Here's the tough question for Brian Burke and his front office.
How bad were the Leafs, really?
The easy answer is really bad, and there's lots of evidence to support that conclusion.
But consider this. The Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins are both in the second round of the NHL playoffs and based on what happened during the regular season, you also might be able to argue that the gap between those clubs and the Leafs isn't quite as large as generally might be believed.
To a great degree, that's a function of the modern NHL. The gap between the good teams - there are probably no great ones - and the weak teams is, while quantifiable, not necessarily as large as it might have been say, during the 1970s.
Look at it this way. The Habs finished 33 points below the Washington Capitals during the regular season, and then knocked the Caps out of the playoffs in seven games.
Meanwhile, Montreal finished just 14 points ahead of the Leafs.
As the Canadiens demonstrated, the game is still as much about will as it's ever been. So the challenge for Burke and Co. is to assess whether more will, more experience for the youngsters and a little more talent might bridge that gap between the Leafs and teams like Boston and Montreal.
Maybe the gap is, like oncoming vehicles in the sideview mirror, much greater than it appears. Or maybe not.
Now on to this week's mail bag:
Q: What do you think, are the Maple Leafs going to pursue or sign any of the few big name free agents?
Cornelius Neufeld, Cuauhtemoc
A: Well, they'll be in there pitching. I'm just not clear who the "big" free agents will be. Patrick Marleau? Doubt he's coming to play for Ron Wilson again.Olli Jokinen? Tomas Plekanec? Ilya Kovalchuk? Sergei Gonchar? Just not sure there's somebody in the bunch worth playing your brains out for. Perhaps the one proviso might be on Kovalchuk, who's a 40- to- 50-goal shooter. Obviously, he did himself no favours with his playoffs in Jersey. Given that he already turned down $102 million from Atlanta, his chances of landing in Toronto are almost zero. But if the market changed and Kovalchuk would be looking at something more like five years than 10 and something more like $6 million than $10 million, the Leafs might get interested. But that doesn't mean he'd be interested in the Leafs. Moreover, hockey history isn't full of star players taking less to play in Canada for losing teams. So I wouldn't hold my breath.
Q: Hey Damien, Wondering if you had any information in regards to contract negotiations? between the Leafs and Nik Kulemin. Are things looking like he is going to re-sign in Toronto, and if so for how much? If you aren't sure, what kind of contract (term and $ value) do you think he's worthy of?
Kalin Smith, Burlington
A: Right now, this is looking at little like the Dominic Moore situation. This is a contract that should get done, one that both sides should want to see happen, but may not happen. Kulemin was at times the team's best forward last season and demonstrated that level of competitiveness that GM Brian Burke doesn't believe exists to his satisfaction with many Russian players. That said, he scored 16 goals playing 18-20 minutes a game and getting pretty extensive power play exposure. He made $850,000 last season. So the Leafs will likely want to get up signed up for maybe two years at $1.5 million, while his agent Gary Greenstin will likely be pitching Kulemin as a bona fide first line winger - he certainly is with the Leafs right now - deserving of something north of $2 million. That doesn't sound like a huge gap, but it wasn't with Moore, either. It doesn't sound like a deal is in the offing, probably not until after the world championships. But the Leafs have been making a lot of deals happen quickly these days.
Q: I was wondering what your thoughts would be having someone like Craig Simpson or Stephanne Richer representing Canada as our new Governor General. True Canadians that would stand out in any country I do believe. Thanks for listening,
Mike Gleeson, Ancaster
A: Hmmm. Not sure where you'd get those two names. I wasn't aware either former player had political ambitions. I think having Jacques Demers in the Senate and Ken Dryden in the House of Commons covers our hockey quota. We need serious people to take on the largely ceremonial post of Governor General, not former athletes looking for a new job. Michaelle Jean has been, to my mind, a superb Governor General. Succeeding her won't be easy.
Q: Damien, did you see much of the San Jose/Colorado series? Were Thornton and Marleau as invisible at the boxscores suggest? Knowing the history of these two in the playoffs, unless they have a better second round and going forward, what would you do if you were Doug Wilson Marleau is a free agent I think after this season. How much longer is Thornton signed? for?
Kyle Kopanyshyn, Osaka, Japan
A: Great question. I think people have to look past the stats sometimes,and the telling one in the Colorado series from a San Jose perspective is Thornton et al attracted the toughest checking, and Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and others came through with the necessary secondary scoring. That's how the playoffs work. It's why Washington didn't survive, because when Montreal took away Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Alex Semin didn't come through. In Game 1 last night between the Sharks and Wings, the Thornton line scored and looked pretty good. All this said, if the Sharks don't advance I would imagine there's a pretty good chance Marleau will walk as a free agent. Thornton is under contract for one more year at $7.2 million.
Q: I can remember way back when most NHL teams had a bona fide number one goalie- Bernie Parent, Tony Esposito, Dryden, Worsley, Giacomin. I might be wrong, but today, it seems goalies go hot and cold so much, teams are constantly alternating them. As well, you see number one goalies who fail in one city, shipped out only to bounce back in another(see Theodore). Do you think this is a symptom of differences in the game today vs. back then? I would think today's goalies would be? better, not worse.
Steve Stolte, Burlington
A: Today's goalies are better, largely because of equipment, and largely because they are better athletes. But the game is much more physically demanding for netminders today than even five years ago, let alone 30 years ago. The travel alone is a challenge, and the larger offensive zone puts heavier stress on the modern goalie. That said, there were 14 goals who played 60 games or more this season, six who played more than 70. You mention Parent. He played more than 70 games in a season once, more than 60 four times over a 14 year career. Worsley? In the final decade of his career he played more than 50 games just once. Ken Dryden never played more than 64 games in a single season. So some things have changed, and somethings haven't changed as much as you might think.
Finally, many goalies have been moved by a team and then played well somewhere else. Terry Sawchuk would be a great example. Glenn Hall, too. Tom Barrasso another.
Q; Hi Damien, Not a Leaf question, guess its more of a media question. Unlike Mike Keenan, how has Jacques Martin been able to avoid the label of "goalie killer" he doesn't pull them as often, but something in his system or how he deals with them has caused him to destroy goalies. Thank goodness Roberto Luongo got out of Florida before he ended up like the rest of Martin's goalies, and now he's screwing up Carey Price.
Ridley Wetton, Woodstock
A: Sorry, just don't see this long list of goalies that Martin has wrecked. I've seen a lot of average guys he helped look better than they were by his tight defensive approach. Moreover, Jaroslav Halak seems to be thriving these days.
Q: After watching Crosby this year take his career to even a higher level, leading Canada to Gold, win a Stanley Cup ( okay that was last year) and at the moment dominate the first round of the playoffs, it makes me wonder if he, or any other first overall would be able to survive as an 18- to 20-year-old in the overwhelmingly desperate hockey market of Toronto. Wendel Clark was first overall in '85 and arguably took the entire team to a new level which in the end shortened his career. He did everything, score, fight, hit. I'm not talking the Luke Schenn's of the world -- good solid player but not a franchise guy. I'm talking Crosby, Ovechkin. Just because you own a Porsche does not mean you know?how to drive it.
Glen McMinn, Halifax
A: Love Wendel, but let's not put him in the same category as Crosby. Moreover, saying Clark "took the entire team to a new level" is an exaggeration, to say the least. But could a star flourish in Toronto? Of course he could under the right coaching and management, and with a good team around him. Crosby would be just as good in Toronto as Pittsburgh. That said, can every player flourish in Toronto? No. Larger markets demand more and not all players feel comfortable, just like every baseball player wasn't born to be a Yankee. But a Porsche in Toronto would do just fine.