Thursday Mail Bag
So easily satisfied. That's got to be the part that drives Ron Wilson nuts.
No wonder he bolted a post-game press conference after Wednesday's loss to Pittsburgh after being asked why Sidney Crosby had been so effective in a 5-2 Penguins win.
"He competes!" said Wilson, intimating the same could not be said about his top forwards.
Correct. By contrast, no one has yet exuded over the work ethic of Phil Kessel, and until that happens, Kessel won't be accorded a place among the elite players of the game. Kessel needs to lead with more than just skating ability, but that just doesn't happen on a regular enough basis, and it sure didn't happen in Pitt on Wednesday night.
Was he alone? No. It sure seemed quite a few Leaf forwards showed up thinking that after shootout wins over the Bruins and Caps, this was a night they wouldn't be required to deliver a top-notch effort.
After all, they'd won two in a row. That counts as a streak 'round here.
But while Kessel wasn't alone, he needs to set the tone, the pace. Generally, he doesn't, nor does he usually make it his business to explain why afterwards, and those are just some of the differences that set the likes of Crosby apart.
Two other quick points before we get to this week's mail bag.
First, Nazem Kadri needs another trip to the AHL to work on his game. Unfortunately, Toronto being Toronto, this suggestion will be interpreted as some kind of a slam against the young man, and if it were to actually happen, "KADRI DEMOTED" would be the screaming headlines, suggesting failure on Kadri's part.
But that wouldn't be the case. He just needs to continue to develop his game, work on being the offensive force he needs to be. Give him another 20 games with the Marlies, then bring him back again. It's all part of the process.
Finally, how about Don Cherry's bizarre political performance this week?
He's our very own Sarah Palin, disguising one nutty, half-baked or erroneous idea after another as so-called "straight talk." But here's the part that bugs. Cherry loves to talk about how the Memorial Cup shouldn't be called the Mem Cup because it takes away from the military history of the trophy, and turns every Remembrance Day into a lengthy pro-soldier episode of Coach's Corner.
I'm good with all of that. We should honor and support our soldiers if as a country we choose to send them into harm's way.
What he seems to miss, however, is that all these soldiers have fought for our freedom, and that means freedom of thought, of belief, of opinion, of political philosophy.
It means they fought, and fight, for the right of Canadians to live in a democracy and to look at the world in a different way from Don Cherry. They fought, and fight, for people to be "pinkos" if they want to be without being insulted for their political beliefs or made to feel as though they are somehow unpatriotic.
Sadly, Cherry doesn't get that. He just sees the guns and the glory.
Now on to this week's mail bag:
Q: There hasn't been much hoopla about Mike Komisarek's lack of playing time in the last two Leaf games(averaging around ten minutes, the least time of all the D). When he does get on the ice, he looks lost. Anything we don't know here?
Al Hanrahan, Pictou, N.S.
A: It's pretty clear Komisarek has slipped to No. 6 on the Leaf blueline depth chart. He played 10:35 against Pittsburgh, and has played that amount or less for the past three games. With Dion Phaneuf likely back tonight against the Flyers or Saturday against Montreal, it becomes an open question as to which defenceman will be the odd man out. Given that Phaneuf and Komisarek both play the right side, that would be the obvious switch, although embarassing a vet like Komisarek at this point in the season would be a signficant decision for head coach Ron Wilson. The easier path would be to dress seven defencemen or sit Carl Gunnarson, who has been average at best this season. As to why Komisarek has struggled, in my mind, he hasn't been the same player since, he fought Milan Lucic while with the Canadiens several years ago. He wrecked his shoulder in that tussle and has never been able to recapture his game since. Shoulder surgery earlier this year may have fixed the physical problem, but he's still struggling.
Q: Hey Damien,
What moves do you see the Leafs making once Dion is back in the lineup? I imagine Aulie will get sent back down to the AHL despite his decent play. Perhaps his play has eased any tensions Burke may have had about putting one or two D-men on the trading block. Which Leaf D do you think hold the most trade value at the moment?
Cam Calderon, Toronto
A: To continue the Phaneuf/Komisarek discussion, I can't see sending Aulie back, although he played less in Pittsburgh and is now minus-5 on the season. He's playing a simple game, but usually an effective one. At some point, the Leafs may look to move one of their blueliners, particularly if they're seeing progress with Simon Gysbers or Juraj Mikus with the Marlies. Down the line there's also Jesse Blacker, a late add to the national junior camp. The D-man with the most value right now would be Luke Schenn, but obviously, he's not going anywhere. Francois Beauchemin is the next most appealing to other teams, and there have been nibbles. Right now, however, the Leafs seem to believe his calm, veteran dressing room presence is something they need far more than another young player or prospect.
It's intriguing, by the way, which Leaf blueliners seem to attract the most criticism. These days, it's Komisarek first, and Beauchemin second. Tomas Kaberle, meanwhile, just skates through, scot-free, just the same as always. This is a defenceman who plays every single power play yet doesn't yet have a goal. When the Penguins got their 2-on-0 shorthanded break last night, it was with Kaberle playing matador at the Pittsburgh blueline. His next bodycheck will be his first in several seasons. He commands absolutely no respect from enemy attackers in the Leaf goal crease area. Yet not a word is ever said about the play of St. Tomas. Remarkable.
If you were a Leafs fan, how would you judge the performance of the Leafs for the entire season? Would it just be by wins and losses and by association their place in the standings or would it be more on things like looking for improvements in the performance of certain key players? If it is players which ones would you be most focussed on?
Neil Poutanen, Guelph
A: I think you judge it all. It's how you weight things is what matters. To me, all decisions you make should be based on making this a winning team in three years and a contender in five. That doesn't mean you don't try to win now at all, because through victories and success, you build confidence and and experience. To me, you're looking for individual players to learn the game and improve, and for there to gradually be an identifiable team attitude and personality that will be strong and vibrant when the team gets better. Which players? All of 'em. But naturally, this is a team that will need Phaneuf and Kessel to become marquee stars if it is to become a strong club.
Q: Damien, two questions, firstly; why have the Leafs not placed any of injured players on LTIR? All the teams over cap are doing it to remain cap compliant, why aren't the Leafs doing it to increase the War Chest? Second Question: With Keith Aulie playing do you think the Leafs might entertain the thought of inserting Dion Phaneuf as a centre on the Kessel line? He is big and strong and not afraid to stand in front of the other team's net? Appreciate your thoughts and enjoy your writing. Thanks.
Stephen Seymour, London
A: Well, the Leafs are well below the cap. Can't see what benefit LTIR would do. Second, Phaneuf as a centre is the same as Kaberle as a forward, which we all hear from time to time. Three years ago, Phaneuf was a Norris Trophy candidate. Now he should be a forward? Don't think so. Could he play up front and be effective? Possibly. But defence is where you want him to shine. Moving him up to the front of the net during power plays, however, if something you're going to see again once he returns.
Q: Damien, Burke says Toronto fans always blame the coach but never the players but when when we boo Phaneuf, Burke appears in media admonishing us for having done so and saying this never happened in Vancouver. So which is it? He now refuses to appear on HNIC and the FAN590. Is it fair to say that B.B. is starting to crack under the pressure that is the "Vatican of Hockey"????
Brian Campbell, Toronto
A: I get your point about Wilson and Phaneuf, and I'd say you're right. But basically this is a GM desperately trying to protect his coach and players, even to the point of deflecting the criticism on to himself. As far as cracking under the pressure, don't think so. He hasn't been talking to the FAN590 morning show because he didn't like something that was said about his late son several weeks ago, but he has talked to officials at the station and is certainly not boycotting it. Re HNIC, his dispute is with Ron MacLean over a number of issues, but again, he's not boycotting the show. Look, like Burke or not, no one would disagree that he is the most accessible Leaf GM in years. That said, he's allowed to say "thanks, but no thanks" once in a while, isn't he?
Q: Hi Damien: I enjoy reading your comments here in England. My question concerns Leaf player numbers. Does the player or team assign sweater numbers? I don't understand why players have such high nubers when a series of low numbers are unassigned. I am thinking of Bozak, Kadri, Kulemin and Aulie.
Al Stray, Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK
A: Usually the team, but veterans can ask for specific numbers. With the higher numbers, often they go to young players. Sometimes, those players request lower numbers sometimes they keep what they have. I'm pretty sure Kadri, to name one, will be looking for a different number at camp next fall.
Q: Hi Damien,
I'm watching the Leafs/Bruins game on CBC and they've got the super-slow-mo happening (love it!). I'm just wondering: does a goal count if a goalie catches it behind the goal line? Thomas appears to have stopped a Kadri backhand redirection behind the line, with no review. Good save? Or should that be a goal? It's frustrating no one's even mentioning it; because it's Tim Thomas in goal, everyone assumes he just stops everything and it's good (or maybe because it's the Leafs, no one expects them to score).
Ian Gray, Toronto
A: If a goalie is detected catching the puck behind the goal line, it's a goal. That said, it's a very difficult call since the puck usually isn't visible. We saw this in the '06 Olympics when Switzerland's Martin Gerber made a spectacular glove save on Rick Nash of Canada, but later still pictures seem to show Gerber's glove was well over the line.
Q: Hi Damien. 2 things. I saw an interesting show about Dallas Eakins doing an intense mountain bike race. Really cool. I wish more people in sports were showcased like that.
Secondly, I have heard a lot about Eakins being a good coach that the Leafs cannot hope to keep coaching in the minors. Wilson has a losing record in his few years with the Leafs and I don't see that changing now. Is Eakins looking at the big club and wondering, if this is not his chance, when will it be? Is he going to get impatient and run off the first chance he gets to coach another NHL team?
It seems a little bit like when JFJ had Paul Maurice waiting in the wings, and as soon as he could blame the teams losing ways, dumped Pat Quinn and brought in Maurice...
Is Eakins the de facto future replacement for Wilson or are they going to weigh all the coaching options out there. If they went back to give Fletcher a second shot at GMing, are they going to do something else stupid like give Pat Quinn a coaching job again (Now that he is not doing anything important in Edmonton, not that changing him as coach had any impact on that team).
Basically, I want to know, are the Leafs running out of time to bring Eakins up? And if so, do they care if they let this fish go, knowing their might be many more in the sea?
Arthur Bailey, Red Lake
A: Eakins has done an excellent job this season with the Marlies and is well-liked within the organization. That said, giving a rookie coach his first NHL job as the head man in Toronto isn't going to be a formula for success. If that means another team snaps up Eakins, so be it. You can point to the success that Scott Arniel and Guy Boucher are having, but its much, much easier to break in as a first-year head coach in markets like Columbus and Tampa than Toronto. At the very least, Eakins would have to work as an assistant with the Leafs for a few seasons before getting a crack at the head job.
Q: Hey Damien, I was wondering if you could straighten out a puzzling notion I have about the leafs game plan.
Why aren't they playing a defensive style of hockey? I get that they have the youngest team in the league with young guys like Kessel, but that youngest team in the league isn't scoring goals with their 'high flying attack'. Moreover, it's costing them a ticket to 'the dance' (which is Burke's ultimate goal)and is likely dealing a huge blow to everyone's confidence, thus harming their developement. I think it can be assumed that the real fans of the leafs, myself included, would much rather see a boring 2-1 or 1-0 game in which they win, rather than a 7-4 or 5-0 travesty at the hands of teams like the Sabres or the Oilers. Their built from the net out, why aren't they taking advantage of that depth? It worked for Pat Burns, God rest his soul, 17 years ago, why couldn't it work now?
Ian Byrne, Morell, P.E.I.
A: I've written about this extensively in the past. Basically, that's not the style of hockey Ron Wilson believes in, and you've got to accord the guy respect for sticking to his guns. That said, to me they don't have the guns to play the way they want to play right now. I guess it's an investment in the future, but you have to wonder whether Wilson will be around to enjoy the fruits of this investment.
Q: The Marlies remain on fire. Who are 2 or 3 players on the team who you feel could be stars on the 2014 championship team Burke is trying to build?
Alex Vaickus, Toronto
A: Clearly, they believe Jerry D'Amigo will play in the NHL, and netminder Jussi Rynnas is certainly turning heads. After that, there aren't any blue chippers, but that doesn't mean no one will make it. Defencemen like Gysbers and Mikus, and forwards like Christian Hanson and Brayden Irwin, will all get their chances.
Q: Just wondering why Milwaukee never seems to be mentioned as a possible location for an NHL team. It has a hockey culture (U of Wisconsin), winter climate, established stadium and sports fans. Seems like a natural fit. Is it simply a case that a prospective owner has never emerged that wanted to place a team there? Or a case that Milwaukee is not "marquee" enough for the NHL? Or some combination thereof?
M L, Halifax
A: A couple of things. First, Milwaukee was an expansion candidate in the early 1990s right after Lloyd Petit build the Bradley Centre, but the city dropped out before Tampa Bay and Ottawa were awarded teams and really hasn't been heard from since. Part of that might be related to the fact Milwaukee is about 90 minutes from Chicago, and a team in that city might not be looking upon happily by the Blackhawks.