Thursday Mail Bag
Well, it appears the Maple Leafs are planning to take their fans on quite the rollercoaster ride this season.
Awful to start the season, followed by a spurt to get near playoff contention, then a lousy home ice performance against the very beatable Phoenix Coyotes. What lies ahead in Buffalo tomorrow and then at home to Boston on Saturday is anyone's guess.
Part of being not very good is a lack of consistency, and that's what you're going to see from the Leafs for the rest of the way. The interesting scenario will unfold in February when the Leafs will have to figure out if they are close enough to make an effort to qualify for post-season play, or whether the market will allow them to dump some players for picks and/or prospects.
You can expect negotiations between GM Brian Burke and the club's myriad of impending free agents to begin sometime in the New Year, with restricted free agent defenceman Ian White probably at the top of the list. At $950,000 this season, White is up for a major raise, and he's probably the player the Leafs want to make sure they retain.
Other restricted free agents are John Mitchell, Nikolai Kulemin and Christian Hanson. The unrestricted list includes goalies Vesa Toskala and Joey MacDonald, defencemen Garnet Exelby and Mike Van Ryn, and forwards Matt Stajan, Lee Stempniak, Jamal Mayers, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Wayne Primeau.
The negotiation strategy of the Leafs for most of these players will likely be along the lines of “What amount would make you want to stay” rather than “How much do you want?” The Stajan negotiation in particular will be intriguing given how his numbers have picked up since he started working well alongside Phil Kessel.
You can bet the Leafs won't want to make him a $4 million centre even if his numbers with Kessel suggest a point-per-game pivot.
So let the talks begin. And now on to this week's mail bag, the last for 2009, although for those interested, we'll have another live on-line chat on Monday at noon:
Q: Hi Damien,
I saw you on the pre-season show on TSN called 'The Reporters'. On that show you were the only one of the reporters that said the Leafs will make the playoffs. I know things are never as bad as they seem (their horrible start) and they are never as good as they seem (recent hot streak). Do you still think they will make the playoffs and are you surprised by their remarkable climb in the standings?
John Fava, North Bay
A: Hey, I'm no soothsayer. For a while there, it looked like I was right off my rocker for suggesting the playoffs were a possibility. But improved play from the Leafs plus the general mediocrity of the Eastern Conference have made for a very forgiving environment for the Leafs. I mean, they're still second last in the league with just 12 wins in 34 games, but only four points out of eighth. So do I think they'll make it? Even if they do, I don't think they can make much of an impact, but with no first round pick, there's not much to be gained by dumping out on the season. I would say that if Jonas Gustavsson can come back – he's expected to play against either the Sabres or Bruins – and give the club very good goaltending, with Toskala continuing to play better as he has of late, they can make it. But the performance last night against Phoenix had to be deflating.
Q: You suggested that Luke Schenn be sent to the Marlies for seasoning. Would it be possible to send him back to junior, where presumably he would get even more opportunities than he would in the AHL? Also, could/would the Leafs loan him to the junior team for the WJC in a few weeks? I know it is cutting it close, but it would probably help Schenn and the Jr. Nats.
Also, have there been any impressive defensemen on the Marlies this season, besides Gunnarson who has already earned a spot on the Leafs?
John Hunt, Harvard, Mass.
A: Schenn can't go back to junior and can't be loaned to WJC team. Too old.
The blueliner to watch with the Marlies is 21-year-old, 6-foot-4 Juraj Mikus. He looked good at the Leaf camp in September, the reports have generally been good this season.
Q: My wife and I watch every Leafs game on Sat TV, we drive 10 hrs each way several times a year to Toronto from Connecticut, see the Leafs at Boston, at New York. We go to Yale hockey games with 2,000 people that are much louder than the ACC crowds of 19,000. I don't expect the Johnstown Jets fans like in Slapshot, but it's almost not worth the time and expense going to the ACC anymore. Why is such a fanatical fan base so quiet? They remind me of the Hartford Whalers crowd when it became all corporate people in the stands.
Jim Barraford, Rockfall, Conn.
A: Well, that's about the size of it. Corporate presence writes the cheques for the Leafs, but kills the enthusiasm and the atmosphere. It's been that way for a long, long time. To be fair, a better team might improve that. You've gotta give people something to cheer for, after all.
Q: Hi Damien,
Can you explain the riddle of Rickard Wallin's presence in the lineup? 24GP, 2 points and a minus 2 - yet he's not been banished to either the Marlies or the Press Box. Was he part of a package deal wherein The Monster wouldn't sign unless his buddy was able to come with?
Michael Stonehouse, Toronto
A: I really can't explain it. I think Wallin has been a big nothing, not even close to the player that Domenic Moore could have been. I must tell you this one's a bit of a mystery to me. But I do know he was helpful to some degree in the recruitment of Gustavsson.
Q: Why do the Leafs have the worst PK in the entire league? And by miles? Are the defense that bad? Or is it the goaltending? Given Wilson's pedigree, this stat is a real puzzler for me. Any thoughts?
Moe Green, Austin
A: Well, your best penalty killer is always your goalie, and Leaf goaltending has been iffy for a good while. This isn't a team with a lot of shot blockers, and there seems to be little consistency in whether the Leafs want to be aggressive on the PK, or passive. Seems to be a combination of personnel and scheme, but doesn't appear dramatically improved, that's for sure.
Q: Hey Damien,
What's the deal with Jason Blake? He has more high sticking penalties in the last week than he has goals all year. In your mind is he contributing at all?
Also, why doesn't he stop pretending that he is a perpetual 40 goal scorer, realize that was an anomaly and start playing like the pest he was when he was an Islander. I could tolerate him as a pest, but not as an underproducing "scorer". Surely Ron Wilson doesn't think this guy is the second coming of Brett Hull...so why doesn't he ask Blake to play like a pest and forget about being an offensive juggernaut?
Lou Polite, Toronto
A: I don't think you can ask a player to play like a pest. It's either in him or it isn't, and Blake doesn't want to be that player any more. He wants to be a scorer. I actually think he's been a very good effort guy for the Leafs this season, but at this point in his career, he is what he is, a decent scorer and sometimes energy player with two more years left on his contract at $3 million per.
Q: Hi, Damien
Phil Kessel has added a lot of life to the Leafs, but do you think there's any danger of him wearing out his welcome like he appears to have done in Boston?
Watching him play, he seems like a bit of a puck hog, and often shoots from bad angles. Also, Ron Wilson did mention it can be hard to get him off the ice, do you reckon that after a while team-mates might find that frustrating?
Robert Oulton, Dartmouth
A: Sure. But he's a young player still learning the game. As I've said repeatedly, he's not yet a finished product. Guys who can score can get away with stuff that limited offensive players can't, and Kessel is clearly a gifted attacker. When he has the puck, he's a threat. I'm not so sure about the wearing-out-his-welcome-in-Boston part. They chose to pay other guys and wanted to keep him, but at a lower number. I think its unfortunate that frequently when a player moves on, his former team feels the need to trash him to legitimize the deal. Given that they are trying to win the Cup this season, I'm pretty sure the Bruins would rather still have Kessel than the first round draft picks they got from Toronto.
Q: As a passionate Leaf fan I spend about as much time following the rest of the Northeast as I do the Leafs. This has led me to wonder how Bob Gainey still has a job.
Ryder, Komisarek, Streit, Souray, Kovalev, Koivu, Tanguay. While the values/salary demands of each player vary it is hard to imagine not one of them being resigned or traded for something, even a late rounder, in return when he knew in advance they would not return.
Pile this on top of the Ribero +6th rounder trade a few years ago for Janne Niinimaa and a 5th.
Then, one that could be in the top-10 worst trades of the decade: Higgins, McDonagh, Janik and Valentenko for Pyatt, Busto and Scott 'the most overpaid player in the league' Gomez.
Not to mention some of his FA signings and the Carbonneau blindside. Why arent fans calling for change? Is he nearing his end?
K. Bosley, Ottawa
A: Oh, I think there are fans calling for Gainey's head. And if the Habs don't make the playoffs this season, it may be his last year, particularly with new ownership now on board. What seemed so promising in Montreal just 18 months ago seems so mediocre now. That said, losing Andrei Markov at the beginning of this season was just a killer injury for the Habs to deal with.
Q: Hi Damien, As of this writing it looks like there are multiple teams interested in claiming Koistinen off waivers. If 3 teams put in a claim, how is the winner chosen? If it's just a ranking system does it reset every year at the draft or is it continuous? Thanks for your help,
Josh Weber, Waterloo
A: Priority is determined by reverse order of the standings on the day the player is placed on waivers. If three teams put in a claim, the worst team gets the player.
Q: I wanted to get your opinion on Jiri Tlusty's tenure in Toronto. I thought it was unfair that you referenced his nude photos he sent out almost three years ago.
Everyone seems to accept that he was young and made a mistake. I enjoyed watching the 'Naked Gun' score lots of goals for the Marlies, and I prefer to remember him that way.
Unfortunately, some will not remember him for that due to your parting comments. Do you think they were fully necessary to sum up Tlusty's time in Toronto?
John Mullrooney, Calgary
A: I respect your thoughts. I don't think I “summed up” Tlusty's days with the Leafs by that particular mini-controversy, but I do think it contributed to the fact the kid just never seemed at ease, at least not when he had to play under the big lights with the parent club. He was young and he did make a mistake, and I don't think I was flogging him for that. But people remember, and it certainly indicates that young players with a high-profile club like the Leafs need to be aware of their actions, as do players with the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees. If Tlusty had been a Nashville Predator when he published the photos, nobody would have noticed.
That said, if he had been able to perform effectively for the Leafs during his many callups, the Internet caper wouldn't have mattered at all. But he couldn't.
By the way, Tlusty scored in a game for Carolina last week, but then had to return to Toronto to deal with immigration issues. It's not clear how long the holdup will be.
The Mail Bag will return in the new year. Click here to submit a question.