Thursday Mail Bag
That means Burke’s self-imposed trade freeze kicked in at midnight last night, with the regular NHL Christmas trading ban beginning Dec. 19 and lasting until Dec. 27. After 30 games and one of the worst starts in team history, it’s remarkable, really, that Burke has completely avoided the temptation to panic and make changes.
Maybe the nature of the league now in a salary cap era, with trades so hard to make, tied Burke’s hands. But there were clearly deals he could have made if he just wanted to look busy, yet the only transaction from the club so far has been the swap that sent Jiri Tlusty to Carolina for Quebec junior prospect Phillippe Paradis.
From opening night, only forwards Jay Rosehill and Viktor Stalberg are no longer in the NHL, and they’re both with the Marlies and could be back. Goalie Jonas Gustavsson has been in and out of the lineup, requiring the presence of Joey MacDonald from time-to-time, and young blueliner Carl Gunnarson did make the jump only to be knocked from the lineup by injury. Otherwise, for a team that has struggled so very badly, the Leafs have had a very stable look. Burke resisted the call to ship highly-paid veterans like Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala to the minors, and the suggestion that Luke Schenn needed time with the Marlies.
Burke’s patience, meanwhile, seems to be paying off. Blake and Toskala are both playing better, and Schenn looked quicker and more confident against the Islanders on Wednesday night than he has all year. Now all three, plus every other Leaf, knows that they’re safe, at least until after Christmas.
Now for this week’s mail bag:
Q: Damien, given that Stajan, Ponikarovsky, Toskala, Stempniak, Primeau and Exelby (among others) are UFA on July 1, Burke will have a lot of flexibility in the off-season to re-tool this roster. Which of these UFAs to you think he'll re-sign, and how do you think he'll go about finding a #1 centre to play alongside Kessel? Assuming Toskala isn't re-signed, which is probably a safe assumption, do you think Burke will sign a proven starter or rely heavily on Gustavsson?
Anthony Spadaro, Mississauga
A: Well, for starters, he’s going to have to get another goalie unless he’s willing to go with Gustavsson and MacDonald. Even if the Leafs wanted to re-sign Toskala, I’m not sure he’s interested. But he continues to play well and the team continues to win games, so that may change.
As far as all the free agents you mentioned, at this point I might guess the Leafs might have some interest in retaining all of them, but at prices more to the team’s liking than the players. None will hit home runs. Stempniak, for example, won’t get a multi-year contract anything like what he got in St. Louis. Otherwise, there are still 50-plus games left for all of these players to make their case for new deals.
Q: Hi Damien. In your blogs, mailbag, and regular articles you have mentioned how the in-game entertainment at Leaf games is horrible. Having been to a number of games myself, I couldn't agree with you more. It's the same old boring and childish crap over and over again. That being said, I have never seen an NHL game outside of Toronto, and I am wondering what do other teams do differently and what should/could the Leafs do better? Look forward to your response. Thanks.
Max Zakrzewski, Toronto
A: I should say off the top this is just my opinion. A lot of people at the ACC seem to like what the Leafs offer, and maybe I’m just bored by seeing the same stuff over and over and over. But other teams seem to do more to create an atmosphere rather than just having Ronnie Hawkins come on the screen and urge fans to “Get Loud.” At the same time, fans in, say, Montreal, don’t rely on the video board to produce noise. I don’t know, it really just is a feel, more than anything, but I find it hard to believe people are really entertained by what they’re getting at the ACC, and MLSE can do better. All you have to do is go to a Raptors game to see that.
Q: Hey Damien: Would you not agree that the focus being taken away from the poor goaltending (Vesa Toskala) at the start of the season as well as the team now finally starting to play better has helped? With the play of the monster and MacDonald we don't hear too much about lacklustre goaltending, which tends to take the focus away from what was a problematic area. In your opinion will Toskala be a thorn in the side of team that could make some sort of run for a playoff position come spring?
Dan Malstrom, Burlington
A: I don’t think its the focus being taken off the team’s goaltending that has helped. I think its improved goaltending that has made a difference.
Q: Hi Damien, I was wondering if there are ways a hockey team can compensate players other than their NHL salary? For example, let's say Jim Balsillie owned an NHL team and wanted to sign a high profile NHL player. Would he be allowed to sign the player to the league minimum and then in turn offer the player a large salary to work for RIM or make commercials for a separate company in which he owns?
Are the clauses in the current CBA to avoid these types of situations?
Andrew MacPherson, North Sydney
A: Strictly verboten under NHL rules.
Q: Hi, Damien. I enjoy your work both in the newspaper and on the radio.
Okay, here is my question. Is it permissible under the current CBA to trade a player who is on long-term injury reserve? For example could the leafs make a trade with Chicago and include Mike Van Ryn who is a UFA next year and will not play this year because of injury? This could allow the Hawks to move some salary to the leafs with a draft pick for a player whose salary for this year won't count because of the injury.
John Herron, Holland Landing
A: I believe this is possible. If you recall, when the Leafs acquired Olaf Kolzig from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline, Kolzig was injured with no chance of returning during the season. Injured players with expiring contracts can be useful assets at the deadline.
Q: Hey Damien, Many analysts are saying Kessel is the only top 6 forward the Leafs have. What exactly is a top 6, and where is the line drawn a Top 6 and other leaf players... Hagman perhaps?
Johnny Thunder, Toronto
A: I would say a top-six forward is generally in the eye of a beholder, and it changes from team-to-team. Most wouldn’t say Matt Moulson of the Islanders is a bona fide top-six forward, but he sure is on that club and is one of the better NHL stories this season. In my mind, a top-six forward is a player who is capable of playing on the power play and of scoring at least 20 goals a season. In a 30-team league, let’s face it, the criteria isn’t that demanding. For the Leafs, that would probably make Stajan, Hagman, Blake, Stempniak and Ponikarovsky all theoretical top-six forwards, but all have been too inconsistent to firmly establish themselves as such.
Q: Hi Damien,
I believe, now, that the Leafs are FINALLY headed in the right direction. I am a die hard fan but have never really believed in them in the past because they have NEVER (40yrs+) had solid top to bottom management off the ice. All the perennial cup contenders do... Detroit, New Jersey, now Chicago since Wirtz Sr. passed away. Now, Toronto does! A la Brian Colangelo, Burke has 100% control and it is showing off the ice, hiring Allaire, hiring Nonis, hiring Poulin, hiring 10 scouts etc ... He is/has built a winner off the ice. I believe now, this will start to show on the ice ... do you ?
John Fava, North Bay
A: My sense is that there is a greater coordination between ownership and management than has been the case for a very long time. The suits have hired top people and backed off. The front office appears to be deep and experienced. Nobody doubts that Burke is running the show. To me, this at least sets a foundation for potential success.
Q: Do you think if Kaberle is kept, and someone else is named Captain he will request a trade? He looks like the front runner for the captain position... which scares me. I don't think he's captain material (yes he showed it with his 15 points, but that has ended). I think Kaberle is just waiting to be named captain, what do you think?
Katie F., Scarborough
A: I doubt Kaberle cares one way or another who is captain. He’s playing good hockey these days on a team on which nobody wears the “C.” If the team continues to improve, it may be that the chances of Kaberle ever moving decrease. After all, he’s under contract through next season at a very affordable $4.25 million and is producing points as well as any offensive defenceman in the league right now. That said, he still represents the biggest chip Burke will have to play at the March trade deadline.
Q: Damien, I was just curious to know if Keith Ballard can be suspended for slashing his own goalie, Tomas Vokoun.
Bob Sander, Gravenhurst
A: In theory, yes, by either the league or his own team. But neither chose to do so.
Q: Damien, I agree the Leafs are terrible and concede they are all but completely out of it. However, they do have an obligation to put some sort of product out there, if only to reduce the odds of handing the Bruins that #1 overall pick. To that end, I am surprised I have not heard a thing about Jason Allison. He seemed to do okay in the tryout this fall and is surely a better option than the completely lame complement of centers the Leafs have. Am I missing something here? It seems this would be a cheap and easy upgrade.
Chris K., Lafayette, Indiana
A: Allison gave it a whirl in training camp and wasn’t even close to being capable of playing at the NHL level again. And by the way, I really don’t think the Leafs need to worry every day about whether the Bruins get the No. 1 pick. It will be whatever it will be, the Leafs got the player they wanted in Phil Kessel and would probably make the same deal again today.