Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Free agent market is rather thin this year

Leaf fans expecting the team to make a big splash in the free agent market on July 1 may be underwhelmed.  It won't be from lack of trying but rather from a lack of talent.  The marketplace has changed considerably since the lockout year.  Before the lockout many players reached free agency beyond their prime years but without a cap it didn't matter to big market teams.  They overpaid aging stars and didn't worry about value for money.

Players now reach free agency at much younger ages and GMs are not about to lose stars during their most productive years.  Over the last few years teams have locked up franchise players at young ages for what amounts to their prime years.  Leaf fans who expected to see a Rick Nash or Mike Richards in Toronto as free agents were disappointed to see them sign career contracts with their respective teams.  In fact, former Leaf GM, John Ferguson, had designed his contracts to allow for plenty of cap space for when these players became available for free agency.

So the Maple Leafs again enter a new season without a real franchise player, but plenty of cap space and not much to choose from. The Leafs desperately need a #1 centre but none are available. The only big star is Ilya Kovalchuk and only because he rejected a long-term contract from Atlanta.  The Leafs already have a #1 left winger who will be paid almost half of what Kovlachuk wants and is 6 years younger.

The top ten free agent forwards include Alexei Ponikarovsky and Lee Stempniak which tells you how thin this group is. The free agent defensemen on the market look more promising.  Unless there is a last minute signing today those available tomorrow include Sergei Gonchar, Paul Martin, Dan Hamhuis, and Anton Volchenkov.  The market for goalies is incredible considering only 3 teams are shopping for a starting goalie - Tampa Bay, San Jose and Philadelphia.  Some decent goalies will be looking at backup roles and then try to outplay the incumbent starter to get more ice time.

So what will Brian Burke do?  My guess is he will grab at least one centre for his 2nd or 3rd line and to provide more depth. He could take a chance with Ollie Jokinen but I think Burke would not be happy with an underachiever as his top centre after purging his team of most of its deadwood.  Instead he will sign a big name defenseman and use his excess defensemen to trade for a #1 centre.  Can he do it?  Well if you can pick up Dion Phaneuf for spare parts then there must be a decent centre out there that is available for a top 4 defenseman. It likely won't be Marc Savard.  Although the $4 million cap hit is not too bad, the length of his contract, his no-trade clause, and his concussion history makes Savard pretty tough to move.  Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli panicked earlier in the year when he made the contract offer to Savard.  The Bruins were struggling offensively and he was viewed as their top offensive threat. In hindsight he appears to be regretting the signing.

Nonetheless Burke intends on making some noise this weekend.  Remove the salaries of Tomas Kaberle and Jeff Finger and the Leafs have $20 million to work with.  That means that despite Burke's denials, Kovalchuk is a possibility.  He is the only true gem in the marketplace this summer.

Parents suing hockey league and coaches for cutting sons

If you've  played sports then you likely have been cut from a team at some point. Sometimes it's a numbers game. Sometimes we're just not good enough. Sometimes its just politics.

In the end, we just suck it up, come to the realization that it wasn't meant to be and either move on to something else or work harder to make the team next time.

Well the Toronto Star reports that in the Greater Tornoto Hockey League (GTHL),  two parents found it very difficult to swallow when there kids were cut from the local hockey team.

Parents of two GTHL players are each suing the league, one of its clubs and four coaches for $25,000 because their sons were cut from a midget junior A team in April. They claim the conduct of all defendants destroyed the dignity of their sons, whom in good conscience gave the team nothing but their best efforts.  The league's defense is the obvious one in regards to a tryout: Over 70 players attempted to make the 17-man roster.Not everyone can make the team.  I've been there.  It's no fun. 

By the way both boys will be playing on another team this fall.  Something they either forgot to tell the newspaper or perhaps the reporter didn't think was important enough to go into the article.

Yes these parents are idiots and hockey is full of these types of parents.  They scream at players, officials and coaches. And there loads of awful coaches.  Two of these coaches had been serving suspensions for tampering (recruiting players before tryouts begin).  Tryouts are often a farce because all the spots on the team have been promised to players already.  Many coaches are abusive to kids and officials and get away with it.  And then there is the GTHL which condones much of this.  I've seen it all.  Adults are destroying kids hockey.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Scouting Report: Brad Ross

Although Brian Burke had indicated that he wasn't interested in regaining a 1st round pick, indications are that he was trying but the asking price was Tomas Kaberle.  Burke is interested in more than a draft pick for Kaberle.  He eventually landed a 2nd round pick. With Chicago having five of them, Burke was able to pull a deal that sent unsigned prospect Jimmy Hayes (60th overall in 2008) to the Hawks (who had just drafted Jimmy's brother Kevin) for the 43rd overall pick.

With the 43rd overall, the Leafs took agitator Brad Ross who played 71 games for Portland Winterhawks scoring 27 goals, 41 assists and 68 points. But what interested Burke was the 203 penalty minutes which was tops in the WHL. The 6'1, 167 lbs left winger played along side of 1st round draft picks Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Johansen for Portland and is considered one of the most hated players in the WHL.

You may have heard that he is being compared to Darcy Tucker who at the same age had 31 goals and 89 points for Kamloops Blazers. But Ross is not just a player who mouths off to opponents and gets into fights. He is not Dan Carcillo or Steve Ott or Matt Cooke.  Ross plays the game in both ends of the rink and works hard in every game. The plus side about Ross is that not only is he expected to get into the other team's heads, he also carries an offensive upside that deserves more credit than he gets. He is a few years away from wearing a Maple Leaf.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The man who owns Paul Henderson's iconic jersey

Meet Mitchell Goldhar. He owns SmartCentres, a private real-estate development company in the city of Vaughan, and is part owner of Calloway Real Estate Investment Trust. SmartCentres owns more than 160 shopping centres across Canada. Goldhar, who helped bring Wal-Mart to Canada in 1994, also sits on the boards at Indigo Books & Music Inc. and the SickKids Foundation in Toronto. In 2008, Canadian Business listed Goldhar as the 50th richest person in the country, worth an estimated $1.06 billion.

Goldhar has some rich childhood memories of the 1972 Summit Series. He remembers sitting in the gymnasium at his Toronto elementary school, crouched around a small TV set with his schoolmates and teachers. The building was silent and eyes were glued to the final game. He was 11 years old at the time. Now he own the ultimate collector's item for just $1.2 million.

The sweater was put up for auction by an anonymous American owner a month ago, setting off a wave of nationalism as companies such as Canadian Tires, the Forzani Group Ltd., Molson and the Jim Pattison Group lobbied to have it returned to Canada.The bidding started at $10,000, and seemed to sputter out around $200,000 late last week. The deadline was 9 p.m. Tuesday, but would-be buyers were allowed to keep bidding by phone and Internet until all action had stopped for 10 minutes. Mr. Goldhar said he didn’t put in his first bid of about $350,000 until three minutes before the 9 p.m. deadline.
Mr. Goldhar put in his final bid at about 1 a.m., then fell asleep. He didn’t find out he’d won until he was awakened by a media telephone call at 6:30 a.m., having slept through the official notification that came by e-mail at 5:33 a.m.

So what will he do with the jersey now? Goldhar promises he'll take it on a national tour and loan it to different institutions — including the sports hall.
He dreams of people getting the chance to visit Henderson, posing with the sweater, at gathering points across the country.
He says he'd never charge anyone to see it, nor does he intend to sell it for profit.
I'm glad it's back in Canada.

Let's just hope he does the righ thing with it.

Breaking News: Toronto Maple Leafs introduce their 1st round draft pick

Yup here he is our first round draft pick for 2010, Phil Kessel. Come to think of it he is also the 2011 first round pick. And the 2010 second round pick. How would you like to be carrying that much baggage around the centre of the hockey universe?

Friday, June 25, 2010

The problem with Hockey Hall of Fame elections

There certainly are problems with the way that people are elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF).  But the process is very poorly understood.  So here is the process in a nutshell.

The HHOF board of directors appoints 18 individuals to a selection committee.  According the HHOF by-laws, those individuals must be knowledgeable of the game of hockey and its past and present players, builders, referees and linesmen.  So you have to be familiar with the different eras of hockey as well as international and amateur hockey.  Not too many fans meet this qualification.

There are 4 categories of a maximum number that can be elected each year from each category:  male players (4), female players (2), builders (1), referee or linesman (1). Builders include coaches, managers and executives. Players and officials must be retired for 3 years to be eligible (exceptions can be made for health reasons).  In the builders category they may be active or inactive.  You can have 2 builders elected if there is no referee/linesman elected and you can have 2 referees/linesmen elected if there is no builder elected.

The attributes to be considered are playing (or coaching, officiating, etc) ability, sportsmanship, character and their contribution to the team or teams (or organizations) and to the game of hockey in general.  Very general criteria and open to individual interpretation. There is no minimum standard for edibility so just about anyone involved in hockey is eligible.  The only limitation is the number of individuals that can be elected into the HHOF in a given year.

Each member of the selection committee can nominate 1 player, 1 builder and 1 referee/linesman. So, for example, the committee can only choose from a maximum of 18 players (assuming no 2 members nominate the same player). They each get to vote for 4 male players, 2 female players and 2 builders/referees/linesmen.   A candidate needs 14 votes to get elected into the Hall. There can be more than one round of balloting but those who do not receive at least  9 votes cannot stay on the ballot. It is a secret ballot so even the committee members don't know who voted for whom although there is supposedly considerable discussion to members could likely guess where votes were going. The section committee is required to keep the proceedings confidential.

So when fans complain how Daryl Seaman could have been picked over Doug Gilmour - well he wasn't.  Seaman is under the builder category and does not compete for votes with the players.  For me the problem is that over the years the bar has been set too low by the selection committee. Dino Ciccarelli was a very good hockey player who scored 608 goals which is good for 16th place on the list of career goal scorers.  But he was not an impact player. He scored over 50 goals twice in his career but in 1981-82 not only did he score 50 but so did 9 other players.  In comparison, in the 5 years since the lockout during a period when scoring was on an upswing, there have only been 14 50-goal scorers. Ciccarelli's numbers are inflated.  He was a good scorer but not a great player.  He never won an NHL trophy or the Stanley Cup.  When you consider his era, I can't understand how he got through.  But you could say that for many of the past selections.  There was 2008 when Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis and Ron Francis were inducted. But Mike Gartner (2001) and Joe Mullen (2000) were just good players with great stats.

The other issue for me is the selection process.  Although the selection committee is a great group of hockey people, I don't believe that a committee of 18 provides enough diversity.  As well, there is such a terrible lack of transparency.  Obviously the hockey hasn't got the emotional intelligence of sports like baseball to withstand public scrutiny. Yet it is just an allusion because each year the list of inductees are critiqued up to the yingyang despite not know who voted for whom.  In baseball, the voters proudly declare who they voted for and defend their votes.  In hockey you run and hide.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Predicting hockey deals is a fool's paradise

Trade rumours are generally the product of sports columnist with nothing to write about.  Once in a while a reporter will actually get a hot lead when an executive lets it slip that something is in the works but that is rare.  However, fans eat up the stuff and it becomes watercooler talk (are there still watercoolers in workplaces?) for days and weeks.

Take Damien Cox.  Last Friday he writes a column about 3 players that the Maple Leafs will be after - Nashville defenceman Dan Hamhuis, Florida winger Nathan Horton and Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp. Now he never says these moves will happen must suggests that they are players would love to acquire.  Now there are hundreds of players that the Leafs would happily put into a Toronto jersey so what Cox is really saying that these are targeted players.

The very next day the Philadelphia Flyers strike with Nashvillie sending defenceman Ryan Parent to the Preds for the rights to Hamhuis.  No doubt he will be signed to a long-term contract before July 1.  Then today Horton was traded to the Bruins for a 1st round pick, a 3rd round pick and Dennis Wideman. Anyone want to bet Sharp will be in a Leaf jersey next season?

Though I found the Horton deal fascinating.  He essentially replaces the offense of Phil Kessel although Kessel is 2 years younger and has two 30-goal seasons to Horton's one.  Also Horton is paid $1.4 million less than Kessel but coming off just a 20-goal season. With all the angst in Toronto over the Kessel trade, the Bruins paid almost as much for Horton who has yet to prove that he can be a consistent scorer in the NHL.

Scott Niedermayer retires

Niedermayer was one of the best defenseman to play the game.  He's the only player in hockey history to have won a Stanley Cup (4 to exact), Olympic gold medal (2), World Championship, World Cup, Memorial Cup and World Junior title.  He won the Norris Trophy in 2004 and the Conn Smythe in 2007.  One of his most memorable goals was this one in Game 2 of the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals.

Pat Quinn survives in Edmonton because of relationships not accomplishments

Oilers GM Steve Tambellini, pushing the timeframe by a year, has eased Pat Quinn into a senior advisory role and installed Tom Renney as head coach a year earlier than planned.  You don't fire friends, you just find them a new job.

Hockey is like a lot of other business, you find employment through your network. And Tambellini and Quinn go back quite a bit.

In 1988, the Canuck GM was Pat Quinn and he hired Tambellini (who had just ended his playing career with Vancouver) as the Director of Public and Media Relations. Tambellini rose through the Canuck organization until he jumped to Edmonton to take on the GM post there.  So essentially Tambellini's career as a hockey executive was kick-started by Quinn.  So obviously there is some level on indebtedness.  

Fast forward to 2006 and Pat Quinn had been dumped as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. After a three-year Quinn was unable to find another NHL coaching job although he did coach Team Canada's Spengler Cup, under-18 and junior teams.  So old his old pal Steve Tambellini comes to the rescue and names Quinn  the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers on May 26, 2009, replacing Craig MacTavish.  However, sensing that the game may have passed by his former mentor, Tambellini also hires Tom Renney as an Associate Coach.  The plan was to slowly transition to Renney and allow Quinn to leave the game with some dignity.  Not unlike the Blue Jays' handling of Cito Gaston. 

Reports after the season said that Quinn lost control of the locker room mid-season, and that Renney and Quinn had different approaches to each game and were not on the same page. Renney, however, is the right guy for this team. He is a players' coach and was able to establish himself as a respected person in the Oilers locker room.  Tambellini was left with little choice but to give the coaching job officially to Renney and find something else to keep Quinn busy.  Of course, Quinn was allowed to resign and save face.

I just hope by network of work associates takes care of me when I'm out there looking for some work.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Should Doug Gilmour be in the Hockey Hall of Fame

Yes but not because of his play with the Leafs.  Afterall he wasn't a Leafs for very long,  You have to look at his entire career.

He played 20 NHL seasons, so the longevity is there. 450 goals is acceptable for the Hall of Fame, while his near 1000 assists and over 1400 points are outstanding. That places him 17th all time, and that has to mean the Hall of Fame is a certainty.

He was an important player on the 1989 Stanley Cup championship in Calgary. He carried Toronto to two consecutive final four appearances in the 1990s, as well as two more in St. Louis several years before that. He is seventh all time in Stanley Cup playoffs scoring, 5th in terms of assists. His points per game production actually increased in the playoffs.

Not sure why he isn't in already.  Although 2007 and 2009 were deep years, 2006 and 2008 were not. I would guess those ugly  off-ice issues in St. Louis may be in the back of the minds of some voters.  I'm sure his time will come.

Goalie glut this summer

We are going to see a glut of goalies on the free agent market this summer which might mean some pretty good buys. Not a lot of teams are looking for starting goalies and no one spends much on backup which is why Andrew Raycroft may continue to find employment in the NHL.  Here is the class of 2010 for free agent (unrestricted) goalies:

Dan Ellis, Chris Mason, Ray Emery, Evgeni Nabokov, Marty Turco, Vesa Toskala, Martin Biron, Antero Niittymaki, Alex Auld, Andrew Raycroft, Johan Hedberg, Patrick Lalime, Michael Leighton, Manny Legace, Wade Dubielewicz, and Joey MacDonald.

There is a fair amount the choose from.  Below are the tentative #1 goalies for all 30 NHL teams. Keep in mind that the RFAs but are expected to resign with their respective teams. Certainly I expect that both San Jose and Philadelphia will likely upgrade through free agency and there is lots to choose from. Many of the goalies above would love to be a starting goalie but they will have to come in with reasonable salary demands to get their wish. Not only that but I can also see Tim Thomas put on the trade market just one season after winning a Vezina.

Pacific Division
Anaheim Ducks: Jonas Hiller
Dallas Stars: Kari Lehtonen
Los Angeles Kings: Jonathan Quick/Jonathan Bernier
Phoenix Coyotes: Ilya Bryzgalov
San Jose Sharks: Thomas Greiss

Central Division
Chicago Blackhawks: Antti Niemi (RFA)
Columbus Blue Jackets: Steve Mason
Detroit Red Wings: Jimmy Howard/Chris Osgood
Nashville Predators: Pekke Rinne
St. Louis Blues: Jaroslav Halak (RFA)

Northwest Division
Calgary Flames: Miikka Kiprusoff
Colorado Avalanche: Craig Anderson
Edmonton Oilers: Nikolai Khabibulin
Minnesota Wild: Niklas Backstrom
Vancouver Canucks: Roberto Luongo

Atlantic Division
New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist
New York Islanders: Dwayne Roloson/Rick Dipietro
New Jersey Devils: Martin Brodeur
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Boucher
Pittsburgh Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury

Northeast Division
Boston Bruins: Tukka Rask/Tim Thomas
Buffalo Sabres: Ryan Miller
Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price (RFA)
Ottawa Senators: Brian Elliott
Toronto Maple Leafs: Jean-Sebastian Giguere

Southeast Division
Atlanta Thrashers: Ondrej Pavelec (RFA)
Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward
Florida Panthers: Tomas Vokoun
Tampa Bay Lightning: Mike Smith
Washington Capitals: Semyon Varlamov

Friday, June 18, 2010

Would you hire Dion Phaneuf?

After Dion Phaneuf was named the 18th captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday, the Toronto Star asked readers what they would ask the team’s new leader if they had the chance.  The top 10 question were provided to Phaneuf who graciously did his best to answer them.  It was an opportunity to do some reflection but he did his best to try to stick with a particular message - the Leafs will make the playoffs and I'm not going to change the way I play the game. I was a little underwhelmed.

As I looked over the questions I thought that in some respects they were very similar to questions you might get in a job interview.  So I decided to tweak some of the questions to make them sound like interview questions for a foreman or team leader position in a business and tried to make his responses fit.  This is what I came up with:

Q: Previous supervisors in this department brought to the table many favourable attributes, yet they could not meets its perfomance targets. What do you bring that’s different that would help this department to achieve its goals?

A: I’m not going to change the way that I work or the way that I lead. I'm a guy who is going to lead by example. I want to be known as a guy who works hard day-in, day-out. I think I have that characteristic and I don’t want to change that. I think that’s probably the main way I’m going to lead, by example.

Q: How many years will it take for the department to return to be a top preformer?

A: To be honest with you, our goal from the start of next year is to meet our performance targets and that’s all we’re focusing on right now. Everyone is excited. Our goal next year is to be a perform at a high level.

Q: What will be your biggest challenge in motivating this team to achieving their goals?

A: I don’t think there’s going to be much of a challenge at all for us to be motivated to achieving our goals. Every guy in our departmentwants to meet our goals and that’s the bottom line.

Q: If you were to be the successful candidate for this position, what’s the one aspect of your own performance you think you need to change or improve?

A: Like I said, I’m not going to change the way that I work so I’m definitely not going to change anything in my approach. I’m going to get better and continue to learn. Every day I want to improve.

Q: As you know, the 5 years have been less than ideal for this company, and especially our customers. How would you, as a supervisor, plan to get this department out of the gutter and turn it into a high performing group in the next year or two? Customers love us, but are growing impatient.

A: The company has phenomenal customers. I want to do everything in my power to provider high quality service and, like I said, that’s our goal right away.

Q: Let's just say the department falls behind in achieving its goals; the effort has not been there and you need the pick things up. How would you get your group going?

A: You’re in that situation sometimes. You don’t want to be but you’re not going to be up at the end of every day or week. That’s the way business works. You’re not going to be perfect game every day but the important thing is to keep working, don’t change your approachand do what your goup does best. You don’t want to change your game plan, just keep going. Whether you’re down or whether you’re up, you want to work the same way.

Q: How annoying is it to have to deal with senior management? Do you not wish they would act rationally and ask poignant and intelligent questions for once?

A: It’s not difficult at all, to be completely honest with you. When you’re asked a question, all you can do is answer it and give the best answer you can.

Thank you very much Dion for coming in to meet with us.  We will get  back to you on our decision by the end of the week.  Good luck.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's Justin Pogge all over again

As I predicted in April, the Montreal Canadiens have decided to keep Carey Price and have traded Jaroslav Halak. As I mentioned the Canadiens are fully committed to Price and unwilling to give up on a goalie that is considered by some to become a franchise player.

The risks are high because Halak has proven that he can play with the best but Price has not. If he turns out to be a bust then in the minds of Canadien fans, this will be their version of trading Tuukka Rask and keeping Justin Pogge. That sting will hurt for quite a long time.  However, at least the Canadiens will not see much of Halak in the Western Conference unlike Rask who plays for a divisional rival.

It doesn't help that the players coming back form the St Louis Blues (Lars Eller and Ian Schultz) are totally unknown to Montreal fans.

UPDATE: Paul Henderson's 72 hockey summit jersey is still auctioning the actual jersey Paul Henderson wore in game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series.  The current high bid is $309,224.00 and the auction closes on June 22.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Dion Phaneuf era begins

When Brian Burke acquired Dion Phaneuf this past winter it was obvious almost immediately he would be named team captain before the new season began.  The team was desperate for a player with the right level of talent and presence to hang the "C" on and to change the culture ofthe team.  To a certain extent, the selection of Phaneuf also reflects the lack of candidates for captain.  Other than Phaneuf, would you pick?  Maybe Mike Komisarek.

Being a captain in Toronto has it's own set of challenges.  There is a very large mass of reporters that follow the team and require stories to feed a fan base that is hungry for Leaf news 365 day a year.  The captain becomes a spokesperson for the team. As you can see below from the statement Phaneuf read at yesterday's press conference, he has a long way to go in becoming comfortable in that role.  He was wooden and emotionless. Yet that will not sink him. Many of his predecessors were not great public speakers.  Both Sundin and Clark were pretty bland. They grew into the role.

However, Phaneuf comes with some baggage and throwing more on this young man's shoulders will not make life easier for him in Leaf Land.  He was a 1st round pick of Calgary, 9th overall in 2003. He played in the All Star game in 2007 and 2008 and has been a Norris Trophy finalist. Yet he became a salary dump by the Flames for a package of Leaf spare parts in a matter of 2 years. Although he continues to be a physical presence on the ice, other parts of his game have left him. He has gone from scoring 60 points in a season to just 32 last season including just 10 points in 26 games with the Leafs. At 25 he still has time to develop to his full potential but it will only be that much more difficult under the Maple Leaf microscope. I am one that believes he will do it.

History of Maple Leaf Captains

Hap Day, 1927–37
Charlie Conacher, 1937–38
Red Horner, 1938–40
Syl Apps, 1940–43
Bob Davidson, 1943–45
Syl Apps, 1945–48
Ted Kennedy, 1948–55
Sid Smith, 1955–56
Jimmy Thomson, 1956–57
Ted Kennedy, 1957
George Armstrong, 1957–69
Dave Keon, 1969–75
Darryl Sittler, 1975–79
No captain, 1979–80
Darryl Sittler, 1980–82
Rick Vaive, 1982–86
No captain, 1986–89
Rob Ramage, 1989–91
Wendel Clark, 1991–94
Doug Gilmour, 1994–97
Mats Sundin, 1997–2008
No captain, 2008-10
Dion Phaneuf, 2010– present

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 1989-90 Season

When Gord Stellick resigned in August of 1989, Harold Ballard offered the Leafs’ GM job to Frank Bonello, who was the GM of the Marlies Club that won the 1975 Memorial Cup. At the time Bonello was Director of the NHL Central Scouting Department. But Bonello asked for too much money and too much control for Ballard's liking. He tried Alan Eagleson who also said no. So Ballard did what he always did, look down the hall for a familiar face. That turned out to be the Chief Scout, Floyd Smith. At the Amateur Draft the Leafs pick Scott Thorton, Rob Pearson and Steve Bancroft all in the first round. Not one of the three make a significant contribution to the Leafs as professionals.

During the previous season under Stellick, the Maple Leafs finished 28-46-6, good enough for 62 points and the division-bottom finish Maple Leafs fans had become oh-so-accustomed to throughout the 1980s. But things changed when Smith assumed the post.

As the 1989-90 season progressed, the light went on for several of the Leafs’ players. Gary Leeman scored 51 goals (the second Leaf to reach 50 goals). Daniel Marois added 39, and Vincent Damphousse and Ed Olczyk (obatined in a trade for Rick Vaive) knocked in 33 and 32 respectively. Al Iafrate scored 21 from the blueline, and Tom Kurvers (yes, that Tom Kurvers) added 15 in the only season in which he looked to be worth the first-round pick that was exchanged for him. The Leafs finished 38-38-4 and made the playoffs, a remarkable turnaround from the previous season. The accomplishment was all the more astounding given that Wendel Clark played in only 38 games due to injury.

Part of the success was attributed to new coach Doug Carpenter who installed a run-and-gun type of offence that made the Gardens fans hop. The Leafs achieved a .500 record for the first time in the 1980’s and the team scored a whopping 337 goals, which was the second highest in the NHL. The Leafs had the 12th best record in the 21 team league. But unfortunately, the Leafs also allowed 358 goals against that season which was the third highest in the league. The team was undisciplined defensively and had weak goaltending, which was a recipe for disaster in the playoffs. Not surprisingly, the Leafs were eliminated in the first round in five games to the St. Louis Blues to end a decade of futility.

One of the most infamous bad trades in the history of the Leaf franchise went down on Smith's watch: a first round pick to New Jersey for Tom Kurvers. The deal was pulled off by Smith in the fall of 1989 when the Leafs were a mid-pack club. Neither the media, the fans or the club saw what was coming: in his second season as GM, the wheels completely fell off.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Leafs are one of a number of team with limited cap space

With the introduction of the salary cap most transactions in the NHL occur during the offseason.  On average teams have about 15 players under contract for the 2010-11 season and about $12 million remaining in cap space to sign 8 more players.  Atlanta, St. Louis and San Jose are on the low end with only 11 players signed. The difference is that San Jose more dollars committed to next season and some big decisions to make because a number of important players become free agents on July 1. On the other end Anaheim, Florida, Calgary and Columbus have very few players to sign. As for Anaheim, they have about $20 million in cap space with only 6 spots to fill although their list of free agents could shrink that amount significantly.

Chicago has some serious cap issues with only 14 players under contract but already over the cap for next season. In addition, Niemi must be signed.  This should lead to some interesting trades in the next month. Detroit has some about 10 spots to fill and only $10 million in cap space to play with.  A chunk of that will be needed if they plan on re-signing Holstrom and Bertuzzi.  Or the Wings may have to let them walk as was the case last season when Hossa, Kopecky, and Samuelsson left to sign elsewhere. Even more interesting will be the moves that Don Maloney makes in Phoenix.  He also needs to sign 10 players but has a whopping $28 million in cap space.  The question is whether the owner (the NHL, Ice Edge or some other party) allows him to spend to the cap.  However, Maloney did quite well last year with limited dollars.

The Maple Leafs also need to sign 10 players with only $12 million in cap space.  With the expected trade of Kaberle, that could expand the cap space to $16 million unless Brian Burke flips him for players instead of draft picks. However, he must also re-sign Kulemin and Gustavsson which will cost over $4 million. So Burke who wants to make a big splash in the free agent market will have to tweak his roster if he hands out a big contract to someone on July 1. As for Kaberle, the most talked about destination is New Jersey unless they work out a deal with Kovalchuk.  In which case they will have little cap space remaining.

Players Cap Hit Significant Free Agents
Anahiem 17  $   36.80 Niedermayer, Selanne, Koivu, Ryan
Atlanta 11  $   27.90 Kozlov, Kubina, Afinogeno
Boston 12  $   46.10 Wheeler, Satan
Buffalo 14  $   43.10 Torres, Lyndman, Tallinder
Carolina 15  $   41.70 Whitney
Calgary 17  $   49.10 White, Higgins
Chicago 14  $   57.50 Ladd, Madden, Niemi
Columbus 18  $   47.60
Colorado 12  $   28.30 Tucker, Svatos, Salei, Foote, Clark
Dallas 16  $   36.50 Modano, Lehtinen, Turko
Detroit 13  $   46.10 Holstrom, Bertuzzi, Williams, Helm
Edmonton 14  $   41.80 Pisani, Comrie, Gagner, Cogliano
Florida 17  $   46.60
Los Angeles 16  $   44.60 Frolov, Modin, Jones
Minnesota 15  $   45.20 Nolan, Boogaard
Montreal 14  $   45.70 Plekanec, Lapierre, Price, Halak
Nashville 16  $   41.20 Hamhuis, Ellis
New Jersey  15  $   41.10 Kovalchuk, Clarkson, Martin
NY Islanders 14  $   32.50 Weight
NY Rangers 14  $   45.60 Jokinen, Staal
Ottawa 16  $   49.60 Volchenkob, Cullen, Foligno, Sutton
Philadelphia 16  $   48.60 Emery, Leighton, Rathje
Phoenix 13  $   28.80 Aucoin, Morris, Schneider, Stempniak, Wolski
Pittsburgh 15  $   45.10 Guerin, Fedetenko, Ponikdarovsky, Gonchar
San Jose 11  $   35.70 Marleau, Nabokov, Pavelski, Setoguchi, Wallin
St. Louis 11  $   27.60 Kariya. Tkatchuk, Steen, Mason, Johnson
Tampa Bay 12  $   39.60 Tanguay, Downie, 
Toronto 13  $   44.20 Gustavsson, Kulemin, Van Ryn, Exelby
Vancouver 14  $   45.00 Demitra, Mitchell, Wellwood
Washington 13  $   32.60 Walker, Morrison, Corvo, Theodore

Thursday, June 10, 2010

How to build a winner in today's NHL

Building a championship team in the NHL is constantly evolving as the style of play and the type of player changes over time.  Now the existence of the salary cap is another factor to consider.

Prior to NHL expansion, the original six teams sponsored junior teams which feed players to the NHL clubs. Recruiting players for your junior teams (Toronto Marlies, St. Catherines Blackhawks, Hamilton Red Wings, etc.) was how you developed players for your NHL team and farm teams.  When the Amateur Draft was introduced and junior sponsorship ended, it put teams on an equal footing and ended the dominance of the Maple Leafs and Canadiens in signing players in Ontario and Quebec.

Since that time, general managers have had to use their wile to get a jump on the competition.  No surprise that the Maple Leafs and not been in a championship series since 1967.  In the 1970s the Flyers became the first expansion team to win a Stanley Cup by building a team that blended skill and physical intimidation. Soon other teams copied their style and they lost their advantage. In the 1980s the Oilers dominated not just because they owned Wayne Gretzky but because they were able to adapt the way the game was played in Europe to the NHL.  That style was adopted by others including the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

As expansion continued, coaches in expansion cities decided to adopt a defensive game to keep their teams competitive against skill teams and to save their jobs.  This style spread to small market teams who couldn't afford a team loaded with skill players.  The trap was born and the Devils became the model team. All you needed was a good system to stifle the opposition and a top notched goalie who doesn't give up soft goals.

The lockout and rule changes that followed killed the trap. Teams struggled to figure out how to put together a winner under a salary cap.  However, a pattern has begun to appear.  Just look at Tampa Bay, Carolina, Anaheim, Pittsburgh and Chicago.  Tampa Bay was 29th overall in both the 1999-00 and 2000-01 season and won the Stanley Cup in 2003-04.  Carolina was 30th overall in 2002-03 and won the Cup in 2005-06.  Anaheim was 26th overall in 2003-04 then won the Cup in 2006-07. Then Penguins finished 29th in 2002-03, 30th in 2003-04 and 29th in 2004-05 before going on to win the Cup in 2008-09. Finally Chicago finishes 29th in 2003-04, 28th in 2005-06 and 26th in 2006-07 yet won the Cup in 2009-10. 

The formula for a Stanley Cup is to move out your veterans, finish with lottery picks for 2 or 3 years, then bulk up by filling out your roster through free agency. Most of these team have won Cups with young stars (Staal, Perry, Geflatz, Crosby, Malkin, Toews, and Kane) well before their reach their prime.  The reason is economics.  While they are young, they are also cheap.  This allows teams to sign veterans to play with them.  However, as the young players sign more lucrative contracts, their teams must unload the secondary scoring which weakens the team and makes it next to impossible to repeat. Once you finish higher in the standings you don't get the opportunity to draft more impact players that can jump straight into your lineup with little economic impact.  Chicago must dump salaries next season which means a weaker lineup.  It happened to Pittsburgh and Anaheim.  Detroit tried to buck the trend by convincing players to stay with the organization and accepting contracts below their market value. However, this past season several players refused and signed elsewhere (Hossa, Kopecky, Samuelsson).

Which brings me to the Maple Leafs.  Brian Burke has decided to short circuit the process by using draft picks to bring in younger quality players.  So a 29th overall finish this season will not result in an impact player.  Instead the Leafs acquire Phil Kessel who is only 22 years old but is paid $5.4 million.  They bring in Dion Phaneuf who is only 24 years old but is paid $6.5 million.  When you are paying your young stars big dollars, it limits the players you can bring in to play around them.  Which means the likelihood of the Maple Leafs reaching the Stanley Cup finals is not good.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Curse of Frank Mahovlich continues

The Chicago Blackhawks win their 4th Stanley Cup tonight which ends a 49 year championship drought for the Blackhawks. Back in 1960-61 Chicago was anchored by a 21 year old Bobby Hull as well as Stan Makita, Pierre Pilote, Kenny Wharram, Murray Balfour, Bill Hay and Glen Hall.

With the Chicago victor, that leaves the Toronto Maple Leafs with the longest running Stanley Cup drought - 43 long years. Though since Los Angeles and St. Louis have never won the Cup since joining the NHL 43 years ago, they share drought title with the Leafs.  For Buffalo and Vancouver, it is 40 years.

The Curse of Frank Mahovlich lives on!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Will Brian Burke go after Ilya Kovalchuk?

He made not be able to snare him but there is no question in my mind that the Maple Leafs will actively pursue Kovakchuk on July 1 if he doesn't re-sign with New Jersey.  This is a $100 million contract but Burke will likely be able to accommodate him.  The Leafs desperately need scoring and after giving up the farm for Phil Kessel Burke needs to get better fast. 

So is he worth it?  At 27, Kovalchuk is still considered young.  In his worst season, he scored 29 goals but he was only a rookie.  He has scored 40 or more 6 season and twice hit the 50-goal mark. This is as gifted a scorer as there is in the NHL. Players like Kovalchuk almost never become free agents.  Carolina locked in Eric Staal.  Tampa locked in Vincent Lecavalier.  Columbus locked in Rick Nash.  Philadelphia locked in Mike Richards.  Washington did the same with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. So yes the Leafs will be after him and so they should.  But despite the high price tag there will be many suitors including the New Jersey Devils who have exclusive negotiating rights up until July 1.

Paul Henderson's 72 hockey summit jersey is up for auction have an all new and always fascinating auction running now through June 22nd, 2010: The actual jersey Paul Henderson wore in game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series.

Described as "the most significant artifact in the history of the game of hockey," this is of course the jersey Henderson scored arguably the most goal in the game's glorious history - the goal that won the 1972 Summit Series with just 34 seconds left.

Bidding for the jersey has just started, opening at $10,000. It is currently at $211,202. Henderson apparently gifted the jersey to Team Canada trainer Joe Sgro. He sold it to one collector, who in turned sold it to another who is now offering it up for auction. No price history is publicly available on the jersey. The previous highest game worn jersey sale of $191,000 for a Bobby Orr rookie jersey.

The Department of Canadian Heritage may have an interest in acquiring Paul Henderson's jersey. Funds are available to assist with the purchase of important cultural property threatened with export or to purchase cultural property that has been lost to Canada. This wing of the Canadian government has spent large sums of money to acquire items, often war related, for Canadian museums.

Michael Badad of the Globe and Mail says department store giant Canadian Tire is about to make a big opening bid for Paul Henderson's 1972 Summit Series jersey.

Henderson wants to see the jersey returned to Canada, and not in a private collection. He wants it accessible for all hockey fans to enjoy. If their bid is successful, the jersey will go on tour in every corner of the country, visiting each of the 480 Canadian Tire stores in the country, giving the Canadian public a chance to see the jersey. Then Canadian Tire would lend the jersey to sports and hockey museums including the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame for the benefit of all Canadian

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 1988-89 Season

The 1988-89 was best remembered as the Gord Stellick season. Stellick was a well-liked, personable young man who has worked his way up in the Leaf organization but over his head as the general manager of a professional sports franchise. He was just 30 years old, the youngest GM in NHL history. At the Amateur Draft the Leafs pick Scott Pearson 6th overall who turns out to be a dud.

Once again the Leafs finished 19th out of 21 teams and out of the playoffs with a pathetic record of 28-46-6. They were managed by a inexperienced rookie, coached by an unqualified veteran and with no captain. The team has still not replaced Rick Vaive.

Brophy who had been feuding with the previous general manager, Gerry McNamara, had hoped to replace McNamara but instead the job went to Stellick. Brophy didn't last much longer as coach. After an equally poor start to the 1988–89 season, and despite being a favourite of Leafs owner Harold Ballard, Brophy was fired in December 1988, 33 games into the season. He was replaced by George Armstrong. Armstrong had coached the 1974-75 Toromto Marlies to a Memorial Cup Championships. Throughout that season he had repeatedly tried to quit because he hated coaching. Ballard repeatedly tried to get Armstrong to sign a multiple year contract but he would have none of that.

Stellick made an effort to rebuild the team but he also made what I thought was one of the worst trades in the history of the Maple Leaf franchise. He traded Russ Courtnall to Montreal for John Kordic. Courtnall was a gifted skater and decent scorer who had been playing on the "Hound" line with Wendel Clark and Gary Leeman. The previous season, Brophy had attempted to get him to play a more physical game which caused a drop off in his offensive production. That partly may have led to the trade for an enforcer. Kordic had drug and alcohol problems as well as a terrible temper. Courtnall played 10 more seasons after the trade while Kordic died on August 8, 1992, after overdosing on drugs and being involved in a struggle with police at his hotel. He was just 27 years old.

Gord Stellick who had repeatedly stood up to Ballard throughout the season resigns in August rather than give in to the whims of the owner.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gary Bettman still opposes a second team in Toronto

Last night was the annual debate argument fight between Gary Bettman and Ron MacLean on the CBC Stanley Cup telecast. The CBC pays the NHL $100 million to telecast hockey and for their money they get a belligerent Commissioner to come on air each year. If you missed it the entire 9 minute encounter can be found below. The highlight for me was the discussion regarding a second team in this market (at the 6:40 mark).  MacLean asks about Southern Ontario, and Bettman throws Winnipeg and Quebec City in his face wondering why MacLean doesn't want to "right the wrongs" of previous relocations and wants to focus on the Toronto market instead. In my mind Bettman is happy to play the bad guy for the Maple Leafs. The truth came out in the Phoenix bankruptcy court which is that the Leafs are strongly opposed to another team encroaching on their territory. Bettman will defend the Leafs' market so that MLSE doesn't alienate their frustrated fan base.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tomas Kaberle should be looking for a real estate agent

It was well reported today following an interview on Rogers Sportsnet that Brian Burke has received two inquiries regarding Tomas Kaberle. He characterized them as more than just nibbles.  Now this in itself shouldn't get people too excited since GMs periodically check in on the status of Kaberle. Except this time maybe things are different.

In the past Burke has stated that he wasn't looking to trade Kaberle and that a team would have to knock his socks off before he would consider making a deal.  He still says he isn't looking to trade Kaberle but he did ask Dave Nonis to send a note to all teams explaining how exactly Tomas’ no-trade works.

Why would you lay out the rules of engagement to other GMs if there wasn't a for sale sign around Kaberle's neck. This pre-emptive more is intended to generate more interest and better offers. By the way he can be traded from the start of the Entry Draft (June 25) until August 15.  So stayed tuned.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Nice hit Carcillo, too bad it was Jeff Carter

Dan Carcillo tries to hit Tomas Kopecky but misses and levels teammate Jeff Carter.