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Meritocracy , the Jake Gardiner decision and the impact on the Leaf season

Let me start, before I get flooded with e-mails and comments, by saying that Jake Gardiner is a talented young defenseman who has a bright future with the Leafs.  At times he has been one of the few positives in an increasingly dismal season for the blue and white.

But watching the Leafs skate past the Sabres 4-3 Saturday night at the ACC (they finally looked at times as though they weren’t carrying a house on their backs most of the night…), I couldn’t help but harken back to how often we’ve been told in recent years about the Leafs and their supposed “meritocracy”.  That is, we were supposed to believe that only those Leaf players who truly deserve to be on the roster—and in the line-up on game night—would be here.

It’s hardly a novel idea (we’re not the only franchise that wants to win), but this meritocracy, like a lot of other self-serving public proclamations from the current Leaf administration, (“entitlement”, “blue and white disease”, “every game is a try-out”,  “I build my teams from the back end…”, etc., it was supposed to send a message to the fan base—and the players—that management was serious and if you didn’t pull your weight, well, you wouldn’t play, and may not even be here.  We were assured that the bad old days (at least the GM kept reminding us those were bad days before he arrived) were behind us.

But this about-to-be-concluded season has convinced me that all the above talk was just that—talk.

Now, when you write often enough, as I do, it’s entirely possible that you end up contradicting yourself.  And I think it’s entirely possible that I will confuse even myself with what I am about to write, because it seems to collide a bit with something I penned in this space back as training camp was just getting under way, on the subject of “every game is a try-out”. (I call your attention to that post, because while you may disagree, it kind of sets the table for what I’ll try to convey now…)

Back in September, I was complaining that it troubled me that there were virtually no jobs available on the Leafs roster.  My thought was—how can this be, when this club has not made the playoffs since the Quinn days in 2004?  I thought, isn’t that what training camp is for (even in a salary cap era)—to pick the best players?  What about the "meritocracy"?

This is where my own logic likely fails me.  I wanted competition, I wanted to hear—and believe—that the Leafs would break camp with the guys who really deserved to be on the roster.  It’s always a balancing act, I realize, between respecting what  a player has done in the past, and measuring that against what an incoming player may show in camp.

In any event, I wondered aloud (some of you heard me say it here many times) if the Leafs were doing the right thing in October when they started the season with Jake Gardiner on the big club. 

Oh, like a lot of you, I saw Gardiner play in pre-season and he clearly was comfortable playing at this level.  His effortless skating, his vision and calm on-ice demeanor made his potential quite apparent.  So did he, based on one good training camp, deserve a starting spot in the Leafs “top-six” on the blueline?

I didn’t think so.  Why?  Because while Keith Aulie didn’t have a great camp, I thought he had showed very well last season after he was called-up.  I felt he deserved to start the regular-season with the big club and at least have the opportunity to play himself off the roster.  You will recall that Cody Franson, who played key minutes in the playoffs for a very good Nashville team last spring, started the season as a healthy scratch.

Shortly thereafter Mike Komisarek followed suit.  Then, if I’m not mistaken, so did Luke Schenn, as Ron Wilson tried to get everyone in the line-up.

But I felt at the time that insisting on Gardiner being in the line-up most nights was just setting things off on the wrong foot, that it would have made more sense for him (though clearly capable and ready to play) to start with the Marlies, play a lot, show he’s ready and then when he had “earned” his promotion, take his spot here if any of Aulie, Komisarek or even Schenn struggled.

I understand that Gardiner played very well and maybe some people feel he had earned his spot with a good camp.  I thought he jumped the queue and that it worked against dressing room chemistry, though the team’s early season record would seem to invalidate my argument.

Gardiner aside, as the season wore on, I was more baffled by some of the other personnel decisions.  There were times that it seemed clear to me that Gustavsson deserved more playing time (not that he was always brilliant, but sometimes he was pretty good and found himself watching from the end of the bench next game anyway).  I thought they killed his confidence, what they hadn’t already obliterated last season.

Too, when this team was crying for veteran leadership and needed someone with experience to be a guy to lean on, I thought Tim Connolly did not show the required grit and desire most nights.  I know he’s a “skill” guy, but I thought there were times his place could have been filled by more deserving, and, frankly, harder-working Leafs. Yet they kept sending him out there.

Interestingly, while Connolly played, albeit on the third line (and therefore lesser minutes, until Carlyle arrived), Colby Armstrong sat, despite being one of the team’s assistant captains and presumably a team leader.  The few times he does get to play, he gets “fighters’ minutes” in terms of his ice time.  I’m neither in love with Armstrong or a critic of his game.  I just found it interesting.

After the deadline, Brent Ashton was called up and  has played now, what is it, 12 games?  He is a minus 10 in those games, including a minus 3 against the Sabres Saturday night.  Some nights he’s played less than 5 minutes.  He had some nice moments Saturday night against the Sabres with industrious effort.  But though fans wanted to love his “hard work” in his first couple of games (we sure canonize guys early here), he has seemed largely over his head, at least to me.

Why is he here?  The answer is simple.  Burke wanted to show he did something at the deadline.  He did.  He acquired a player who may well be a contributor here someday, but a player who by no means had “earned” his call-up to the big club.

Meanwhile, Ryan Hamilton and Mike Zigomanis (not to sound like Don Cherry here) continued to play their hearts out for the Marlies—two guys who, based on “meritocracy”, deserved to be here ahead of Ashton- by light years.

Maybe I just have a lot of frustration with personnel decisions over the past couple of seasons.  The Kadri yo-yo decision-making of the past two years has driven me crazy.  I said all last year:  keep him down with the Marlies all season.  Let him play a lot, develop, learn the two-way game. All the stuff they claimed they wanted him to do.  But they kept calling him up—then sending him back.

It’s been the same thing this season.  Why not just let the kid play there, and once he joins the big club, he should be ready to stay here—for good.

As for Gardiner, I now see people are comparing him to Karlsson in Ottawa, who after one good season evidently wants a huge contract, probably like Doughty held out for in Los Angeles.  (I’m not “anti-player”, but how is that that 21 year-olds figure, after a couple of seasons, they are worth 8 million a year for 10 years?  I hope that’s not the debate we’ll have about Gardiner in a year or two…)

Again, I like Gardiner.  Fabulous skater.  He is so calm and poised.  But he can be outmuscled for the puck (we’ve seen that many times) and still needs to enhance his overall game to be effective come playoff time—when opposing forwards will run you over to make a play. Like Tomas Kaberle in his early days, Gardiner can usually skate away from trouble, yes.  But also like Kabby, he’s not a physical presence in his own zone.  If we had made the playoffs this spring and met the Bruins or Rangers or Philly, I have a nagging feeling we’d be talking about how much Gardiner will have to improve in his own zone against physical teams.

So what am I saying?  I’m not sure even I know.  Yes, Gardiner deserve to be a Leaf, but I would have preferred that he spend time with the Marlies, and then been called up.  I would have preferred that Kadri had not been rushed twice last season (when he didn’t deserve to be here), and had been allowed to play with the Marlies all of 2010-’11.  Maybe, then, he would have been ready by now.

I think we messed with Franson’s confidence.  Aulie’s too, and we finally traded him.  Schenn was a healthy scratch out west at a time that really hurt him, I think.  Connolly should have been benched.  Kulemin should have spent some time upstairs.  (I know, I know, we all say how hard he worked defensively, but honestly—and I love the guy—he didn’t seem engaged a lot of nights this season.  He needed a wake-up call, or so it seemed to me.)

Ashton should never have been here. 

A long-winded way of saying, I guess, that, this summer and next fall at training camp, I don’t want to hear anyone from Leaf management talk about how improved we are (“dramatically improved” Burke said last fall, if I’m not mistaken).  I don’t want to hear about blue and white disease, unless management personnel is talking talking about themselves.  I don’t want to hear the word “meritocracy”.  I don’t want to see any more Dallas Eakins commercials.  (Nice guy, good coach, but a lousy, artificial-sounding “motivational” commercial.)  I have no interest in being told that every game is a try-out—unless it is for our General Manager.

I’ve probably countered my own argument somewhere along the way today, but such are the confused post-game ramblings of an aging Leaf fan who wants less false talk—and more results.

Being reduced as a fan to cheering for a draft pick is not a result. In this market, it should be an outrage.


  1. I think the problem here is once again at Brian Burkes door. Depite all his assurences that a meritocracy was at play it was just so much hot air. Like all clubs, veterans have earned the right to play thier way off the team which I think is the argument that you are making Michael (Aulie earning that right by his play last year). It is just another instance of the GM making things more difficult becuase he plays fast and loose with the truth.

    I tend to go the other way in my thinking. I truly believe in a meritocracy. If you are playing better or are better you should play regardless. That is why I think the Ashton call up was just so much smoke and mirrors.

    I really do think Kadri should have at least started the year in the NHL in his first year you can always send him back later. He was clearly the best forward they had all through the pre-games. As a teen-ager coming off an outstanding junior career he didn't know he wasn't supposed to be that good, so if he keeps doing it why stop him? He had to my mind earned the right to at least start the year.

    A guy like Kadri probably hasn't known much failure in his career. So he comes in at training camp and does what he has always done, score only to be told sorry your still going down. What has happened to Kadri is a fallout from that descion. In Kadri's mind he hasn't failed, the team just hasn't given him what he earned. If he had started the year and then been sent down because he was starting to slow down it would have shown him that he had a ways to go. It would have been proved to him he needed to get better. That's why the contract doesn't kick in until the 10th game is played.

    The saying goes no one has ever been hurt by playing in the minors. Well I think Kadri proves that statement wrong. I truly believ if they had kept him up he would be a much bigger part of the Leafs today. Now every time he gets sent down it has to be in the back of his mind its not really because of his play but because of internal politics.

    Another thing that bothers me is we keep having the fact that the Leafs are the youngest team in the league shoved down our throats. So why the hell has Toronto used the least amount of rookies this year? I think as of last week they had only used 4 rookies. The Flyers by contrast have played 7 this year. So what the heck good is youth if they are all veteran players? The Team is 26 overall in a 30 team league. They have the youngest lineup in the league. Somehow, on the youngest, 5th worst team they have only played 4 rookies. That does not bode well moving into the future.

  2. Good post, Willbur.

    While we look at the Kadri situation differently, we would probably agree that the organization has not handled that one well. Maybe we'll be proven wrong, if Kadri does really well from here on out. But I find their indecision is simply an example of bad management.

    I, too, have grown weary of hearing how "young" we are. That's a nice thing to be able to throw out there, but it's not how young you are, it's how good you are. Every team needs a mix of good young players, and good veteran players.

  3. I agree they have handled Kadri badly. Once the descion was made to send him back he should have stayed down period. Up and down is for bubble guys who have at best a Joey Crabb type of career. With a stud prospect if he gets sent down he doesn't come back till next year. Just bad managment. Same with Ashton, I just hope they aren't turning a young player with some upside into a checker who rides the pine.

  4. There is so much to say I hardly know where to start.I agree that at the at start of the year I couldn't understand how all the spots were taken up before training camp save one,which was supposed to be Kadri vs Frattin. This was a team that played well at the end of last year but had still missed the playoffs.If it is indeed a meritocracy then everyone should be working for a spot though there would have been some givens,I like Gardiner but I always felt he should have been with the Marlies. As you stated Michael all they did was mess up Aulie and Franson.I go back to the first year and Luke Schenn,he should have been in junior instead of the Leafs,this was purely marketing"look at the great young defenseman we are going to build the team around." I admit he was one of the few bright lights that year but as we have seen his overall development would be better served if he had stayed in junior.When decisions are made they should be for the right reason not to make someone look good re:Ashton.
    Michael I have to say that during this collapse I haven't felt anger or disappointment as much as I have felt sadness.I enjoyed the style of play the leafs used and there are successful teams employing an attack style who win,Detroit,Chicago,Philadelphia etc. but who don't fall apart in their own end. Last nights game proved that this group has to play this way to be successful,thay are not up to the style Carlyle wants.I feel we will be starting over in September and rebuilding again. If there is a plan I hope they stick to it, I am tired of waiting until next year.

  5. Derek...the Schenn thing has proven to have been a huge miscalculation, and that has been a signpost of this management era. Mis-reading the roster, mis-reading the team's potential to be a playoff contender, bad personnel decisions- right from the get-go when Burke first arrived.

    Hubris has ruled the day, unfortunately.

    Sadness is exactly what a lot of fans must feel now, as you cite. Changing their style of play as they have, they've cut themselves off at the knees. Sad indeed.

    Somehow they are going to have to figure out how this roster meshes with the current coach.

    Well said, thanks Derek.

  6. While I agree with you completely as it pertains to Carter Ashton's promotion to the NHL, I think that Gardiner sticking with the Leafs out of camp is precisely the kind of meritocracy that you're pleading for.

    He was one of the Leafs' better defensemen in camp and beat Aulie out for the spot. Entitlement among younger players is the easiest place to start (especially when they're waiver exempt as Aulie was) and Aulie didn't do enough to keep his spot on the team.

  7. I can't argue with you, Curt I mentioned in the piece, I knew I was probably contradicting my own premise.

    It's just that, in the case of Gardiner, I'm not sure one good camp for a kid with zero pro experience was enough to knock out guys who had been in the "system" longer, even if they (Aulie, say) had a mediocre camp. That set established roster guys off in a negative way, including Aulie, Franson and Komisarek and none of those guys ever got fully settled, it seemed, throughout the course of the regular-season.

    Fragile confidence seems to be a huge part of the current dilemma and our defence seems to be flailing many nights.

    But again, you're no doubt right, that Gardiner made the team based on "merit". I just wish he had earned it after a reasonable amount of time actually playing with the Marlies. I think it would have been better for the team and all concerned.

    Thanks Curt.

  8. The phenomenon that Michael is writing about can be broken down into three areas: Recruitment, development and execution of player development. I know, we are all cranky with him now, but Burke has done pretty well at recruitment. Not all of the moves have panned out; however, on balance, the development area has been well stoked and included a number of coups, including Bozak, Gustavsson, Spencer Abbott, and so on. Player development, headed up by a straight-up Dallas Eakins appears to be going well. Where things get wonky is in the execution of player development, the way that the big club has been handling the evolving players.

    We have all seen it. The Monster is taking on the blank look of what they used to call in the trenches “shell shock”. Kadri has had so many trips up and down that we can fairly say now that the kid defies gravity. Carter Ashton, finding himself in rarefied air where he does not yet belong can be compared to a hot air balloon. Brian Burke? Let’s face it, too much hot air. The end result is that most games indeed look like a try out. It’s a wonder we are not laughing at them more than we are. Too busy, crying and pounding our fists against plaster walls, I guess. Of course, contracts, movement rules and so on make it difficult to translate rhetoric into reality. I get that. I am not saying that it is straightforward and easy. Nevertheless, it would help if the decisions were governed by a greater element of fairness. I think that this, above all, would translate into improved on-ice performance. You play well, well then, you play. The players all get that. They all want that. The question is: Why is management not doing it?

  9. It seems to me Michael, from reading this post, that you put a lot of emphasis on the emotional development of the Leafs/Marlies players. Referencing Aulie, Schenn, Franson, Ashton and Kadri as players whose confidence may have been hurt by the Leafs management. It seemed a little contradictory to me for you to say that Kuli needed time in the press box, because his confidence has also been extremely low, albeit, to no fault of the Leafs management. Had they put him in the press box, would he have been on your "bruised-ego" list? Just some food for thought.

    Call me old-fashioned, but in my opinion, it doesn't matter how good you think you or, how high you were drafted, or what your potential may be, you have to earn your keep. Being able to play in the NHL is a job millions of players are trying to accomplish. When you make it, you have plenty of guys knocking at the door, ready to fill in. This isn't a profession where a coach, or management holds your hand through the good times and bad. Getting sent down, called up, benched, or given a seat in the press box is part of the job, if you don't like it, there are plenty of other jobs out there, but if you want to get paid to play the game you grew up loving, these experiences are the hardships each player will have to individually face.

    And you know what, they will be better for it. They are learning experiences for young players. Kadri, and Aulie have learned that nothing will be given to them in this league, and that they will have to earn every minute of ice time they get. Kadri is looking more and more like a dynamic offensive force, and has continued to get better. His play in the AHL is extremely fun to watch. Schenn is learning that this organization has high expectations for him, and he needs to prove he belongs in the line up on a daily basis. Same goes for Franson, he needs to prove he will be ready when he's called upon, and that he needs to continue to show why that spot is his. Both of these guys are young and even though they have a solid amount of NHL experience, they still have something to prove to both management and themselves. I do agree with your point about Ashton, but he was supposed to only be an emergency call up, let him get his feet wet in the NHL, get the learning experience, and head back down to the farm. CBA rules and regulations deemed him the fourth and final call up the Leafs could make, essentially trapping him on the Leafs roster. I'm sure the Leafs would send him back to the farm, but there are too many injuries, they need the body.

    I agree with your point about the meritocracy, but not for all the reasons you mentioned. Its the downfall of the hard cap system that the Leafs have to keep guys like Komisarek, and Armstrong on the Leafs roster, even Connolly, as you've stated. But when these guys have these contracts, they become immovable. Remove the cap system and you get rid of all the bureaucratic red tape that management has to get through to move these players off the roster and make room for guys like Kadri, Frattin and Colbourne.

    I think Gardiner is one of the few examples were the meritocracy was at work. In many ways, the organization can't function as a meritocracy because of the hard cap system. Plus, can you blame the organization for wanting to call up it's young AHL/NHL fringe players/prospects rather than career minor leaguers in Hamilton or Zigomanis?

    Great piece Michael, it sparked a fair amount of thinking on my end, and boy, do I love a healthy debate. Keep it up.

  10. No matter how you look at the stats, Gardiner's deserved his place. That's the problem. Best +/- on/off ice per 60.... 3rd in Corsi... 3rd in points... etc. So if it's pure merit, he makes it.

    And league-wide? Rookie's have to break in some time, and he leads all rookie defencemen, by a long yard, in points and in various other measures.

    BUT. In terms of a player's development, teams do NOT always do pure merit, nor should they. The Leafs might well improve by taking a guy off the Marlies, and plunking him on the 4th line. When what you really want is to see that player develop a skill-set, that he can only test out at a lower level.

    I'd say that's the argument for Gardiner on the Marlies. That he could work on his defensive game, and work on his offensive dominance - carrying the puck more, QB'ing the PP, his shot - as well as add some weight (kid is likely playing at under 170 lbs right now. <170.)

    Plus, he never grew up playing defence. He only learned it in college. So his ONLY coaching about playing defence has come from that one college coach. Pretty limited.

    I hope it didn't wreck him. We'll see. Carlyle should be able to teach him some stuff. He was good defensively, and offensively.

    As for how other players have been used, I'm with you. Pretty baffling at times. I'd have preferred Frattin to also start in the AHL, get that offensive dominance going he had in the NCAA, and then step up and be given a more scoring role. Instead, they had him checking more... then dropped to the AHL where he began to dominate scoring... now back up into the scrambler. The kid is a potential 25-30 goal man in my books, but they may have flummoxed him into thinking he's a 15 goal checking guy. We'll see.

  11. Really well-broken down, as always, Bobby C.

    I acknowledge Burke has recruited/acquired some good "finds". Absolutely. And Eakins has been instrumental in developing the young talent, which is certainly essential.

    But from there it's quite a show, and not one I've enjoyed.

    I guess, in my simple brain, it comes down to this: just be consistent. I've seen it at all levels of sport. It's like the youth coach who favours certain kids, or yells only at certain players, or disciplines some but not the "stars". Once you set a standard and don't stick to it, even kids see the hypocrisy.

    For sure NJL'ers can see it. They know exactly what's going on.

    Thanks Bobby C.

  12. Hi Jack..many thanks for a great post.

    As I stressed above, I went around the block on this one, and don't doubt that I contradicted my own arguments at some point.

    As for Kulemin, I think if you communicate with the player privately and explain that you just want him to take a couple of games and sit upstairs and relax. It might have helped. He just never got untracked, and to me, looked not entirely engaged too many nights. That cost the team, in my view.

    Would it have harmed his emotionally, or ego-wise? Could be. But how it was handled would have been the key, and good communications can, in my mind, go a long way toward re-building a player's confidence.

    With Kadri, I think we largely agree in a roundabout way. I just wish they had kept him down all of last season. Time in the minors is generally very helpful. But I'm not a fan of a guy going back and forth. They expected too much in the fall of 2010 when they called him up because they were having trouble scoring. Bad move. Now, they are letting him develop where he should be (though I realize many feel he should be with the Leafs right now).

    As for Connolly, Komisarek, Armstrong- well, Burke signed those deals. Bad decisions, in every case which killed "meritocracy". So, for me, it was all just "talk".

    I didn't think Ashton was an emergency call-up- am I wrong on that? Just a poor decisions, based on public relations. Awful way to make roster decisions.

    Great discussion- thanks Jack, I appreciate your taking the time to drop by today.

  13. I hear you on Gardiner, Anon. It's not that I think he doesn't have the skill to play here- he clearly does. The timing was premature, that's all (in my assessment...). I have to believe he has the smarts and skill to make the adjustments that will be necessary to be good in his own zone in the NHL. Carlyle should be a good teacher, and some playoff time under Eakins should be useful, too.

    I really like Frattin but your point is well made. I hope he's not as confused as we are.

    Thanks Anon. Great post.

  14. I cannot help but feel (in retrospect} that a goodly part of the Leafs problems can be attributed to Brian Burke's giant ego. He claimed to have a plan but instead of building his team from the goal out and adding truculance he built a team of roadrunners with two very inexperienced goalies.
    I agree with you that the lack of veteran leadership has also severely hampered their progress.

    I increasingly wish that Burke would just shut up and quietly go about the business of building a team. It seems to me that his entire tenure has been about making a splash and then crowing about it in numerous press conferences. Despite all the bombast it remains that a John Ferguson team posted 90 points and missed the playoffs by 1 point while Burke's teams have not come close to that. I am by no means a Ferguson booster but I don't think the franchise was in the horrible shape Burke claimed when he took over.

    Burke's act has grown old in a hurry. I believe most Leaf fans (myself included) initially bought into what he was shoveling but we are fed up with the results and the excuses.

    I cannot see this team going anywhere unless four pieces are added: 1- veteran leadership. 2- a veteran goalie, 3- a #1 centre and 4- a power forward.

  15. I'm with you, Pete Cam. As I've been saying here for a long time (dating back a couple of years, really, when I wrote a piece called "Brian Burke and the "I" in team...") we've been fed a series of bombastic lines that were more about self-aggrandizement than caring about the franchise.

    As I've said here a lot recently, we all know Burke is a good hockey guy. We don't need or want the bombast. Just do it.

    Well said, thanks Pete Cam.

  16. Awesome post today, couldn't agree more.

    You nailed it. It has always puzzled me that a team that is perpetually in the lower third of the standings rarely has more than one or two roster spots available going into camp.

    And the Ashton thing. He looked ok for the first couple of games, however, when you go this long without making a difference then you really shouldn't be here. We have lots of other guys that can and do take up roster spots without making a difference.

    On another note, it was encouraging to see a little bit of life against Buffalo last night. The timing couldn't be worse but it does serve as a reminder that not all is lost.

  17. cbh747. Thanks very much. And I agree that the win against the Sabres was more of an encouraging flashback to when the team played with some offensive spark- and wasn't just playing not to lose. There are some positives here, for sure.

  18. Good article Michael,

    I agree that Gardiner did impress and certainly earned his spot. Should that have equalled to him starting with the Leafs, debatable, but I'm leaning more to no when we consider that Franson had a pressbox seat for the first 10 of 12 games or something like that. Big minutes in the AHL would have been nice for him. I didn't even have hime penciled into the line-up pre-season.

    The League HAS to do something about contracts and guys coming off entry level to make $5-8 million, something is clearly wrong. It shouldn't be that hard either, cap RFA contracts! And keep the 27-or-7 rule in place.

    I think Wilson killed Franson this season, although he has 21 points in 54 and only -2, imagine if he was given more games and PP time from the start.

    Ashton being called up and still up, while guys like Armstrong sit is questionable. Speaking of questions and Armstrong, a Leaf next season?

    Connolly playing garbage minutes is a crime. I understand he was injuried pre-season and Bozak played much before with Lupul and Kessel, but Connolly is too skilled to play 4th line minutes.

    Quick thoughts for next year:
    1) They need a veteran goalie capable of being a starter if needed
    2) A centre to slide Bozak down to being a VERY good 3rd centre
    3) Nonis has stated a veteran leadership defenseman should have been, and will be, brought in to help the back end. Nothing to break the bank on either hopefully
    My choices(contract length), 1 of:
    Spacek(1) - 15 points is modest for a guy who is also a plus player since 2005
    Rozsival(2) - defensive sound, PKer, tons of experience
    Jackman(3) - plus 21!, effective shutdown guy now, good leader in STL and will probably resign
    Zanon(2) - prototypical shot blocking, shutdown guy and plays the body Grossmann(4) - much like Zanon but better

    4) Some contracts will have to be moved from the back end to facilitate the new addition plus guys will be knocking to step-up from the Marlies.

  19. A well thought-out post as always, Skill2Envy...

    I realize the Gardiner issue is up for debate and I've appreciated hearing different perspectives.

    It's a shame RFA's that young can get those kinds of ridiculous contracts. I'm with you on common sense prevailing, though it won't.

    Your list looks good- and realistic. We'll all be wondering what management will be able to do in terms of securing some much-needed experience this summer.


  20. For all the talk about "meritocracy" there's another side of Burke's job that he'll never discuss: the perception of the franchise from those on the outside looking in. Think back to the absurd signings of Komisarek and Armstrong. Sure, if Burke were committed to a meritocracy he could have gotten rid of these guys by now, one way or another. But what kind of message does that send to prospective UFAs? The message is, "Sorry we mismanaged the roster, but you're the one who has to pay. Enjoy playing out your prime years in the AHL". And for a guy like Burke, who has basically bet the farm on building a cup winner through free agency (it boggles the mind to even consider this a viable strategy), he can't afford this perception.

    I have no problem with a couple of veteran guys getting the nod over the high-flying rookies out of training camp. Problem is, you have to be getting at least passable value out of those vets to justify it. And Burke's UFA veterans have been as bad as one can imagine; they don't even look NHL calibre.

    So when it comes to meritocracy, Burke's playing a game he can't win. Play the garbage veterans and you're accused of confusing the rookies and undermining the success of the team. Bury the veterans in favour of promising young rookies and you're accused of ruining the careers of established NHLers. Rock and a hard place comes to mind.

  21. Right on the money, Mills. You hit the nail on the head.

    It does all make you wonder what the perception of the organization is among current NHL players.


  22. Hi Michael, interesting article and perspective you've present here, though I find myself dubious of the notion that Gardiner making the roster somehow caused "issues" with guys like Komisarek/Franson/Schenn. Gardiner outplayed them and earned his spot. I don't think Komisarek's problem is that players are getting ice-time they may not deserve. I think the main problem with Komisarek is (and forgive me if I sound trite) that he is just not good at hockey any more. I like his heart and we hear all the time that he's great in the locker room, but when was the last time you thought to yourself, "oh, great play by komisarek there." On the other hand, when was the last time you thought, "Goddamn it Komisarek, ." I can probably count the times the prior has happened on one hand, while the other...well, not so much.

    As for other guys, like Armstrong, Connolly, Aulie, and Franson...I'm just not sure any of these guys deserves anything based on meritocracy (save maybe Franson). Armstrong is probably the second worst UFA signing Burke has made (aside from Komi). He's been terrible for the leafs and I would frankly be shocked if he wasn't traded or sent to the Marlies. He's just not good. Aulie was awful in the preseason and then awful on the Marlies. I don't know whether it was the "entitlement" thing that a lot of people suggest (as I'm not privy to the psychological goings on of Leafs players), but whatever it was, he wasn't good. I think rewarding players based on past performance is a problem that plagues the Leafs (Komi, Liles, Kulemin, etc.) and having Aulie on the big club would have just been another example of that.

    I think Connolly has been grossly misused, and I think that has a lot to do with the disinterest he seems to have on the ice a lot of nights. I think that the only player who has been benched undeservedly is Franson, and I'd rather see franson on the ice any night over the likes of Komisarek or Schenn.

    Kadri probably deserves time with the big club, but I don't know the contract stipulations with regards to players like Armstrong, Connolly, Lombardi, etc. who are the players Kadri should be replacing. It would be fantastic to see none of Armstrong, Lombardi, and Komisarek on the ice next year to be honest. Unless Liles rebounds hard with a full off-season to rehab, i wouldn't mind seeing that contract moved either.

    What I'm looking for next season is basically:
    Lupul, , Kessel
    Kadri, Grabovski, MacArthur
    Frattin, Bozak, Kulemin
    Brown, Steckel,

    , Gunnarsson
    Phaneuf , Gardiner
    Liles, Franson/

    , Reimer

  23. Excellent post Darryl. Well-stated, even though you bat my arguments away!


  24. I also find it funny that the Leafs have so few roster spots up for grabs when the team is so hilariously constructed. In my mind there are maybe 8 forwards who should be 100% locks for spots (where, is arguable): Kessel, Lupul, Bozak, Grabo, MacArthur, Brown, Steckel, Kulemin (in a 3rd line role). I would probably put Frattin on the list as well, as I'd 100% rather see him on the ice than any of Connolly/Lombardi/Armstrong/Crabb/Ashton/Kadri. Then there are maybe 3 defensemen (Gardiner, Gunnarsson, Phaneuf) that are locks. I think Liles has been getting a bit better, but still isn't at his pre-concussion form. Franson is close as well.

    Kadri has nifty mittens to be sure, but defensively he's not nearly up to par and I'd say overall, Frattin deserves the spot more than Kadri. You may have also heard Colborne got a call-up to the big club as an emergency call-up for grabo. I think it's clear he doesn't deserve it (no points in the AHL since mar 9?!?), but maybe it's more of a give him a shot in the arm before the Marlies hit the playoffs than anything.

    You're probably right that there are some obvious holes in the whole meritocracy stuff that Burke and Wilson before he was fired flung at the public consistently. I think the issue is not that meritocracy isn't being properly applied, but really that Burke/Wilson led people to believe meritocracy was even feasible. Contracts and waiver exemption, and role-playing are huge obstacles to meritocracy that, like it or not, are simple realities of the NHL and the CBA.

    I would love it from an excitement perspective if the Leafs roster didn't have to have guys like Crabb or Steckel or Rosehill on the roster, who provide little if anything from a talent perspective (aside from Steckel's faceoff prowess). Wouldn't it be fun to watch the Leafs trying to roll 4 pure-scoring lines? Sure, but I would hate it when that team gets absolutely obliterated by teams with toughness like the Bruins, Flyers, Rangers, etc.

    Anyway, all that said, I actually agree with you that Gardiner should have started with the Marlies, and through the year, different guys that have warranted call-ups should have been called up. In an ideal world, Komisarek and Armstrong would be buried with the Marlies. But in a perfect world, we also wouldn't have 3 2nd-line centers and no 1st/3rd line centers. In a perfect world we'd have at LEAST league-average goaltending and more than 3 wingers with scoring ability.

    Unfortunately we live in a world where Komisarek is making $4.5mil/year; a world where Liles gets a 4 year extension while being out with a concussion; a world in which a talented center is relegated to playing out of position on the wing on the 4th line, while making $4.75 million per year; a world in which a 4th line winger, riddled with injury, is getting $3.5 million a year; a world where our captain and #1 D-man is best suited as a #1PP point-man and 2nd-defensive pairing role, and worth maybe 50-60% of what his contract pays him.

    All we can do is hope that Burke can find a way to get this team out of this horrible funk.

  25. I nodded throughout your entire post- thanks Darryl.

  26. Carter Ashton! Not Brent, do you really know the Leafs!

  27. My bad, Anon. Brent, of course, was Carter's dad, who I watched play many years in the NHL....