Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Sympathy for the Devil?

Sportsnet’s Michael Grange filed a piece on the Leafs yesterday that drew some surprising kudos on twitter from a few folks I admire.

When I questioned the love for his piece, Grange was a very good sport and responded in kind (I cannot imagine the chirping these guys have to put up with and I honestly commend Grange for responding with good humour to the likes of me).

That said, I had a number of issues with his piece, but two in particular – it was built on a really slipshod foundation and it came to rather bizarre conclusion. Let’s take a look:

It takes a special kind of charm to generate sympathy for Leafs ownership, a cuddly combination of a pension fund, a cable company and a seller of phones.
But Ron Wilson and Brian Burke clearly have it.
Three things:
  1. I don’t think many fans could even guess the correct make-up of the Leafs’ ownership.
  2. I don’t think anyone has any sympathy for Leafs ownership.
  3. I really don’t think whatever sympathy does exist has increased, not even on a microscopic level

But maybe that's just me. Maybe there is a ground swell of sympathy and support for MLSE.

The NHL trade deadline should have been a chance for Leafs fans to revel in the possibilities of a move or two that could have lifted their club into the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

The trade deadline was a chance for Leaf fans to revel in the possibilities of move. All sorts of possibilities were discussed and debated by Leafs fans from the surreal to the lowly. In actuality? Well, not so much. But that’s not unique to Toronto. The whole day was a dud and as such, it makes a lousy foundation to an assessment of Burke & Co.

Instead it came and went with the decision by Burke to stick to the plan.

The day did come and go with little to no activity, but I’m not sure that’s the equivalency of sticking with the plan.

I have no idea what trades were or weren’t discussed nor what deals were rejected, but there are numerous reasons for standing pat – prices to high, too few sellers, the wrong pieces being offered, etc. None of these reasons are an endorsement for the status quo.

Grange continues...

Um, what plan? The one where they toy with the idea of trading young prospects for Rick Nash, the big, overpaid, under-performing winger to play with the big, first-line centre the Leafs still don't have?

The Rick Nash angle sure is a win-win for the local media. Burke pulls of that deal and gets crucified for giving up the future for the non-performing, contractually heavy Nash. Burke doesn’t pull off the deal and he’s not sticking to some sort of plan.

Or the one where they muse about shopping for a mediocre veteran goalie to further scramble the confidence of the goalies that Burke signed and Wilson has managed to bring out the worst in?

This is Grange’s first legit point and it’s a very important one. And it’s in paragraph 6.

Maybe it's the one where the old college pals talk about eradicating a so-called sense of entitlement in Toronto, even as Burke gives Wilson a contract extension worth a reported seven figures as a reward for never making the playoffs?

Another great point from Grange. Burke talked endlessly about changing the culture of this team. Frankly, I don’t care about culture, I care about winning and I haven’t seen much of that in the past four years.

Or is it the one where Burke emphasizes that playing in the centre of the hockey universe is so demanding that he's considering instituting his own pre-trade deadline trade deadline to save his hand-picked team from the pressures of being young, famous and rich in one of the world's great cities.

This is insane (Burke, not Grange. I'm with Grange here).

I have no idea what Burke is on about. If a deadline causes pressure, why would an artificial – you know – deadline change that? Why does Burke insist on adding all sorts of additional rules and codes to his already tough job? Why does Burke want to put more constraints on how he operates?

I don’t want a players GM, I want a GM that will consider doing anything and everything to build a winning hockey club.

Apparently playing hockey in Toronto is somehow harder than playing baseball in New York or basketball in Los Angeles or soccer in Manchester or hockey in Vancouver, for that matter.

I’m sorry. Did Vancouver win something of note?

Seriously. It's a hell of a plan.

Here’s the problem, the so-called "plan" that Grange is mocking is a strawman.

Of Grange’s five points, only one – goaltending – relates to any sort of planning process.

Nash, entitlement, pressure and deadlines have nothing to do with re-building a hockey team. In this instance they’re little more than convenient targets that are easily burned.

For most of the past two generations it's been easy to pin the woes of the richest and most popular hockey team on the planet on doofus ownership.
The people could simply rage against The Man. It really was about as simple as that.

When Harold Ballard owned the team the Leafs were the victim of a cheap, corrupt, mean blowhard who seemed to revel in the opportunity to take lots of money from Leaf fans and provide little in return.

The out-going Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan revelled in making lots of money, but at least was willing to invest, even if they kind of bumbled.

The incoming strange brew of Rogers Communications and BCE will be interesting to watch. Chances are it will provide all kinds of opportunities for hard done-by Leafs fans to turn purple with rage as their cell/cable/satellite/internet bills climb and their favourite team's Stanley Cup drought heads to its 50th anniversary with a bullet.

But the contrast between Burke and Wilson's arrogance (without bounds) and the performance of the team they've assembled (without a top centre, goaltender or elite defenceman) suggests the vitriol, for once, should stop short of the top floor.

We are seeing something interesting here, dare I say transformative. It's the formation of a new, and most welcome meme – holding the hockey men in Toronto accountable.

It’s funny that the fans took all the blame while the prior owners were in place. And the fans continued to take the blame during JFJ’s reign of error. But put someone in who’s arrogant and pisses off the media and the sharp knives come out…

The current ownership has done everything they reasonably can, starting with hiring the most expensive general manager in the game and letting him do whatever he wants.

The result has been a face of the franchise who supports the Canadian military, is (admirably) outspoken in his support of gay rights and (not so admirably) the guy who signed Mike Komisarek and Colby Armstrong to contracts worth $33-million.

I hated the Komisarek and Armstrong signings (and have the hate mail to show for my feelings toward the latter) and this is not to defend Burke, but show me a GM who hasn’t made a bad UFA signing.

The bigger issue here isn’t UFAs, it’s the failure to mitigate obvious risks.

It's standing room only in the Leaf's management suite at the Air Canada Centre. Presumably they were all in agreement when they decided to trade Keith Aulie, a six-foot-six defenceman who they were all so high on a year ago for a minor league winger, Carter Ashton, who is scoring a little more than half-a-point-a-game for Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate.

Really? We’re going to hang Leafs management out over trading Aulie? If anything, they should be hung out for playing Aulie in the NHL – he should have spent the whole season with the Marlies learning the game.

Defence apparently being a position of organizational depth, the Leafs 190 goals allowed this season notwithstanding.

A false equivalency. The Leafs do have depth at D, but much of it is in the minors learning the game (where they should be).

In the good old days the Leafs would at least paper over bad signings by spending more on players. In a hard cap world under Burke they use ownership cash to hire new assistant coaches to help Wilson with his special teams.

The return on that investment isn't evident, but we now know that a bad penalty kill or a flailing power play is not the head coach's responsibility.

Another great point from Grange. Why is it in paragraph 22?

And while there have been some real success stories since Burke began loosening his tie and limiting media access to goalie's Mums - trades for Joffery Lupul, Jake Gardiner foremost among them - there seems to be a troubling tendency to either over-rate their own prospects or do a terrible job developing them.

The two goalies Wilson has so freely pinned the blame for the Leafs slide on were both Burke signings and both, at various times, labelled just the person to fill the hole in the Leafs net that has been gaping since Ed Belfour left for the Hall of Fame.

According to Burke, James Reimer still is the man for the job, despite recent scuffles.

Should Leaf fans believe him? Should ownership?

Unlike David St. Hubbins, I don’t believe a word Burke says. I don’t know why anyone would. Has any GM ever issued more bluster?

Remember when Wilson said Nazim Kadri was going to be a superstar before he had played his first NHL game? Or how about Burke's decision to sign Schenn to a five-year, $18-million contract extension (a move precipitated in part because Wilson determined he should play in the NHL as an 18-year-old to further his development).

How is that working out?

Another solid two points, although in Burke's defence the Schenn contract didn't seem ludicrous at the time, but Schenn has regressed badly this year.

The real issue there is, why was Schenn in the NHL at 18? Why did the Leafs burn two years of his entry level contract (ELC) using him on bad teams that were going nowhere? The result of that decision is a struggling d-man who's cap hit who is on his second contract two years earlier than he should be.

In short, Schenn should never have played in the NHL at 18. Kadri should never have been anointed so early.

It's routine to suggest that Leaf fans deserve better. That they do. It's been true for most of 45 years.

Wait, what? It’s routine to say Leafs fans deserve better? Didn’t Grange write a whole book dumping on Leafs fans? Hasn’t the primary meme about the Leafs for the last 40 years been that Leafs fans are to blame. There’s nothing routine at all about this suggestion.


Re-read what Grange wrote up there. Fans deserve better.


But it's not often that you can say that Leafs ownership deserves more than they've been getting.

Credit Brian Burke and Ron Wilson for breaking new ground.

I’m not certain that ownership does deserve more than they've been getting. Even if they did, Grange certainly hasn't made the case for it.

What Grange has done is finally (FINALLY!) shifted away from the lazy "blame the fans" meme and pointed out numerous, well known shortcomings about the Leafs' hockey operations.

If he had done so with a better lede and without the needless Nash posturing, I'd agree with those in my twitter stream who proclaimed the greatness of the piece.

As it stands, there's a great story in there but you have to dig a bit to find it.


  1. Anonymous11:47 a.m.

    Schenn was a bad selection not because what he has become now (a marginal "talent") but because they (Fletcher with Burke calling the shots as Ducks GM) decided they had to get Schenn so badly they sacrificed picks to move up two spots when they had plenty of other good prospects to draft after Schenn was taken.

  2. Man, I can't believe the co-author of Leafs Abomination would bury his point under a bunch of shitty cheap shots.