Thursday Mail Bag
But what it undeniably the case is that most or all of the players signed by the Leafs were sought after by other clubs, yet the Leafs have consistently been able to get the players signed. It happened last year with Jonas Gustavsson, Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson, and it has happened on slightly less of a scale this spring with Brayden Irwin and Jussi Rynnas.
We can argue all day over the quality of these players. One NHL general manager hadn't even heard of Rynnas this week when he agreed in principle to sign with the Leafs.
But there were at least five other teams after the Finnish netminder, and he picked the Leafs. The competition for Gustavsson, Bozak and Hanson last year was furious. It's not as if the Leafs are able to entice these players with more lucrative contracts because most come under the entry-level system. All are coming from different agents - Gustavsson with Joe Resnick, Bozak with Wade Arnott, Hanson with Rick Curran and Rynnas with Allain Roy - so its not like there's a direct pipeline from one agency to the Leafs.
Two factors are likely working for the Leafs.
First, because the Leafs don't have talent and depth at every position, they can offer opportunity where other teams cannot. Gustavsson, Bozak, Hanson and Irwin have all already played NHL games. In fact, usually it's not playoff teams that are able to sign these types of free agents.
Second, the Leafs have been very aggressive, and GM Brian Burke gets very involved. With Rynnas and Gustavsson, he flew to Europe on short notice just to court them. With Hanson he cultivated a relationship he had with the youngster's father. But he doesn't leave the job of recruiting to other members of his front office.
Again, it's not clear whether these players will turn out. But the Leafs are winning more bidding wars than hockey games, and the former may ultimately improve the latter.
Now on to this week's mail bag:
Q: Hi Damien, I have now heard it a few different places, including the Fan - what do you think the odds are that the Leafs will land Vinny Lecavalier from Tampa? Could that actually work, maybe the Leafs include Finger in a deal? The Leafs certainly can afford the 10 million a year and Tampa cannot. He might be able to resurrect himself with Phil Kessel. Your thoughts?
Jason Higgins, Orangeville
A: I just can't see the Leafs adding a contract that still has $75 million to pay over the next 10 years, particularly with many in the hockey industry wondering if Lecavalier's best days are behind him. It's no longer a question whether teams like the Leafs can "afford" players more than other clubs. All teams are working with the salary cap, and what matters most is not clogging up your payroll with unwanted salaries. To move Lecavalier, the Lightning are going to have to accept some bad contracts, but Finger's isn't nearly enough to offset the different. Moreover, Lecavalier has had chances to play with players like Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos in Tampa. I can't see how playing with Kessel would magically resurrect his career.
Q: Why is Burke stubbornly sticking by Ron Wilson? If the Leafs stumble next year do you think there is any chance Dale Hunter gets the job? He works well with young players, obviously knows Nazem Kadri, and fits well with the truculent philosophy Burke espouses.
Andrew Ferrari, London
A: I guess the answer with Wilson, quite simply, is that Burke thinks he's a good coach, or as good as any other that's available. Wilson could be in trouble next year if the Leafs are awful in the first 30 games again. As far as Dale Hunter, you just don't hear his name in coaching rumours. I suspect he's viewed as welded to the London junior program. Then again, they once said the same thing about Brent Sutter. For me, I think the day Randy Carlyle becomes unemployed is the day whoever is coaching the Leafs might want to sleep with one eye open.
Q: Hey Damien, I recently read "Playing with Fire," Theoren Fleury's autobiography, and he talks a lot in his book about the serious partying that happened in the NHL in his day. How much of that still goes on in the NHL today during the season? I can't help but think that the league has changed significantly in the past 15 or 20 years, with more of an emphasis on strength and conditioning than ever before, which makes me believe that players are much less likely now to engage in that kind of behaviour any more. You recently alluded to an 'untold story' where several Leaf players (no longer with the team) were caught flying into Manhatten from New Jersey for a night of partying before a game. Was that a one-time thing, or is this a problem in the NHL community? Thanks!
Aaron McGregor, Toronto
A: For starters, the players wanted to take a helicopter ride into Manhattan the night before a game before the team caught wind of the caper. As far as the party habits of NHL players, I can't speak knowledgeably other than to say young men who work hard and make a lot of money tend to play hard. Good teams find ways to keep the partying under control.
Q: What are the 3 major decisions/changes that you would make to move the Leafs towards respectability in the next couple of years?
Ang Meffe, St. Catharines
A: First, getting top-flight goaltending in place. Second, avoiding picking up name players with ugly contracts (see Lecavalier, above) in order to maintain cap flexibility. Three, continuing to develop the Marlies as a meaningful stop in the development chain that only the truly exceptional should skip.
Q: In my view, Andy Sutton's hit on Jordan Leopold in Game 2 of the Ottawa-Pittsburgh series was clearly a suspendable act. Although it was not a blind-side hit, it was delivered with his elbow to the victim's head. I love hockey, but the NHL will be losing more fans than it gains by allowing this type of thing to go on. I was watching the game with my dad and my son, neither of whom are big hockey fans. My old man shook his head and said this wouldn't be tolerated in "his sport" of soccer. My 7 year old son wanted to know why that Ottawa guy "killed" Sidney Crosby's friend. When will the NHL wake up?
Peter Cecchetto, Toronto
A: Well, clearly hockey is grappling with the issue of head shots after years of ignoring the problem. We'll see where this goes. I'm not sure Sutton's hit was quite as clearcut as you suggest, and certainly there remains a strong philosophy in the game that its a players responsibility to play with his head up in those situations. I'm not necessarily agreeing with it, but that's the culture of the game.
As far as other sports, every sport has its problems. Of course a hit like Sutton's wouldn't be tolerated in soccer - it's not a contact sport. But there's lots of garbage in that sport I wouldn't want to be part of hockey.
Q: Hey Damien...answer me this, please. I'm from Minnesota where the Wild has an almost cult-like following. The Wild is starting to pile up disappointing seasons and yet, the fans keep showing up. What baffles me is why. The Twin Cities has a very cynical attitude towards other professional sports. In other words, if they don't produce, people begin to stay away. Why do people continue to show up in Toronto? I can only shake my head at the Leafs misfortune over the last decades. Toronto is "hockey mecca." Toronto's success on the ice would be akin to the Yankees as cellar dwellers. My question? What is your take as to why people don't hit the Leafs or Wild in their pocketbook; in other words, why don't they stay away until a good product is produced?
Dave Edholm, Minneapolis
A: Because they're fans. Because they want to see the team play. When somebody buys a ticket in those markets, they don't think, 'Well, if I buy this ticket, will the team try to improve?" Do teams with attendance challenges work harder? In some cases yes, in some cases no. Certainly, it can be argued that guaranteed full houses haven't motivated the Leafs to work tirelessly at developing great teams over the years, and while the signs are good from the Burke administration as far as effort, the proof will be in the results. As far as the Wild, that team has done an exception al job tapping into the extensive hockey culture in that state and making Wild games a pretty terrific experience. Sure, there's grumbling about the absence of playoff success. Right now, I'm not sure that fans staying away - particuarly in a salary cap era - would suddenly force the club to substantially alter it's practices.
Q: Hey Damien, Really appreciate your insight on the Leafs. Just wondering, in your opinion, would you have done the Kessel trade? I still don't understand why the first rounders were not at least lottery protected, or even top-3 protected? What was Burkie thinking (or was he just too optimistic, even though we had the worst goalie in Toskala as our starter)?
Kyle Fort, Toronto
A: Would I have done it? Probably not. But then again, I might not have moved heaven and earth to land the Sedin twins in Vancouver. Burke's an aggressive manager who isn't afraid of taking risks, and it's worked for him in the past. I would have stuck with keeping first rounders, but I can certainly see the case for making the trade and those who suggest the Leafs are guaranteed to come out on the short end of this trade clearly aren't familiar with the unpredictability of the entry draft. I suspect at the end of the day this deal will work out helping both teams. Certainly the Leafs know what they have. We'll see if the Bruins can acquire better players with the picks.
Q: Hi, Damien,
Have management or the coaching staff ever talked about how bad the ice is at the Air Canada Centre? Watching games I constantly see players losing the puck off their stick or missing passes because the puck skips on the ice. Are the higher ups aware of it? Do the players ever mention it? Just curious if it's a topic that's ever come up, with players or management, or even with other teams.
Robert Oulton, Dartmouth, N.S.
A: It's been a constant talking point in recent years. But understand this - the ice at most NHL rinks isn't very good. Its the nature of multi-use arenas.