Thursday Mail Bag and Trade Chatter
For the Maple Leafs, it's been two days of relative peace and tranquility.
During the past 48 hours, they won a game to end an eight-game losing streak, saw slump-ridden Kris Versteeg score twice in that game, received encouraging reports on the recuperation of team captain Dion Phaneuf and even had one of the team's prospects, Marlie goalie Jussi Rynnas, decorated as the AHL's player-of-the-week for his sparkling play.
For the Caps or Hawks or Red Wings, this wouldn't mean much. For the Leafs, it marked distinct progress, or at least a couple of days in which every aspect of the organization wasn't being ripped to shreds.
Tonight at the ACC they'll encounter a team that's been hard for them to find, a club that's having even greater difficulties in this young NHL season. The difference is, of course, that while even optimists forecast the Leafs as only possibly a contender for a playoff berth, the New Jersey Devils believed they could be a Stanley Cup contender, having fortified their lineup with the $100 million shootout specialist, Ilya Kovalchuk.
Well, as has been well documented on both sides of the border, things have not gone well for the Men From Newark. So far the Devs have only 12 points, and while injuries to key players have contributed to that, those same injuries have bought the club time as it seeks to wriggle out of the salary cap problems that already existed and were further complicated by the addition of Kovalchuk.
The Devils are averaging a league-low 1.83 goals per game, and to help fix that problem, it's expected Kovalchuk will have a new centre for tonight's game in veteran Dainius Zubrus. Only the dreadful New York Islanders have fewer points in the Eastern Conference than the Devils, but then again, less than two weeks ago the Buffalo Sabres came in to Toronto's last overall and won a shootout in come-from-behind shootout.
So this is an equally big game for the Leafs, who will have to lean on The Monster, Jonas Gustavsson, for the near future.
The Leafs and Devils, meanwhile, are two teams that would like to make a deal or two, minor or major, and so it was undoubtedly interesting to both that an actual trade occurred in the league this week between Calgary and Carolina. The Flames sent ex-Leaf defenceman Ian White to Carolina to be re-united with head coach Paul Maurice, and Calgary GM Darryl Sutter included his legally troubled son, Brett, in the transaction.
Coming the other way were Russian defenceman Anton Babchuk and journeyman checker Tom Kostopolous, making this another one of those head-scratcher deals for the struggling Flames, who went down at home to Phoenix last night. White probably had to go after signing a one-year, $3 million deal last summer with little likeliehood the Flames were going to be able to keep him next summer after signing rearguard Mark Giordano, but it still leaves the Flames now with only Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman to show directly from last winter's Phaneuf deal.
Given that Flames loyalists argued at the time that White was a cheaper equivalent of Phaneuf, this deal has to rankle even the club's most rabid supporters.
Still, it was a legimitable hockey deal, albeit one with cap benefits for Calgary, and proved that at least a trade is possible these days. Whether it will open the sluice gates for more transactions, we'll see.
Leaf GM Brian Burke was on the road this week, and the chip he may have to play is stay-at-home defenceman Francois Beauchemin, who unlike some of his colleagues, doesn't have no-trade, no movement protection and with $3.8 million and $3.8 million next year left on his deal, isn't a particularly cumbersome contract.
For the Devils, long-term injuries to Zach Parise and Bryce Salvador mean they still have time to sort out their cap issues, but Lou Lamoriello has said he will re-evaluate his squad at the 20-game mark and undoubtedly would like to make a move. Captain Jamie Langenbrunner isn't on this trip, and his name has been whispered in trade rumours.
Another team in the bottom rungs of the league, the Edmonton Oilers, may also be looking to shake things up. As fans in Edmonton are learning to their chagrin, while the rosy long-term prognostications for a team that finishes well down the standings for multiple years are heartening, the actual process can be mighty painful, as was the case last night when the Oilers were whacked at home by the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks to stay at four wins on the season.
The kids are learning, although it's entirely possible that none of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle or Magnus Paajarvi will hit the 20-goal or 60-point mark this season despite enormous pre-season buildups. Given that Sidney Crosby had 102 points as a rookie and Alex Ovechkin had 52 goals in his freshman season, both while playing for awful teams, it could be that none of the three Oilers will be that type of franchise player. Few players are, although even Patrick Kane had 72 points in his first NHL season. L.A.'s Anze Kopitar had 20 goals and 41 assists as a rookie, and that might be the most any of the Oiler trio will be able to muster.
That said, Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi all have undeniable promise, and another top pick looms in the 2011 draft.There's clearly a foundation being built with the Oilers.
What's making life difficult for the Oil, and what may make a trade more likely, is the state of their underperforming veteran core. After all, Ryan Whitney leads the team in scoring and doesn't yet have a goal.
In particular, centre Shawn Horcoff, winger Ales Hemsky - both of whom were benched Wednesday night - forward Dustin Penner and rearguard Tom Gilbert are all playing poorly. All are at $4 million or more per season, while, Horcoff is at $5.5 million with four more years to go after this season on one nasty contract that few teams would want. The club bought into the belief Horcoff was a No. 1 centre after that surprise run to the Cup final in '06 and has been paying for it ever since.
He is a centre, and centres are in great demand, but he's also 32, coming off a 13-goal, minus-29 season, and he has 10 points in 14 games this season.
Gilbert, with his bloated deal (three more years at $4 million), is becoming a whipping boy, particularly for his matador-like blueline play that is reminiscent of a young Tomas Kaberle. Or a current Kaberle.
All these Oiler vets are hard to move - Hemsky has the most value - and the Oilers are already paying Sheldon Souray $5.4 million to break his hands in the minors. Interestingly, Edmonton can't shed that much more salary and still stay above the floor.
In theory, Beauchemin could help their back end, and the Leafs could move him if they belief Luke Schenn can maintain consistency and Keith Aulie (12:02 against Nashville on Tuesday) might be ready. Would Burke have any interest in Penner, the big softie who once played so well for the Leaf GM in Anaheim? Could the Devils and Oilers cook up a deal, possibly with a player like Langenbrunner going west to give Edmonton some veteran leadership and the Devils some cap relief?
It's all just speculation. But at least it's trade talk. Don't hear much of that these days.
Now on to this week's mail bag:
Q: Hi Damien,
What are your thoughts on how Colin Campbell comes across with regards to emails exchanged by Campbell with members of NHL brass in 2006 and 2007? These were submitted as evidence in a complaint brought before the Ontario Labour Relations Board by former NHL official Dean Warren, who disputed his termination from the NHL.
The blogger Tyler Dellow has blasted Campbell with his own words. He's posted a few dozen emails exchanged by Campbell. It's not pretty. He seems biased towards his son (Panthers' Gregory Campbell), against any official who makes calls that go against his son, and against Marc Savard -- of all people. It puts the non-suspension of Matt Cooke in a different light, among other incidents.
Wade Ivan, Toronto
A: How does he come across? Well, some seemed bothered by all the profanity, which I think is funny because this is how hockey people talk. Certainly these are emails he never believed would be made public, as they were originally after a labour relations board hearing nine months ago.
But there's no question they've put him, the league and his son, Gregory, in an uncomfortable position. Fired referee Dean Warren has suggested Gregory Campbell gets preferential treatment because of his father's job as NHL disciplinarian, and if that can be corroborated with other NHL officials and Warren can be shown to be more than an unhappy ex-employee, Campbell's position will have be compromised severely.
But we're not there yet, despite all the howls of outrage you're hearing. To me, the evidence we've heard is not nearly enough to force Campbell out. While it's entirely possible the Bettman administration will have to cut ties with Campbell, or that Campbell may decide as a father he needs to do some other work to make life easier for his son, this is a man who has been at the centre of controversy for years as isn't likely to curl up into the fetal position now. The NHL has shown, meanwhile, with Phoenix and other matters, that it tends to dig in its heels when things get controversial.
Out of all of this, the least convincing suggestion is that Campbell has to go in order to straighten out the NHL justice system. That's just naive. The owners set the parameters for NHL discipline, and Campbell has to work within those. His successor, or this theoretical panel of people that no other league feels compelled to use, would face the exact same bitter criticism unless the owners want to change the system.
Q: A friend of mine recently posted on facebook that he thinks Ron Wilson has "lost the dressing room." My theory? He's never truly had it. I think the current line-up is so inextricably linked to Brian Burke that it takes away some of the deference that should be afforded the coach of an NHL team, but Burke's personality overshadows the job, good or bad, that Wilson is doing. I think of all of these players have come to play for Burke and the vision that he's selling them. Komisarek, Armstrong, Macarthur, Beauchemin. The rookie free agents he signed, and the players in trades like Phaneuf, Kessel and Versteeg. Then he'll throw out a salvo like he's in "trade talks" to rile up the masses. No other GM's do this, and no players sign with Washington to play for George McPhee. Maybe that's what it takes for players to sign with this sad-sack franchise, but I personally think it's doing Wilson no favours in the dressing room.
Any thoughts on that subject?
Michael Nugent, Toronto
A: An interesting theory. Burke, of course, didn't hire Wilson, although they've known each other for years. It's more Burke's team than Wilson, and Burke is clearly the face of the franchise. Whether that puts the two men in opposition to each other in terms of winning the confidence of the players is an intriguing notion. Certainly, Burke has always been known as a "players'" GM while Wilson has never been anyone's idea of a players' coach.
Q: Hi Damien. Mr. Burke went hard after John Tavares a couple of drafts ago. Now that the Islanders are again showing their ineptness do you think Tavares may be looking for a ticket off the Isle and into Leaf land?
Neil Craig, Toronto
A: He might, but he's not going anywhere at least for this season and next. Beyond that, he'll be a restricted free agent when his entry level deal expires. You could make a case the overall ineptitude of the franchise might make he want to get out, but that would be easier said than done. He could try to force his way out like Phil Kessel did in Boston, but that was easier given the fact the Bruins were willing to move Kessel. The Isles won't want to let Tavares go, and can match any offer sheet he gets.
Q: The trade that brought Versteeg to the Leafs and sent Stalberg to the Blackhawks is getting a lot of analysis these days. As I was reading one of your columns earlier this week, a thought came to mind. I am having trouble coming up with a role player that was either signed as a free agent or traded from a team that had won the Cup the year before that was not an overpriced bust. Again, I have not really researched to see if my recollection is correct, but if it is, then my theory would be that anyone other than the top two or three players on a Stanley Cup roster will likely never achieve a similar level of success on another team. I have heard many comments that Versteeg is struggling because he doesn’t have the Blackhawk stars around him and that Stalberg is having a good year because he does. Wouldn’t logic suggest that if that is true then they are basically interchangeable players for the two clubs, which in turn would suggest that paying a higher price for Versteeg is a less efficient use of cap space than having kept Stalberg?
Don’t get me wrong, I like Burke and hope that things work out. However, by adding Versteeg and Giguere for a premium because they have rings and selling the farm to bring in Kessel, is it possible that the Toronto pressure cooker has gotten into Burke’s head? Throw in continuing to hold on to a coach and coaching staff that are well beyond their expiration date and I am starting to question whether or not Burke is as unflappable as he is thought to be. Thoughts?
Stephen Sims, St. Catharines
A: Well, you've made about nine different points there. Let me focus on Versteeg for Stalberg. Both are 24 years old, Stalberg, who was playing on the same line last night as Kane and Jonathan Toews, is having a slightly better season right now, although it's early. The Leafs have Versteeg this year and next at $3.083 million, while Stalberg is in the final year of a deal that pays him $850,000 per season. If he can score 20 goals this season, he'll be looking at a new contract in the neighborhood of $2.5 million to $3 million next year, just like Matt Stajan and Ian White both hit big paydays in Calgary after being traded from Toronto. Versteeg has already played in the playoffs and shown he can be effective, Stalberg will likely get that chance next spring. So this is a trade that will take time to play out. Still, both teams got what they wanted. The Leafs wanted some experience and a more North American look, the Hawks needed cap relief.
Q: Hi Damien,
With the revamping of the all-star game in the news these days I'd love to hear your opinion on this idea to revamp the playoffs.
Instead of basing the match-ups automatically on the standings (e.g. #1 vs. #8) how about having the GM of the top seeded teams select their opponent from the bottom seeds? You still keep home ice advantage for the teams that would get it (owners would like this) and you get to put GMs to the test (or at least give the fans more opportunities to second guess them) as they pick the opponent they think they have the best chance of beating. It also would add a little something to the match-ups immediately as the lower seeded teams will feel disrespected that the other team thinks they are the easiest potential opponent. I think you could even run and televise the selection process (similar to the draft) creating perhaps more drama and interest in the playoffs (which the league brass would be in favor of). Thoughts?
Kris Thiele, Kingston
A: Might be fun for the fans. But the league, owners and GMs wouldn't go for it in a million years.
Q: Damien, all of the scoring pressure seems to be on the Leafs top two lines. I appreciate that is the scoring lines primary focus, but what about the Leafs denfense? They have a grand total of two goals which is last in the league. Should that group not be at least middle of the pack?
David T, London
A: Agreed, and wrote about this earlier this week. Schenn did get one on Tuesday, but to me, it's Kaberle, who gets more power play time than anybody, is the one who should be contributing more. He has no goals.
Q: Hi Damien,
Big fan of the columns all the way over here in England.
What I wanted to ask is why do you think Wilson and Burke won't use Kadri as a winger? It seems a good move to me at the moment for a few reasons. Firstly although he has bulked up this year (apparently) Kadri doesn't have the size and presence to play as an NHL center yet. He is however, lightning fast, with quick hands and good puck-handling. What better way for him to find his feet by temporarily relieving him of some defensive responsibility? Once he becomes confident on the ice and starts to score goals, they could then move him back as see how he develops.
I won't start on how horribly Kadri was treated before this year by Wilson.
Chris McHugh, Oxford, England
A: So Chris obviously wrote this before Kadri was moved into a left wing position upon arriving in Toronto. It seems to make sense in the short-term, and right now, the Leafs seem intent on playing the youngster significant minutes. But they need him (desperately) to be a centre over the long haul. When that switch comes - this year, next year - will be intriguing to see.