This Week's Mail Bag
It's early, and it's volatile.
Remember Edmonton's hot start? The Oilers have come back to earth, albeit with a roster that has their fans dreaming of better days. Sidney Crosby is scoring and the Penguins are starting to win, while the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins are the only teams still with a single defeat.
That said, even the surprising Stars don't feel particularly steady despite the brilliant early season work of No. 1 goalie Kari Lehtonen.
"He's been great, but he'll be 150 pounds by Christmas if we don't start giving him some help," observed Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk.
Zdeno Chara continues to own Alex Ovechkin, Martin Brodeur either can't stop the puck or won't let any in, Roberto Luongo is once again in the eye of the storm in Vancouver and my goodness, Colin Campbell is a busy man these days.
And how about those Chicago Blackhawks? Despite losing half their team, the defending champs sit atop the entire league, still waiting to see if somebody can knock them off.
So it's within this overall context - Chicago at the top, Ottawa at the bottom, everyone else scrapping and clawing - that you have to evaluate the Maple Leafs.
They're in the thick of it, and now they just have to stay there. The goaltending is sturdy, if not sensational, and that's an improvement. Ron Wilson's club is tied for the third best defensive record in the league, and that's a huge improvement.
The penalty killing is strong, the power play middling and at 4-1-1, the overall feeling should be good. But consecutive losses to the Islanders and Rangers on home ice have delivered some worrisome signs, like a group of centres - Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski, Tim Brent and Mike Zigomanis - that's not bringing a whole lot of offence to the party.
It was noted in a pre-season column on Bozak that it seemed too good to be true that a player passed over in the NHL draft and finally in the league to stay at age 25 could actually be a bona fide No. 1 centre. Right now, that old saying that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is, comes to mind. That Bozak is apparently already avoiding the media after losses - who counsels these players? - is not a good sign of his ability to handle the pressure cooker that is Toronto.
Carl Gunnarson, thought by some to be a lock to be a regular, is already in the press box, and against the Rangers on Thursday, the overall blueline play wasn't nearly as tidy as it had been, although Luke Schenn might just be the club's top blueliner right now having made some obvious improvements to his offensive game, particularly his puck patience.
Every team still has questions. The Senators are already into must-win territory, it seems. Anaheim pulled out of an ugly early season swoon and won again Thursday in Philly. Some clubs, specifically Phoenix, Columbus and Atlanta, are already delivering some ugly early season attendance figures, and that's a story that will gain momentum in those cities if it doesn't change.
So, after just two weeks, lots of interesting developments, but still much to be decided as the season truly gets rolling.
Now on to this week's mail bag:
Q: The Leafs' quick start has been a surrpise to many, and I wondered if the profit motives of MLSE actually played a role. By cramming in more exhibition games than any other team, they have actually done themselves a favour by being ready right out of the gate, whereas other more seasoned teams have ambled out of the gate. Do you have an opinion on this?
Jeff D, Toronto
A: It was less about the number of games, in my opinion, than the fact Ron Wilson got down to under 30 players more quickly than in other seasons. That seems to have had a positive effect particularly on the club's defensive play and penalty killing. Every team is different, and you can contrast the Leaf approach with that of the barnstorming tour the Carolina Hurricanes have been on throughout Europe and the U.S. and won't play their first game in their home rink until Oct. 27. Yet that team is off to a solid 3-3 start. So it's really hard to pinpoint a pre-season formula for any team that necessarily leads to success.
Q: Hi Damien. Glad to see the Spin is back. In view of your article on the shootout falling out of favour and all the different suggestions as to what to do now, I have had this feeling for a long time that hockey seems to have lost its way and is endlessley tinkering to find the "right formula." No other major sport changes so many rules on a consistent basis. What is it about hockey or the guys who run it that they never seem satisfied with how the game is played?
Darryl Weinberg, Maple
A: I hear you Darryl, although I would argue that football, particularly the NFL, does a fair bit of tinkering, sometimes even in mid-season as we've seen this week. Re the NHL, there's nothing wrong with continuing to try and make the product better, but sometimes you get the feeling that's not what changes are being made for. Moreover, this league seems to reverse its field frequently. On fighting, for example, two years ago the NHL was all about taking a hard new line on scraps, particularly so-called stage fights. Now, well, look on NHL.com today and you'll see the third news item highlighted points readers to a pair of heavyweight tilts from the night before. So the league has gone from cracking down on fights to openly promoting them. What other league markets a penalty? As in many cases, the NHL makes changes, or starts to make changes, then is either distracted or disuaded from doing what it started out to do. So I see why fans get frustrated.
Q: Hey Damien, Long time reader; first time writer. Although I can't complain with the recent success the Leafs have enjoyed, I have been noticing a bit of an unnerving trend so far...although the Leafs seem to be getting a decent amount of shots every game, there seem to be a disturbingly large amount of shots that come nowhere near the net, particularly from the point, and particularly from Dion Phaneuf. Just wondering if this is something they work on in practice at all, or perhaps something they should be working on? With such a hard shot, I figure if Phaneuf got more of them on net he'd have a few goals by now. Love to hear your opinion.
Nick Bloomfield, Toronto
A: Well, if Thursday night's game against the Rangers was instructive in any way, it was how the Leafs settled for shots from the perimeter, many of which were blocked or went wide. Obviously, the farther out the shooter, the less likely the shot is to be accurate. In the loss the Leafs seemed particularly reluctant or unable to take the puck to the net, and that was a glaring reality on the power play where the Rangers were content to let the Leafs move the puck around the perimeter. Re Phaneuf, I think his shot is a good one and pretty accurate. But in this league it's nearly impossible to score from 60 feet out unless there's traffic in front, which might make a player like Phaneuf think he's got to really hammer it instead of being hard, low shot on the net. As far as working on shooting, believe me, these guys shoot the puck a lot in practice. Sometimes in games, however, the opposition makes it a lot tougher.
Q: I keep reading, and have observed myself, that the Leafs seems unwilling to have someone near the net during the PP, and thus have no one to hammer in rebounds, robbing themselves of many chances. Who's fault is this? The 10 players on the 2 PP squads (4 of whom need to play the point most of the time, leaving 6 to blame) or the coaching staff.
I suspect it is the coaching staff. Either they are not asking the players to be near the net, or they are asking, and not holding the players accountable when they fail to do it. Either way, the blame is on Wilson and his staff.
But what do you think?
Artie Bailey, Red Lake
A: I think it's more a question of personnel. Look at the Leafs top six forwards - Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Kris Versteeg, Nik Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur. None are strapping 6-foot-3 types, and none have shown an appetite or an ability to deliver a Dave Andreychuk-like presence in front of the net. Check out the rest of the lineup, and only Colby Armstrong, really, fits that bill at all, which is why in pre-season you saw the Leafs rotate their power play in such a way as to see Phaneuf in the crease providing that kind of slot presence. That's one way they can try to get around it, but they're limited to some degree by personnel. Eventually, however, even the smaller guys are going to have to understand they're going to have to get inside to score.
When Pittsburgh or Chicago come to town, they are hard tickets to get because fans want to go and see Crosby or Toews (for example). Who, in your opinion, was the last Leafs player that fans in other cities paid to see?
To follow up, who was the last Leafs defenseman to put The Fear into opposing forwards as they crossed Toronto's blue line?
Michael Jones, Daejeon, South Korea
A: Interesting. I would say Doug Gilmour was the last truly entertaining athlete the Leafs owned that fans in other cities wanted to see. Maybe Alexander Mogilny.
And the last scary Leaf defenceman? Well, I would have said Bryan Marchment, but he was kind of past it by the time he made it to Toronto. I might have been able to say Chris Pronger, but JFJ didn't want to give up Alex Steen. Danny Markov was a rough piece of sandpaper for a while but didn't stay long. Would you settle for Bobby Baun?
Q: Hi Damien,
Its quite obvious with some of the moves that the Leafs have made in the last year that Brian Burke has a budget for salary (actual money paid out) that is higher than the salary cap (based on averages). Do you have a rough idea of what that actual budget would be? Also, in the same respect, since the Leaf revenue is so much higher than other teams, what type of other non-monetary benefits are the Leafs allowed to offer players within the rules to be more competitive (private planes, better dressing rooms, free limosine service, private schooling for children, etc) in a salary cap world? It seems to me this could be a way to make Toronto a more attractive place to play, all other things being equal.
Joe Akey, Ottawa
A: Okay, so I don't think there's an unofficial budget for the team, and right now, the Leafs are right around the cap in terms of actual dollars going out the door. I think the way in which MLSE has always operated is that the GM proposes a budget, but then that budget gets adjusted depending on how costs change over the course of a season.
Re other non-monetary benefits, well other than putting together top-quality practice and game facilities, nothing is allowed. The CBA strictly prohibits the kinds of soft benefits you suggest.
Q: Hi Damien, in today's (Oct. 16) mailbag you stated "agents of entry level players understand that if they structure deals so that the cap hit isn't enormous (like Tyler Bozak's $3.75 million hit) it may hasten their clients path to the NHL."
How is a $3.75mm cap hit for an unproven college free agent not 'enormous' (or at least a high enough number to act as a deterrent?) - that kind of money would buy a solid & proven 20 goal scorer, would it not?
Bill L., Toronto
A: You misunderstand. The meaning was that Bozak's hit is enormous, not that it isn't. My apologies if I worded it awkwardly.
Q: I would love any insight you could provide about why Ryan Malone is even potentially movable from the Bolts. Would be great to see him in blue and white, but despite all the discussion I just don’t see why Yzerman would consider letting him go.
Eric Herman, New York
A: Well, start with the fact that the Lightning, while they have a new owner, are going to lose buckets and buckets of money this season. They can't move Vinny Lecavalier because of his contract, they just re-signed Marty St. Louis and Steve Stamkos isn't going anywhere. Malone has four more years on his contract after this season at $4.5 million. This season, he has one goal in six games and is a minus-8. In his first two years in Tampa, he had 26 and 21 goals, respectively. Finally, the Bolts have needs, particularly on the back end where they're have to place an awful lot of the burden on 19-year-old Victor Hedman. At the end of the day, Malone, while a good, not great, power forward, may be a luxury they can't afford, particularly in light of other areas the team needs to improve upon. He has a no movement clause in his contract, which means a deal wouldn't be easy. But he's not exactly lighting it up for a team that surely feels the weight of his contract.
Q: Hello Damien,
Long time hockey fan of the Blue & White and I appreciate your candor and insight.
Next year's crop of UFA's looks fairly deep. With the 3M cap space Brian Burke has this year and the 4.5M from Kaberle not being here I feel the Leafs are patching this year together (hey if they don't give up a lottery pick it will be a success) and saving resources for next year.
What do you think?
(I agree with your comment last week that having Kaberle walk and freeing up 4.5M is significant)
Thanks for your time
Brooks Hipgrave, Guelph
A: Well, given the Joe Thornton was going to be the best player available next summer, at least until he re-signed last week with San Jose, I'd say its far too early to say whether the free agent crop will be particularly good. It wasn't last summer. There was precious little front-end scoring talent available, for example. So I don't get the feeling Burke is putting away dollars for next summer. He wants help now. That said, the Leafs have only 12 players currently on their NHL roster under contract for next season, and big tickets like J.S. Giguere's ($6 million) are going to fall off the payroll along with Kaberle. So there should be some flexibility there for Burke if he doesn't spend it first. The question is whether by next summer there will be anything for him to spend it on.
Q: Hi Damien,
Great to see the mailbag back in action!
Did you happen to catch Dave Hodge's rant the other day regarding teams dressing fewer skaters? It caught my attention, because I had just read your column on the NJ goings-on.
He lay the blame on the cap - and suggested it needed to go. He claimed the cap has failed to do what it intended to.
Is he nuts? I certainly don't want the NHL to end up looking like the farcical MLB!
Tom Havey, Arnprior
A: I didn't, although if it was Dave making the argument, I'm sure it was a good one. Whether the cap has worked or not depends on your perspective. It has stopped teams from spending unlimited amounts of money on players as once was the case with Detroit and New York. At the same time, teams at the bottom end are spending much more than they were before the lockout, albeit with clubs like Nashville, Washington and others receiving help from NHL revenue sharing. The gap between what the richest teams are spending and what the poorest are spending has narrowed. Moreover, there is extraordinary parity in competition, and that was part of the goal as well. But it's clear that when teams can't ice a full roster for cap reasons it hurts the overall integrity of the product. Whether there's a mechanism whereby such embarrassments can be avoided, well, that will be up to those who negotiate the next CBA. But because some teams screw up their payrolls doesn't necessarily mean the system as a whole has failed.
Q: With all these commenters/bloggers dreaming that the Leafs will get Travis Zajac for nothing to ease NJ's cap problems, what's the likelihood that teams would offer attractive draft picks to have a team accept mediocre and/or overpaid players (and likely bury them in the minors)? Is any cap-stressed team likely to dump a good, young player? As for the cap space, how much does Burke need to hold back in case he calls up Kadri, Hanson, Caputi, etc?
Nick Martin, Winnipeg
A: We have not yet seen a team move a good young player for cap reasons, although it could be argued the Bruins were forced into a corner on Phil Kessel when he was only 21 and pretty much had to trade him because of his contractual demands. Clearly, there are more teams dealing with cap problems this year than last, and five years after the cap was first introduced, there seems to still be a lot of learning left to do.
With respect to those non-NHL Leaf players, Kadri would come with the biggest cap hit at $1.7 million. Given that the Leafs are more than $4 million below the cap at the moment, it's not a concern. But I think most teams would like to have $1 million of wiggle room as the season progresses to account for needed reinforcements.