five other members of this team people, and there is plenty of blame to share for these losses. How many 2 on 1's and breakaways can one team give up and expect a tender to stop. I know that the goaltending has had some weak moments but to evaluate them based on goals rather than the play causing the goal is ridiculous.
In my opinion, we need to look at our "truculent" defence core and re-evaluate Brian Burke's concept of a tough team because it isn't working. They are too slow on the back end and there is no fire power up front. Even when Kessel gets here, who is he gonna play with in order to produce the kind of offence Leafland expects?
What do you think Damien?
Paul Knipe, Brantford, Ont.
A: Couldn’t disagree with you more. Goaltending is, like pitching in baseball, the most important position in the game. Give the Leafs one of those top goalies you mentioned and they’d be a much improved team. It’s just a fact. Scuffling around with uncertainty between the pipes is the worst situation for any team. Look at the spectacular difference Craig Anderson is making for Colorado. By contrast, Philly knew they were taking a gamble with Ray Emery, and so far they remain a so-so defensive team. Obviously team defence matters, but great goaltending means so much.
As far as the Leafs’ “truculence,” none of their brawnier types are on the blueline, really, unless you look at Mike Komisarek or Garnet Exelby as some kind of enforcer. I do think they’re a little slow, which is probably why Luke Schenn is playing far less and Jeff Finger isn’t playing at all.
Q: A few weeks back you made mention of Ron Wilson's curt demeanor with the media. I was wondering how you would rank all the past Leafs coaches you've covered. Use any criteria you wish aside from overall record (too obvious). Thanks
Michael Nestlehut, Harper Woods
A: Well this is going to be fun. I have personally dealt with nine Leaf head coaches over the past 20 years, although George Armstrong was only around for a matter of weeks after I came on the beat in 1989.
If I were to rank them in order of how easy they were to deal with on a regular basis and how willing they were to fulfill the media end of the job, they would go in the following order; Mike Murphy, Paul Maurice, Pat Burns, George Armstrong, Nick Beverley, Tom Watt, Ron Wilson, Doug Carpenter and Pat Quinn.
Murphy was outstanding, Quinn viewed every reporter/columnist as the enemy except for those willing to suck up to him. Burns would bully you if he could but genuinely liked people in the media. Wilson is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, generally available, sometimes really helpful but generally not overally impressed with the I.Q. of media members.
Q: Hey Damien! You hear coaches and even media types tell us about he should play in the minors as he has lots to learn or that "he is still learning". What does this mean? I mean, these players have been playing the game now for years and years and yet they still don't know how to play? The game itself and the concepts don't change from the OHL to AHL to NHL. Positional playing and the like = same. Only thing to learn is how to play with your linemates and you can't do that in the minors. I don't get it how these players who have played so long can be so lost. The game is the game is the game.
Ron Gillespie, Listowel, Ont.
A: Sorry, Ron, but I don’t agree. In fact you talk to players in their thirties and they’ll tell you how they’re still learning how to play the game. Mathieu Schneider, to me, is a great example. He was a much better player at 35 than he was at 25. It’s about maturing as an athlete and a person, about taking care of your body and mind, about learning when urgency is required and when to sit back, about being able to read the attack in order to defend and correctly seize the moment on offence. The game does, in fact, change drastically from the OHL to the AHL to the NHL, and its not just that it gets faster. What people should understand is that there are no bad players anymore by the time you get to the NHL, no players who aren’t fit or can’t skate, at least in relative terms. Finally, experience allows players to handle the pressure of being a pro. Athletes gain all these skills gradually as they play, and some never really grasp them at all.
Q: Damien, I meant to submit this question last week but assumed that someone else would. Since no one did, I hope that you still find it relevant.
I am surprised that no one mentioned Don Cherry’s recommendation last week that Wilson institute a trap so that the defence plays to their strengths and gains some confidence while cutting down on the shots that the goalies have to face. I am not a big fan of the trap and think that the trap in minor hockey stifles the development of young players. However, it seems like the trap may be a good fit for this Leafs team. Other than the obvious goaltending issues it seems like the most glowing deficiencies so far has been the defence running around trying to do too much. Might the more confining role of the trap help?
Stephen Sems, St. Catharines, Ont.
A: Well, sure it might. But I think this has to do with a longer term vision of Brian Burke and Ron Wilson. They don’t want to play that way and so see no value in being a trap team now and trying to become an aggressive pursue-the-puck squad later. Frankly, I wouldn’t really want to watch them as a passive trap team either. But most teams play a version of the trap depending on the situation, and clearly Wilson’s team has been having problems with communication and positioning in the defensive zone.
Q: Good job as usual in reporting on the latest NHLPA goings-on. I have a comment and a question for you. First off, good for Shawn Horcoff in calling the NHLPA executives (Penny and Hargrove in particular)to account. It sounds like Horcoff has actually taken the time to familiarize himself with the NHLPA constitution. Too bad that other players (player reps included) don't seem to have done the same.
My question is this (and it's nothing new, regrettably): why is it that the NHLPA, unlike any other trade union I can think of, refuses to push for measures to protect its own from physical injury? I'm thinking of things like mandatory face shields, pushing severe punishment (ie, long suspensions or outright bans for those offenders who repeatedly hit from behind or do other flagrant acts in an attempt to injure, etc. etc.) Most unions I know of would fight hard to ensure their workplace was as safe as possible for workers, yet the NHLPA seems to be stuck in a 1950s time warp where "The Code" prevails. I just don't get it. Thanks.
Reg Sackmann, Toronto
A: Yeah, I don’t really get it, either. I guess that’s the culture of hockey, and really, this isn’t a true union, is it? These are independent contractors who all sign individual contracts with the same company, the NHL, for vast sums of money. So their attention to the details of workplace safety aren’t going to be the same as they would in a regular union. Moreover, there are many NHL players who differ on the definition of what’s safe. For example, many believe fighting keeps the game safe. So while they may care, they may differ on how to fix the problem. Finally, while popular analysts like Don Cherry keep telling the hockey world that more violence, less equipment and more lenient officiating would produce a better game, there are going to be very few hockey players willing to buck that attitude and attract the scorn of Cherry and his supporters.
Damien Cox answers your questions in The Spin, only at thestar.com. Click here to submit a question.
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