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July 1 and the Leafs won’t panic

If you visit VLM regularly you know that I thought that, this far into Brian Burke’s time here, we would be (and in truth, really should be) a lot further along the “re-build” than we are.  For all the roster upheaval, the team still wasn’t a playoff performer as recently as this past April.  That’s simply not good enough when teams can be turned around much more quickly than that—even in the cap era.

That said, it seems clear Burke is not going to go outside his comfort zone in making a move just to ensure the Leafs make the playoffs next spring.  He’s not playing the role of someone “desperate to save my job as GM”.  We know players were/are available—Jordan Staal (who wanted to play with his brother), for example.  Luongo and Bobby Ryan also spring to mind.  But the Leaf GM wasn’t/isn't prepared to outbid anyone else or to go outside what he believes is fair market value for players of that ilk.  So he slowly plots his moves, brings in van Riemsdyk for Schenn, and inches the needle forward bit by bit.

“Missing out” on Justin Schultz can’t be pinned on Burke.  When money is the same, ultimately a player goes where he thinks he will feel most comfortable.  If, in this instance, that’s Edmonton, fair enough. Whether it turns out to be a brilliant stroke by the Oilers or not, we’ll find out over time.  (I’ll say this, as a hockey fan, I’m glad this little saga is over.  While I’m all for player freedom and following the rules and the letter of the law and all that stuff, I’m not a fan of a 21 year-old doing his mini-version of the LeBron James thing.  I’m sure that wasn’t his intent, but at the end of the day, my guess is he ruffled some feathers around the league, including in Anaheim, who by all accounts thought months ago he was on board and would sign there once he finished his collegiate season. Suddenly, he wanted to play elsewhere.  At least   he can't be accused of signing because of the warm weather in Edmonton.  It's got to be a hockey decision.)

So now the Leafs move into free-agency and whatever that will ultimately entail for them. Other than the “Big Three” (Semin, Suter and Parise), there are other intriguing names that will hit the market by the time you read this—Tootoo, Prust and offensive defenseman Jason Garrison from the Panthers among them.  Shane Doan may be the most interesting name on the list, but I’d be shocked if he left Phoenix, despite the ownership delays.  Matt Carle is another compelling name, and I would think he's a player the Leafs would kick the tires on pretty quickly.

Besides Doan, another guy who would seemingly (short-term) fill the leadership void in Toronto is the guy everyone used to call “Captain Canada”, Ryan Smyth.  Whether he would be an impact player at this point (I don’t think so), he would perhaps bring leadership, though he has bounced around these last few years.  (I wonder if he ever regrets leaving Edmonton originally over such little money years ago?  The guy was a hero in Alberta.  Pride on both sides killed that deal.  He could have been mayor.  Now, he seems like “yesterday’s guy”, unfortunately.  Maybe this is why Iginla would rather stay, wisely, in Calgary?)

I don’t really have a handle on individuals the Leafs might pursue.  (Anyone want to see the Leafs go after Brodeur for a season or two?)  I’ve made my feelings known here before, that I feel they need (in addition to the obvious—a stud defenseman and an elite forward/center) more overall toughness and some experience and leadership.  Whether they’ll pay, say, Prust a ridiculous amount to handle some of the toughness quotient, I have no idea.  But I’d rather they bring in a number of guys who are simply good players who can play gritty hockey, too.

I’ll miss Colby Armstrong, though not the salary.  He seemed like a stand-up guy, and the kind of annoying-to-play-against winger that should have been a fit here.  (How we manage to bring in guys who should be perfect, like Versteeg and Armstrong, and end up sending them away, I don’t quite know.)

I do want to say one thing about Suter, and I say this as a hockey fan, not as a “Leaf” supporter.  I feel badly that he won’t (evidently) re-sign in Nashville.  If he was going to, he would have done it by now.  Here is a franchise that has done everything right.  They draft well (goodness, David Legwand is still there like 50 years later…Martin Erat too, a 7th round draft choice a dozen or so years ago); they support their players (like Tootoo); they play good, tough hockey.  They have created a team true concept.  Yet Suter wants more.  I just don’t get it.  Is it money?  Playing with a better team?  (If he signs with the Wings, heck, they lost to the Predators in the playoffs this past spring…) Location?

I mean, the guy gets all the praise, glory, money and playing time he wants.  The organization has done everything it could to “prove” to him they are serious about building a winner in Nashville, yet that’s not enough.  And I don't know if Suter noticed, but he wasn’t perfect in the playoffs.  He wasn’t good enough to lift the Preds past the second round.  I’m not laying the blame at Suter’s feet, simply suggesting that sometimes, athletes do buy the theory they're not part of the problem and that the grass will be greener somewhere else.  (Former Maple Leaf Curtis Joseph may have some views on that. He thumbed his nose at a great offer from Toronto so he could “win a Cup” with the Wings.  He played poorly and was treated shabbily by the Wings when Hasek returned.  In the end, he was thrilled to get a back-up contract with the Leafs a second time around as his career wound down.  Again, like Ryan Smith, Cujo was a guy who could have been mayor in Toronto—not sure why I use that reference, probably no one really wants to be a mayor—but his ego got in the way.  Smith suddenly wanted to play in Edmonton again, just as Joseph did here.  Best to appreciate something when you have it the first time, eh?)

This is my long-winded way of saying, markets like Nashville need to keep their stars to contend, but I believe they have done everything they could to make that happen.  Sometimes, it lies with the player, and in this instance, I put the finger on Suter.  It’s just disappointing, as a fan, that the player shows no loyalty.  How much money does anyone need?  And if we put our Leaf hats on, I’m pretty sure most of us would be disappointed if someone our organization had supported and developed since they were 18 decided he wanted out after a decade, just as he was hitting his prime.  (I preferred NHL free-agency beginning at 31, though the NHLPA sure didn’t.)

Hey, maybe the Leafs will go after Dustin Penner?  He fits the size requirement- and the experience requirement.  He’s a "top-six" forward.  The guy has two Cups on his resume, but has been one of the laziest players in the league more often than not.  You just know if someone offers him 7 million a year for 5 years, he will float many nights.  Now, if we ever get deep into the playoffs, he may come alive, eh?

As you can see, there is not a lot of continuity in my thinking today.  It's a holiday!  If you want to make some “predictions”, by all means share your Canada Day free-agency thoughts on the Leafs, or on anything else that you sense might happen around the league…

15 comments:

  1. Hi Michael,

    I penned a few thoughts as I read through your article and it grew into this:

    I am coming to the conclusion that we (fans) may not have fully realized the depths to which the franchise (respecting the team and most of our prospects) had truly sunk (prior to the arrival of Brian Burke), nor the difficulty that a full rebuild entails. I do believe that Mr. Burke was fully familiar with the former and that he tackled the latter with all the confidence and will that he could muster. I do believe that he has wisely refrained from more mistakes than we have identified as such. We did need people to play the game during the rebuild (most were not long term contracts) and the team has the money for free agents that should be appreciated for coming, even if they failed to meet our expectations. During that time, our farm team/prospect pool is improving by leaps and bounds (even though no superstar is known to be in the pipeline).

    Despite the ‘seeming’ bluster with which he came upon the scene expecting to be able to rebuild on the fly, what appears to have happened is that the framework for accomplishing the task seems to have shifted under Brian Burke’s feet. What I mean is the things that he has always done rather successfully, became increasingly harder to do both within this hockey mad environment ( as the broader exposure to his early moves became more widely ‘exposed’ by fans, bloggers, twitterpaters/tweeters and media alike) AND within the context of a CBA that needs some tweaking. For example, trade flexibility and player availability is ‘tightening up’.

    Burke appears to have a more far-reaching willingness to seek alternate solutions that others see and begin to exploit (once they have been highlighted by our universe) but then become less able to be used again as a result. Some work out (and fail) to varying degrees, but I, for one, am happy to see the effort to think outside the box to potentially gain an advantage (eg. Franson/Lombardi for Lebda/Slaney or by having moved the farm team to Toronto, etc.). In one interview, Burke said he is in the entertainment business and he sure has provided a lot of fodder for discussion.

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  2. I also wonder if the old ‘zero sum game’ playing out between management and labour doesn’t cause players and owners to lose sight of the very fans who are their lifeblood?

    It seems to me that we fans are willing to accept high contracts for players provided that they are not subject to the rules by which humanity exists… by which, I mean to say, we feel so invested in their ‘high pay’ (despite the regularity of advocating ‘whatever it takes to ‘get player x’ when we appreciate their skill and want them for our team no matter the cost) that we cannot allow them to have a bad day;

    Be cut off by an idiot driver; Worry about a family matter, or; Have health challenges that you and I don’t have to think about because we don’t work in an enclosed environment where objects are flying around up to and over 100 mph (160 km/h); Where huge, fit men are trying to paste us into the boards/ Iron posts (or ‘accidentally’ into stanchions) every time we work (and often when we practice). We may ‘give our all’ in our weekly league games, but do we fool ourselves believing these guys aren’t facing more than us during the grind of a life in the NHL and, as a result, our standards are skewed?!

    Perhaps the players want more money because we don’t truly care about them or give them the kind of compensation they may truly enjoy… our undying positive support and belief that they are doing their best in each of their own ‘todays’ (with all that entails… just like our own daily challenges). I truly would love to see fans trying to remove our active focus from the ‘mistakes’ during a game and instead provide our active support to the guy who did his best to make up for the error. The guy who screwed up is usually quite fully aware of his mistake (and if not, that is the coach’s job to identify for him… let the coaching staff figure out the best way to teach/reach the player, while we support the team’s recovery from the incident). Let’s support the team into their best performances!

    What if ‘we’ stopped feeling entitled to unrealistic expectations of perfection from players… turned the mirror on ourselves and ask what we are contributing to a positive outcome by our words and actions wherever we find ourselves in this Leafs universe. If we could be more ‘realistically positive’ when the players need our support, perhaps they wouldn’t buy into needing the highest contract that their private perspectives/injuries begin to demand or succumb so willingly to the inflationary dictates that the agents or peers may pressure them into… Perhaps, the owners could take a step back from milking the viewing public and remember also, that we only have so much to give. Perhaps we could also remember (just like I would advocate for every injured player), Brian lost his son (Kuli lost his friends/mentors)…

    Pause for a moment… Feel the loss;

    And honestly examine whether you would have done as well at work, if you were recovering from such a tragedy. Let’s hope we can find our humanity within the game (players, management/ownership, media) as we remember that they are, strangely, a lot like us. Let’s be better fans. And, to the stewards of the game we love, let’s take the time to step back from the inflationary brink and remember the people who pay your salary will probably never make your salary.

    Here is one reason why I truly appreciated the humble expression of appreciation from James Reimer regarding his chance to be paid so well!

    There’s a new CBA on the horizon… I wonder if we could all be considered and considerate in the negotiations and in all of our interactions! There’s a golden rule out there that might turn out to be helpful for everyone will to positively do unto others only that which they would like done unto them!

    With best hopes for all,

    InTimeFor62

    (I guess that was more like an article, but I don’t have my own forum like you… thanks for the outlet!)

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  3. Oh dear, oh dear. I really don't want Burke throwing big bucks Prust's way. Like you said, get good players who also have toughness. Prust's stats suggest he drops his gloves quite often. He got decent points in the '10-'11 season, he dropped from 13 goals and 29 points to 5 goals and 17 points last season, which to me suggests soft points for a tough guy before Richards came, and Prust no longer got the occasional shift with Rangers' top forwards. Or maybe he lost his thumbs at some point, I don't know. He's a tough, bottom-six forward, no more. Giving him more than 1-1.2 million would be gross overpayment, because a single player like that won't make a soft team tough, and certainly won't turn a losing team into a winning one. If he's given 2+ million, I'm going to acquire and peruse a distillery product to be decided later.

    Suter is leaving the Predators, that much is clear, and the franchise is left with nothing but memories. On one hand, that sucks for the Preds, on the other, I feel a player deserves a choice at some point in his career, and he deserves it when his value is high. I don't know the backgrounds of the situation, did he tell his franchise he intends to leave early, and they decided to keep him anyway hoping to change his mind, or did it come as a surprise once it was too late to trade him? In the former case, the Preds gambled and lost, in the latter, it must feel as a knife in the back. Why and where Suter wants to go is not really any of my business, so I won't bother to speculate.

    I'd actually love to see Penner as a Leaf, but not for what he's probably asking. He's managed to get overpayed for all his career, and I don't see his next contract being any different.

    Ryan Smyth is also an interesting name, even if he's not getting any younger, he's still a fairly good player and would certainly add elements of determination and leadership for us. If Burke intends to at least "kick the tires" on the market, I'd consider Smyth's tires worth kicking.

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  4. happy canada day michael! i'll be travelling over from the states to the 'friendship festival,' so i know the border will be packed (i'll keep the radio tuned to leafs-chat).

    anyhow, this past season the main problem i saw was lack of scoring depth... lupul, kessel... kessel... lupul. lupul gets injured... leafs scoring dropped precipitously. the draft rolls around, and instead of the leafs grabbing the highly praised center grigo, they grab the 'gritty defenseman.' ughhh. i suppose getting JVR is supposed to bolster our offensive prowess.

    then, as you reviewed, free agency comes upon us, and guess what? its slim pickings for offensive talent.

    i think i'd like to see burke and company do... NOTHING. not sign one of these so-so 2nd or 3rd liners to monster contracts. if the high talent isn't available, than let them sign elsewhere.

    from what i've read, NEXT summer will be the summer of free agency (mucho talent coming on the market!... i'd rather the leafs hold-out until then fill-out their offensive lines!

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  5. InTimeFor62....On your initial post, I don't disagree with the way you characterize Burke's efforts. Some things have worked out. Some haven't. Other moves are still very much in the development stage and impossible to make a "call" on.

    As I've posted here before, I do wish there was less hubris coming from the GM. Good hockey guy, but I'd appreciate him more if he was less unnecessarily combative with the press and less bombastic in his public comments. Too much "me", "I" and "my" for my liking.

    But in terms of the hockey work, there is some good stuff there, though I will say again, I thought we would be further ahead by now and we still have a long road to travel just to get to the point where we could contend for a Cup.

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  6. That's a very thoughtful piece, InTimeFor62. You well capture the relationship between players and fans and our expectations and criticisms- which are often unfair and yes, attached to how much money these individuals make. (I think Gustavsson is someone who might have thrived with a more supportive, patient fan population, but I may be wrong.)

    I always remember the first time I saw an NHL game up close. That is, I had been to the old Olympia in Detroit many times, but was always far away from the action. I had been to Maple Leaf Gardens a couple of times, as well, but until I went to a game in about 1974, and sat in the old "reds" at MLG, I probably never appreciated just how difficult (or physically demanding) this sport is. I saw Brian Glennie hit a g guy right in front of me at centre ice. It was eye-opening. You realized these athletes were not automatons, which they looked like, in a sense, when you watched on TV or from up in the "greys". They were big, athletic men playing a tough game at a very fast pace, where decisions are instant.

    Your golden rule reference is apt. I often remind myself to try and put myself in the other person';s shoes. You've done that beautifully today, InTimeFor62. I hope everyone reads your post. Thanks.

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  7. CGLN. I do wonder if the Leafs will make a bid on Prust. But a huge contract does seems unnecessary, and not necessarily a wise decision. (Again, I have no idea if the Leafs are serious about Prust, or what he will get on the open market...)

    I agree that players deserve the right at some point to be "free". I'm just disappointed that the Preds lose a guy like Suter. They've done everything "right" and yet he walks. A shame.

    When he plays hard, Penner is a tough guy to defend. But he's a bit like an eclipse- there are sightings only so often.

    I do wonder if Burke would be interested in Smyth. I guess we'll find out soon.

    Thanks CGLN. Good stuff.

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  8. Thanks Alex C...the Leafs do seem to be in a patient phase, and while it may be frustrating now, they don't want to make decisions (which they've done ion the past few years) that they will regret later. They don't want to give up the young assets they've worked hard to attain for a "quick fix".

    That all said, you just know the brass wants to make improvements, and will look at every opportunity in trades and free-agency to make that happen.

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  9. Hi Michael,

    Thank you for your interactions and appreciation for my comments. I'm especially glad that you expressed your perspective on the bombastic nature of our GM/President. His interactions with the press seem to have taken on a 'fortress mentality' and he has become something of a caricature of, what I hope is, his 'real self.'

    The public persona/manner of the man is not likely that to which I would expose myself on a regular basis, but I suspect his private persona is much more appealing. Perhaps some of us would appreciate him more if he backed off of 'the hubris' as you said.

    On the other hand, perhaps we would not even have gotten this far in the rebuild, if he didn't play that 'us against the world' game. It seems to me that previous GM's have succumbed to Leaf Fan/Media pressure and sold off the future in order to give us what 'we' appear to want. It also appears that we are now living through the consequential 'future' that our collective previous wants have dictated.

    It may be that BB is taking so long with this rebuild (in part) to train the crying baby ('us') that unless it needs food or is in danger, that it is not the center of the universe. Perhaps the collective 'we' will all mature and grow strong in appreciation for the end product we all desire (having fully experienced the cost to get there)!

    I do believe that many of 'us' have been willing to wait, but that may not constitute the whole of 'we' (if my reading at other sites is any indication)! Thank you for your mature guidance of Leaf nation that acknowledges the pain we are enduring and provided a caring support platform for honest discussion.

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  10. And on the lighter side... Happy Canada Day:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBI68Il4Zsc

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  11. Burke may well be a very different guy out of the limelight, InTimeFor62. We know his public persona: tough, a loyal guy, a fighter who is also shrewd.

    His job is indeed to have a longer-term vision than most fans, to build this team into something that will be competitive year after year. I think some previous GM's achieved that (Quinn certainly did. He is accused of selling the future, but in reality, as I've posted here in the past, the great "futures" he traded away have rarely been long-term impact players anywhere else. Meanwhile, the Leafs boasted a Cup contender every year he was GM, though they always fell a bit short...)

    Patience is key now, for sure. It might have been wise if Burke had publicly advocated that approach years ago. Fans knew then it would take time. But when we heard he had no patience for a slow re-build, many thought he could make it happen sooner.

    Thanks InTimeFor62. I appreciate these interactions.

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  12. Remember when I said I thought Gustavsson could thrive as a backup on Detroit?

    It just happened:

    "Former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson has agreed to terms on a two-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings worth a total of $3 million."

    http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/story/?id=399673



    He will come back to haunt us and we will be kicking ourselves for the way he was mis-managed.

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  13. I well remember your comments, DP!

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  14. I agree that Quinn accomplished what you said (without selling the future) and it appears that 'our' previous cap-limit-less existence trained us to be able to buy what we want when we wanted it. Unfortunately, with the coming of the cap-era, our platform for success had changed. I remember losing all those players to the WHA when we were decimated by the penny-pinching of that day (I always took the loss of Bernie Parent especially hard when he returned for such success with the Flyers).

    Those were very controlling days over the lives of the players and the pendulum has certainly 'swung' the other way (especially when we watch the media frenzy respecting Justin Schultz - and I doubt the kid expected any of that!). So, in the 70's we had a controlling self-imposed cap of sorts that decimated the team and since the (growing)new millenial NHL cap initiation, we are learning how to build within that structure.

    I believe BB is sensitive enough to the direction of the league (and the next CBA) that we will come to appreciate how he has positioned us for the changes that are 'a comin'

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  15. Bernie Parent! That trade was one of the highlights of my life as a Leaf fan. I was similarly crushed when we lost him so soon thereafter, JustInTimeFor62, to the WHA, as you note above. (For those who are new to the site, I've posted in the past on Bernie Parent here, just click on his name under "Categories"...)

    Thanks JustInTimeFor62. Great stuff.

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