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No problem with Kessel defending Phaneuf….

I’ll be brief today, as I was not planning to post, given that the Maple Leafs are playing in Florida and with the trade deadline passed, we will mostly be watching for signs of life—and looking for signs of hope for the future.

Most of us have talked for years here at VLM about how the Leafs got where they are: a team that was once, in the early ‘90s and again between 1999 and 2004, a serious contender for the Cup most years- but no longer. Over time, the team has become a collection of talented players and replaceable parts with no seeming ability to play consistently well through a long NHL season.

To me, it all started during and after the lockout of 2004-’05. The roster that had played a grueling series against the Flyers in the spring of 2004 (was that the Roenick overtime goal that ended it for us?) was not at all the same when play resumed, with a salary cap in place, in the fall of 2005.  As I recall, we had lost, for example, the leadership of Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk, and that team, while it looked good enough in the fall, hit a big time wall by Christmas time that they weren’t able to bounce back from.

Since then, we have longed for success, and have hoped for saviours, a new coach, a re-build, something—anything—that would get us closer to the promised land.

The acquisition of stars like Kessel and Phaneuf, still in their relative NHL formative years, seemed, on the surface, to be part of the answer.

But years after that occurred, we sit here, about to witness another playoff year minus the blue and white. Now over a decade since a playoff series win, fans are naturally frustrated.

As I mentioned here earlier, we’ve had a lot of “good hockey men” go through MLSE as coaches and GM’s over the past decade or so—some pretty darn good players, too.  But nothing has worked.

So when Phil Kessel on Tuesday made a point, un-prompted, of defending teammate Dion Phaneuf, I had no issue with that at all.  Here, just a couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece that suggested that the Leaf situation certainly can’t all be placed on Kessel’s doorstop. And surely the same applies to Phaneuf.

Most of us would agree that Phaneuf has been a good player for the Leafs.  He earned a new contract (all new contracts these days seem outlandish to me, but whatever), as did Kessel, not so long ago. But losing takes a toll on everybody—Coaches, management, players and of course, the fans.

Kessel and Phaneuf have been part of the problem, here, absolutely.  You may or may not agree.  But it’s hard to believe that if either player was in a different circumstance (Dion in Detroit, say, and Phil in, I don’t know, LA or Minnesota or something) that they would be anything other than pretty successful. Both guys bring a lot to the table.

Have we had unfair expectations of these guys?  Sure.  But at the same time, it’s not like they offered to play for the Leafs for free. It’s what they signed up for, to a certain extent.  They both chose to re-sign with the Leafs, knowing what fans and media in this market are like.

That said, the reality is that management has, for whatever series of reasons, never been able to really surround either of them with compatible talent.  Phaneuf has played with good enough NHL defensemen but he was also  asked to be a number-one guy, playing with defenders who were maybe second or third pairing guys a lot of the time. And he maybe wasn't really a top-pairing player. But that's what the Leafs needed him to be. (Remember when Phaneuf routinely played 28 minutes a night under Wilson and Carlyle, and always was on the ice against the other team’s best forwards? He still logs significant ice time, and has generally been dependable…)

Same with Kessel. He has at times played quite well with Bozak as his center. We all wonder what Phil might be if he worked just a bit harder on his overall game.  But talented players on spotty teams tend to want to do what they do best.  Maybe if Kessel ended up somewhere next season where the team holds each other accountable, and a coach actually runs the show, he will quietly fit in, still score his 35 (or more, with a new team) goals and no one will debate his defensive commitment or effort.

Who knows?

We can say that it would be nice for Kessel to show the same passion he showed standing up for Phaneuf during the media scrum more often on the ice. But again, when the team has been winning (which actually has happened quite a bit in his time here—we’ve had a number of streaks where it looked like we would never lose, including earlier this season…), Kessel was a dashing waterbug on the ice with vision and a release that few could match. His offensive numbers have been stellar.

So good for Phil for airing his frustration finally, and too bad for Dion that he wasn’t moved by the deadline, but they’ll no doubt both have new homes next season. They will start fresh, and likely do very well in new environments.

As for the current Leafs, well, as I was shoveling snow today for the umpteenth time this winter, I wished I was in Florida, too.


  1. No problem on my end with Kessel's comments either, Michael. I think this was ultimately born out of frustration not only for Dion being a convenient target for "everything that's wrong with the Leafs", but I think Phil was also very pissed of at the Twitter feed that went public across the TSN screen regarding Dion's wife, and Lupul. I look at this egregious lack of editing on TSN's part as being inexcusable, and I think it really hurt all the players involved here. Kessel finally lashed out, and good on him.

    The irony here is that both TSN and Sportsnet were employing a couple of dozen on-air personalities each, to cover what was a real sleeper of a trade deadline day. Gosh, Sportsnet was interviewing correspondent John Lu live at 5:00AM in the parking lot of the San Jose arena, where Montreal was playing that night. John blankly said.... "Another 4 hours, and the team should be arriving for morning skate."... as crickets chirped in the background. Could a few extra bodies not have been employed behind the scenes, to provide some editorial clout and ensure that this sort of Twitter garbage didn't happen? I know John works for Sportsnet, but this could have happened at either station, not playing favourites here. Kyle Dubas was being interviewed on Leafs Lunch today on TSN, and they opened the interview segment by playing Kyle the audio of comments Phil made about the media. Dubas was direct and candid with them, stating that embarrassing Lupul and Phaneuf by letting slanderous and deeply personal messages about Leaf players scroll across the screen started the whole shit-storm (sorry for the salty language, Colleen!) in the first place. The TSN panel tried to defend themselves for a minute, but when Kyle didn't back down, they switched tactics and said.. "Getting back to the trade deadline, Kyle......". Mr. Dubas carried himself a lot like Phil today, offering a healthy dose of medicine back to the media types that typically dole it out. I'm not calling out TSN specifically here, but just commenting on editorial control, and how that concept actually used to mean something. It still does, to people like Stephen Brundt, Bob McKenzie, and Elliotte Friedman.

    What bugs me the most, is that while Phil, Dion and the rest get continually shoved under microphones as the vultures circle, Nonis seems to get spared the misery. He did multiple interviews after the trade deadline yesterday, and call me crazy, but I would have asked the following question. "Dave, the ink is barely dry on the long term contract you awarded Phaneuf, and now you're looking to take money back on him, and get very little in return. Could you comment on your failure with this contract, or your lack of ability to piece together a competitive squad in Toronto?" Absolutely nobody in the media asks that sort of question, as they've obviously traded access to management for wearing kid-gloves when they interview Leafs brass.

  2. Hello Russ,

    Thanks for providing enough of the details, without repeating what was said, so I could finally figure out exactly what this situation was about.

    I had seen and heard all the stories today, including the Kyle Dubas interview on Leafs Lunch, but my frozen brain could not put two and two together to figure out exactly what must have scrolled across the bottom of the TSN screen to get Phil so riled up.

    Sadly, I am not surprised by this incident as the internet and apps like Twitter provide cover for the endless army of trolls to launch, usually from their parent's basement, sometimes incredibly vicious personal attacks on anyone who has displeased them.

    That is why this site, which Michael has carefully nurtured, is so incredibly special. We can all come here, read intelligent stories and comments, make our own comments, debate and disagree with each other, and not feel that at the end of our visit we have to go take a shower to rinse off the crap we've all seen in the comments sections of other sites.


    1. Russ, thank you for kick-starting the discussion, and Wayne, for the kind words as well.

    2. Hello Michael,

      This is a personal reply and not something to necessarily clog up you comments section with.

      I have started my own blog on the Leafs and wonder if you would mind having a look?

      If you could provide some feedback that would be fantastic.

      If you agree, at an appropriate point, I would like to mention my blog in one of my posts on your site.

      I am still trying to figure out the blogging tool, but again if you agree, I would like to link back to your site from my blog.

      Hopefully one day I will be able to figure out how to make my blog look more like the professional looking site you have put together.



    3. Wayne- FYI I tried to post on your site, but I'm not sure if the comment registered. I'm happy to promote your site here. I hope people check it out- I already have and will visit again.

    4. Congrats on your blog, Wayne, and it looks pretty professional to me. Michael's site is pretty much text-driven as well, and I certainly don't need a pile of fancy images clogging up my internet usage! We're all here for each others' thoughts and ideas, so we can log onto the sites that offer fancy graphics if we want that sort of stuff.

      I think it's a great time to launch your blog, as the Leafs are definitely at a turning point here that will necessitate plenty of opinion from a well educated fan base, as we try to figure out what this beaten team 'could' be, going forward. It's been a really ugly week hear in Leaf-land, with that Twitter garbage, and players boiling over in general as they vent on what's been a frustrating season for all involved.

      Look for me to post on your site, Wayne, and let me know if I'm getting too long winded.... as it's problem with me!

  3. This year has been the worst I've ever seen regarding the media and it started at the beginning of the season. Kessel still takes the brunt of it from media and fans, with Phaneuf it's more the fans. How often did we hear fans demanding Dion fight? He fights twice, breaks his hand and he's called a goof for fighting. No one mentions JVR who has been MIA but continue to complain about Gardiner, who is playing much better and Kadri who has worked very hard to improve his game. Holland is looking good with more opportunity and look at Rielly lately. Where are the positive articles about some of our younger players? They are never written. We see the same recycled stories about Kessel with a goalie controversy thrown in once in a while.

    There is no way players can avoid the negativity when reporters make a point of telling them everything that's been said and asking them to comment. I don't know how players with families deal with this, though I know Robidas left his family where they were. Players throughout the league must be aware of the impact playing in Toronto may have on their families.

    The media hypes every new addition while giving us 100 reasons we should throw away our best players. I don't like the way they separate fans from the team and force themselves into the middle. I don't like what some reporters and hockey analysts are feeding me on a daily basis. They are every bit as disrespectful to me as a Leaf fan as they are of the players.

    1. I think there has always been (at least since old-school media/athlete relationships changed somewhere along the lines in the late '60s and early '70s) an uncomfortable square-off between athletes and reporters, Colleen. Certainly that's the case in the Toronto hockey market.

      It's too bad both sides can't simply respect one another's jobs. (Even ex-athletes get into trouble with their former colleagues sometimes when they "cross over" to the media side!)

    2. Hello Colleen,

      You've hit it right on the head.

      If you listen to ex-players talk about their time in the NHL for long enough, they will invariably mention that players talk to other players all the time. A team will come into town and either during the warm up or during the game, or sometimes both, the conversation will turn to what the heck is going on with the Leafs. Players being, for the most part, overall good guys, they will answer honestly and in my opinion these conversations have a bigger effect in players deciding whether or not they want to play for the Leafs.

      As regards our local press, I haven't liked what they have been providing for years so I refuse to consume their product - whether in the form of paper, online, or over the air. I know these media conglomerates aren't losing any sleep over the fact that they don;t have my business, but perhaps if more of us hit them where they feel it, in their pocket books, we might be able to influence the product they flob off on us.


    3. Well said, Colleen. I'm all for pointing out mistakes players make on the ice, as that's part of an analyst's job. The problem in Toronto, is that they always seem to take it one step further, complaining that Gardiner screwing up a 2-on-1 isn't just a mistake, but obvious proof that he's got a poor work ethic, and needs to be tossed off/under the bus (or 18-wheeler, as we say here in Leaf-land). I don't mind occasional comments by our Leafs media about grit and compete level, but that has to be an aside, not the end game. These players didn't get this far by being disinterested floaters, so there must be something with the development process here in Toronto that hasn't let certain players reach their potential.

      Michael's comment about ex-players entering the media is spot-on. I don't necessarily blame the ex-player, as our ability to analyze the game isn't the same as the ability to play it. I see Jeff O'Neill on TSN, and I actually think he's funny and entertaining, but he drove me crazy as a player. Talented but lazy, was how I would always describe Jeff, during his playing days... and that's not an insult, as he had a heck of a set of hands. I guess I lump the media into two groups, the first being someone like Jeff, where I just enjoy the entertainment value, and the other being someone like a James Mirtle, where he's digging into the game at a much deeper level. There's nothing wrong with enjoying either approach, as there's no 'right' way in how we enjoy our hockey.

  4. Hi Michael,

    I don't mind Phil defending Dion. The trash talk twitter should never be aired by hi volume media.

    I have a friend who suggested that the Leaf nosedive was orchestrated, in that they knew the Leafs would freeze up at some point and they decided to precipitate it with Carlylse's firing. If the media reports are true that Shanahan was convinced a rebuild was necessary after his initial review last spring but couldn't proceed due to ownership's objections, then this theory may have some substance because it appears as if Shanny was biding his time since the summer, filling out the backoffice with draft+develop types that match his rebuild approach.

    In addition, I don't think that the rebuild should take as long as one might think. There are several young assets in the system that could blossom give more development time, like Nylander, Brown and possibly Liepsic. The leafs may lack a number one center but have 2, 3 + 4 in Kadri, Holland and Gauthier. The defense didn't look too bad without Phaneuf and Franson, and I hear the Marlies have a few decent prospects in Loov, Macwilliam, Granberg and possibly Finn. The goaltending prospects are decent too, with Bibeau and Gibson almost ready for the show and Sparks not too far behind.

    With the right coach, the continuation of the proper development philosophy and a few good veteran support players (which should be obtained as well as picks for Kessel, Phaneuf, Bozak and Lupul), the Leafs should be able to field a decent team next season.


    1. Hi Al- there are some pieces to build with, for sure. I guess the challenge is whether most of the young players that fans hope will become difference-makers will develop as needed.

  5. Hi Michael:

    The media circus goes on. Just returned from our annual two week trip to Florida - weather not so great, but sure better than Toronto. Visited with many Canadian friends who no longer follow Leafs, or find them an embarrassment (right up there with Rob Ford).

    The situation reminds me of an old saying attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln or the Bible.
    "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt."

    It is painfully obvious that Phil Kessell is not a great communicator, but why should he be. He and other players are MLSE employees because of their hockey skills. Why would any self-respecting Corporation want to use poorly trained communicators, having limited useful information, or ones that they cannot be sure what they are going to say? While I am unsure what the contractual obligations to NHL players are, the modern social media environment suggests that the players association should require a review? In the meantime, I would suggest the President should emerge from the shadows to take the media to task and limit access to Mr. Kessell and others as appropriate.

    While Phil has been burnt re the above quote, it would appear that Mr. Shanahan has deliberately avoided contact so he cannot get burnt by what he says. While many of us did not like the bombast of Brian Burke, at least we knew where he was coming from. As evidenced by his letter going to season ticket holders, we still do not know what Mr. Shanahan's plan is, just that it will take awhile. Big deal, prices won't go up - they are already exorbitant. After almost a year, most Corporations would expect more from their leader.

    As far as Kessell is concerned I have trouble understanding why he cannot do a little bit of a Yzerman. In any event, he remains the only Leaf (Reilly coming) that creates excitement when he carries the puck into the offensive zone. All the naysayers may turn around when he is surrounded with two solid two-way players elsewhere.

    1. Good to hear from you on this one, Ralph (RLMcC). I'm sure the PA provides guidance to players in terms of communications and social media, etc. but I don't know precisely what that support entails.

      One of the challenges for sports organizations, no doubt, is that while elite, highly-paid athletes are indeed employees, they are also independent business people. Some follow the "company line"; others are more apt to say what they really feel. But not everyone wants to be in the media spotlight.

      Others have also suggested Shanahan should have stepped forward this week. That will no doubt be debated for a bit. (Kyle Dubas did speak out.)

      As for Kessel, he may become another in a long line of talented Leafs who never seemed to quite do enough to satisfy fans. Sundin was a wonderful player in his time here, but many fans wanted more. At the end of the day, our top players need great support to achieve team success.

    2. Hi Michael:
      Thanks for your response.

      While I respect Kyle Dubas for speaking out, I can't help but wonder whether he has earned credibility yet to speak on such a subject. This really points out the real problem? The only one in the management group that seems to have credibility is Shanahan, and he does not seem to have inclination to step forward.