Thursday Mail Bag
With 20 games down, the next 10 games are looking mighty interesting - and pivotal - for the Maple Leafs.
First two road games this weekend, starting tomorrow night in Buffalo, and then up to Ottawa for Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada.Then, home to Tampa for the first of three home starts, continuing with struggling Edmonton and then another shot for Phil Kessel against Boston.
The Leafs then hit the road for two toughies, in Pittsburgh and in Washington, then home for difficult challenges against the Habs and Flyers.The 10th game is then in Edmonton as the first match of a three-game western Canadian road trip.
So that's two games against the Oilers and one against Buffalo, a team with the same number of points as the Leafs, but having played three more games.
Ottawa's currently in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, but the other six games are against teams with significantly better records than the Leafs. If today's projection in The Star that the Leafs are historically doomed to miss the playoffs because they aren't in a post-season berth by U.S. Thanksgiving is to prove to be off the mark, as Leaf fans hope it will be, getting through this next chunk of games with at least 10 points to show for their efforts looks pivotal. With only two wins to show for their first eight road outings of the season in a schedule that has been heavily weighted towards home starts, a big part of staying in contention for a post-season berth will clearly be finding a way to have more success away from the ACC.
Now on to this week's mail bag:
Q: Paul Hunter's recent story on shot blocking confirmed a trend that I had been noticing in the increasing amount of blocked shots throughout the league. Was also nice to see that the Leafs are ranked in the top 10 for something positive for a change! As Paul eludes to the increase in blocked shots can somewhat be attributed to increased protection from equipment as well as potentially a shift in the culture.
So, my question is: What is it that makes a team better at shot blocking than others? Is it simply having an abundance of "fearless" players? Is it a culture thing, driven by the coach? Would appreciate your insights.
PS half way done 'The Ovechkin Project'...a very interesting story on a very interesting player, nice work!
Nick Bloomfield, Toronto
A: Thanks for the shout out on the book, Nick. It was great working with Gare Joyce and we're pretty happy with how it all turned out.
Re shot-blocking, this is something that has increased dramatically in the past three or four years, which means its not just equipment, and I don't think today's players are any braver. The expansion of the offensive zone by 10 feet was one of the least noticed changes after the lockout and it convinced coaches that teams had to collapse even more in the defensive zone. You hear analysts talk about covering the points, but they neglect to mention the points are farther away than they used to be for defenders, and if they do attack the points, it opens up larger holes deeper in the zone. So more collapsing means more time for point men to shoot, but also more players to shoot through as coaches get their players to get in the shooting lanes more today than in years past. You can literally see players line up behind each other as a point man goes to shoot the puck. I'm not sure this is good for the game - rarely is a blocked shot an exciting play - but it appears here to stay.
Q: I heard it mentioned in passing on Saturday Nights Broadcast of the Leafs/Habs game that the Leaf players have curfews when they're on the road. Do all teams do this? What kind of curfews do they actually have? Would love to know. Thanks!
Adam Timmermans, Ennismore, Ont.
A: Curfews, and breaking curfew, is a tradition as old as the game itself. All teams have them from time to time, and all teams have players who break curfew from time to time. The next step beyond a curfew is the dreaded bed check, but you don't hear of teams in the modern era doing bed checks quite as much. It's a little humiliating for one and all, I think. Still, it's probably not unreasonable the night before a game to request that players be in by 11. It's what they do on their off days during road trips is what can get them in trouble.
Q: Hey Damien,... I had a shoot out Idea that i wanted to run by ya. I get kinda bored watching the same guys take shots in the shoot out over and over, hockey being a team game, what do you think of teams having to use all of the 20 man roster before being able to go back to there original shooter..eg if Kessel shot tonight they would have to go through 20 names before he can shoot again. With all the teams following the same rules this would mean spreading your talent out and would involve more strategizing for the coach and more second guessing by the fans. A team game should involve the whole team.
Mike Diver, Oshawa
A: I see where you're going, Mike, but I don't think I can go there with you. The shootout is really there to a) break ties and b) provide the most talented players with another outlet for their skill. I'm not really interested in seeing Colton Orr or Francois Beauchemin show what they can do in the shootout. Frankly, I like the IIHF version which allows individuals to take multiple attempts in the same shootout.
Q: Question for you. I am a former NHL player (grew up in Bolton Ontario) reading more and more every month about discipline, suspensions, headshots, concussions, etc. in the NHL. We have owners, management, former players on committees about the game, why don't we have former players on committees for discipline? I'm sure there are some players who would welcome the chance to help the league. If players are not to police themselves on the ice, don't you think they should help police them off the ice? If captains can pick the NHL All-Star teams this year, can't players help decide how long a suspension should last?
Gotta be some former Lady Byng winners out there willing.
Steven Halko, Raleigh
A: Assuming this is the same Steven Halko who played at the University of Michigan and chunks of different seasons for the Hurricanes, good to hear from you. I think I understand what you're suggesting, and while it's worth noting that Colin Campbell, not to mention his assistants Mike Murphy and Kris King, all had long NHL careers, I think you're looking for either a committee of former players or even some current players to be involved. The committee idea has been brought up many times, particularly of late in the wake of the Campball email controversy, and I'm just not so sure decisions of a committee would be any less controversial than decisions of one person, and even saying that, Campbell confers with his hockey department and often commissioner Gary Bettman before making rulings. Moreover, while Campbell is in hot water for making comments relating to his son, Gregory, who plays for Boston, all players and former players could easily be accused of favoring their former teams or friends or linemates. I think we'd all like a better system, I'm just not sure what that system might be .
I am unclear about something regarding free-agency and I hope you can help. Steven Stamkos is a Toronto kid who, for the sake of discussion, wants to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Couldn't he just wait until his entry-level contract expires and sign with the Leafs? If so, why don't more players do this, that is, sign with the team they love? Is it naive to assume that a professional athlete might still want to play for his hometown or his country? Why doesn't it happen more often? Or does it?
A: Pretty simple answer. Stamkos could wait until his entry level contract expires, and he could sign an offer sheet with the Leafs. But the Lightning would have the right to match and would match. The earliest Stamkos would have full freedom of choice (unrestricted free agency) would be at age 25 after seven years of NHL service, but you can bet the Lightning plan on locking him up for years beyond that. As far as players wanting to play in their hometown, some do, some don't. Most are looking for the best contract possible with a team that has a good chance to be successful. Stamkos might want to play in Toronto, but there are lots of other cities in which he'd be equally happy. That's the nature of the modern game.
Q: Good Day Damien,
So the Leafs managed to string a few wins together, good. I'm glad to see that they are able to be competitive in short spurts. I'm trying to be realistic as a fan and what it all comes down to is, that I don't believe this team as is, is a playoff contender. My question is, why hasn't Jonathan Cheechoo's name come up? Here is a guy who scored 56 goals one season and probably deserves some sort of a shot. You'd hope he could put up 20, which after browsing over the Leafs roster would be an improvement over other players currently wearing the Blue and White. Thoughts?
A: Cheechoo is 30 now and has failed to catch on with the Ottawa Senators and Dallas Stars since leaving San Jose as part of the Dany Heatley trade. He's now four full seasons removed from that magical 56-goal season and has had multiple opportunities to demonstrate that it wasn't a fluke. Injuries have played a part, but the fact is that in his last 127 games he has scored 17 goals. He's back playing with AHL Worcester Sharks and we'll see if he can work his way back, but I would doubt at this point he would offer a team like the Leafs much help.
Q: The New Jersey Devils are very interesting this year. They remind me of the days when the Great One called them a Mickey Mouse operation. Would a player like Martin Brodeur accept a trade to contender for one more shot at the cup, then come back to the Devils and retire at a much lower rate of salary?
The Devils will clear some much needed cap room but would Martin accept a trade for the good of the team that is the million dollar question.
A: Brodeur has young children settled in the Jersey area and I doubt he would have much interest at all in moving. He has one more year on his contract after this season and I think the more interesting question is whether he'd be inclined to look at other options if the Devils weren't keenly interested in his services at that time. My guess is he'll retire a Devil, but anything is possible.
Q: Hi Damien,
Am I the only one getting sick of cement-heads around the league complaining about PK Subban being too cocky (hello Mike Richards)? What is he supposed to do, come in and play like a shrinking violet until he "earns their respect"? At one point do we start to wonder if this isn't about race, especially when it comes from long-time French and European bashers like Don Cherry, and especially when white kids who break into the league and play "with an edge" are applauded while Subban is criticized?
A: I would like to think Richards and other players have too much respect for themselves and the game to think that way. But for the life of me I don't undertand why a player like Subban is being singled out when there are many players who do as much or more chatting on the ice and aren't nearly the player this guy is. I'd chalk it up to gamesmanship. People have been trying to find ways to knock Subban off his game since junior hockey, or before, and this is probably nothing new.