Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Maple Leaf lineup is all but set now

The offseason remake of the Maple Leaf roster is more or less complete now with the signing of Christian Hanson. That gives the Leafs 50 players under a pro contract if all junior-aged players are returned to their Junior team with the exception of Nazem Kadri who is expected to make the team. The collective agreement limits teams to signing 50 players to pro contracts.

A few weeks ago 2009 draft pick Jerry D’Amigo quit college after one season to try out for the Leafs. He is not expected to make the team and I also haven’t counted him as one of the 50 pro players so if he is assigned to the Marlies then Burke will have to make another move to reduce his player count. D’Amigo is still junior age and his playing rights are owned by the Kitchener Rangers. So the Leafs have the option to send him to Kitchener for the season.

When you look at the list of players who have a lock on a lineup position, you realize there really aren’t many spots up for grabs. The team is likely to carry 2 goalies, 7 defensemen and 14 forwards. Here are the players pretty much guaranteed a spot:

Goalies (2) – Giguere, Gustafsson

Defensemen (6) – Phaneuf, Komisarek, Beauchemin, Kaberle,

Schenn, Lebda

Forwards (11) – Armstrong, Bozak, Brown, Grabovski, Kadri, Kessel, Kulemin, MacArthur, John Mitchell, Orr, Versteeg

That leaves Gunnarsson, Finger, and Aulie competing for one spot. Up front you have Caputi, Hanson, D’Amigo, Irwin, Dale Mitchell, and Rosehill fighting for 3 spots with Sjostrom starting the season on injury reserve.

On paper the goaltending and defense look to be NHL calibre but not the forwards. However only Orr and Grabovski are older than 25 so this is a young lineup which has not yet reached its potential.

I’m sure some fans are hoping that the Leafs can surprise NHL opponents in the same way the Blue Jays competed this year in the American League East. But will it be enough to make the playoffs and avoid handing Boston another lottery pick? We shall soon see.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Hockey Summit

There are no games being played but hockey now operates 12 months solid. The time between the Amateur Draft and the start of training camps is a busy time. This year had the drama of the Kovalchuk signing (and non-signing) and the Kaberle non-trade. But the most significant event was the Hockey Summit this past week in Toronto.

Much what we heard isn't new but it did underscore that hockey has some big issues to deal with. The fact that the NHL is opening to tweaking the game is probably a good thing despite the noise coming from the "purists". There was a time when there were 7 players on the ice and the players used stick made from wood. Sports all evolve.

Here are what I believe are the most significant things coming out of the Summit:

1. Status of the game in North America and Europe

Hockey is in great shape in Canada and probably never been better in the U.S. Though in Canada the number of kids playing the game is flat and no longer growing. This partly reflects birth rates but also that even Canada kids are picking up other sports. However in Europe hockey is in trouble outside of Sweden and Finland. The number of elite players coming out of Russia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic has fallen considerably. This is going to have an impact on the NHL and future Olympics. A big barrier are rinks. Growth requires more rinks which are more expensive to build than soccer fields or basketball courts. But also their development programs are in shambles as junior players in Europe opt for the Canadian Junior Leagues because they are viewed as better programs.

2. Women's game continues to be in trouble

Women's hockey continues to be a two-country sport. Supposedly Russia only has about 300 women playing the game. The sport in the Olympics is definitely in jeopardy if there isn't more growth in Europe. I think the clock is ticking. There was also talk of starting a professional women's league in North America.

3. NHL players will likely playing at the Sochi Olympics

Gary Bettman has clearly articulated what he is looking for out of the Olympic organizers - games played as close to primetime TV viewing hours as possible on the East Coast. There will be some negotiations supported by North American TV networks but I think it will happen.

4. NHL expansion to Europe

The Europeans made it very clear that they do not want the NHL in Europe. The IIHF sees Europe as it's territory. This is not really an issue at the moment with so many North American franchises struggliing. But the strong stand by the IIHF caught Bettman by surprise.

5. World Cup of Hockey

The World Cup is back on the table as a tournament between Olympic years. The nest one should be in 2012 but there is little time left to organize it. Also it has not been included in the current CBA so a deal will have to be worked out with the players' association.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Little time left to improve the Maple Leaf lineup

With training camp set to open in less than 4 weeks, Brian Burke's plans to upgrade the on-ice talent appears to be pretty much a bust. Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong are not quite Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrick Marleau. Sure there is still lots of time until the start of the season to make a deal but he has so little to deal with and now Kaberle, his most tradeable asset is off the market.

So where will the offense come from? Well unless John Mitchell pulls a Jose Bautista and becomes the league goal scoring leader, this team is not destined to make the playoffs.

Below is a potential opening lineup barring another rookie breaking through or a late trade. I have left off Jeff Finger since he more likely to be playing with the Marlies or in Europe than the Leafs. It shows that the 6 starting defensemen will be paid more than the 12 staring forwards. No wonder scoring will be a challenge. The team is definitely bottom heavy.

The good news is that the Leafs have cap space. The cap hit for this lineup is $53.5 million. Add in Darcy Tucker's buyout and the Leafs have $5 million to spend. That means the Leafs might be eager to deal with one of the teams that are currently over the cap. Ideally the Leafs should be trying to move a big salary on the defense. It can't be Kaberle. I'm not sure how the market values Komisarek and Beauchemin but they both had weak seasons and might be difficult to trade. That pretty much leaves Gunnarsson or Schenn as trade bait.

Perhaps this team might surprise us all in the same way the Blue Jays have battled for respect and a decent record. They will need some incredible goaltending to carry this roster into the playoffs.

Forwards Left Centre Right
$21.3M Kessel Bozak Versteeg

Kulemin Grabovski Armstrong

Sjostrom Kadri Brown

Caputi Mitchell Orr

Defense Left Right
$22.8M Kaberle Phaneuf

Beauchemin Komisarek

Gunnarsson Schenn

Goalies Giguere

$7.4M Gustavsson

Spares Lebda

$2.0M Rosehill


Friday, August 20, 2010

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 1996-97 Season

The Maple Leafs entered the 1996-1997 NHL season with the hopes of making the postseason for the fifth consecutive year. Mike Murphy was hired prior to the season as the head coach replacing interim coach Nick Beverley and continuing the revolving coaching position. Murphy was the 18th coach since the Leafs had last one the Stanley Cup 30 years earlier.

The team played mediocre for most of the season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1992. The 1996–97 Toronto Maple Leafs season would be Cliff Fletcher’s final season as General Manager of the Maple Leafs. In one of his final moves, Fletcher traded Doug Gilmour to the New Jersey Devils for Steve Sullivan, Alyn McCauley and Jason Smith.

It was actually Don Giffin who had initially filled in the vacuum when Ballard was fading that gave Fletcher sweeping powers to send his way into contention. Stavros who was himself rather frugal initially objected but relented when the Leafs came close to qualifying for the finals in 1993. It appeared that Cliff Fletcher was losing his touch and he too was let go by Leaf ownership. The reality was Fletcher was forced to sell off assets which stripped the team of badly needed talent. The payroll had ballooned to $40 million before being stripped down.

The biggest deal was the one not made. Cliff Fletcher wanted to sign Wayne Gretzky prior to the season. Gretzky was a free agent having left St.Louis and wanted to finish his career in Canada. When Fletcher presented a proposal to sign Gretzky to the Leaf board, it was rejected. Steve Stavros was having money problems was also looking to take MLG private.

The Toronto Maple Leafs had reached great heights early in the decade falling just short of reaching the finals twice. But now it was time to rebuild yet again. They had one young star, Mats Sundin and a decent goalie in Felix Potvin but that was about it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Muskoka Five's sole survivor

The Muskoka Five refers to a core of highly paid Maple Leafs players in 2007-08 all with no-trade contracts courtesy of John Ferguson. Had management been able to trade some or all of these players at a time where they might provide maximum return, the Leafs may have completed a rebuild by now. Unfortunately none ever consented to a trade. Here are their stories.

Bryan McCabe

Bryan signed a 5-year contract with the Leafs on June 29, 2006, just 2 days before he would have become a free agent. That was based largely on the 2005-05 season when Bryan scored 19 goals and 68 points. In 2007–08, Bryan was the focus of numerous trade rumours, but he refused to waive his no-trade clause. Numerous media outlets reported that he would waive it once the Leafs paid him a $2 million signing bonus due on September 1, 2008. As such, Bryan was traded to the Florida Panthers on September 2, the day after receiving his bonus. He was sent with a fourth round draft pick in 2010 in exchange for defenceman Mike Van Ryn, in other words a big fat pile of nothing. Bryan is now captain of the Panthers, the only other team other than the Leafs not to make the playoffs since the lockout ended.

Darcy Tucker

In February 2007, the Maple Leafs and Darcy Tucker agree on a new 4-year, $12 million contract extension to begin the following season to prevent Darcy from becoming a free agent. As in the case of McCabe, Darcy was coming off a career year in 2005-06 when he scored 28 goals and 61 points. Darcy was also the focus of numerous trade rumours in 2007-08 but he too refused to waive his no-trade clause. On June 24, 2008, he became an unrestricted free agent after the Maple Leafs, bought out the remainder of his contract. On July 1, 2008, he signed a two-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche worth $4.5 million. He has since become an unrestricted free agent once again and is waiting for a contract. The Leafs will be paying him for another 4 seasons.

Mats Sundin

Mats was always opposed to be used as a rental player so he never would agree to a deadline deal to contender even if it would help him win a Stanley Cup and provide the Maple Leafs with a kick start for a rebuild. He insisted that he would only feel comfortable playing with a new team from the start of the season. So when Mats became a free agent on July 1, 2008 you would have expected that he would choose a new team by the start of training camp or at least before the season started. Surprise, Mats doesn’t sign with Vancouver until December 18 and only plays a half season. So much for his opposition to joining a team in mid-season. Today Mats is retired from hockey and recently married to Josephine Johansson.

Pavel Kubina

On July 1, 2006, Pavel signed a deal with the Maple Leafs for four years at $20 million. Pavel had a clause in his contract which allowed the Leafs to make a trade from the date of the Amateur Draft to August 15. On July 1, 2009, Pavel was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers with the rights to Tim Stapleton for Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart. In the hockey business they call this a salary dump. On July 2, 2010, Pavel returned to the Tampa Bay Lightning signing a two year contract valued at $7.7 million total.

Tomas Kaberle

Tomas is on the last year of his contract which also has a clause that allows the team to trade him from the date of the Amateur Draft to August 15. In 2008, prior to the trading deadline the Leafs had a trade worked out with Philadelphia which would have landed them Jeff Carter and first round draft pick for Tomas. He refused to go. Last summer while there was an opening to make a trade, Brian Burke thought he had a deal for Phil Kessel and a first round draft pick for Tomas. The problem was that Boston thought it was the Leafs that were throwing in a draft pick. The deal never happened and instead the Leafs grossly overpaid to land Kessel. This summer again the Leafs attempted to deal Tomas but couldn't get the return they were expecting. Obviously Leafs had no long term plans for Tomas but that didn't stop them from over-pricing him. As a result he will likely leave at the end of this season as a free agent for nothing (see Mat Sundin above)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 1995-96 Season

At the Amateur Draft the Leafs pick Jeff Ware 15th overall who never makes it to the NHL. The Leafs headed into the 1995-96 NHL regular season with high hopes considering the fact that the club reached the playoffs for the last three years. Pat Burns was the head coach until an eight game losing streak (and a miserable run of 3-16-3 over January and February) lead to his dismissal. General Manager Cliff Fletcher felt that Nick Beverley could get the job done for the rest of the season and named him interim coach. The team under Beverley went 9-6-2 and clinched a playoff spot on the final day of their regular season. However, they couldn't get by the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs.

That season also saw one of the worst trades in my memory of the Maple Leafs - the trade with the Islander that brought back Wendel Clark. I should tell you that I ignored the fact that the draft pick sent to the Islanders turned out to be Luongo. There is no guarantee that the Leafs would have picked him. Had the Leafs actually traded to Luongo to New York, then this trade would be much higher on the list. After trading Wendel Clark when his market value was at its peak (how often have the Leafs done that) they bring back the broken down winger two years later. The trade was only to appease the fans who fell in love with the hard working Clark. Leaf fans have always favoured rugged players over skilled players which is why Clark was so much more popular than Sundin. Meanwhile, while Haggerty was a bust and Hendrickson was back in Toronto the next season, Kenny Jonsson was a fixture in New York for a decade. He played 597 games for New York, recording 232 points, many of them in a time where quality Leafs blueliners were few and far between. Mathieu Schneider is the only reason this trade wasn't higher on this list. But he couldn't make up for the mediocre play of Clark.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Let's end this Kaberle drama already

Mercifully the Kaberle trade watch will end in just over 48 hours. The endless, mind-numbing speculation couldn't be more annoying. Kaberle is going to San Jose. He's going to Columbus. No it's the Kings. The Leafs will take Marc Savard. Burke will get Dustin Brown. No he's not trading Kaberle. Burke will take prospects. There is no market for Kaberle. Over 10 teams are interested in Kaberle. The Leafs won't be able to trade Kaberle until the Kovalchuk contract is settled.

Even though absolutely nothing has happened in the 50 days since the trade window opened for Kaberle, that hasn't stopped reporters. They just keep writing about nothing. Absolutely nothing. Reminds me about the Sienfeld episode about nothing.

Monday, August 9, 2010

I was right, the NHL did win

As I suggested two weeks ago, the NHL had a good chance at winning the arbitration case on the Kovalchuk contract. The decision must have caught a lot of people by surprise since most were predicting the NHLPA would win.

A lot of people were convinced that the contract would stand up because it did not specifically circumvent the CBA. But they were ignoring the general circumvention provisions in the agreement. That is partly what did in the contract. But there was more:
  • A contract that runs to age 44 cannot be defended in a league where only six players from more than 3,400 in the past two decades have played to the age of 42.
  • The last five years at $550,000 is only $50,000 above the current league minimum and would clearly be well below the minimum in 11 years. A player who just several years earlier was earning $11.5 million per season would walk away from that salary.
  • The contract has a no-movement provision for 11 years and then changes to a no-trade clause in the last 5 years.
Many people looked at the other contracts and just figured the genie was already out of the bottle. What about the DiPietro contract? Well his contract is 15 years but it isn't front loaded at all so you can't really draw a comparison. What about Pronger contract? His deal ends at age 41 and pays him $5.5 million over the last three years well above the $550,000 that Kovalchuk would earn. What about the Hossa contract? That deal averages less than $1 million a year the final four seasons and expires when Hossa is 42. I'm sure the NHL regrets letting that one through. Same for the Luongo contract.

The thinking among many agents and GMs in the days leading up to the decision was that because so many of these contracts, which are were heavily front-loaded and extended past players' careers end, had been approved over the past few years there was too much precedent to quash the Kovalchuk deal.

But I'm sure that New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello knew the deal would blow up. Why do you think Lamoriello was so circumspect during the news conference to announce the deal back on July 19? The announcement looked like a sham at the time and in retrospect it turned out to be one. Of all the GMs in the league, Lamoriello is the one guy who would know the insides and outs of the CBA as he was intimately involved in drafting it.

Friday, August 6, 2010

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 1994-95 Season

At the Amateur Draft the Leafs pick goalie Alex Fichaud 16th overall who turns out to be a dud.

Prior to the 1994–95 season, franchise player and fan favorite Wendel Clark was sent to the Quebec Nordiques in a blockbuster trade. Clark, along with defenceman Sylvain Lefebvre and Toronto's second pick in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, Landon Wilson, were traded to the Nordiques on June 28, 1994, in exchange for forward Mats Sundin, defenceman Garth Butcher and Quebec's first pick in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, Todd Warriner. In Clark's absence, the gritty and dependable veteran forward Doug Gilmour was named team captain.

After finishing fourth in 1992–93 and third in 1993–94, the Maple Leafs fell to fifth place in the Western Conference in 1994–95 and, for the first time in three seasons, they allowed more goals than they scored. The Maple Leafs appeared to be affected considerably by the loss of Clark. It was a shortened season (48 games) due to a lockout. Top scorer was Mats Sundin with 47 points but the duo of Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk produced far less offense than in previous seasons. Gilmour who had finished the previous two seasons with 127 and 111 points dropped to just 33 points. Age and lack of size were catching up to him which put an end to any Stanley Cup hopes for Maple Leaf fans once again.

Throughout the regular season, Toronto never won more than two games in a row, and finished just two games above .500. To toughen up their lineup, the Leafs signed Warren Rychel from the Los Angeles Kings midway through the regular season, and on April 7, 1995, they traded center Mike Eastwood and a third-round pick in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for right wing Tie Domi.

Although the Maple Leafs were the underdogs against the fourth-place Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round of the playoffs, they won the first two games of the series at the United Center and went home to Maple Leaf Gardens for game three with two-games-to-none series lead. However, the Blackhawks played determinedly and won games three and four in Toronto to regain home-ice advantage in the series. Chicago then won game five, 4–2, and looked to clinch the series in game six back in Toronto. The Maple Leafs played a spirited game, going up 4–1 in the third period. The Blackhawks fought back with three consecutive goals to tie the game. At 10:00 of the first overtime period, Randy Wood scored his second goal of the game to give the Maple Leafs a 5–4 win. The victory tied the series at three games apiece and forced game seven back in Chicago. In game seven, Joe Murphy scored twice and Ed Belfour made 22 saves as Chicago advanced to the second round for the first time in three years with a 5–2 win.

Has someone kidnapped Brian Burke?

It is so quite on the Maple Leaf front that I was thinking that Brian Burke has been kidnapped and being held in a underground bunker in the Gaza Strip. The man has never been silent for more that 48 hours in his entire life.

Obviously he is enjoying some down time which is essentially non-existent in the NHL these days. However it can't last much longer because in 9 days the no-trade provision in Tomas Kaberle's contract kicks in again. Burke has been very public about moving Kaberle and would love foolish if he did nothing despite the fact that he has repeatedly said he would keep Kaberle if he didn't get offered enough.

The reality is that a defenseman has to be moved. The Leafs currently have committed to 8 defensemen for a total cap hit of $27.775 million which is way too much money. In addition, the Leafs have no first line centre to play between Phil Kessel and Kris Versteeg. So despite the fact that Burke likes to give the impression that he is in a good bargaining position, that is not necessarily the case. It appears that he is looking for a top line centre and first round pick. It also appears that he won't be getting it.

The Kovalchuk arbitration really has no impact on a trade either. Kovalchuk will more than likely land in New Jersey who will be looking to move salaries to fit him in. The players most likely to be moved by the Devils are forwards so anyone looking at Kaberle will not be necessarily waiting to see what overpriced forwards go on the market. The Devils would likely love to have Kaberle couldn't possibly accommodate both Kovalchuk and Kaberle.

So I expect Brian Burke to leave his cave sometime soon and entertain the Leaf media caravan with his numerous pronouncements.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

No owner yet in Phoenix

The NHL is well into the second year in it's search for an owner for the Phoenix Coyotes and it doesn't look like this is close to being over.

While Ice Edge Holdings is still talking with the City of Glendale about the long-term lease of Jobing.com Arena, however no one in Glendale is bubbling over with enthusiasm. There are suggestions that Iee Edge has not met timelines for firming up financing. An accusation that they are denying.

John Shannon at Sportsnet is suggesting that three other groups are in play. He is starting to sound like Gary Bettman. I can't believe that's true. The only interest in this franchise would be from a owner with a fleet of moving trucks. It should also be noted that the City has agreed to pay the team's losses for the upcoming season, with a cap of $25 million, until a new owner is found. So the team will be in Phoenix for at least one more season. But how long will Glendale keep forking up big bucks like that?

Sportsnet is also reporting that only 1,800 season tickets have been sold for the 2010-11 season. A disappointing number considering the team's on-ice performance last season. Again, no shocker here. The team is selling 20 game packages starting at $19 per seat in the upper bowl and 11 game packages starting at $23. This team has got to move but it's taking those with a financial stake in a team in Phoenix a long time to realize that.

Hang in there Winnipeg, the Jets are coming home.

Monday, August 2, 2010

So will the Chicago Black Hawks be any good?

Eight of the twenty players that dressed for the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final are gone: Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, Nick Boynton and goaltender Antti Niemi. Cristobal Huet might be on his way out too if it's true that the team will bury his contract in the AHL or KHL. Also gone are healthy scratches Adam Burish and Colin Fraser.

That's a lot of turnover for a championship team. But while yes, there are some impressive players included in that mix, but only Byfuglien was a top 6 forward while Versteeg has top 6 talent. Ladd was an excellent role player and Niemi is now a Cup winning goalie. But they are all replaceable.

The Hawks won't have as much depth but their core of players is still outstanding. Stan Bowman has hung onto Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell. That is an awful lot of talent for the top 10. Niemi has already been replaced by Marty Turco who may not be the same Turco he was years ago, but he should be able to give Chicago steady goaltending - which is all Niemi did.

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 1993-94 Season

At the Amateur Draft the Leafs pick Kenny Jonsson 12th overall but several years later ship him to the Islanders for the second coming of Wendel Clark. The Maple Leafs would break out of the gate going undefeated through most of October (a total of 10 games without a loss) as Toronto fans were paying attention to the Blue Jays in the World Series. Once the series was over the Leafs would once again hold the spotlight, but they would come down to earth a bit.

Eventually the Leafs would eve
n lose their grip on first place in the Central Division (the NHL had restructured the divisions in the offseason), as they finished in second to Detroit with a 43-29-12 record. That was good for 5th overall in in the newly expanded 26-team leauge.

Doug Gilmour had had another incredible year and finished 4th in scoring with 111 points behind Wayne Gretzky, Sergei Fedorov and Adam Oates. Gilmour also finished second in voting for th Selke Trophy. Dave Andreychuk had 53 goals (4th overall for goal scorers) and Wendel Clark had 46-goal season even though he only played in 64 games.

In the first round the Leafs would knock off the Chicago Blackhawks in six games as goalie Felix Potvin backstopped three, 1-0 wins. In the second round the Maple Leafs were taken to the limit by the upstart San Jose Sharks needing an overtime win in Game 6 to force a seventh game in which they won 4-2. In the Western Conference Finals the Leafs were heavily favored for a return to the Stanley Cup Finals. However, after taking Game 1 over the Vancouver Canucks the Leafs dreams were ended by four straight losses that included two shutouts.

A disappointed Cliff Fletcher started to contemplate what moves he had to make to put the Leafs over the top.