Sunday, January 31, 2010

Brian Burke drops the hammer

So it's come to this. On the same weekend that my entire house is without internet access except for an ipod that can steal my neighbor's wireless, Brian Burke decides to roll a grenade into the Leafs' locker room. So here I am, blogging from a Starbucks. I'm that guy. You have my permission to punch me in the throat.

We have a lot to talk about. Let's get the easy one out of the way first.

The Anaheim Deal

Great deal. Fantastic deal. A perfect deal. Forget about whether this trade works for the Ducks or not. From the Leafs perspective, it's a masterpiece.

The Leafs improved their weakest position and their cap situation in one deal. Yes, they take on an extra $2M next year. But this team won't be good enough to compete until at least 2011-12, and having a 39-year-old Jason Blake and his $4M off the cap that year is a huge win.

What's the absolute worst-case scenario here? If Giguere is every bit as bad as Toskala, the Leafs are stuck with him for one full year. If he's borderline average, the Leafs will have a cup-winning goalie to dangle at next year's deadline.

But if he can get back to being even a bonafide NHL starter, Burke has worked a miracle.

The Calgary deal

This one is trickier. Dion Phaneuf has had a downright bad year, and it's not hard to imagine him imploding in the Toronto pressure-cooker. He has a long-term deal with a big cap hit, so there's significant risk here.

But here's the flipside: Phaneuf is also a former Calder and Norris contender who's still years away from his prime, and the Leafs gave up shockingly little to get him. Two players who had no future in Toronto past this year, one solid forward who won't be all that hard to replace, and a very good young defenceman. That's it. Oh, and the Leafs picked up a decent prospect in the deal.

Losing Ian White hurts, no doubt. It's not even impossible to imagine that he could be the best player in the deal a few years from now. But that's unlikely, and you have to give up something to get something.

Bottom line: The Leafs are looking to the future, and in terms of longterm impact they basically just traded Ian White for Dion Phaneuf. It's far from a sure thing, but that's just about the ultimate buy low/sell high deal, isn't it?

This feels familiar

It's impossible to look at these two deals without feeling like we're back in the early 90s all over again.

JS Giguere is only slightly older than Grant Fuhr was when the Leafs acquired him in 1991. Both had won Cups. Both had lost their hold on their starting jobs. Both needed a change of scenery. At the time, Cliff Fletcher dismissed concerns about Fuhr's age by pointing out that top goaltenders often play well into their late-30s.

Oh, did we mention that the Leafs gave up a young Vincent Damphousse and more in that deal? Today, the Leafs got Giguere for two guys they would have given away for nothing without blinking an eye.

And then there's the whole "Make a multi-player deal with the Calgary Flames for a potential star who wants out". There's even a mustached defenceman playing a prominent role.

That seemed to work out OK last time.

So what's the impact on the rest of the year?

Short answer: who cares? This season is already over.

Longer answer: Everyone is asking how the Leafs will score now. But they weren't scoring before, at least enough to win. This deal clears out a bunch of older players and makes room for some of the kids to finally show what they can do.

Giguere should help Gustavsson develop. He'll also hurt Gustavsson bargaining position as an RFA, which may save the Leafs a few bucks. Both are good things.

And finally, hopefully the charade of not trading Tomas Kaberle comes to an end. If anyone still believed Burke's ridiculous "I don't ask guys to waive NTCs" stance before today, dealing for Giguere should put that to rest.

If the Leafs can get a decent return for Kaberle, the future may actually look bright. Imagine that.

The bottom line

It took a year and a half, but the Brian Burke era is finally here. It's off to a good start. For the first time in a long time, we can say that today is a good day to be a Leaf fan.

Finally, I've had a bunch of people asking about whether these deals do anything to change my one-month sabbatical from watching the Leafs. Apparently they missed the fine print on that post.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dear Toronto Maple Leafs: I quit*

Go Leafs Go!

Dear 2009-10 Leafs. You have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I hate you.
I tweeted that after the Florida loss. It was an throwaway comment, a little bit of online venting. But it apparently struck a chord, because it became the most retweeted thing I've ever posted. The National Post even picked it up, using it in their weekly power rankings. (It's in the Leafs' section, so you have to scroll down. Way, way down.)

The irony is that I was only half right. This year's team does indeed have no redeeming qualities. But I don't hate them. I hated the JFJ/Muskoka Five teams. But not this current team. I can't. Hatred requires passion.

This current team doesn't inspire passion. They inspire something far, far worse: Boredom. There is no reason to watch this team. It's the same story, every night. They give up the first goal. They blow a lead at some point. They have a bunch of breakdowns. They outshoot the other team by a mile but you can't remember them having any actual scoring chances. And then they lose.

I'm tired of watching them.

The team looks like they've quit on the coach, but he's not going anywhere. Home games are depressingly quiet. There's a handful of decent young players, but nobody that makes you feel like you're seeing the early stages of something special. For all the talk of truculence, the team isn't remotely difficult to play against.

They have no identity. No passion. No point. They're just... there. Drifting their way through year five of The Rebuild That Refused To Start.

So I'm going to do something about it: Quit. I'm tagging out. I'm done with this team. I'm not watching the Leafs anymore.

For a month. Then I'll be back.

Yes, I'm going to try a little bit of a Leafs cleanse. I'm not going to watch a game until the end of February. For the first time since I was four years old, I'm not going to watch any Leafs games during the regular season for a full month.

The idea came to me after the Kings game. I didn't get to watch the game, and afterwards I realized that I hadn't missed it at all. I kept up with what was happening on twitter, reading updates while nodding and muttering "Yeah, that sounds about right". But I was happier. Or at least less miserable, which is a start.

The timing seems right. Obviously the Olympics will eat up two weeks anyway, so I'll only be missing seven games. And the next week brings three games against Brodeur and the Devils and one against Luongo and the Canucks, so it's not like I'll miss any Leaf goals.

If all goes well I'll be back in March, re-energized and ready to enjoy the Leafs again. It will even be just in time to catch the current team's last gasps before Brian Burke blows them up for good at the deadline. (You know, assuming the CBA doesn't mean that making the occasional trade is too much to ask from the highest paid GM in the history of the league.)

I realize I'm opening myself up to charges up bandwagon hopping here. I don't see it that way. I'm a diehard Leafs fan and always will be, and that hasn't changed. I'll still be a fan. I'll still follow the team, I'll still read the blogs and the columnists. I'll still write about them here, and in fact I'll probably have time to write more.

I just won't watch. I don't see any need to suffer through almost three hours of misery every few nights.

What will I do instead? I have no idea. I might try to introduce myself to these other people who seem to live in my house. The blonde girl is pretty cute, so maybe I'll try listening when she talks to me, which she seems to do quite a lot. Maybe I'll even get to know that tiny one who always follows me around crying and waving an empty food bowl as if that's somehow my problem.

I'm also going to catch up on my reading. I used to spend a lot of time with those... what were they called... you know, the things with the pages and the words. Pizza menus! That was it. I've got a backlog of those to work through.

And I'll keep watching hockey. I'll be following the Olympics of course. But I'll also watch other NHL games. Whichever one seems most interesting, I'll watch. But not the Leafs. It will feel like the playoffs.

But mostly I'll probably watch old youtube clips and play some NHL 94. After all, I'm still a Leafs fan. I just need to find a version of the team that's worth caring about.

*Offer null and void if the Burke somehow lands a star defenceman and cup winning goalie without giving up much of anything.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Way Too Few Good Men: Burke's NTC Contradiction Explained

Earlier this week I posted about Brian Burke's apparently contradictory quotes about NTCs. On the one hand he says he won't give them out. On the other hand, he says it's important that free agents know he honors them.

It didn't make sense. Burke was either backtracking, confused, or lying. Or maybe, just maybe, he was hiding something.

So I asked him about it.

It's a long story, but I managed to get the opportunity to question Burke directly, with some help from Bloge Salming. The entire thing was captured on film.

The confrontation was heated, revealing, and also strangely familiar. Have a look.

So now we know. God help us all.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Brian Burke and NTCs: Pick a lane

Two quotes from Brian Burke:

"I will not ask Tomas Kaberle to waive his no-trade. I think a big part of being successful is your players knowing that they're treated fairly. Organizational fairness to me is a huge component of what we do... I said we're not going to ask him to waive it. I won't, with any player... That to me goes well beyond as far as our ability to attract free agents, to get people to come here, that notion that players know they'll be treated fairly rises above any deal or offer I might get on one player." - January 14, 2010

"I think (no trade clauses are) still a big problem. We have one, and that's for J.S. Giguere and that's because his son has medical problems and needs to be near UCLA medical school. As well as he's played for us and what a great guy he was, had it been for any other reason, I still wouldn't have done it. I think they're coach killers and they put the player in a bad spot more often than they help him. Once a team decides they don't want you and you say, 'I've got a no-trade,' then I say, 'fine, sit up here near me.' To me, I don't think they accomplish what they're intended to accomplish. So we have very few of them and we intend to keep it that way." - January 18, 2008
OK, so explain this to me like I'm a hockeybuzz subscriber...

If Brian Burke doesn't give out no-trade clauses (except in the case of extraordinary personal circumstances, like Giguere's son), then why would it matter whether potential free agents thought he would honor one?

This is kind of a big deal. Trading Tomas Kaberle is the Leafs last chance to do anything resembling an honest rebuild. Is Burke really going to pass up that opportunity just to reassure potential free agents that he's willing to honor a clause that he himself won't offer them?

Am I missing something? The ship is sinking. It can't still be all about posturing and personal PR, can it?

Update: Some really good discussion in the comments, including some possible explanations for Burke's apparent contradiction. I'm not completely sold yet, but at least I've got something to think about. Keep 'em coming.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Where will Kovalchuk end up? The pros and cons

The Leafs got a firsthand look at pending UFA Ilya Kovalchuk on Tuesday night. And, like just about everyone else who's ever watched the guy, they had to have come away impressed.

Kovalchuk is shaping up to the big story of the season, as all indications are that he'll be moved at the trade deadline. Reports say that the Russian superstar is demanding a ten-year deal worth over $100 million. Countless rumors have linked him with various teams, either a rental or as a long-term destination.

Where will he wind up? And more importantly, what would be the best fit? It's a tough call, but I want to help figure it out.

Here are ten teams that have been linked to Kovalchuk recently, along with the pros and cons of each.

Washington Capitals
Many speculate that the Caps have the right parts to make a deal work, putting Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin on the same line.

Pro: Would have plenty of down time during the post-season, since all four of the team's playoff series would be over in four games.
Con: Would run the risk of shoulder injuries due to raising arms in celebration of a goal after every single shift.

Montreal Canadiens
Bob Gainey may be looking to shake things up prior to his April firing.

Pro: What highly skilled offensive dynamo wouldn't jump at a chance to play for Jacques Martin?
Con: The team wouldn't actually have room on the roster to add him unless they cut somebody like Georges Laraque, which given recent world events they would of course never do.

Vancouver Canucks
Bring in a European star as a mid-season rental? That's practically guaranteed to work!

Pro: City is home to the upcoming Winter Olympics, meaning Kovalchuk wouldn't have to bother with the hassle and expense of arranging for shipping of his silver medal.
Con: He could have trouble fitting into the dressing room. Literally. Wellwood's off his diet.

Buffalo Sabres
Could the first-place Sabres be looking to make a big splash with a post-season rental?

Pro: Once the summer arrived, he could engage in the most popular activity among Buffalo residents: getting the hell out of the city and never returning.
Con: His arrival would likely be lost amid the overwhelming city-wide euphoria that's accompanied the hiring of Chan Gailey.

Los Angeles Kings
The Kings are young, talented, and may be on the hunt for a franchise player.

Pro: After ten years in Atlanta, it might be a nice break to move to a city where there's not as much interest in hockey.
Con: As the most talented and charismatic King since Wayne Gretzky, would run risk of being pressured into making a really terrible SNL hosting appearance.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Eklund says Burkie's definitely going to land him. Despite that fact, it's still technically possible that he could.

Pro: Certainly wouldn't have to worry about having his thunder stolen by some hotshot young draft pick.
Con: Rumored demands for a ten-year deal may not allow sufficient time for the team to return to the playoffs.

Calgary Flames
Fun fact: 50% of Alberta-based teams are capable of trading for star players.

Pro: Flashy Russians who don't backcheck just scream "Sutter guy".
Con: No way to tell in advance whether this is the particular year this decade when the Flames will go past the first round.

Boston Bruins
The team is a legitimate Cup contender, yet also has a lottery draft pick to trade. Wait, that can't be right.

Pro: Would be well-positioned to follow the traditional path to glory of a Boston star: produce a decade of unrivaled excellence, develop into a respected veteran leader, become a pillar of the local community, and finally demand a trade to a better team that has an actual chance at winning the Cup.
Con: Probably wouldn't have any chemistry with Marc Savard.

New York Islanders
Larry Brooks of the NY Post swears they're in the mix.

Pro: Kovalchuk could make an excellent mentor for John Tavares, helping him through the pressure of being a #1 overall pick on a team that won't win a playoff game for the next decade.
Con: Signing an enigmatic Russian superstar to a ten-year deal makes the front office all nervous for some reason.

Atlanta Thrashers
Don't forget, Kovalchuk could always decide to resign in Atlanta.

Pro: Would avoid the hassle of selling his house.
Con: Absolutely everything else.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti fundraiser: An update, and a challenge

Last night's Pension Plan Puppets fundraiser was a huge success. The goal of 10,000 comments was reached, resulting in a total donation of $2,001 and counting. Head over to PPP for all the details.

A sincere thank you to everyone who was involved (including the folks at Silver Seven Sens who came up with the idea).

If you missed the event, or you'd like to do more, please make a donation:
Canadian Red Cross | American Red Cross | NHL/UNICEF

Remember, every little bit helps.

And now, a challenge: Senator fans started the ball rolling. Leaf fans raised the stakes. Who's next? The bar has been set, but I know somebody out there can do better. Why not you?

If you and your fellow fans would like to organize a similar fundraiser (or something altogether different) and want help promoting it, let me know.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Please help Leafs Nation raise money for Haiti

Tonight, the Barilkosphere will come together in unity over something other than our hatred for Vesa Toskala.

You've no doubt seen the footage of the devastation in Haiti. While it's easy to feel powerless when faced with those sorts of images, you can help by donating to the Red Cross. With the scale of this disaster, it's really true that every little bit helps.

For tonight's Leafs/Predators game, the folks at Pension Plan Puppets will donate $0.06 for every comment in tonight's game threads. Down Goes Brown will be matching that donation for the first 10,000 comments.

You can help. Head on over to Pension Plan Puppets tonight at 8:00 and start commenting. Then keep going, either until the end of the game or until SB Nation's servers implode into dust.

And if you can, please make a donation of your own to the Canadian Red Cross.

Leafs Nation: If you've been wondering what to do with that money you'd set aside for playoff tickets, now you know. Let's do some good.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Signs that Tomas Kaberle may be considering waiving his no-trade clause

Brian Burke surprised observers last week when he emphatically told reporters that he wouldn't ask Tomas Kaberle to waive his no-trade clause. But while Burke initially seemed to close the door on any deal, he did admit that he would consider a trade if Kaberle approached him first.

That seems to put the ball in Kaberle's court. And while the classy defenceman hasn't made any public comment, those closest to him say he's been sending some subtle signals that he may be considering a move.

With the March 4 trade deadline approaching, here are ten signs that Kaberle might be ready to finally waive his NTC:

  • Brian Burke asked him for a list of ten teams; he gave Burke a list of 40 teams.

  • He's been heard muttering about not having to put up with Ron Wilson anymore after the first week of March, in contrast to the rest of his teammates who mutter about not having to put up with Ron Wilson anymore after about the third week of March.

  • For reasons nobody is quite clear on, his spot on the first powerplay unit has been given to Jay Leno.

  • Was overheard telling a friend that it might be "an interesting change of pace" to have some teammates who were good at playing hockey.

  • He's already started ignoring Kevin Lowe's phone calls.

  • Has been toying with adding new elements to his game to make himself more attractive to other teams, such as maybe shooting the damn puck every once in a while.

  • His coffee table is littered with change of address cards for various Czech scrapbooking magazines.

  • Concerned younger teammates report that he's constantly talking about participating in some kind of bizarre post-season elimination tournament where the winner gets a giant trophy, as if such a thing actually exists.

  • New postgame ritual: go home, get drunk, fire up NHL 10, trade self to contending team, turn off console, cry.

  • He's already working on his playoff unibrow.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The NHL's plan for winning back video game fans

The Maple Leafs made some news this week when it was revealed that they're concerned about losing younger fans to video games. And as it turns out, they're not alone.

The shifting interests of the younger generation, who increasingly prefer the quicker pace and instant gratification of video games, has become a league-wide problem. The NHL can't survive without the younger demographic, and right now that potential fanbase doesn't like what it sees from the league.

Luckily, the NHL has a plan. Sources tell me that the league is already working on several initiatives to lure gamers back to the NHL product. Here's the full list:

  • Replace the shootout with an actual shootout.

  • Every game, one lucky fan gets to carjack the zamboni and back over the driver.

  • Four words - "Rock Band: Brass Bonanza".

  • To make online gamers feel at home, replace traditional play-by-play announcers with racist and homophobic twelve-year-olds who apparently have no parents.

  • Stop referring to Maple Leafs' penalty killers as "hesitant", "slow", or "lethargic". Begin referring to them as "laggy".

  • During post-game interviews, encourage players to whine dramatically about the burden of avenging their dead fathers.

  • All fights will now be preceded by a glass-breaking effect for some reason.

  • Players will no longer be suspended for touching off full-scale brawls by leaping off of the bench and charging wildly into a melee, as long as they remember to yell "Leeroy Jenkins" first.

  • All games will now feature background music. Seven seconds of background music. Repeated over, and over, and over.

  • In an attempt to appeal to sci-fi gamers, maybe try killing a goalie with a laser beam.

  • At the end of every season, the Art Ross winner has 30 seconds to sign his initials on the high score board.

  • Look, two things we know for sure about video game fans: 1.) They love car chases. 2.) They love evil zombies. Find a way to somehow combine these. (Note: Done.)

  • Tell the players to get back to making each other's heads bleed.

  • To make the television broadcasts look more like a sports video game, all fans will be encouraged to dress alike, be heavily pixelated, and constantly stand up and awkwardly wave their arms around for no reason.

  • Bettman: Arkham Asylum

  • Instead of a final buzzer, every game will now end with a brief cutscene, classical music, and seventeen minutes of scrolling Japanese names.

  • Hit the reset button on the entire league; reload saved game from 1994.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The other Toronto Maple Leaf training camp letters

If you're a Leafs fan, you've probably seen this training camp letter from 1962 by now. It's been making the e-mail rounds for weeks.

The apparently real letter is from Leafs' GM Punch Imlach to player Jim Pappin, informing him of the schedule for the upcoming training camp. It's filled with nostalgia for a bygone era, including quaint references to train travel, mandatory golfing sessions, and the requirement that all players be able to do 20 pushups.

But while the Pappin letter makes for a fun look back at hockey's past, many fans don't realize that these letters are a Toronto tradition. Every summer, the current Leafs general manager sits down to type out a letter to his players to let them know what to expect in September. And I just happen to have several original copies in my collection.

For example, here's the letter Brian Burke sent out this past summer:

Brian Burke training camp letter
Can't see the image? Download it here.

And here's the letter from the year before, when Cliff Fletcher was in charge:

Cliff Fletcher training camp letter
Can't see the image? Download it here.

And, of course, the 2007 letter:

John Ferguson Jr. training camp letter
Can't see the image? Download it here.