This Season Winning Means Nothing

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    By Gus Katsaros
    The Leafs aren’t as bad as a four win first quarter. They were a playoff bubble team prior to the season, and the postseason wasn’t necessarily the goal, as was becoming competitive enough to stay in the run. They aren’t a bottom five NHL club, and unlikely to finish in a lottery position.

    This season continues the transition like last season into shaping Toronto into a respectable organization, from management, down. That hasn’t changed with the off season moves, aside from some specific performances.

    ‘Spirit is Everything’ is a fitting slogan .. because winning this season, means nothing.

    Playoffs

    It usually starts with talks of playoffs. That’s the bar Brian Burke set in the off-season with remarks while the concept of playoff contention was skewed with progressive off-season moves and further boosted by acquiring Phil Kessel.

    What could Burke say to the fan base over the summer ‘We stink and won’t make the playoffs again this year … but please buy tickets and lease suites …’?

    The postseason is a nice dream, but doesn’t really matter.

    This season’s club isn’t the team destined to be competing for the Cup, so really, what do playoffs really mean? Expiring contracts are auditioning for new ones, whether with the Leafs or another club. It’s difficult to get excited for success, rather than individual pieces necessary moving forward.

    The Kessel deal ..

    “I want to be clear on this: We paid a heavy price but I don’t feel we have to replace those picks,” Burke said. “If we can’t … that’s fine with me.

    “I want to get some picks back so my scouts don’t sit on their (butts) for two rounds. But if we’re not able to do something, they’ll have to lump it.”

    Brian Burke addressing importance of picks

    Burke said he would pull the trigger even knowing the team would struggle. He’s been open about the risk. The two firsts and a second was on par for a player of his skill set even if the 2010 pick ends up in a lottery slot, although the embarrassment factor plays in here.

    A big misconception was that the trade for Kessel was to facilitate a playoff push, and thus deemed a failure, especially early in the season. I found fans slumped into this type of view as the winless skid out of the gate amplified panic exponentially. Getting him with the long term view was always the primary goal, coinciding to boost Burke’s goal of making the playoffs.

    The lottery pick ..

    “We certainly didn’t expect and don’t expect it will be a No. 1 pick, but we knew going into it that it could be a possibility. But we also knew it would be the 15th overall pick. That’s the risk you take.”

    Burke on possibility of lottery pick

    “Taylor Hall” makes for good audio and video consumption bites, text and bad jokes but it isn’t definite and based solely on current, static standings … it’s myopic except for shock value. There’s still plenty of time to turn this season around to a respectable showing, just realistically not likely as playoff contenders.

    It’s not like they’re being outplayed and killed every night.

    The horrible start makes it difficult to recover, so a top-10 pick in 2010 is a possibility. A player of Kessel’s skill set would have been likely chosen in the top three, so at best, it’s an even trade off this year specifically, having showcased his skills 11 games and six goals strong. The additional second in 2010 could be made up through trade, while the first for 2011 as a possibility may not be recoverable, only in lower round quantity. Even if it ended up as a lottery pick, so what? The bird in hand here, has some fine wings.

    Next season

    Don’t be surprised to see them struggle next season too with the difference being a much younger cast as expiring contracts are jettisoned and replaced with a more representative vision of the youth core. A full season as pros for Bozak and Stalberg with the addition of Kadri and the removal of Toskala, replaced by The Monster; well it’s the nucleus that would quite possibly end this season.

    Let the kids play

    From a marketing level, having prospects at the Ricoh gives incentive for fans to attend Marlies games. Watching prospects, including the ‘Frat Line’ comes at a deep discount – and better overall view – to cost of tickets at the ACC.

    The injury to John Mitchell provides an audition window for various players. Devin Setoguchi in San Jose was demoted/recalled four times in 2007-08 before finally sticking and the experience served him well. Keep that in mind as there is movement without a full-scale recall.

    Tyler Bozak mentioned in the second intermission in Sunday’s game about being tired playing four games in five nights and the transition (there’s that word again) from College to Pro. Playing time in the AHL, even an entire season is only beneficial. Bozak should eventually become the Leafs second line center- maybe by season’s end – and Victor Stalberg should join the cast. Meanwhile, they get the opportunity to develop into difference makers under less stressful conditions, unlikely to occur in the NHL, while the Leafs play out expiring contracts that aren’t so easy to shed in trades or demotions.

    Christian Hanson has benefited most, but isn’t projected to be the dynamic scorer displayed in the AHL. A better role player than star, with an excellent work ethic, feistiness and grit that will benefit in the future. Work ethic isn’t what the Leafs need .. it’s finish.

    Hanson is working on it. The callup was a reward for adding scoring presence to augment his healthy physical game; listening to coaches and following a development plan. If he tops out as a high-end checker some scoring touch would only be beneficial.

    Demotions

    This isn’t as loud after a Leafs win than a loss, but I generally feel fans dislike for player(s) often fuels talk of demotion. It’s not performance related, it’s dislike, more emotional than rational. Burying money is not easy to justify, even for a lucrative organization of MLSE. Whether they can isn’t the issue, it’s not beneficial.

    Can’t demote players for a lack of effort. Besides, organizations don’t want disgruntled players around kids and your prospects.

    The club doesn’t want to send the wrong message to potential free agents by setting precedent as treatment for underperforming organizational assets. It has ramifications in future negotiations where potential free agents include ‘no movement clauses’ as prerequisites in discussions simply due to the precedent set by current demotions.

    While still an option, demotions are not likely to occur.

    Transactions

    Transactions should be limited to those that conform to the long term criteria. Feeling that the off season defensive moves and the Phil Kessel deal initiated the retooling here in Toronto for the future, this season feels more like it’s being played out to have daily content in sports outlets and to pay the player salaries. Playoffs, means nothing .. winning, means nothing.

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    I’ve tried to get this down to a coherent rant and find it difficult without some expansion of information … I can’t seem to find the right words to express myself in a limited space available … I’ll expand on this in the next edition of Stick Work with Fab&Kats into something more logical overall.

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