Friday, October 31, 2008

Economics 101: Why "blame the fan" doesn't make sense

MLSE has no incentive to ice a winning team because the ACC is already full every night, even when the team isn't good. If fans refused to buy tickets unless the team was doing well, MLSE would have to invest in a winning team. Therefore, the fans are to blame for the Leafs lack of success.

The argument above is well-known, often repeated, and makes absolutely no sense.

This really shouldn't be complicated, but apparently a lot of people are struggling with it. And since that includes most of our high-paid media stars, I thought I'd spell it out. This is going to be way too basic, to the point that anyone who really does understand economics will be embarrassed by it, but I'm really going to try to make it as simple as possible.

There are two broad categories of things you can sell: Those with a limited supply, and those with an unlimited supply. Airline tickets are a good example of a product with limited supply. There are only so many of them available for each flight, and once they're gone you can't sell anymore. You've made as much money as you're going to make.

On the other hand, if you're selling sneakers you're only limited by demand, and how many you can manage to produce. If demand goes up, and you can make more, you'll make more money. Some products, like MP3s on iTunes, are essentially completely unlimited since it costs nothing to make and store additional product.

Makes sense? Everyone still with me? Even the media guys?

Tickets to a hockey game have a limited supply. If a team sells all its tickets, it can't sell any more. Putting aside the (excruciatingly basic but apparently ignored) possibility of raising ticket prices, once all the tickets are sold then you can't make any more money. And since only the people with tickets are going to need parking and concessions, those are essentially limited too.

So yes, if the owner of a hockey team knows in advance that they will sell out every game, they have no business incentive to change the product.

This is a very sound argument. If it was 1983.

Sure, back when Harold Ballard was in charge the Leafs made most of their money off of gameday sales. So did every other NHL team. Yes, they sold a few jerseys and they made money off of TV rights. But most of the cash came from tickets and concessions.

So the "no incentive to win" argument probably made sense in those days, as Ballard himself confirmed.

Unfortunately for the fan-bashers, that was twenty years ago. Today, the business landscape is very different in the NHL in general, and that's especially true in Toronto.

The Toronto Star reported that the Leafs themselves estimate that by 2011, ticket sales will account for barely one-third of revenue. By then, the Leafs expect to bring in over $300 million a year from sources other than tickets.

Think about that: $300 million every year from non-ticket sources.

Today, the Leafs have revenue streams that Ballard couldn't have dreamed of. Licensed products, which used to mean t-shirts and jerseys and not much else, have expanded to virtually everything you can slap a logo on, including condos. Gameday advertising (or as they like to call it now, "corporate partnerships") brings in revenue that would be unimaginable in the 1980s. Increased competition for TV broadcasts has caused rights prices to skyrocket. Online revenue, still small today, has enormous potential for growth.

All new or greatly increased sources of revenue. All, unlike ticket sales, virtually unlimited.

You think revenue from any of those sources might go up if the Leafs won a Cup?

And that doesn't even touch on the topic of Leafs TV. While the channel isn't a money-maker yet, it's an enormous opportunity for MLSE. The Leafs are trying to follow the same model that the New York Yankees used in launching their own TV empire. The YES network launched in 2002, on the heels of the Yankees winning four World Series in the past six years.

That network's estimated worth now? Try $2 billion. With a "b".

No incentive to win? Really? Really?

Don't forget, the Leafs' primary owner is the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. As a pension, they view the team as an investment to hold onto as long as it increases in value and then eventually sell. That means they need for MLSE to grow. Profits are nice, but investments only go up in value when the company can demonstrate growth. The growth for MLSE is going to come from all of these new revenue streams.

And again, since there's virtually no limit on how many people can watch a game on TV or how many companies can cram an ad onto something, the growth potential is enormous. Especially if the team is winning.

And yet we still hear from reporters -- people who are paid to be experts about the Maple Leafs and the NHL -- who drone on and on about ticket sales. Why?

Could it really be that some of these guys haven't paid for a ticket in 20 years, and so still think about the economics of the game the same way they did back then? Or are they just intentionally misrepresenting the situation because "Blame the Dumb Leaf Fan" is a fun story to write?

I have no idea. But hopefully some basic economics will help at least a few of them see the light.

The bottom line: Arguing that Leafs ownership has no motivation to win because the building is always sold out is like arguing that the increase in concussions must be caused by players not wearing helmets. It's a nice idea, but outdated by 20 years.

The Leafs make a lot of money when they lose. But they'd make even more -- a lot more -- if they could figure out how to win.

MLSE doesn't lose because of lack of interest, they lose because they don't know how to build a winner. And you can't lay that at the feet of the loyal fans.




An open letter to Leaf fans

Dear Most Valuable Losers:

Yesterday, continuing a long-standing trend, another Toronto reporter took a cheap shot at Leaf fans. This time it was Howard Berger who called us "losers" but we've seem the same cookie-cutter article from virtually everyone who covers the team.

Quite frankly, we've had enough.

As fans, we believe that those most deserving of our praise and our scorn are directly involved in the game, whether it's on the ice, in the press box or in the executive corridors. Fans don't pencil in the starting five, make bad trades, or write the headlines of the day and shouldn't be blamed (or praised) for the totals in the wins and loss column.

Hockey may be just a game but it's also a passion. If you're looking for passionate hockey coverage that offers insight and humour and you're sick of being blamed for supporting a team you're passionate about, you have a better option.

It's time to leave the media superstars behind. There's compelling, timely, wide-ranging content waiting just for you online in the Barilkosphere.

Many have found this better way of following the Leafs, but not every Leafs fan has been so lucky. Please send this message to your fellow Leaf fans via e-mail or postings on message boards and let them know that they do have a choice.

We hope you'll join us here in the Barilkosphere and become regular readers.




Thursday, October 30, 2008

Howard Berger has lost his mind

By the time you see this, you'll no doubt have read Howard Berger's latest blog post. If not, you can find it here.

I know you're probably waiting for me to tear him apart, but I just don't have it in me. Sure, I could point out that he essentially filled half his bingo card in one shot. But this one is different.

This isn't the usual Damien Cox style post that Howard normally aspires to -- smug, condescending, and written with a little smirking hint of self-awareness.

This latest post is a cry for attention. It's the absolute definition of trying way, way too hard. Not only does the screed come out of nowhere, but it doesn't even sound like his usual writing. It's full of incomplete sentences and bad puncuation. In all honesty, my first thought was that his account was hacked.

Something is going on here, and I don't think I want to wade in very deeply until we know what it is.

As only one example, the same man who a few months ago was waxing eloquent about how none of this really mattered when there were dying children at Sick Kids is now bragging about how much money he makes?

And, boy, do you make money for people! Even media scrubs like me. I can’t begin to tell you what your devotion to these blogs is worth.
I don't know what happened to set Howard off. Maybe he heard one too many of those catty comments that most hockey media make about him behind his back, maybe he got an especially nasty e-mail from an angry fan, or maybe something is going on in his personal life.

In any event, I can't get worked up over it.

Howard, if you're reading this: Take a vacation. Go get some perspective. And if you hate what you do for a living so much, consider a new job.

Your last post doesn't sound like the work of a healthy man. Get well.




Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Two things we know about the 2008-09 Maple Leafs

I'll have some more detailed thoughts about the first ten games later this week, but for now here's a quick summary of the two things we've learned about this team.

Fact #1 - They're not very good.
The forwards struggle to score goals. Shot selection is iffy, they don't crash the net especially well, and just plain don't have the skill to create offence out of nothing. Even the so-called skill guys don't have much finish. Only a handful of guys can hit with any authority, and nobody on the team can fight.

The defencemen are solid but prone to mistakes, still get caught out of position too often, and so far as a unit have been less than the sum of their parts. They've been OK, nothing more.

Goaltending has been average at best. Toskala has been excellent some nights, and downright bad on others. Joseph looks like a 41-year-old backup.

In short, they're pretty much what we expected: a bad team.

Fact #2: They just do not quit.

This team skates hard from the opening faceoff to the final buzzer. Every shift. Everybody forechecks, even the guys who everyone knows aren't good at it. They attack the other team's zone relentlessly, pepper shots from everywhere and just never stop swarming.

If they fall behind, they keep coming at you until they can find a crack somewhere to get back into the game. If somebody gets hit, somebody else steps in and does something about it. They seem to genuinely like playing with each other.

Everybody blocks shots. Everybody finishes checks. Everybody competes. If they don't, they sit down next game and somebody else gets a chance.

Bottom line:

Half of these guys probably shouldn't even be in the NHL. On pure talent they should challenge for last place overall.

Over the course of a long season, talent usually wins out over will. I'm not sure a team can work this hard for 82-games, and when that letdown finally comes things could spiral downward very quickly.

But in the meantime... This year's team seems like they would be a really, really hard team to play against. And that's the first time you can say that about the Leafs since the Quinn days.

On paper, this team is far worse than last year's squad. But I'd rather watch these guys any day of the week.

They either don't know that they're bad, or they don't care. It can't last. But as long as it does, it's a really fun ride.




The myth of "false hope"

Leaf fans' two favorite keyboard-bangers are singing from the same hymn book this week:

Damien Cox:

All the Luke Schenn hype in the world isn't going to change that, and isn't it a shame the Leafs are determined to use such a quality prospect to deliver a public relations message?
Howard Berger:
In a carefully crafted effort, the Maple Leafs have hyped and boosted rookie Luke Schenn in virtually every public forum during the first two-plus weeks of the season ... As for the legion of fans in this city, the Leafs understand how readily they have bought false hope through the years, so that isn’t about to change.
I have a question.

I thought Leaf fans were dumb zombies who keep pushing through the turnstiles every night no matter how bad the team is? That makes it largely our fault that the Leafs are never any good, because MLSE doesn't need to build a good team since they'll just keep getting rich off of all the mindless sheep.

I'm pretty sure I've read that somewhere recently... about a thousand times.

So if Leaf fans are so dumb that we fill the building every night, buy up jerseys and watch every game no matter what... why exactly would the Leafs need to feed us false hope?

Why would we need any kind of hope at all? I thought that was the whole point of all the fan-bashing over the years -- that we don't care how hopeless the team is, we keep plopping down our money anyways.

Now it seems like the argument has flipped 180 degrees -- now Leaf fans are demanding and insist on seeing a light at the end of tunnel, so MLSE has to construct this elaborate facade around Luke Schenn in order to keep the fans happy.

I've said it before: nobody should want a media full of homers, because then you wind up with everything-is-sunbeams-and-puppies fans like Ottawa had for so many years. A media that holds the team accountable is a good thing, and Toronto fans are lucky to have one. This team deserves some honest criticism, and I'm usually one of the first in line to dish it out.

But if you're going to criticize the Leafs, their management or even their fans, you need to pick a lane. You can't tell them to do one thing, then complain when they do exactly what you suggest. You can't say Leaf fans love negative coverage one week, then say they hate it the next week. You can't say Leaf fans aren't demanding enough, then turn around and say the team can't rebuild because fans won't accept it.

If you do those things, readers start to figure out that you're just playing games. And then they realize you probably don't mean most of what you say at all. And then they start to feel foolish for falling for your act.

And then they tune out, and start getting their Leaf coverage from better sources.




Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is there really only one way to get a player like Vincent Lecavalier?

From Damien Cox's post-game blog tonight:

The difference in this game? The hands of Vinny Lecavalier, a player the likes of which the Leafs just don't own right now, and won't get without finishing low in the standings and high in next summer's draft.
Regular Cox readers know that he's pushed hard in recent years for the Leafs to tank for a top draft pick. He offers Lecavalier as evidence, rightly pointing out the Vinny a.) is awesome and b.) was a #1 overall pick.

But is it really true that you can only acquire players "the likes of" Lecavalier by picking high in the draft? Let's see.

For sake of argument, let's arbitrarily pick some critera for considering a player to be "like" Vincent Lecavalier. He's 28 years old, and he's averaged an impressive 0.85 points-per-game in his career. That's good for 19th overall among active players, but many of the guys at the top of the list are veterans like Sakic and Selanne who played their prime years in a higher scoring era.

So let's say that players who are "like" Lecavalier are guys within five years of him in age, and who have managed at least 500 career points (hockey-reference's minimum to appear on the career active list) and averaged at least 0.75 ppg.

That ends up being 10 guys that I can find:

Joe Thornton
Acquired: Trade (former #1 pick)

Marian Hossa
Acquired: Trade (former #12 pick)

Jarome Iginla
Acquired: Trade (former #11 pick)

Alex Tanguay
Acquired: Trade (former #12 pick)

Brad Richards
Acquired: Trade (former third round pick)

Marc Savard
Acquired: Free agent (former fourth round pick)

Milan Hejduk
Acquired: Draft (fourth round)

Patrik Elias
Acquired: Draft (second round)

Martin St. Louis
Acquired: Free agent (undrafted)

Scott Gomez
Acquired: Free agent (former #29 pick)

Now obviously the minimum points requirement eliminates guys like Crosby and Ovechkin, and some will say that those are the sort of players Cox means when he refers to guys like Lecavalier. If that's the case, then Cox is telling us that once-in-a-generation franchise players tend to be high draft picks, in which case I thank him for his insight.

But as the chart shows, there are plenty of guys who have produced at a similar rate to Lecavalier, and not a single one of them was a first round pick by their current teams. Only one, Thornton, was a top ten pick at all. The others were mid-first rounders or later, and most of them have played for two or more teams in their career.

Hell, Lecavalier himself was almost traded once, coming so close that the two GMs had drawn up the paperwork. The team that was on the verge of miraculously acquiring him without drafting him? The Leafs.

Now that doesn't mean that high draft picks aren't better than low ones, and it doesn't mean the Leafs should trade their first-rounder for some 40-year-old re-enforcements. Nobody on the planet thinks either of those things.

But it does mean that the idea that top players, even franchise players, can only be acquired by teams who bravely tank their way to a last place finish is just plain wrong.

Trading and free agency are valid pieces of the puzzle, no matter how one-dimensionally folks like Cox want to think about things.




Sunday, October 26, 2008

Time to pull the trigger, Cliff

The Leafs have a terrible problem right now that most team wish they had.

They have too many NHL defencemen. And somebody needs to do something about it.

It's becoming more apparent every day that Luke Schenn isn't going anywhere. With Schenn, Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina guaranteed a lineup spot every night, that leaves six players fighting for three spots.

If newly heatlhy Jeff Finger is also considered an everyday player (and his contract would hint that he is), that leaves five guys fighting for just two spots: Stralman, Frogren, Van Ryn, Colaiacovo and White.

All five guys have upside. All five can play in the NHL. And none will have a chance to get in any sort of groove if they're shuffling in and out of the lineup every night.

The glut of defencemen also means that Jiri Tlusty had to be sent down. That may have a good move anyway, since Tlusty hasn't done much of anything so far this season. But demoting a prospect is not something a rebuilding team like the Leafs should ever be forced into doing.

Another negative side effect of carrying nine defencemen: it leaves on 12 forwards on the roster. Remember how great it was to see Ron Wilson hold veteran like Jason Blake and Matt Stajan accountable for their bad habits by sending them to the press box? That's history now. Every forward on the roster knows they get to play every night now... and that includes useless fourth-liner Ryan Hollweg.

So enough is enough. It's time to move one of these defenceman. Let's make a deal.

Fletcher told reporters this week that he plans to hold onto his defencemen "until somebody blows us away". In a perfect world, that's the way to go. But the Leafs world is far from perfect right now, and this doesn't feel like the time to be stubborn.

Let's face it, nobody is going to step up with a knock-your-socks-off offer for Ian White. While I'm as big a fan of Colaiacovo as you'll probably find in Leafland, there won't be any GMs looking to sell the farm for the guy. In fact, none of the Leafs five pressbox-warmers are worth much right now.

And let's face it, the price is only going to drop each time they're listed as healthy scratches.

Sure, maybe in a few weeks some team will run into injury trouble on the blueline and Cliff would be able to squeeze them for a fourth-rounder for White instead of a fifth. So be it. That's the chance you take.

Pull the trigger, Cliff. Give one of these kids a chance to resume their career somewhere else. And call up a forward (Tlusty, or somebody else who's earned it) to allow Wilson to keep everyone honest.

And do it soon.




Thursday, October 23, 2008

A few more thoughts on shootout strategy... plus more goons

There was some really interesting discussion as a result of my last post disagreeing with Ron Wilson's decision to pull Vesa Toskala before the shootout. Thanks to everyone who participated.

A few followup thoughts before we all head over to the game thread. As I said in the last post's comments, I'm all for coaches getting creative and going against the percentages. I just didn't like this move because I thought it put both goalies in a tough position, both during the game and going forward.

But let's assume that Wilson's basic premise is right: The Leafs are bad at shootouts, it's costing them points and they need to try to something desperate to turn that around. What's a creative coach to do?

Here's an idea: What about trying to stay out of shootouts? If you're going to lose the shootout anyway, why not swing for the fences in overtime?

For example, what about using three forwards during overtime? Throw whichever forward line is playing best out there with Kaberle and tell them to go score. Or heck, if we're getting crazy why not four forwards? What about having a skill guy like Kulemin or Grabovski hang around the other team's blue line for an entire shift as a cherry picker?

Sure, it might mean a few 2-on-0's coming the other way. But what's the worst that could happen? They score, you lose and have to settle for a single point? That was going to happen anyway, and now everyone gets to go home a few minutes early.

(One note: You couldn't go all the way and pull your goalie in OT, since the NHL has an obscure rule that forfeits the extra point in that case. Otherwise I'd suggest that too, at least in the final minute.)

Much like the Toskala switch, any of the strategies above would be controversial and go against conventional wisdom. They might work, they might not. But they have one advantage: they wouldn't embarass anyone.

***

Also, for anyone who enjoyed the Top Ten Norris Division Goons post, a Bruins blogger has created a list for the Adams Division. Check it out.

Will anyone step up and do the Patrick or Smythe? Stay tuned.




Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ron Wilson is awesome no wait I changed my mind...

I was going to write a post about how much I'm enjoying the Ron Wilson era, after the TSN crew told a story of a recent Leafs practice.

Apparently Wilson told the players that everyone was going to skate as hard as they could until he blew the whistle. Then he let him them skate themselves into the ground for 2:34 -- which is a very long time to go all out, no matter what kind of shape you're in.

At the end of the drill, he gathered the team and asked them if they wanted to know why they'd just skated for 2:34. The answer: Because that's how long Jason Blake had stayed on the ice during a shift in a recent game. "Keep your shifts short." End of lesson.

Awesome.

So I was going to write a nice post about Wilson and call it a night. But now I can't, because I think he really screwed up by putting Joseph in for the shootout.

This isn't 20/20 hindsight on a call that didn't work out. After all, winning and losing doesn't really matter this year. But Wilson has just turned Toskala from a goalie who has struggled in shootouts into The Guy Who Is Terrible In Shootouts.

Everyone in the league now knows that Wilson doesn't think Toskala can win in a shootout. Hey Vesa, enjoy trying to win the next one with a piano on your back.

And of course, the media will quickly figure that if Toskala can't be trusted in shootouts, what about overtime? Tied third period? Important games? Let's ask him about 500 times and see what happens!

Or it may not go that far. But Wilson has just risked turning one of his top players into a running joke, and he did it to slightly increas the team's chance at winning a single (mostly meaningless) point.

Embarassing your players is a tricky game. Blake deserved it. Toskala didn't.




Sunday, October 19, 2008

Five games in...

Some quick hits as we round past the 1/16th mark...


  • Please stop talking about Luke Schenn's contract situation. It doesn't matter. The decision to keep him in Toronto or send him back to junior has nothing to do with starting the clock on his free agency eligibility.

    First of all, it's crazy to make assumptions about what the CBA will be like three or four years from now, let alone seven or eight. We have no idea when Schenn will be a free agent, because we have no idea how the CBA will read in a few years. And for that matter, it doesn't even matter whether Schenn is helping the team. The season is already a writeoff, so who cares if Schenn can add a few wins?

    The only factor worth considering is Schenn's development. That's it. Will he develop better in junior than in Toronto? If so, send him there. If not, keep him around. End of story.

    If he hits free agency a year early and demands big dollars because he's playing at a superstar level, that will be a problem the Leafs will be happy to have.

  • I want to like Mikhail Grabovski. The kid has some moves, he's fast, and I'd love to chalk up the zero points to bad luck. I want him to a be star. But... um... I'm not getting that vibe yet, you know?

  • Do Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg have some sort of secret sidebet to see which one of them can be the first to get one of their teammates killed?

  • I love the way Ron Wilson is handing out playing time. He's basically throwing his lineup card onto the ice every night and saying "Here, you guys fill this out".

    Last night in Pittsburgh, Wilson gave virtually the entire team a shot at powerplay time. That's exactly what he should be doing this early in the season. While Paul Maurice basically handed out ice time based on salary and reputation, Wilson is letting guys play their way in -- or out. Perfect.

  • That said, maybe it would be a good idea for Wilson to ask Cliff Fletcher for a list of guys he's trying to trade and not bench them. Mike Van Ryn, I'm looking in your direction.

  • Nikolai Kulemin is good. Two unassisted breakaway goals and two shootout goals -- if anybody ever figures out how to pass the puck to this kid, look out.

  • Speaking of people who are really good at breakaways, only the exact opposite, why was Matt Stajan taking a shootout on Friday? Did I fall asleep and miss the first 14 rounds of that one?

  • Finally... Dominic Moore is playing so well that I'm going to give him a new nickname: Dominic "Second Round Pick at the 2009 Deadline" Moore.




Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Top 10 Norris Division Tough Guys

The Leafs opening week schedule felt like a blast from the past, a link back to the old glory days when hockey was truly at its best.

No, no, not the Habs game. Screw those guys. I'm talking about the matchups against the Red Wings and Blues. With rare games against both teams in the same week, Leaf fans could be excused for feeling like for a few short days they were back where they belong: in the Norris Division.

Ah, the Norris. Perhaps the greatest division in hockey history, at least as long as you don't count meaningless stats like wins. While the rest of the league was busy winning championships, the Norris squads were pounding the crap out of each other for a solid decade. And fans loved it.

So before we go back to playing the Northeast division every single game for three months, let's take a moment to look back fondly at those Norris days. Let's tip our caps and bang our sticks on the ice for ten guys who made the division what it was. Let's honor the 10 Greatest Norris Division Tough Guys.

First things first
For sake of history, the Norris Division technically existed from 1974 to 1993, when Gary Bettman realized that hockey fans really loved the division names and wisely decided to change them to something non-fans in Alabama would like instead.

However, everyone knows that the real Norris Division was the 1982-1992 version that features the Leafs, Wings, Hawks, Blue and North Stars. That's the version we're talking about here. Sorry Lightning, you never counted.

Tough guys who played in the division outside of those dates aren't eligible, which is why you don't see guys like Tie Domi or Tony Twist. I've also focused on enforcers who were primarily there to fight, which is why you don't see power forwards like the Sutters, Gerard Gallant, and especially Wendel Clark who would have occupied all ten spots of the list if I'd included him and for the record could (and did) punch all the blood out of any guy listed below.

On to the list...

10. Kelly Chase
Norris team: Blues

Chase had two runs with the Blues, one Norris and one post-Norris. He was a classic Norris enforcer: always willing to drop the gloves to protect a teammate, to avenge a wrong, or just because the game was getting a little bit boring. This old Saskatchewan farm boy was fixture in St. Louis in the early 90s.

On a side note, Chase recently made news when he announced that he's been diagnosed with a brain lesion. Get well, Kelly.

Here's Chase standing tall with Ken Daneyko:



9. Mike Peluso
Norris team: Blackhawks

Peluso's best year as a Norris slugger was 1991-92, when he managed an impressive 408 PIM. Of course, Peluso rarely won his fights, but he makes the list based on sheer volume.

True fact: Peluso is one of the two best Mike Pelusos to ever play for the Blackhawks. (Editor's note: Pelusoes? Pelusi?)

Here's Peluso trading haymakers with the Missing Link:



8. Ken Baumgartner
Norris team: Maple Leafs

The Bomber only played parts of two seasons in the real Norris, although he had a lengthy run in Toronto -- first as the undisputed heavyweight, and later as Tie Domi's wingman. But he makes the list by virtue of being arguably the best technical fighter of his generation -- he was one of the few guys who could switch hands easily, and his ability to hold off an opponent meant he virtually never suffered a clean loss.

He was also the first enforcer to intentionally remove his jersey before a fight, making him largely responsible for the league mandating tie-downs. I'll leave it to the reader as to whether that's a plus or a minus.

Here's a classic bout with Cam Russell with a unique ending:



7. Stu Grimson
Norris team: Blackhawks

Like Baumgartner, Grimson would be higher on the list if he had played more than two years in the real Norris. Still, he gets in by virtue of his nickname ("The Grim Reaper"), and his general level of insanity.

Here's Grimson going looney tunes against the Maple Leafs:



6. Dave Manson
Norris team: Blackhawks

Manson comes close to being disqualified due to an under-rated level of skill. He was a solid defenceman. But he was also a scary guy (especially later in his career when his shattered voicebox made him talk like a movie villain) and had a memorable running feud with Scott Stevens.

Like most Blackhawk tough guys, Manson did his best work against the Leafs. Here's the best thing he ever did, breaking up the Leeman/Savard debacle and earning the rare triple-game misconduct in the process:



5. John Kordic
Norris team: Maple Leafs

First, the bad news. Kordic was nuts, was a heavy drug-user, and eventually died during a struggle with police.

The good news, at least as far as this list goes, is that he was a top-ranked heavyweight who brought desperately needed toughness to the Maple Leafs. Long-time readers already know why Courtnall-for-Kordic was a good trade, but here's the quick summary: at the time, the Leafs were a wimpy team who were getting killed in the Norris, and Kordic changed that in a hurry.

Here's the classic Kordic-McRae scrap. God I miss the Norris.



4. Shane Churla
Norris team: North Stars

Churla was the Stars policeman from the late 80s through the end of the Norris era, before he was tragically murdered by Pavel Bure.

Here's Sugar Shane in a classic with Darren Kimble:



3. Basil McRae
Norris team: All of them

Yes, McRae gets a special mention for playing for all five Norris teams at some point in his career. But his best work came with the North Stars from 1987-1992, a string that included three straight years of 350+ PIM.

He was never one of the most feared fighters in the league, and was rarely the biggest guy in a fight. But he was the prototypical grizzled veteran who never backed down from a chance to defend a team mate. If you don't respect Basil McRae, you don't like fighting.

Here's a classic playoff bout against The Reaper:



2. Joey Kocur
Norris team: Red Wings

Kocur is the smallest guy on the list at barely 6'0, but may be the downright nastiest. He wasn't even the toughest guy in his family (that would be cousin Wendel), but he was the toughest guy in just about every fight he ever had. Like Wendel, Kocur didn't have a jab. It was all haymakers, just like starting up the lawn mower in Kelvington, and Kocur sure knew how to land them.

Here's Joey's infamous destruction of Jim Kite:



1. Bob Probert
Norris team: Red Wings

We have some fun with Probert around here because of his many losses against Wendel Clark. But if losing to Wendel Clark meant you weren't tough then this list would have zero names on it, and besides Probert at least managed to skate away from all of his Wendel scraps which is more than most guys can say.

Beyond that, all you need to know about Probert is that he was so fearsome that when he did lose (Tie Domi, Troy Crowder) it was front page news. And he always took care of business in the rematch.

Here's Probert's all-time classic against Craig Coxe of the Canucks:



Agree? Disagree? Who did I leave out? Square off in the comments section, but don't forget to wait until a half-second after the puck drop.




Gaborik for Kaberle - Does this sound familiar at all?

Hot Stove is reporting on a possible Kaberle for Gaborik swap. Putting aside the fact that the trade apparently hinges on the Leafs completing a package deal for Phoenix's first pick which makes no sense at all (a first for White and Van Ryn? zero chance), there's an interesting parallel in play here.

Gaborik is a young potential franchise forward, but he's involved in a contract dispute and sounds like he may now be trying to become a distraction to force a trade.

Does that sound a little bit like Doug Gilmour back in 1992?

Now obviously that comparison is a pretty big leap to make. Gaborik could easily be a bust in Toronto, and Tomas Kaberle is no Gary Leeman. But there's an interesting sense of deja vu here.

Say, just out of curiosity... who were the two GMs in the Gilmour trade?

Hmm...




Monday, October 13, 2008

Get Hollweg out of here now, please

Four minutes.

Mark it down. That's how long it took Maple Leaf fans to officially turn on Ryan Hollweg.

After a pre-season that saw Hollweg go 0-6 in fights and get suspended for a hit from behind, Hollweg made it through four minutes of his regular season Maple Leaf debut before being kicked out of this afternoon's game against the Blues. Apparently this idiot doesn't understand that laying your forearm across the name on a guy's jersey and drilling him into the boards is against the rules.

Hollweg will get an automatic three-game suspension from the NHL as a repeat offender, but it's not enough. The NHL should send a message and suspend him for 10 games. If they want to go 15, that would be fine too.

In the meantime, the Leafs need to move on. Toronto is a rebuilding team, and they should be using their roster spots to develop young NHLers. Hollweg may be young, but he's no NHLer. I'm no big fan of Matt Stajan, but there's no reason for him to sit in the pressbox just so Hollweg can goon it up for four or five shifts a game.

You could make an argument for keeping Hollweg around if he could fight, but he can't. Getting your ass handed to you in a fight is kind of inspiring if you're a skill(?) player like Alex Ponikoravsky. When you're a so-called tough guy, it's just embarassing. Let Jamal Mayers handle the occasional scrap, with support from Kris Newbury or Ben Ondrus if he needs it.

We were warned about him when the Leafs traded for him. Now we know that Ranger fans were being kind. Write off the fifth-round pick the Rangers stole from us, and ship Hollweg down to the minors. The ECHL may be a good fit.

This moron is going to cripple somebody soon. Here's hoping he's not wearing a Leaf jersey when it happens.

Update: Ron Wilson is giving his post-game press conference right now, and he just called the Hollweg penalty "debatable".

No, no, NO! Stop it, coach! The penalty wasn't remotely debatable. Nobody expects you to bury your own guy in front of the media, but do not let him off the hook by pretending it wasn't a penalty.

One of the top priorities of this season is accountability. We sure didn't have it under Paul Maurice. We have had it under Wilson, so far. Don't blow it now by giving this failed goon a free pass.




Sunday, October 12, 2008

Surely, that's got to be it!

One thing you can count on with Sens fans: they hate Bob Cole.

While everyone can see that Cole lost his fastball years ago, most hockey fans still view him in that affectionate Pat Sumerall/Vin Scully sort of way. Not Sens fans. They hate the guy.

This all dates back to the height of Battle of Ontario. As with absolutely everything else that's ever happened to the team, this little fued was motivated by Sens fans' extreme paranoia that somebody, somewhere, might like the Leafs better. This is a city that once passed a real bylaw to ban the wearing of Leaf jerseys.

In this case, they convinced themselves that Bob Cole was a secret Leafs fan because he always yelled louder about Leaf goals than Sens goals.

It didn't help when you pointed out that maybe, just possibly, that had something to do with the fact that every Leaf goal was accompanied by really loud crowd noise (in both rinks) and Sens' goals weren't. Remember, these guys think 1927 was more recent than 1967. Logic isn't a strong point.

Add in the fact that Cole occasionally committed the unforgivable sin of mixing up completely unsimilar names like Alfredsson and Arvedson, and Sens fans were ready to declare war. Whenever the most diehard of Sens fans (i.e. the media) would mention Cole, you could count on the calls for the Canadian icon to be dumped by the CBC.

Sens fans would regularly refer to Cole and partner Harry Neale as Leafs homers, and would brag that they'd turn down the volume on CBC games and listen to Dean Brown on the radio insted.

I'll repeat that: Sens fans believed that the antidote to mindless homerism was to listen to Dean Brown.

In any event, when the CBC finally decided to pull the plug on Cole as the #1 play-by-play man and relegate him to secondary games this year, Ottawa fans were ready to take the streets in celebration.

Until last night.

Say, if Bob Cole isn't the lead announcer anymore, and only gets to do secondary games... and the Senators are usually the secondary game because everyone else still wants to watch the Leafs... then that would mean that the play-by-play on most Sens games will be done by...

Oh baby! We should have thought this through!




Saturday, October 11, 2008

What in holy hell is happening?

In the past 48 hours, the following things happened:

  1. The Maple Leafs, who all experts agree are the worst team in the history of not just this universe, but all possible universes, beat the Stanley Cup champions in their own rink.

  2. Damien Cox wrote a collection of blog posts that were informative, generally positive, and devoid of cliches.

  3. Richard Peddie is quoted in today's Globe discussing the NHL's financial system, and comes across as the voice of reason
I am so confused and scared!

I swear, if they announce a release date for Chinese Democracy this week then I'm gathering up water, canned goods and my 92-93 Leaf playoff run tapes and locking myself in my basement.




Thursday, October 9, 2008

Opening night quick hits

Some disjointed thoughts on The Greatest Upset in the History of Hockey...

  • What's the over-under on "plan the parade" jokes tomorrow? I'm going to say 8.5.

  • Tonight was a nice reminder that nothing should be taken for granted in sports. The Leafs were brought in for the Wings home opener to basically play the role of Iron Mike Sharpe, and instead they stole a win.

    What does it mean? Not much, to be honest.

    We've had weeks of predictions and analysis and projections, and virtually none of it will even come close to being accurate. I'm not going to go math geek on everyone, but plain old random chance plays far more of a role in pro sports outcomes than anyone us want to admit. You just never know.

    Can the Leafs shock everyone and make the playoffs? Sure they can. Do I think they'll be terrible? Absolutely. And there's nothing contradictory about those two sentences. The old cliche is true: anything can happen.

    None of that means the Leafs won't be a bad team. But it does mean that anybody who tries to tell you that any result in pro sports is impossible -- including this Leafs turning out to be pretty good -- just flat out doesn't know what they're talking about.

  • On Pavel Kubina's goal, it was nice to see Chris Osgood do the same thing I do six times a game in NHL 09.

  • Is there anybody left who likes the puck-over-the-glass rule? Anybody? And is the NHL the only pro league in the world that have rules that everybody agreed was moronic and not bother to change them? Don't answer that. Of course it is.

    Hey, let's combine stupid rules and make all games with a puck-over-glass penalty in them worth three points! Somebody call Gary Bettman!

  • Damien Cox was blogging between periods. It was really good. I hope he keeps that up.

    ...

    No, seriously. It was good. No punchline. I hope Cox finds some ways to turn "The Spin", his quasi-daily web-based column, into an actual blog this year. This is a good first step.

    At this rate, maybe he'll even be using those "hyperlink" things by December.

  • I haven't decided yet how many goals Dominic Moore needs to score before I decide to drop my irrational dislike for him. I'll let you know, though. I'm thinking 30.

  • Was anyone else watching the final minute, as the Red Wings stormed the Leafs net and desperately jammed away in search of a game-tying goal, and yelling at the TV screen "DAMMIT, WHY ISN'T SCHENN ON THE ICE?"

    No? Just me? OK, carry on.




Wednesday, October 8, 2008

10 Random Leafs predictions

I submitted a list of predictions as part of season preview day at Pension Plan Puppets. So to all those who read this blog but don't visit PPP1, you can read all about my predictions for Bryan McCabe, Ryan Hollweg, Vesa Toskala and others:

10 Random Leafs predictions

(Spoiler alert: these will all come true, but try to act surprised anyway.)

1i.e. my wife




A tale of two GMs

It's been well-documented that the Toronto media won't let a little thing like consistency get in the way of bashing the Leafs. Damien Cox constantly contradicts himself, and was at it again this week.

Just a week ago he was ever so eager to point out that "Columbus probably won't keep (Nikita) Filatov in the bigs this season", in support of his well-documented opposition to Luke Schenn seeing any time with the Leafs. This week, he sniffled that "it's nice that Alex Pietrangelo, Zach Bogosian and Drew Doughty get to start in the NHL this fall, but that has no bearing on the Leafs and Schenn".

Why does it have no bearing? Because "nobody will even notice what those kids are doing right or wrong in those towns". Not like it would be in a hockey-crazed town like Toronto. Or, um, Columbus.

(Wait, I thought Toronto wasn't a tough place to play? Ah, never mind.)

But even at this very best, Cox has still had to go a full 24 hours before changing his mind. He's never been able to manage the theoretical Holy Grail of moronic Leaf reporting: changing his mind within a single column.

Well, move over Damien. Because Howard Berger is here, and he's gone beyond what anyone could have imagined possible.

(Fletcher) finds himself in the most envious position of any GM in the history of the club. His lucrative contract, at post-retirement age 73, expires next August, prior to the 2009-10 NHL season, and he therefore has almost no burden to engender an improved product on his watch. It is the complete antithesis of the crushing strain felt on a minute-to-minute basis by Ferguson...
I'm going to pause so you can read that again. Think it over. See any problems there?

Let's summarize:

Cliff Fletcher, who has a contract for the upcoming season only and no job security after that: "almost no burden to engender an improved product on his watch", giving him "the most envious position of any GM in the history of the club"

John Ferguson Jr, who had a contract for the upcoming season only and no job security after that: "crushing strain felt on a minute-to-minute basis"

Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe Howard Berger has just changed his mind within the same paragraph. He literally describes two completely identical scenarios, then claims that they're the "antithesis" of each other.

The bar has been raised. The gauntlet has been thrown down. There is only one height left to scale. We need to see a Toronto sportswriter contradict themself in the same sentence.

I know, you're saying it's impossible. Well, they said the same about hitting 70 home runs or a sub-9.70 100 metres. Do not underestimate the talent we're dealing with here.

I really think this can happen. Do it Damien!




Sunday, October 5, 2008

Fletcher had the right idea. Two of them, actually.

Last week's talk of a potential Ducks/Leafs deal involing Bobby Ryan, Matthieu Schneider and the Leafs #1 pick ended up being a non-story. Of course, that didn't stop the usual suspects from weighing in on what a terrible idea it was.

The pundits were wrong. Shocking, I know.

The big name in the rumor was Ryan, a well-regarded prospect who was the #2 overall selection three years ago. While he's yet to have much impact at the NHL level, he's generally still viewed as a top prospect and potential franchise player.

Should the Leafs be willing to trade a package of picks and prospects for that type of player? Absolutely.

The NHL is a league where you build around superstars. The Leafs don't have any right now (with apologies to Kaberle), and may not until Luke Schenn arrives to save us all. If you can deal for one, you do it and you don't look back. Forget the old joke about trading three quarters for a dollar -- in the NHL, it often makes sense to trade five quarters for a dollar. Quarters are easy to find. Dollars aren't.

Fletcher knows that you can pay all the lip service you want rebuidling slowly and carefully. At some point, you need a superstar to build around. Fletcher knows this so well that he pulled the trigger on two trades to bring exactly that sort of player to the Leafs in his first stint with the team. Those guys only wound up being two of the three best Leafs of this generation.

(Side note: Can anyone imagine what the current Damien Cox would have written about the Gilmour trade? Probably something along the lines of "The Leafs, unwilling to patiently rebuild because draft schmaft dumb fans 1967, today acquired four washed-up old guys and Kent Manderville".)

If Cliff has a chance to land a young (key qualifier) franchise player this time around, he should do it.

Under today's CBA, young superstars occasionally become available on the trade market due to impending free agency or salary cap troubles. When those situations come up, the Leafs should be the first team on the phone looking to work a deal.

Beyond that, the Ducks deal hinged on the inclusion of Scnheider and his inconvenient contract. And that's the second piece of the strategy the Leafs should be pursuing.

The Leafs have plenty of cap room, and more money than they know how to spend. As the US economy gets ready to kick the NHL in the balls this year, the Leafs should be ready and willing to pick up another team's cap castoffs -- for a price. Chemmy already suggested targeting Nikolai Khabibulin, which would be a great fit if Joseph were to wind up on the sidelines.

Not only could that be a sneaky way to pick up some draft picks or marginal prospects, but guys who are washed-up cap crunchers in October have a funny way of becoming attractive trade bait in February.

And since this year is all about the trade deadline, anything that puts an extra arrow in Trader Cliff's quill is worth a shot.

So keep working the phones and staying creative, Cliff. Even if those trade talks with Brian Burke must have been a little awkward.