Hey, Burkie, Leave Them Kids Alone!

    7

    Ed. Note: Lots of holiday reading going up today for you guys. Merry Christmas.

    Here we are the Christmas break, and I’d like to take the time to look back at what we saw in September, what we expected by Christmas and what we envision for the future of the Blue and White.

    Everyone probably knows by now that I am not, nor ever have been, a fan of tank nation. Having come from a family of athletes, with one member a former Leaf himself, I find it hard to swallow the pill that is tanking a season. My make up simply won’t allow me to consider it. I’ve taken flack for that, but that’s just the way I am. I don’t apologize for it.

    So coming into the season, I was cautiously optimistic about the fortunes of our beloved Leafs.

    Of course, there was going to be a sort of re-build. It was obvious something had to be done.

    I had to accept that Bryan McCabe and others I had come to admire, would not be around.

    I had to accept the idea that Mats Sundin might well have played his last game as a Leaf. We all know now how that worked out. Money talks and bullshit walks. Enough said.

    Back in September it looked as though it would be a rough season of ups and downs, and Cliff Fletcher did a nice job of lowering expectations so that a brutally bad team would be more easily accepted by Leafs Nation.

    The ups have come and gone, the downs have come and gone, and lo and behold, we sit here looking at a team hovering around .500 with a legitimate chance of pushing for a playoff berth.

    Seventh in the NHL in offense? Who’d have thunk it?

    With every Christmas season comes change and Brian Burke, no surprise, arrived a couple of weeks ago, and sits poised on the trade button, awaiting the beginning of January and the transactions that come with it.

    Or does he?

    Do we believe that Burke is sitting with pen in hand and phone to ear, ready to wheel and deal and blow this thing up?

    Or are we thinking that maybe he will tweak and tinker and oil a few gears and make this group of players his team by saying “less is more”.

    I’m hoping for the latter. Sure, one of the big Czech defenders probably has to go, and in return, a speedy, offensively talented and defensively aware forward would serve the purpose.

    The additions of Grabovski, Hagman, Stempniak, Finger and young Luke Schenn have this team achieving at a level higher than anyone expected. Wilson has them firing on all cylinders, at least right now, and several leftovers from last year’s squad have finally bought into the system.

    There is a lot of work to do, trust me. We’re not talking about the Chicago Blackhawks here.

    There is just not enough talent to compare, but hard work and dedication to a certain system will go a long way in today’s NHL. And a productive and smart 2009 draft will bolster what is already there.

    Personally, I will have a hard time accepting the “blow it up” mentality if Burke happens to take that approach. Moves need to be made, but not as many as we thought three months ago.

    So, on to 2009, good people, and a Merry Christmas to all.

    Ed. Note: This same type of re-building debate took off in my last post-game blog. Here were some of the responses for your perusal. Feel free to add your two cents in the comments section.

    1. I agree.

      This team can compete with any team right now when they play there ‘Jekyll’ game, and they have, I believe, 7 rookies on the roster. Those rookies will develop over the next two years and put this team over the top with Pogge back-stopping.

      Burke could look like a genius by not doing anything but sign these guys on long-term contracts (with one or two exceptions maybe).

    2. Troy December 23, 2008 1:27 am

      …In the mean-time, keep the draft picks they’ve got.

    3. Jason L December 23, 2008 1:35 am

      Great positive blog Alec!

      I have never been part of tank nation, and I don’t see the rationale or have the patience to see that through. I think the idea is to draft smart, especially if you are out of the top five or ten. Anyone can draft a Crosby or Ovechkin, but it takes something special to find a Zetterberg or Datsyuk. I can’t imagine watching the Leafs in the bottom five for the next three years just to build on a couple kids that you hope will turn out. I think we have to keep in mind that franchise players like that don’t come around very often, unless you are Pittsburgh and have Gary pulling for you in the “behind closed doors” draft lottery.

      Although Tavares and Hedman are exceptional talents, I don’t believe they are on the same level as Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, etc. and I won’t be horribly upset to not get them, especially if it means watching a young, exciting, above .500 leaf team.

      Hopefully Burke does not blow this up, but concentrates on improving at every position, while drafting intelligently; someday finding that hidden 7th round gem.

    4. Alex Tran December 23, 2008 1:37 am

      Let’s not forget that in addition to getting prospects in return, you’re also getting cap space.

      With the cap crunch due to set in because of an economic downturn, you constantly need picks, prospects, and young players on cheap, entry-level contracts.

      I’m not advocating trading everyone for mid round picks, but like Alec, I think that you gotta move some of the big cap hits on defense.

      Antropov I think can be an integral part of a very good team.

      Ponikarovsky I’m a little skeptical about. Breakout year or career year at age 28?

      Stajan I’m still a little skeptical about too. I don’t think we should deal him, but I would wait a while before counting on him as a key cog in the future plans.

    5. Alex Tran December 23, 2008 1:38 am

      Jason L, not even Malkin was expected to be Malkin good.

      For what it’s worth, Hedman and Tavares are going into the draft with a heckuva lot more expectations and “projected potential” than Malkin did.

    6. Alex Tran December 23, 2008 1:40 am

      On another note, how about that Bobby Ryan?

      I’ve definitely underestimated his NHL readiness.

      21 years old with 14 points, +10 rating, in 16 games played so far for the Ducks.

    7. Alec Brownscombe December 23, 2008 1:42 am

      Could not agree more with you Jason on all accounts (I don’t trust that we’ll wind up with either of the top two picks even if we were to finish last. I’m highly skeptical of the lottery system).

      Plus, as you said, banking on a couple of kids to turn out has its risks if you’ve tanked in order to obtain them. It’s worked out in a few instances – Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh – but also failed in others – Columbus, Florida, Atlanta.

    8. Troy December 23, 2008 1:44 am

      The way the cap rises each season, I don’t think it will be much of a problem in the near future.

    9. Alex Tran December 23, 2008 1:51 am

      “Montreal Canadiens president Pierre Boivin said yesterday that next season’s NHL salary cap will go down if revenue and the Canadian dollar remain low, but a league source said the players will actually take a hit to their wallets in a different fashion.

      The source said that barring an unexpected turnaround in the North American economy, the players will lose all of their escrow money next season – millions of dollars in salary – for the first time since the system was established after the 2004-05 lockout. That will effectively cut the salary cap by almost $9-million (all currency U.S.) from this season’s $56.7-million.

      “Next season, the cap won’t go down much because the selling season [for NHL teams] is largely complete,” the source said. “But through escrow next season, the cap will go down to about $48-million.”

      The NHL executive, who wished to be unidentified, said the salary cap will officially make just a small drop next season to $55-million at worst. That would be the first decrease since the cap was introduced in the summer of 2005.”

      http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20081120.NHLESCROW20/TPStory/Sports/columnists

      Potentially just the tip of the iceberg.

    10. Jason L December 23, 2008 1:53 am

      I like Tavares, he has looked good this season and in the U19 pre season. So far, Hodgson and Ellis have impressed me the most. Hedman ran hot and cold in the game against Canada, but when he was on, he was pretty amazing. I still really don’t like his lack of physicality, and I wonder how that will translate on the smaller ice surface against NHL caliber players. But, I will reserve my judgment when I have seen more of him.

      Unfortunately Alex, projected potential doesn’t mean a whole lot. There have been many first round, sure fire draft picks that were total busts, or went on to marginal careers. I was once expected to go in the first two rounds of the OHL entry draft. A blown ACL, MCL and I am now watching hockey and and commenting on this site. I will take your word for it when it comes to prospects, a topic you seem to know a lot about; which is something I only pay attention to during the U19 tourny.

    11. Garrett Bauman December 23, 2008 2:40 am

      It’s the win talking, Alec. :-)

      The Leafs did a nice job, but then again, this was Atlanta they were playing … one of the worst defensive teams in the league.

      Realistically, though, some guys will have to be moved. I do agree that Stajan should stay, after all he is only 25 and has shown he has a bright future. He is versatile, and will be an established veteran leader by the time the Leafs are competitors.

      Antropov, on the other hand, has an injury history, and will be in his 30s by the time this team is ready to compete. Further, he has never been a “go-to” player until this year … nine years into his career. My feeling is, if you can get something for him now, from a team looking to make a playoff run, you do it. There is no guarantee that he re-signs next year, and if he gets 35 goals or so, will his price as a UFA be worth it, considering his age and the likelihood of injury?

      If it is between keeping Antro and Poni, I’d rather keep Poni … less of an injury history, skates better, uses his body more … basically he is less talented offensively but plays a more complete game. Poni has shown he can be effective on any of the top three lines, and that versatility may make him worthy of keeping around. Plus, given his streakiness, I seriously doubt what the market for him may be … I think he falls into the “best trade is no trade” category, personally.

      Kaberle should go, also, if for no other reason than no Leaf player will command a larger return. Kubina, I don’t know. There is something to be said for a veteran presence on the blueline who has the trust of the coach … and we all know how much Wilson likes him. I would listen to offers, but would only move him in a sweetheart deal … if all that is offered is the equivalent of a 2nd rounder, then the Leafs are arguably better off keeping him. Some large contracts will be necessary, after all, for these guys to remain near the cap floor.

      Which brings us to Toskala. Another Wilson favorite, and given his recent play, he may be unmoveable. At least, not moveable for anything useful. One line of thinking is, the best thing for Pogge’s development might be for him to have to earn the starting role, rather than inherit the job. Going into next season with Toskala in his last year of his deal, and Pogge having to fight, as the backup, to prove that he is the guy may not be all that bad of an approach. I’m thinking a 50-30 game split (appx) would be the perfect apprenticeship for Pogge, and if he shows he is capable, the starter’s job is his the following year. Yeah, so you get nothing for Toskala trade-wise under that approach … but you do (arguably) get a better Justin Pogge out of it.

      Speaking of #29 …

      Pogge played very well, as did the defense which held the opposition to the perimeter for much of the game. When the Thrasher players finally decided to show up in the third, their defensive woes had already gotten the better of them. It will be interesting to see how Pogge handles a “good” team, if given the chance … I am inclined to hold off on joining the “goalie of the future” bandwagon until we’ve seen more of him in pressure situations. I will say that his performance tonight has left me cautiously optimistic about his future as a #1.

    12. Garrett Bauman December 23, 2008 2:52 am

      In other words, I am not a fan of tank nation … more a fan of rebuild-while-maintaining-a-core nation. We’re a small group, but we’re growing.

      I think if Burke can move Antropov and Kaberle for decent returns, the Leafs will be in a good position come draft day, and the start of next season.

      BTW if Antropov were signed through the next couple seasons I would probably advocate keeping him. However, his pending UFA status, coupled with him being on pace for around 35 goals or so, makes me nervous about the kind of contract he would want next season. Jason Blake money would be the starting point in negotiations … so we’d be looking at a 29-year-old wanting a 4-5 year deal at a minimum of $4million. Given that Blake’s contract is unmoveable, do we want another $4mil contract for a player with an injury history, who is coming off a career year that he has never duplicated in the past? Sounds like the dreaded Contract Year Performace where athletes raise their game in UFA years, get the big money, and then never come close to the same production again. We’ve seen it time and again — why go down that road if a team desperate to get into the playoffs offers up a first, or a top prospect?

    13. Blair December 23, 2008 7:01 am

      It was said earlier this season by Leafs management that they would rather assemble a dynasty than a team with a one off shot at the cup (think of how Ottawa rose and fell). A chance to rebuild properly doesn’t come along often and it should be taken full advantage of. Sure Antropov and Poni aren’t very old right now, but if the Leafs don’t compete for the cup for another three years they will be veterans and probably not very good ones.
      Strike while the iron is hot. If Burke is smart he peddles these players that don’t make up the physicality component of his projected team while they are scoring machines. Their value may have been low to start the season but when a player is playing great currently it’s hard for other teams to not be tempted to give up more. Look at Doug Weight resurging on the island. He suddenly has trade value again. I doubt the Leafs will ever get more out of Poni than right now and I also doubt they will ever get more for him than right now.

      Burke could set a record for number of first round picks in this years draft.

    14. Wook December 23, 2008 1:08 pm

      Gents, great discussion based on an excellent blog.

      Alec, I have been meaning to thank you for starting up a site dedicated to blogging about the Leafs. I must say that the timing could not have been more appropriate considering the current status of our beloved team.

      I enjoy reading the comments on this site (much more than the “others”) as they reflect a nice blend of thought and passion. I am generally more of a reader than a writer, but this thread has hit a personal note.

      Many years have passed since my time in the GTA, but I haven’t missed a single Leafs game since, both at the Saddledome and more recently at the TD Garden. Wearing my Leafs jersey to these games have been a proud tradition, but I am finding it to be increasingly difficult to do so.

      Case in point, my wife gave me a lecture last Thursday night on the responsibilities of being a husband and father of a toddler. This was shortly after her having learned that a shoving match had taken place during the exit from the Garden and I had a guy’s throat in my left hand. I am right-handed by the way.

      I consider myself to be a very nice guy, and I am quite shameful of my actions. I don’t know why I reacted in such a manner as I am quite used to being yelled at by drunken Bruins fans (followed by chants of Canada-sucks and U-S-A). Perhaps it was having learned during the game that Mats had signed with the Canucks. Perhaps it was the horrible goaltending by Toskala, Cujo, followed by Toskala again. Perhaps it was the quarter that was thrown at my back coming out of the game.

      Having a few days to cool off and read this thread helped me to finally realize the basis of my ephemeral madness – I had subconsciously faced the reality that I may have to literally sit through and drink eight dollar drafts for five more years of this “rebuilding process”.

      It is really easy for me to sit behind my laptop screen and agree with everyone that we have to rebuild the right way. However, the few times I get to see my boys in action, I really wish that there was a fast-forward button.

      Like what others have pointed out, what good will Antropov and Ponikarovsky do for the rebuilding process? Even if we may not get players of their talent levels back through draft picks, we will have extra shots at using the experience of Nonis and others in the management to potentially grab some surprises, especially in a deep draft class.

      I agree with Blair in that I do not wish for the Leafs to experience what the Senators are facing this year and many more to come. I think that we have the right pieces right now to move, and I for one am willing to sit through five more years of this in my Leafs jersey. All I want is hope (e.g. young prospects), and I do think that we have a great coaching staff and management to shape our hope for the long term. Plus, having Burke as the GM, we are bound to see some crazy maneuvers to keep us entertained during this spectacular rebuilding process.

      I think that it is great right now that most of our movable pieces are playing well – keep them riding high and trade them for the future at their peaks. Value pieces like Hagman and Stempniak that cannot be moved this year can be moved next year. Heck, at the pace that Blake is going now, maybe he will be movable with a bag of pucks.

      Here’s to a hope of a full barn, and Go Leafs Go!

    15. Scot Loucks December 23, 2008 3:06 pm

      Absolutely excellent thread. Very thought provoking.. good job all.

      First off; Kulemin/Stempniak

      I’d like to see Kulemin back with Grabovski and Hagman for no other reason than Grabovski isn’t playing as well without him. He (Grabovski) was the only minus player last night and recorded zero shots on net.

      The consideration should be that Wilson is rolling 4 lines right now. Mitchell deserves for ice time as well but me thinks Wilson can work this out based on performance. What do they do when Mayers is ready to come back? My guess is Deveaux goes back to the Marlies to continue to develop…. that gives you a 4th line of Mitchell/Mayers and Stempniak…. Mitchell will excel given some wingers.

      Which brings me to Stajan.

      I’m not convinced he is a top 6 forward. I still think both he and Moore are top notch 3rd line centres and I think Mitchell and Grabovski have more upside potential for top 6. That makes Stajan trade able.

      Potential trades?

      I think that unless they can ink Antropov to a 4 year deal with hometown discount he will be gone by March 4th. He will only be 32 in 4 years…. same as Hagman signing this year.

      Kaberle and Kubina have to go. I hate them paired together unless it is the PP. Neither one can or is willing to clear the front of the net although both have an offensive upside. With Stralman and Kronwall in the minors, Sifers looking like a keeper, Van Ryn (if he can stay healthy) I see a bright future on the back end…. and both Kaberle and Kubina could bring significant returns.

      Poni is signed for one more year and could fetch a decent return… as stated above he seems to be able to excel on any one of the top 3 lines. You also have to like he and Antropov on the PK…. something that Maurice did last year and Wilson has since bought into.

      Toskala is another who could go and fetch a decent return…. but Pogge needs to prove he is ready before pulling that cord.

      What nobody has mentioned is the cap space Burke has to work with…..and the fact that the Leafs can afford to have million dollar AHL players.

      Look for him to take a player or two off other teams in order for those teams to clear up cap space and in return pick up some additional draft picks.

      Building through the draft (1st round picks) is a crap shoot and I don’t think the Leafs will ever again have a top 3 pick (unless they luck into one via trade). There are too many pathetic teams out there for the Leafs to fall to that level. They need to invest their money in having the best scouting department in the NHL….. finding the Datsyk’s and Zetterburg’s instead of the Crosbies and Ovechkin’s.

      Finally…. as I have to go…. I’d still like to see Blake gone … if for no other reason than he is too old for this team. Mayers as well. Deveaux needs another full year in the AHL playing power play time and working on his skating (which he was doing prior to his call up). I’d like to see Mitchell getting more ice time. I’d like to see Pogge play again tonight…..

      And if Santa is listening I’d really like to see a Stanley Cup in Toronto as a middle aged person…. saw (remember) 3 as a kid….. but would like another before I retire.

      Merry Christmas all.

      Cheers

    16. gnashings December 23, 2008 4:54 pm

      Wow, I have to say – after a life time diet of main stream media, some of the bloggers I have been discovering here are a truly eye opening experience, and a very pleasant one at that! Its great to see that there is a grass-roots peresence that is stocked with intelligent, articulate people who open up a whole new dimension of learning about and discussing my beloved Leafs! Kudos, folks!
      One point I would like to raise – while I agree strongly that a draft is always a crap-shoot (except for some really sure-fire choices… but then there is Stamkos – at least for now…); I think no one questions its huge importance in the development and later maintenance, of a competitive team. Still, I would like to echo something that a couple people have posted – its not always pertinent to cast off known value for the chance at something better (or sam, or worse… who knows?).
      There is only one major disagreement I would voice – the opinion that Poni’s game is more “complete” than Nik’s. I think the potential maybe there, and its so, so hard to see past the wounded Bambi on nerve agents skating “style”, but Nik is actually quite strong all around, responsible defensively, and has learned to overcome his… shall we say… mobility challanges.
      Poni still seems to lose his focus too much, make strange and alarming mistakes, and generally be far more streaky.
      Anyhow – this is a very enjoyable season, this team has entertained me more than any Leaf’s team since the pre-lockout Pat Quinn teams. I am finding a lot more to get emotionally involved with in this group of hard working young guys than some of the coasters of the past. Go Leafs Go!