Thursday Mail Bag
Of this there can be no argument: The Maple Leafs delivered an awful lot of effort in the past three games.
Two were wins, one an overtime loss to the Islanders despite a 61-shot effort. The win over Washington on Saturday had something to do with a listless Caps team, and last night's game in Tampa was pretty sloppy at both ends, although the Leafs did protect a one-goal lead.
The Caps were first in the conference when the Leafs beat them, the Isles and Lightning are both within a point of the eighth and final conference playoff berth.
These games, you'd have to say, are at the very least positive indicators, and certainly ones that suggest the club may yet respond favourably to the coaching of Ron Wilson. Last night's triumph in Tampa came without regulars Mike Komisarek and John Mitchell and suddenly you can look up and down the lineup and see the growth of a young core.
The Leafs had six players 23 or under in the lineup last night including Carl Gunnarson, Christian Hanson, Nikolai Kulemin, Luke Schenn, Phil Kessel and Jonas Gustavsson. Only Kulemin and
Gustavsson Schenn were part of the mix last year, and the likelihood is that the club will be even younger next year.
The results have been lousy this season. But isn't the overall direction one that people have been demanding?
Now on to this week's mail bag:
Q: Hi Damien, In trading for Phil Kessel, even though he's an excellent player, the Leafs will have no first rounders for the next two years. Even if Brian Burke trades for a first rounder now it will most likely not be at the level they've given up already. The current thinking seems to be that eventually the new prospects now toiling in the Marlies (i.e. Bozak, Hanson and Stalberg) will come in and provide the kind of support that a player of Kessel's caliber would need. However, if you look at the AHL standings, you'll see that the Marlies are tied for last place in the Western Conference which suggests the new crop of prospects isn't exactly tearing up the league. In fact, Andre Deveaux has more points than Bozak and Stalberg. Is it too early to assume they are not panning out as hoped?
Peter van Hoof, Pickering
A: Way too early. Look at Tyler Bozak, for example. He played only 19 games in college last year. Now he's learning the pro game. Give the kid a couple of seasons before declaring him a bust.
Will any of these guys be top-end players? Probably not. But Nazem Kadri might. Otherwise, Burke's going to have to find other ways to get those types of players, and in a salary cap world with free agency at 27, they'll be available from time to time. That, don't forget, is how Kessel became available.
Do you think a "walk out" similar to what Orioles fans did in Baltimore would be beneficial at all for Leafs fans to do during a game? Do you see this possible for an event in which people are paying hundreds of dollars per seat? Just curious as to your thoughts on this.
Paul Selby, Toronto
A: Would it cause MLSE to sit up and take notice? Sure, I suppose. But unless it were to happen for an extended period the suits would just turn their attention to their condominium projects for that day. Besides, I've heard this kind of talk for more than 20 years. Never has any legs.
Q: Hi Damien,
Surely as one of the only voices of reason in Leafland you must admit that the Leafs will not be making the playoffs this season (forget about your prediction, stick to reasoning). The Leafs would need to go 40-22-2 in their remaining 64 games to get to 93 points and any hope of grabbing 8th spot. So, what should the Leafs do to gain any benefits from this season? Particularly in regards to trades and player development?
Andrew Gourley, London, U.K.
A: It's not what I care to admit or not admit. The playoffs indeed look like a remote possibility this season. But that shouldn't stop a team from trying to win as many games as possible. There is a benefit in developing a winning attitude, after all. But I think as the season progresses, there's a very good chance that some veteran players – Kaberle, Hagman, Stajan – will be moved for draft picks. As I mentioned above, younger players are going to get opportunities, although some of those opportunities may be through learning the game at the AHL level. When you're down this far, it's pointless to rush anyone.
Read an article today about the turnaround of the Caps and some of the gutsy moves they made moving the likes of Jagr and Lang at the trade deadline for some excellent picks and really creating a future. While we don't have (an Ovechkin to lead the way) or a Jagr or a Lang to move, do you think Burke has the potential to manufacture similar moves to continue to re-stock the cupboard? In terms of Kessel, we may need to come to terms with the fact that we'll give up a potential 1st or 2nd pick this year and (hopefully) a 15th or 16th pick next year. He is as dynamic as they come, the calibre of player we haven't had in some time.
Tom Bajusz, San Antonio
A: You know, it's interesting Tom, but in terms of “gutsy” moves, could Burke have done anything gutsier than the Kessel deal? In fact, many are lambasting him for being reckless. I think when you look at his history – the drafting of Chris Pronger, the deal for the Sedins, trading for Kessel – it's pretty clear this is an executive who doesn't lack for boldness. And it's not going to stop. Burke, I would say, is a tad mystified the team hasn't been better this season. But that's not going to change his approach.
Further to your point about the Leafs not improving under Wilson in his first 100 games here, can you think of one player in the organization who has shown improvement in those same 100 games because I sure can't. On the flip side there seems to be a heck of a lot of them who have regressed.
David Isaacs, Toronto
A: Basically, I'd agree with you. The only players I would suggest appear to have progressed would be Ian White and, particularly of late, Nikolai Kulemin. Luke Schenn's obvious regression gets a lot of attention, but otherwise, we're talking mostly players who were here before Wilson arrived and have basically flatlined. One other player who has responded favourably of late has been defenceman Francois Beauchemin. He was outstanding against Tampa last night.
Is it just me or are Wilson's tough words about sitting those who don't perform a hollow shell? Case in point was the first goal in Ottawa where Blake watched Fisher net one without much effort to back check. Where was the immediate benching to send a message? Does he really think that sitting Schenn in the third sent the message...way too late by then, "coach"!
Jamie Hubbert, Ottawa
A: From 100-plus games of watching, it seems that's just not going to be Wilson's style. He's not going to punish players by anchoring them to the bench. To be fair, neither did Paul Maurice or Pat Quinn. These days, it seems, few NHL coaches can afford to approach their work that way.
Q: Hey Damien,
What is the deal with Mikhail Grabovski?I have never seen a player put so much effort into no results. I feel like he has the tools to be an effective second liner, especially on this team. At the age of 25, I suppose he's got some time, what should we be expecting from him?
Liam Murphy, Barrie
A: There's lots to like and lots to dislike. Basically, he lacks finish. His inaccurate shot betrays him at key moments. What I would be encouraged by if I were the Leafs is a vastly improved attention to defence and defensive hustle by Grabovski. He plays hard and plays in his own end, things that couldn't necessarily be said a year ago.
Q: Do you think the Leafs not having a captain has gone on for too long? Allowing the 1st goal in 17 of 19 games and 0-5 in overtime indicates the team has no leadership. Do you think they need a leader that will prepare the players mentally going into a game or overtime? I think Komisarek would be a good captain as he is here for the long haul, plays a style the Leafs want to emulate, and can act as a leader for the young players. What do you think?
John Mullrooney, Calgary
A: This is clearly an issue that really bothers some people, and I get that. But if its a factor in what's gone on this season, it's a small one. There's no point in just giving the “C” to a player when you're trying to re-define a team and give players a chance to establish roles. Right now, the only player I would argue has anything close to the bona fides to be Leaf captain is Francois Beauchemin. And why would you give the captaincy to a player who has been here less than 30 games? This is just going to take a little time.
Q: Hi Damien,
Just wanted your take on the Leafs' shot blocking. I've noticed that they never do the sprawling block, but continue to attempt a partially-crouched standing block (for lack of a better term). This is obviously not working for them, especially during crunch time. Why do you think there is such a reluctance to get down and dirty, Mac-T style?
Peter Ng, Schomberg, Ont.
A: Most coaches, not all, don't like the sprawling block. In New Jersey, for example, its almost forbidden. Why? Well, because you may make the block, but then you're totally out of the play. Most teams prefer the concept of getting players into shooting lanes rather than hurling their bodies at the puck. The Leafs are no exception. They just have some players who lack the proper technique – or courage – at the right moment.
Q: Everyone is saying nothing can be done to fix the Leafs right now. I don't think nothing can be done. Brian Burke needs to get creative. Kyle Turris, a 3rd overall pick a few years ago is playing in the minors for the San Antonio Rampage. He is a crafty centre with a lot of skill that looks to be going nowhere in the Phoenix organization. Phoenix may think he is a bust. Burke can pull off what he did with Tampa last year; take on some salary, give them a Kulemin type of player and get Turris, which they can put with Phil Kessel and see what he can accomplish with a dynamic winger.
What do you think of that move?
Paolo Del Nibletto, Toronto
A: There's an awful lot of conjecture here. What makes you think Turris is “going nowhere” in the Phoenix organization. Just because he's in the minors right now? Perhaps GM Don Maloney simply feels that's the best place for the kid to develop his game. I really don't know where this idea came from that if 19- and 20-year-olds are in the minors they're being written off or are wasting their time. It's called player development, and the Coyotes, for a variety of reasons, are one of those NHL clubs most dedicated to bringing young players along.
Would the Leafs want Turris if he was available? Sure, I suppose. I think Burke and all Gms are constantly on the lookout for undervalued assets, or assets that may be undervalued by others. But Kulemin is just starting to demonstrate he can play at the NHL level, and he's just 23.