Can’t Stop This Ephesian: Kaberle, Versteeg and The Plan

Can’t Stop This Ephesian: Kaberle, Versteeg and The Plan

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What man that sees the ever whirling wheel
Of Change, the which all mortal things doth sway,
But that thereby doth find, and plainly feel,
How Mutability in them doth play
Her cruel sports, to many men’s decay
?

-Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen

Change surrounds us.  So powerful and pervasive a part of nature is it that the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus saw in it the unity of all things.  Change played such a central role in the Ephesian philosopher’s beliefs that he became famous (among philosophy geeks, anyway) for his pronouncement that because everywhere things are always becoming, always in flux, a man cannot step in the same river twice.  Heraclitus insisted that our eyes and ears were “evil witnesses” that deceived us, making humans perceive certain things (like mountains or rivers) as static or permanent when in reality, there is only an endless succession of transitory moments.

"Heraclitus was right bro." (Photo Credit: AP Photo)

These ideas deeply inform modern western thought.  We see beauty and truth, according to some, in things like poetry and cinema because they strive to capture and preserve as immortal the fragile moments in time,  moments that are always and forever on the cusp of extinction because the forces of the universe demand it.  In this way, every photograph becomes, in a way, about death;  every sonnet memorializing beauty is, at the same time, a lament that time marches on, beauty is impermanent and only change is eternal.  I once tried to express some of these concepts in a song I wrote;  in it, the main character was “trying to measure a moment”, a phrase I like so much that I used it as the tagline for my own blog.

I think the career of Tomas Kaberle as a Toronto Maple Leaf,  a moment in time which was finally extinguished Friday afternoon following his trade to the Boston Bruins,  may best be understood in this way;  as a manifestation of the inevitability of change.  As Leaf fans, we have grown so accustomed to seeing Kaberle on the blueline game in and game out for so many years, he’s become like part of the landscape – an enduring feature of the surrounding geography, like a mountain.   Because of this, it is tempting to view his departure as an event signifying a great change, but that would be wrong.  Everything everywhere is always becoming, and the turnover on the Leafs roster as part of this rebuild is no different.

Things are a lot different now than they were when  Kaberle first became a Leaf.  When his rookie season began in 1998, the Leafs were still playing out of the Carlton Street Cashbox.  He shared a dressing room with Stumpy Thomas, Sergei Berezin, and Felix Potvin.  He patrolled the blueline with fellow defensemen Danny Markov, Alexander Karpotsev and Dmitri Yushkevich.  These were the early days of the Mats Sundin Leafs, an era in which the Leaf Captain’s best years were still in the future.  I remember fondly the night Kaberle fired the first of what would be seven regular season overtime winners in his Leaf career: the Googles tells me that it was Saturday, December 5th, 1998, and my memory tells me that it was a road game. The vanquished opponent was the Montreal Canadiens.   I had been watching the game at my local watering hole, the Court Jester (near the corner of Danforth and Pape),  sitting at the bar and talking – as I always did – about the team’s chances that season with the bartender/owner, a nice fellow by the name of Lori.  I can’t remember what plans I had made for that evening with my buddies, but I remember that I was late leaving the Jester to meet them that night because the game remained close in the third period.  I remember being appalled at the end of the 3rd (and with the game still undecided), that I could no longer justify staying in front of the television at the bar, and having to grab a cab to get downtown. Climbing in the taxi, I was relieved to hear the game broadcast emanating from the car’s radio.  I remember clearly the driver and I both exploding with glee when Kabby banged home the winner.

The little anecdote above is proof alone of the ubiquity of change: the names on the back of Leaf sweaters are, of course, very different now, and the team plays its games out of the Air Canada Centre these days.  Sundin’s name, then evoking images of youthful promise and vigour, is now packaged for Leafs fans with regret and a sense of opportunity missed, as the image of the man as player recedes into our collective memory, confused somewhat by the Mats Sundin of PokerStars ads and Vancouver Canucks games.  Beyond the four corners of the roster and the sport of hockey too, there is evidence that we are always becoming something else:  consider that in my little story, part of what makes that evening so memorable for me is the connection I felt with the cab driver – an anonymous stranger – as we both hung on every word from the game broadcast;  back in the days before smartphones put the NHL and its evening highlights in your pocket, you watched or listened to the games or you missed out, waiting instead to catch the replay on Sportscentre when you got home.  Outside of that, I no longer spend Saturday nights stressing about whether I can manage to watch the whole game before going out and hitting the town;  I no longer live in the Big City, and my Saturday nights are spent stressing about whether I can manage to watch the whole game without alienating my wife and child*.    The very fact and form of the conversation I’m carrying on with you right now has been transformed (for the vast majority of people, aside from some early adopters conversant with Gopher and Netscape, and prepared to deal with the vicissitudes of dial-up modems) by the widespread adoption of the Internet and the development of sites like MLHS.  Oh, and the games are in HD now.

So long was Kaberle,  the last Leaf to have skated before a Maple Leaf Gardens crowd, a fixture in our firmament that it is – in truth – not difficult at all to see his departure as representative of change:  “the end of an era”, and so on.  What is difficult is to remember is that this particular change is not unlike all the other changes that the ever whirling wheel has brought upon us.   That is to say that it is easy to conclude – as I heard one talk radio host doing Friday afternoon – that Kaberle’s departure, especially when combined with the “Kris Versteeg for draft picks” trade earlier in the week, signals a new direction for the Maple Leafs, a change in plan.  It is easy to conclude that Kaberle’s departure is different, but it’s also wrong.

The radio host felt that what he had seen this week was evidence that the Leafs were “finally” listening to what he had been”preaching”† (his words, not mine);  that the only path to success lay in acquiring draft choices, then drafting well.  At last, he proclaimed, Brian Burke had woken up and smelled the coffee;  very much implicit in this monologue was the concept that the previous two seasons under the direction of Mr. Burke have at last been recognized by those in charge for what they are: a failure and evidence of the “wrong” way to build a competitive hockey team (you won’t be surprised to learn that Mr. Host was not in favour of the Kessel trade, and took great pains to proclaim that for a suitably ponderous period of time in mid-rant).

All of this may have made for gripping sports talk radio entertainment for some, but I would suggest that it’s just flat out wrong.  The departure of both Kaberle and Versteeg are but steps in the same process that I’ve argued has been underway inside the boardrooms at MLSE since at least as early as November 2008, when Burke assumed managerial control over the team.  I wrote in the 2009-2010 Maple Leafs Annual that I expected Burke’s plan to mimic the development of the Boston Bruins, a team whose rebuild and return to competitiveness was accomplished more by means of trades and free agency than it was  through recourse to a “Tank and Draft”.   I wrote that I expected the Leafs to focus on acquiring youthful talent, via whatever means necessary, that could be counted on to mature into a competitive core simultaneously.  Part of the process involves auditioning the young talent acquired, searching for pieces that fit the competitive puzzle, and churning through successive iterations of the roster until management is confident that a youthful competitive core has been identified.

Out the door went older Leafs like Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina, Nik Antropov .  In the door have come youthful assets like Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and Keith Aulie.  All the while, players in the Leaf system (and players brought into the system) have been being evaluated by management to determine whether there is space on the Team of the Future for the player in question.  In the case of Matt Stajan and Ian White, despite their youth, these assets were deemed expendable and replaceable in the “churning” process that has taken place.

The Versteeg and Kaberle trades fit the model in that respect: Kaberle, though a useful and talented player, does not fit temporally in that (by virtue of his age) he cannot and will not be a member of the core group of the team as it matures toward competitiveness together.   When I first started writing about this rebuild, I hoped that the Leafs would experience success rapidly enough that they would be able to retain him.  Smooth skating and talented offensive-minded defencemen do not grow on trees, and skilled mobility on the back end is most definitely one of the necessary ingredients for a championship team;  I hoped that the Leafs would see their window of competitiveness opening quickly enough to justify taking a chance that this period of time would overlap with Kaberle’s own continued usefulness as an NHL player.   It was not, however, to be.  Yesterday, Brian Burke said:

The process is taking longer than I wanted it to…but the game plan, the blueprint has never changed.  It was never about getting older assets and trying to be better for a year or two.  We spent all those assets to get a 21 year old right winger.  Everything we’ve done has been part of a long term plan, it hasn’t changed from day one. It’s not going to.

I know, shit doesn't look right.

Why is the process taking longer than Burke wanted?  I’m speculating, of course, but maybe the Sedins re-upping with Vancouver so quickly in July of 2009 took Burke a bit by surprise.  Maybe one need look no further than the frustrations the Leafs have experienced in the crease (especially in regards to the development of Jonas Gustavsson) to fully appreciate that progress has perhaps been more incremental than rapid.  The end result of the slower than anticipated turn towards respectability, however, was that it reduced the range of options available to Leaf management in respect of Tomas Kaberle.  With real competitiveness not in the cards for at least another two seasons, it would have been lunacy to continue to depend upon a player of Kaberle’s age to feature prominently in the team of the future.

Versteeg’s brief time with the Leafs may well represent another facet of the problem that ultimately led to Kaberle’s departure.  Acquired by the Leafs this past summer, the quick-skating and talented winger never found any chemistry with the Leafs’ offensive centrepiece, Phil Kessel.  There wasn’t room for him either on the McArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin line.  That left him skating on what was (notionally, anyway) the 3rd line and (astonishingly) the likes of Joey Crabb jumping over the boards with #81.  In the end, what I saw was a failed team chemistry experiment;  not a proper fit with the team’s principal sniper and never clicking either on the wing or off the point on the power play, Versteeg was too talented an asset for the Leafs to hold but under-utilize.  Out the door goes Kris Versteeg as the Leafs turn their attention to the next candidate for a proper compliment to Phil Kessel.   No doubt, Burke and the Leafs were disappointed to find that a player of Versteeg’s talents didn’t fit the bill.  No doubt, this discovery represented an unanticipated further delay.   Whatever the case, this and the other difficulties the Leafs have experienced in churning through the roster and sifting some gold out of the sand spelled the end for Kaberle’s days as a Leaf.

I hasten to point out that I appreciate that this last point – the one about the reasons for Versteeg’s departure – is somewhat more controversial among observers of the team, as there are those who believe that Versteeg’s goal production – especially when considered with the advanced statistical evidence – strongly suggested his role was more central than that of a mere 3rd liner.  Burke himself, however, yesterday said that Versteeg “wasn’t a match” and likened the process to asking someone out on a date only to discover that, for reasons beyond anyone’s control, it wasn’t a good fit. Furthermore, if one examines what was written about Versteeg’s departure from Chicago last June, one notices a remarkable thematic similarity: fans wrote about his inability to mesh with a sniper (in Chicago’s case, Patrick Kane) and subsequent relegation (for other personnel reasons, in Chicago’s case related to the Hossa line) to too peripheral or complimentary a role for such a talented player.  Obviously, the prime moving force behind Versteeg’s departure from Chicago was the cap trouble that the Blackhawks were experiencing.  It is doubtful that they would have moved him in the absence of those motivating forces.  In the Leafs’ case, there were of course no such cap pressures;  but not having been blessed through the draft with assets like Patrick Kane, Jonathon Toews, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, and not yet being able to attract quality free agents like Marian Hossa, Burke and the Leafs were (in my opinion) forced to attempt to leverage the talent they did have in the system as much as possible.   The most obvious way to do that is to concentrate the team’s top talent on a line with Phil Kessel, and the only way to do that was to shuffle the deck, get rid of Versteeg and bring somebody else in the door.

That leads me to my last point about the events of this week:  expect Burke and the Leafs to work very hard to convert the draft picks they’ve acquired over the last week into actual on-ice talent, but with the obvious caveat that any player acquired needs to fit the demographic – he must be in his early twenties and he must be talented enough to (potentially, subject to audition) form part of the competitive core going forward.  Here’s what Burke initially said about what comes next:

We’re immediately going to try and parlay those two firsts into something higher in the first round.

Then later, when asked about his decision to collect draft picks over the last week or so, he called them “assets in the shopping cart”, indicated that draft picks “are not a priority” and expressed a desire ideally to convert them in to a young player.  He also said that he thought it unlikely that he could acquire a number one centre before the deadline, calling that an “unrealistic expectation” and instead terming it a “July 1st transaction.”  Burke has essentially given himself three options with these picks: (1) hold them and draft two players late in the first round; (2) package them together or with other assets for a higher first round pick; or (3) package them for an impact forward who fits the demographic.  I would suggest that Burke’s preferred outcome (really any GMs preferred outcome) would be #3 – he’d rather acquire a known talent that fits the developmental time frame than have to take the risks associated with either trading, drafting and developing or drafting and developing alone.  I think by expressing his intention to “parlay those two firsts into something higher in the first round”, he’s trying to send a signal to his fellow GMs that he’d be happy enough with that outcome;  he needs to give himself as many apparent options as he can in order to maximize his leverage in any potential trade negotiations.  I won’t be a bit surprised if one or both of those picks gets bundled for an “impact” or top 6 forward, someone to audition for a supporting role next to Kessel.  Plan B would be to attempt to find that person in the draft.

Obviously, the Leafs are further away from contention than just that one piece.  Maybe Joe Colborne can develop into an impact centre;  maybe he can’t.  Whatever the case, it’s likely not fast enough for Burke at the moment.  I’m not suggesting he’ll trade Colborne.  Rather, I think his reference to July 1st when asked about a centre is somewhat telling:  at the moment, based on the list of upcoming free agents, I’d agree with the general speculation that he’s hoping that Brad Richards makes it to free agency this summer.

There’s now one other piece that the Leafs will at some point be seeking (likely further down the road a piece, but get ready to hear about this a lot): a puck moving defenceman.  For the time being, I would expect the Leafs to look to Carl Gunnarsson to fill that void.  We had one of the best in the business for thirteen years, but in the process of everything everywhere always becoming, the swirling eddies of time have wrenched him from our grasp and carried him down the river to a different place.

What do you think?  Who’s on the radar next?  Can Carl Gunnarsson fill the Kabby void from within?

——————————

- – Stick tap to the Bitter Leaf Fan (@mforbes37) for the title of this piece.

Follow me on twitter: @warwalker

*In truth, my wife is consistently awesome about letting me watch a crazy amount of hockey.  But I still worry!

†The radio host was magnanimous enough to point out that he was not the only person to suggest that the wise GM must build through the draft alone – in case anyone happened to erroneously assume that this splendid theory was a proprietary work of genius.

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