Friday Mail Bag
In 1989, the Maple Leafs had three first round draft picks and spent all three, curiously enough, on members of the OHL's Belleville Bulls.
It wasn't a particularly strong draft after Mats Sundin went first overall. Scott Thornton, at No. 3, went on to play 941 NHL games as a sturdy, useful if low-scoring centre. The 12th pick, winger Rob Pearson, scored 23 goals one season for the Leafs but flamed out after 269 games. With the final selection of the first round, the Leafs acquired defenceman Steve Bancroft at No. 21.
Bancroft played only six NHL games. That one hurt a bit more because with the very next pick, the Quebec Nordiques selected defenceman Adam Foote, who went on to play more than 1,000 NHL games.
And is still playing.
That was the most first rounders the Leafs ever had in a single year. The current administration, however, would argue that it harvested the equivalent of four first round picks from April to June last year.
Nazem Kadri, of course, was the seventh overall selection in the entry draft. Centre Tyler Bozak was signed as an NCAA free agent out of Denver University, and the Leafs have maintained that, while 23, he was essentially equal to what a team could expect to get with a first round pick between 10-20.
Winger Christian Hanson was another NCAA signee, and then the Leafs also inked Swedish free agent goalie Jonas Gustavsson. The belief in the Leaf camp was that in both cases, the club was acquiring the kind of talent usually available in the final 10 picks of the first round.
So to the Leafs, if not necessarily to the hockey world in general, the group of Kadri, Bozak, Hanson and Gustavsson essentially represented four first round picks, which was part of Brian Burke's rationale when he traded the club's 2010 and 2011 first rounders to Boston to land scoring winger Phil Kessel, now 22.
With Bozak and Hanson in the minors for much of the year, and with Gustavsson either struggling or dealing with health issues, the confidence that the Leafs had in fact found a short-cut to the entry draft seemed to have little foundation.
These days, there's definitely some bricks and mortar visible.
Gustavsson, 25, has won his last two starts and looked better in doing so. Working with J.S. Giguere seems to be a much better situation.
The 24-year-old Hanson is still discovering what kind of NHL player he can be and remains on the lookout for his
first second NHL goal after 16 games. But glimpses of a rangy forward able to create off the forecheck and play a physical game, perhaps a poor man's Ryan Kesler, are there. It's going to take time.
Bozak, meanwhile, is soaring with the added responsibility assigned to him after the departure of veteran forwards like Matt Stajan, Nik Hagman, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Lee Stempniak in recent weeks.
In his last five games, Bozak is averaging more than 22 minutes per night and beginning to unveil a game that seems equal parts hustle and skillful playmaker. He's got two goals and two assists with a plus-two in those games, including a goal against Tampa on Thursday night and a pretty setup to Kessel on the winning goal in overtime.
To put Bozak in perspective, stack him up against the Nos. 10-20 picks from what would have been his draft year back in 2004. Of that group, the best would be Buffalo winger Drew Stafford, former Nashville winger Alexander Radulov and New Jersey centre Travis Zajac. Six others taken in that range haven't yet panned out at all, while Petteri Nokelainen, traded to Phoenix on draft deadline day last week, is a fringe player.
Right now, Bozak looks like he has the potential to be better than the busts and maybe even as useful an offensive player as Stafford, Radulov or Zajac. Zajac, probably the best comparison to Bozak in terms of overall style of game, is enjoying his best NHL season so far with 21 goals and 36 assists in 65 games.
If Bozak produces anything like that in the coming seasons, the Leafs will be thrilled. Most important, he comes with an unusually large cap number — $3.725 million — that would make him very difficult to carry at the NHL level if he were to be unable to produce in the big leagues.
His salary is $875,000, but he carries maximum bonuses of $2.85 million. He won't collect most of those, but the club still has to account for that on its payroll, which explains the much higher cap number. It's an element to his story that has gone largely unnoticed.
It'll be the same cap number that applies next season, as well. So in terms of cap logic, Bozak's ability to fill at least a second line centre's role next season becomes more important.
Now on to this week's mail bag:
Q: Tomas Kaberle is the top Leaf with 46 points — good for 66th place in the league's Top 100. When was the last time a defenceman led the team in scoring? Is this the position and the guy you want to build a team around? Thanks.
Joe Kuchta, Saskatoon
A: No defenceman has ever led the Leafs in scoring over the course of team history, so Kaberle will be the first if he hangs on to his lead over the final part of this season. You certainly can build a team around a star defenceman but is Kaberle the guy? At minus-15 this season, and at 32 years of age, I would suggest not.
Q: Do you see the Leafs going after Ilya Kovalchuk this summer? (Do you see Kovalchuk interested in the Leafs?) If not, how do you see the Leafs improving over the next couple of years, especially since (a) the chance of improving significantly through free agency is uncertain — most young, scoring forwards typically are re-signed before they become free agents — and (b) the Leafs have traded away their top two picks this year and next, leaving them little room to deal? Putting their faith in six unknowns (Kulemin, Bozak, Caputi, Hanson, Stalberg and Kadri) seems nothing more than wishful thinking.
John Hunt, Harvard, Mass.
A: My guess/understanding is that they'd have little or no interest in Kovalchuk, particularly in the kind of 10- or 12-year, $100-plus million contract he seems to be gunning for. To me, Kadri is the key, and Jonas Gustavsson secondarily so. If Kadri doesn't become a No. 1 NHL centre, the Leafs are going to have a very difficult time becoming a good NHL team. Gustavsson's development into a bona fide starter is similarly vital, although if he doesn't, there will likely be other options available. Otherwise, the fact that the Leafs were able to acquire two significant young players over the past seven months in Kessel and Dion Phaneuf suggests that the modern NHL environment — salary cap, free agency at 27 — may in fact mean players like that will become available in coming years in similar ways. It's just hard to guess right now who those players will be.
Q: With the NHL GM's meeting on headshots happening, why doesn't the NHL adopt Hockey Canada's rule on headshots for minor hockey or an adaptation of that rule. It has worked well for minor hockey up to AAA midget hockey and provincial junior/senior hockey so why not at least try it. Initial contact with the head and you get 2/10, 5/10 or match.
Jeremy Mercer, Bay Roberts, Nfld.
A: Well, I guess the simple answer is they don't like that rule, or believe it doesn't apply effectively to the best league in the world. We'll see how the new rule gets applied next season, but my guess is that it will — if not eliminate the kinds of head shots we've been seeing — at least punish those who deliver them in ways that aren't happening currently. Understand, the NHL GMs who came up with this rule aren't dopes. They're seasoned hockey men, some of whom played at the NHL level. It's a least worth considering the possibility they have some idea what they're talking about.
Q: On the subject of head shots, would the type of hit Brian Campbell laid on R.J. Umberger a few years back be eliminated from the game? I certainly hope not — that was one of the most epic plays in recent years.
Jacek Miskiewicz, Amsterdam
A: My recollection is that hit was straight on, with Umberger caught with his head down. If that's the case, such a hit would still be legal under the proposed NHL rule.
Q: Hey Damien,
Shouldn't the Leafs and Bruins have discussed a "trade back" at the deadline. Seriously, the Bruins need scoring (Kessel provides that), and the Leafs need prospects, the draft picks provide that...
It probably would have been the smart move for both teams...Thoughts?
Tanome Mchale, Toronto
A: Certainly it's a deal that may prove costly to both teams. The Bruins, as a team that had aspirations of being a Cup contender this year, have certainly missed Kessel's scoring punch. The Leafs, as a team trying to build back up into at least a playoff team, would certainly be happy at the moment if they were looking at a top three draft pick. The smart move? Maybe. But there's no way either Burke or Peter Chiarelli were going to backtrack at the deadline.
Q: Hi Damien,
Thanks for all the opinions over the years. Never let some of the more "extreme" fans give you a hard time about your columns. Objectivity is a good thing and generally a pleasant surprise when it comes to sports journalism.
Now for my question. What kind of control do the Leafs have on what their players do/do not do in the off-season to keep in shape? The reason I ask is with the recent play of Steven Stamkos, it would appear that he is really benefitting from training with Gary Roberts over the summer. With all the cash they make, couldn't the Leafs hire Roberts and create the best off-season training program? With so many young guys, just showing them the proper ways to train and get ready for the season would surely be beneficial.
Tyler Turner, Ottawa
A: The Leafs, like a lot of teams, put a great deal of effort into their off-season training programs. That said, much is still left to the individual player. I would suggest Stamkos' rapid improvement is as much due to his personal drive for excellence as it does with any particular trainer. He's just a special kid.
I grew up watching Gordie and Terrible Ted so I am no fan of soft Hockey. However, I have never seen so much cross-checking going on in my life! Someone gets cross checked to the ice about once a shift or several times in a row. Did the refs all get a 'don't call this' memo?
Bill Beaudoin, Detroit
A: Hmmm. Can't say I've really noticed that myself, Bill. I'll keep an eye out.
Q: Could you please tell me why we have to go to the U.S. for people to run the Maple Leafs, with all the good hockey people we have in this country?
As one season ticket holder told, the difference between Canadiens and the Leafs, Montreal has hockey people running the club and we have a bunch of Yanks running our team.
Thank you and keep up the excellent work.
Donald Dow, Brampton
A: Thanks, Donald. Well, Ron Wilson comes from a hockey rich family background, and Brian Burke owns a Stanley Cup ring and organized a silver medal winning performance for Team USA at the recent Olympics. These are hockey people. What passport they carry matters little, at least to me.
Q: Now that Jeff Jackson has left, it seem like the only other longtime manager/coach left with the team is Keith Acton. He seems to be well regarded in terms of fitness and conditioning, but doesn't he also handle the PP or PK (can't remember which) neither of which have been going very well for some time. Is it fair to look at his performance with regards to how the Leafs have been doing, or do Ass't Coaches generally just execute the plans of the head coach?
Mark Harwood, Los Angeles
A: It's certainly interesting that Acton has lasted through Pat Quinn and Paul Maurice, and is now in his second season under Wilson. Hockey people throughout the game seem to have a high regard for him. He's a hard-working fellow and was an industrious, gritty player when he played. Overall, the results haven't been there for the Wilson staff, however, and I would imagine all of them could be in trouble if next season doesn't see an improvement.