Saturday, May 30, 2015
Authors Posts by Richard-Steven Williams

Richard-Steven Williams

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    129

     Jeff Finger’s name may be rampant with tireless innuendo, but few Leafs fans were laughing when interim GM Cliff Fletcher tied the unknown, but apparently much coveted Colorado Avalanche defenseman to a four year, $14 million contract in the summer of 2008.

    Working out at $3.5 million a year, the ultra late developing Finger went from no name, to fifth highest earner on the blue ribbon Leafs payroll creating a maelstrom of discontent amongst fans that remains to this day.

    From full term college player and three year AHL blue liner with only 94 games of (then) experience in the big leagues, Finger quickly became synonymous as the “man with the contract,” reddening faces further still in the land of blue and white where the overpay became talk of free agency.

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      One would be forgiven for trying to avoid the latest behind-the-scenes circus to befall the league and its players association. Amid the ongoing and incredulous tug of ego’s taking place at the now infamous Phoenix courthouse, Paul Kelly, Executive Director of the NHLPA was fired after a ten hour marathon of meetings in Chicago on Sunday.

      Kelly, who was thought to support expansion or relocation back into the Canadian market, was reportedly relieved of his duties following an expensive, ramshackle and unconstitutional investigation fronted by interim ombudsman Buzz Hargrove.

      The investigation cited internal disputes surrounding Kelly’s direction, a lack of face time with the members of the union and an deep rooted belief that Kelly was becoming too close to the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy Bill Daly.

      Resulting in a vote of no confidence from the 30 players who make up the NHLPA’s executive board, Kelly’s position within the union was terminated after just 22 months in office and Ian Penny, former second in command as General Counsel, was installed as the interim executive director.

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        59

        So few players seem to ignite the dichotomy of emotions Jason Blake inspires. Undrafted, undersized and inconsistent, Blake rode the wave of a steep and late developmental curve and earned himself a five year $20 million contract at 34. A prototypical throwback to the malaise of JFJ’s overpriced veteran acquisitions, Blake has taken his lumps in the media, demands for his trade by fans and rekindled some of the form that made him a 40 goal scoring all-star on Long Island.

        Yet regardless of his contemporary state of play or his trading value, few have a bad word to say about the Moorhead, Minnesota native.

        Small wonder, with an immovable contract analogous to maligned teammate Jeff Finger, Blake has ebbed and flowed in rhythm with the turbulence of back room upheaval like no other. Dubbed a one season wonder whose goal scoring exploits for the Islanders were anomalous to a side lacking offensive leadership, Blake went from big fish in a shallow pool to floundering in the Toronto fishbowl.

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          469

          As promised it has been a summer of comprehensive retooling both on the grind lines and perhaps more pertinently on the blueline. With Brian Burke hitting the fast forward on the once anticipated rebuild, the Leafs have become a tougher proposition with a prospects chart expected to feed into that ethos for years to come. Meanwhile, the defensive corps has become deeper and more pugnacious than any Leafs setup in the past decade… at least from a utilitarian standpoint.

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            47

            Although the season prior to lockout would prove the Maple Leafs last playoff foray in half a decade, neither year that straddled the infamous labor disputes would be remembered with any particular fondness. Ushering in the reign of John Ferguson Jr., 2003-04 became, in hindsight, a defining landmark in an era of decline when overblown hype would manifest a country club malaise. Regardless, those lockout sandwiching years can also be remembered, at least in a very in a small way, for the gracing of the Toronto blue line by a cult stay at home defenseman who defied the “new” NHL dictum and refused to be culled from the game.

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              507

              While he would never admit it, Ontario native Nazem Kadri must of felt a twinge of anger at how the biggest day in his life panned out. Treated like a high steak pawn at the 2009 draft where the dreams he worked so hard to achieve were to be realized, Kadri watched as a bitter Brian Burke failed to secure the vaunted trade northwards, then faced the ignominy of TSN analyst Darren Dreger questioning Burke about Brayden Schenn as he sat in silence, festooned in his Maple Leafs jersey. For sure it must have been disappointing and one can only hope he didn’t venture toward any Leafs related websites that night.

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                46

                Even in the days of modern technology, many still profess that meteorology is an inexact science more guess work than theory. The very same can be said when scouting goaltenders. For every Mark-Andre Fleury (selected 1st overall in 2003) there’s a Brent Krahn (selected 9th overall in 2000). Meanwhile recent Vezina nominees and winners such as Tim Thomas, Mikka Kiprusoff and Evgeni Nabokov had to wait until the 217th, 116th and 219th selections respectively to see their names on the board. Indeed, the vast majority of netminders who started a game last season in the NHL had long waits deep into the second day to see their dreams realized while others went completely unnoticed only to resurface as free agents years later.

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                  46

                  Celebrating a decade of squandered potential and faded dreams, the draft of 1999 turned out shallower than an infant’s paddling pool, yet despite being regarded as an acrimonious footnote in league history the draft of ’99 also served as an unlikely backdrop to one of the most meticulously engineered pre-draft coups ever.

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                    Anybody who has played an EA Sports hockey title in the last decade will be familiar with the create-a-team function whereby the gamer is allowed to shape a franchise, choose its name, logo and location and in some cases even build their own virtual arena. Taking that concept to a slightly grander scale yesterday at the Rosewater Supper Club, yet another “consortium” broke ranks from correct NHL procedure to unveil their somewhat bizarre vision for a new expansion franchise in Toronto.

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                      61

                      In the MLSE land of unreasonable expectations, even a superstar troupe like Burke and Wilson will not be afforded another record breaking season; at least not if said record is a fifth consecutive season of playoff free hockey. Subsequently Burke is going to be looking for a catalyst to the rebuilding project come summer and the most obvious route will arrive in early July, not a week earlier in Montreal.

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                        Rewind a year to Ottawa, when interim GM Cliff Fletcher was preparing to make his last great splash. Trading up to secure hard hitting blueliner Luke Schenn, a player unto which the Leafs hoped to bank their revival, set in motion a summer of upheaval paving the way for Brian Burke to step in mid-season. For many the draft of 2008 marked an era of realization, that change was required and perhaps finally the Leafs were going to commit to a full scale rebuild based on the youth model in Pittsburgh.

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                          63

                          So the Leafs are interested in throwing their hat into the ring as netminding bad boy Ray Emery looks for a new home? Somebody should warn Brian Burke about Razor Ray’s aversion to head gear following his altercation with Atlant Mytishchi’s team trainer Roman Sokolov last month. Yes we’ve all had a good laugh on YouTube at the expense of hockey’s self destructive answer to Britney Spears but hot of his hat phobia fisticuffs Emery has now walked out on the KHL’s second best team for another far more disinteresting reason.

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                            109

                            Through 45 games the abject tandem of Toskala and Joseph has combined for the worst team save percentage in the NHL and by an ever increasing margin. Where .900 is seen as a barometer for average net minding in the modern game, the Blueshirted duo has managed just .886 between them. Subsequently the hard work put into making the Leafs sixth in shots against with a 28.3 per game average is being undone by a last line of defence that bares a startling resemblance to the Maginot line. Worse still the current status quo threatens to undermine the very rebuilding process Toronto are pinning their future on.

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                              Coaches Corner maybe becoming increasingly irrelevant as the staunchly patriotic Don Cherry rambles about musings better suited to an age when every player was nicknamed “Butch” and that a Swede was something related to jokes about corners. But as Cherry provides the antithesis to contemporary hockey analysis I once more find myself agreeing with his misty eyed old school view of hockey in the wake of Don Sanderson’s tragic death. Sure I may find a lot to fault Cherry with, but the way in which he handled Sanderson’s passing was touching and unerringly appropriate at a time when fighting found itself once more centre stage for bandwagon discourse.

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                                Just six months ago many a grapevine was carrying rumor of NHL expansion while I lamented the integrity of a revenue bound salary cap. Even into the new season few had foreseen the sheer gravity of the global economic downturn and its impact on jobs, housing, businesses and every facet of life down to sport. Now as international markets stutter into a depression that many an analyst believe could change the face of modern capitalism forever, the NHL seems to remain steadfast in addressing it’s minor successes as opposed to it’s crippling and potentially devastating financial model.

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                                  Months of uncertainty and speculation are likely to come to an end in the next week when Brian Burke and his associates meet with Richard Peddie and the MLSE. The groups have already spoken albeit lawyer to lawyer last weekend to confirm the Anaheim Ducks had signed papers allowing their former GM to talk with other teams and if reports are to be believed, groundwork was laid on the forthcoming negotiations.

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                                    Ed. Note: Richard-Steven Williams, a UK-based NHL and European hockey enthusiast, will be joining the MLHS blogging team.

                                    It’s fantastic to have Richard aboard, he’s an immense talent.
                                    Here’s his piece on Ron Wilson from a week ago.