Archive for March, 2012
Monday, March 12th, 2012
I was already thinking of the trials and tribulations of “overpaying” for a superstar a month ago when it leaked out that the Columbus Blue Jackets were attempting to trade star winger Rick Nash. It’s never easy NOT to overpay. I mean, how do you “underpay”? Borderline impossible, isn’t it. Look at the Eric Lindros deal in the summer of 1992 — not many thought the Flyers had overpaid at the time (Lindros went for: cash, a R1 pick in 1992, a R1 pick in 1993, Chris Simon, Steve Duchense, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, and Peter Forsberg). But think about it now? It’s INSANE. But it only became so because Forsberg became Forsberg — if anything Ricci was still meant to be the best player in the deal, and drafted in a Top 5 which included Keith Primeau, Jaromir Jagr, Owen Nolan, and Petr Nedved, his accomplishments don’t match up, in my eyes anyway, to any of those four.
But the Flyers were getting ERIC LINDROS! It seemed like an easy call to make, but Lindros would only play 486 games with the Flyers (just over 6 full seasons if you extrapolate that number out over 80 game seasons), and a fair chunk of those 486 were Lindros at notably less than 100 percent.
So trading for a superstar almost never works out the way you think. The comparables just don’t work out — yes, the Colts once traded three first-round picks for Eric Dickerson, but he was a fantastic young runningback who was a fully healthy, and fully known commodity. Doing what the Redskins did (trading spots in this draft…#2 for #6, a 2nd rounder this year, and first-round picks in 2013 and 2014) has considerable risk, no doubt. No team’s ever done this for a “trade up” in the draft. Some examples:
San Diego got far less for letting Atlanta go up to #1 overall and get Michael Vick. The Falcons moved #5 overall (San Diego took LaDainian Tomlinson), Tim Dwight, #67 overall and a 2nd rounder for Vick. The Chargers would take Drew Brees in the same 2001 NFL Draft — so the trade almost seemed like Michael Vick for Drew Brees AND LaDaininan Tomlinson. Big win for San Diego, especially given what Atlanta invested in Vick, and how he let them down.
In 1990, The Colts (yep, those crazy Irsay folks!) wanted Jeff George in the worst way. How worst? Well, they traded Chris Hinton, wideout Andre Rison, the following year’s first rounder, a swap of 3rd and 4th round picks. George was never surrounded by true elite talent, and I do think he gets a bad rap in retrospect. The guy threw a GORGEOUS ball and, again, not sure what he could have accomplished with some of the circus-type business around him. Revolving doors for coaches and players back in the early 1990s, really, until Marshall Faulk got drafted there and the team grabbed some stability.
The most recent example is obviously the Chargers having the first-overall pick, being told by Eli Manning and the Manning family that Eli wasn’t interested in playing there. The Giants traded the #4 overall (Chargers would draft Philip Rivers from North Carolina), the #65th overall, a 2005 1st rounder, and 2005 5th rounder, for Eli’s rights.
It’s a real tough trade to evaluate, and you’ll laugh perhaps at that, but Rivers is easily as well-regarded as Manning (or at least “was” until a disappointing 2011 sidetracked Rivers from “elite status”). Rivers has been to four Pro Bowls, Manning only two. Rivers is a 63 percent career passer, Manning is 58. I am totally on-board with those who praise Eli as an elite quarterback, and as much as advanced statistics has changed how we analyze sports, there still exists “big games”, and there still exists “clutch”. Eli is all that and more, but this is the very first year I’d take seriously someone who’d tell me they’d rather have Manning in an important game than Philip Rivers. I’d be shocked if we don’t see Rivers winning Super Bowls someday, but for the sake of this argument, I think we can concur, the Giants didn’t pay nearly as much as the Redskins have this past weekend to move up to get the elite quarterback they so desperately crave.
And that’s the word, isn’t it? Desperate. The Redskins ARE indeed that. They play in a conference where their quarterback has to match up against Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matt Stafford, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, AND Sam Bradford. That’s not even to mention the quarterbacks in the NFC East, and the Redskins get a 6-game yearly diet of Eli Manning, Michael Vick, and Tony Romo. Romo’s got his limitations, and I’m convinced as ever, and I’ve never wavered on this, that you simply won’t win with Vick — because of leadership and because he isn’t accurate enough out of the pocket, despite being surrounded by fantastic weapons. But despite two wins for Rex Grossman under centre against Manning’s Giants this year, the position needed an upgrade.
Since 1992, Brad Johnson and Mark Brunell both squeezed out playoff-game wins for Washington. They’re the only two to do so…two playoff wins in twenty seasons just isn’t good enough for an organization which has won as many Super Bowls as they have.
I’m OK with the Redskins paying this price. It’s a quarterback-friendly league and the Redskins need a FACE for this franchise so desperately. At one point, enough people who live in D.C. convinced me Alexander Ovechkin was more popular and well-known than any Washington Redskins player and all that without playing past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Simply unacceptable to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and understandably so. Snyder’s been remarkably cavalier and reckless with his money, and sure it’s his money, but there’s only so much of it to spend.
Instead of being reckless with money, the Redskins are being reckless with draft picks — unknown commodities and that makes more sense. 19 quarterbacks have been drafted in the first rounds of the NFL drafts since 2004 when Manning/Rivers were both picked and not counting 2011′s crop of four 1st round QBs. Of those 19, 17 are still in the league, all except J.P. Losman and Jamarcus Russell. Some of you just realized Brady Quinn is still in the league because of his recent knocks on Tim Tebow, but, yes, in the NFL, he still is.
Of those nineteen quarterbacks, ELEVEN of them have won playoff games, and some like Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez have won multiple playoff games. Others like Matt Stafford, Sam Bradford, and yes, even still Matt Ryan are going to — you know that, right?
Meanwhile, there are the Super Bowl-winners. Aaron Rodgers with one. Ben Roethlisberger with two. Eli Manning with two. Five Super Bowl wins in the last seven seasons by quarterbacks drafted 2004 and after, and it’s not worth betting against all three of them to win even more, perhaps Rodgers especially.
You have to pay to play in the modern-day NFL and teams without strong quarterback play can barely GET to the playoffs now, let alone win. Tell me, outside of Tim Tebow (yes, magical things happened down the stretch in Denver — please don’t question it, just accept that it won’t happen terribly often) the last time a “below-average” NFL quarterback made the playoffs with his team, let alone won a game. It’s not as it once was where a strong running game and a ball-hawking defence could get the job done for you.
Sure, the Redskins overpaid — but staying the course and building conventionally wasn’t getting them to the playoffs. This is a gamble worth taking and weirdly, it’s a safer gamble than paying $20 million-plus to a 36-year old future Hall of Fame and Super Bowl-winning quarterback coming off FOUR neck surgeries, who’ll have gone 20 months without throwing a pass in a game, and whose assets were starting to depreciate (if ever so slightly) throughout the 2010 NFL season.
I’m not sure it guarantees success in the NFC East for the Redskins, but if Robert Griffin III is even 75% as advertised, he’ll bring stability to a position on the Redskins where it’s been sorely lacking for far too long, not to mention get the Redskins on those Sunday and Monday Night games a touch more often than they currently are.
Wednesday, March 7th, 2012
What a day — Indianapolis Colts legend Peyton Manning gets cut today by the Colts. Who saw this coming? Well, no one 12 months ago, but 12 days ago, all of us did.
Unlike the Joe Montana trade in 1993, or even the Wayne Gretzky deal in 1988, I’m trying to think of when an iconic player who’d spent his whole career in one city and who is (and always will be) as beloved as Manning was simply, for lack of a better term, dropped by a team. We see the regular occurences of dwindling playing time, far less responsibility for one-city/one-team icons….I’d make the case we just did with Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, and we, at one point, will with Derek Jeter. In Detroit, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were shadows of their former fantastic selves by the time they retired in the mid-1990s, but Manning just FEELS so unique and different, because it is.
If it’s my team, I’d trade a significant chunk of assets AND obviously draft picks to go up and get Robert Griffin III from Baylor by working a deal with the St. Louis Rams for that #2 overall pick. I just think we’d have heard a lot more about Manning and his ability to still throw and get it down were he, in fact, able to. The guy’s been through FOUR neck surgeries, and by my math, that’s as many as FOUR MORE than most elite NFL quarterbacks. None of us want to see Peyton Manning play like Kerry Collins the last several years, do we?
Anyway, three big dominoes in motion: Where will Manning play? Who drafts Griffin? Who signs Matt Flynn as a free agent, hoping he’s the next Matt Schaub, and not the next Rob Johnson.
I’d rate it this way:
Most Likely Teams To Sign Manning: 1. Miami, 2. San Francisco, 3. Washington, 4. Arizona, 5. Denver
Most Likely To Trade Up For Griffin: 1. Seattle, 2. Miami, 3. Washington, 4. Minnesota 5. San Francisco
Most Likely To Sign Flynn: 1. Denver (I know, I know…but just watch…Elway KNOWS what Tebow is and isn’t), 2. Miami, 3. Washington, 4. Cleveland, 5. Seattle
What are your thoughts? Who ends up where?
Tuesday, March 6th, 2012
1. At first, $5.5 million/year struck me as a considerable overpayment.
2. On reflection, it’s a slight overpayment….but the Leafs had no choice but to make said overpayment.
3. It’s laughable to think the Grabovski deal with create “cap issues” for the Maple Leafs this summer, next fall, the next summer, and the fall after that.
4. Those cap issues are related to the contracts of (sit down for safety..): Mike Komisarek, Colby Armstrong, Matthew Lombardi, Tim Connolly, & John-Michael Liles…ooh, AND the fact that if they’re ever to make the playoffs, and (gulp!) advance in them as 59 different hockey collectives have done since the Leafs last did, they may need to spend money on a goaltender. Good luck there.
5. Grabovski held all the power and all the leverage in this negotiation — so of course the Leafs overspent…and it was the only course of action.
6. Once Ales Hemsky got $5 million a year (again, NOT a crazy
overpayment given market tendencies and comparable players/ages), the writing was on the wall Grabovski would do a tad better.
7. Admittedly, Grabovski got a year more than ANYONE expected in a 5-year deal, but that may be as much the Leafs wanting to keep control of him that long (until he’s 33).
8. This deal is NOT like Jason Blake’s. Blake was 34 years old when he started his Maple Leafs’ career, plus Grabovski is already a proven commodity with the team and certain linemates, and is only 28 years old.
9. Saying that, Grabovski is NOT Ryan Kesler…and Kesler signed an RFA deal and as Kevin Bieksa AND both Sedins have done, Vancouver (like Detroit) has created a culture where players are
willing to take less money to have a shot at the Stanley Cup, a culture non-existent in Toronto.
10. If you think Ryan Kesler’s not making $6.5M a year with the Canucks at the end of his deal, or even $7.25M on the open market assuming his numbers and advanced stats hold, you’re crazy.
11. It is NOT significant Phil Kessel makes LESS money now than Grabovski on the cap. In two years, whether with Minnesota, Colorado, or even staying in Toronto, he will not. Kessel by current parameters would probably command a UFA deal or hometown deal to stay in Toronto of $49M over 7 years. He’ll be 27 (or so) when he signs it.
12. I’m lost as to why people compare RFA deals to UFA deals. The UFA deals are the only ones where you can command significant raises and exert leverage over your employer, in this case an NHL team — so who wouldn’t do as such with the threat to go to market on July 1st…this deal was played brilliantly by Team Grabovski.
13. It does present an interesting RFA dilemma for Nikolai Kulemin, who will be a 26-year old this summer, going from a 30-goal season to a potential single-digit goal season, other stats be damned.
14. Kulemin’s paid to convert chances — you wouldn’t NOT pay him if he DID convert tons of chances, so you CANNOT pay him if he isn’t — I see a 2 or 3-year deal for Kulemin this summer between $2.6M and $3M.
15. Don’t forget, Grabovski came off a miserable season into RFA status and Burke locked him in at $2.9M, even with rumblings Grabovski would potentially hightail it to the KHL for more money given he, at first, seemed a miserable fit in Toronto.
16. Some have asked why Grabovski never plays with Kessel — Ron Wilson told me in more than a couple radio interviews that both players NEED the puck, and there’s probably a ton of truth to that.
17. Best potential offensive season I could ever see for Grabovski would be a 35-40-75 type year. I think a point-per-game is well out of his reach unless his status within the team changes AND he’s playing #1 PP minutes every night…which currently he isn’t.
18. This signing makes it more than certain that a Maple Leaf player will be “buried” on the Marlies next season, just as the 4-year Jeff Finger contract runs out….I feel it’s a lot more likely to be Matthew Lombardi or Colby Armstrong than it is Mike Komisarek. Komisarek will play with the big club and every single night next season, if healthy.
19. Remember, Lombardi and Armstrong would be in the AHL for only one season and the Leafs then free from the chains of their deals — Komisarek would take two more seasons, thru 2013-14.
20. The Leafs have these 12 forwards under contract next season for a cap hit of $38.2M — Kessel, Connolly, Lombardi, Armstrong, Grabovski, MacArthur, Steckel, Lupul, Bozak, Brown, Colborne, Kadri.
21. That forward group doesn’t include RFAs Kulemin, Frattin, Rosehill, or UFA Crabb.
22. If Colton Orr stays in the AHL, his $1M for next year’s final year of his deal won’t count against Leafs’ cap — Darcy Tucker’s $1M continues to for next year and the year after….soooo, that’s good, right?
23. The Leafs have 6 defensemen under contract next season for a cap hit of: $22.2M — Phaneuf, Komisarek, Liles, Schenn, Gunnarsson, Gardiner.
24. That group does not include Cody Franson, and I think it’d be a huge mistake to either trade or not sign Cody Franson.
25. In contrast to the Leafs cap hit on defense, the Red Wings best 6 D-men cost them $19M, the Rangers $11.3M (won’t last long, getting bargains for McDonagh and Del Zotto, and to some extent, Marc Staal), and the Penguins $16.2M. News to NO ONE: you could easily claim the Leafs top 4 paid defensemen are ALL overpaid, not just Komisarek.
26. The Leafs are only committed to James Reimer next year in goal at $1.8M — Gustavsson is a UFA and is a longshot to be back, and Scrivens an RFA who almost certainly is back with the Marlies. (The UFA goalie market is complete rubbish and MUCH worse than last season when Bryzgalov, Emery, Mike Smith, Theodore, and Biron all found new homes…and obviously Anderson extended in Ottawa while Elliott landed in St. Louis. I don’t know what Burke does in goal next year. How could anyone?)
27. Leafs have (rough math) $62.2M committed to one goalie, six defensemen, and twelve forwards with four key RFAs to potentially bring back. If the cap doesn’t go up (umm, we’re all even still hoping there IS a season), the Leafs will have no choice but to send loads of money to the Marlies if they can’t trade some of it away. REMEMBER, they’re the team that always could TAKE money back in a cap system. Now with Burke’s rancid 3-4 contracts, they’ll have to hope someone else does the same.
27.5 One thing I can guarantee you next season is the Leafs are hot after a great UFA talent in……
Monday, March 5th, 2012
It’s rather silly for some to suggest that in the latest battle between Brian Burke and Don Cherry that you have to pick a side. There’s a “middle” but there may not be a “side”. When you argue with people, things aren’t usually black and white — there’s loads of grey area, and on the issue of where Maple Leafs players come from, there truly is both. It’s not a silly discussion point, but suggesting that the Leafs or any other pro sports team NEEDS a quota of players from their own region is a bit of a stretch.
Jim Lang and myself interviewed Cherry again today on “Brady & Lang In The Morning”. Cherry maintains, beyond the other personal stuff, which I’ll save for another day, that Burke is trying to have his cake and eat it too (umm, regardless of where the cake was made, even the icing came from Minnesota). You can’t complain about having a “disadvantage” in home games because GTA or provincial players come in and have lots of friends, family, comp tickets, and want to do well in front of them, and THEN not expect for someone to suggest that as a GM of a hockey team in Toronto, you might want to have Ontario-born boys of your own in the lineup.
Saying that, Burke has drafted from Ontario….in all THREE NHL Entry Drafts since being here in Toronto. 10 of the 23 players Burke has drafted since June 2009 played or did play in the OHL, and the hope and plan is to see more of Nazem Kadri, and kids like Stuart Percy, Jesse Blacker, and Greg McKegg be important NHL players moving forward. Will they all be doubtful, but what Burke’s done is much more inclusive towards Ontario-born players than the years from 2002-2008.
In that era, the Maple Leafs drafted 49 players and only four (Dale Mitchell, Phil Oreskovic, John Mitchell, and Matt Stajan) were Ontario-born and OHL-schooled, and obviously of those, only Stajan played serious minutes or games for the Maple Leafs. It did seem to many, and far more so in retrospect that the Leafs pulled away from the concept of looking at OHL kids then. Was there a theory those players felt too much pressure playing in Toronto? Were the Ontario-born draft classes in many of those years deemed as lacking either skill or commitment? Who’s to say? The Leafs also, ummm, traded an awful lot of opportunities in the first or second round to draft elite NHL talent.
The 2003 Owen Nolan acquisition cost the Leafs the 21st overall pick. They could have drafted any of: Mike Richards (OHL), Corey Perry (OHL), Ryan Kesler (NCAA), or Loui Eriksson (Sweden).
The 2004 Brian Leetch rental for an ill-fated playoff run cost the Leafs the 19th overall pick. The Rangers used it on Lauri Korpikoski — the Leafs could have gone local or the US college route with any of: Wojtek Wolski (OHL), Cory Schneider (US HS), or Mike Green (WHL). It should be noted loads of OHL kids simply didn’t pan out from that draft’s late 1st, 2nd or 3rd rounds (Ryan Garlock, Kyle Wharton, David Shantz, Rob Schremp. ) Not having a 2nd round pick that year, the Leafs may have missed out on a hard-nosed player like Brandon Prust, who grew up adoring the Leafs and now is an integral part of the Rangers’ success.
The Leafs drafted Tuukka Rask 21st overall the year following the lockout in summer 2005 (good pick, Leafs!), but giving away a 2nd rounder in the Leetch deal probably cost them any of: Ondrej Pavelec (Czech), Justin Abdelkader (USHL), Paul Stastny (NCAA), or Mason Raymond (playing Tier II in B.C.). AGAIN, a lot of OHL kids like Dan Ryder, Adam McQuaid, Evan Brophey, and Michael Blunden either didn’t make it or haven’t been terribly impactful out of that draft’s 2nd or 3rd rounds.
The Leafs kept their 1st rounder in 2006, and with the 13th pick, took Jiri Tlusty, and though he’s starting to pan out in Carolina, no one predicted he would when he was traded two autumns ago. He went a pick before Michael Grabner, nine before Claude Giroux, twelve before Patrick Berglund, and fifteen before Nick Foligno when Ottawa snagged him from the Sudbury Wolves. In retrospect, Grabner or Foligno was the way to go. Yes, Giroux is NOW a budding superstar, but a lot of teams clearly didn’t see it in him and Philadelphia capitalized.
As for 2007, an absolutely horrid and indefensible trade by John Ferguson Jr. to give a 1st and 2nd in the SAME draft (!) for a non-playoff team, and they were saddled with the issues of Mark Bell, all to get an average to subpar goalie in Vesa Toskala following the Rask-for-Raycroft mistake. If you haven’t nodded off and are still following you do realize that without the Nolan trade, a 22-year old Mike Richards or Corey Perry might already be on the Leafs, and maybe that would have changed things. Do you really want to read the next paragraph? You know exactly what I’m going to do, don’t you?
The Leafs were slated to draft 13th. The Sharks took the 13th pick, packaged it to St. Louis, traded up to #9 and snagged Logan Couture. Again, this is going to hurt you. Considerably. EVEN if the Leafs stay at #13, where the Blues took Lars Eller, the Leafs didn’t have too many OHL options. Pat Kane (American-born OHLer), Sam Gagner (OHL) and Couture all went in the Top 9, but the remaining 21 picks of the 2007 1st round saw NO OHLers taken. Brett MacLean from Erie would be drafted by Phoenix with the 2nd pick of the 2nd round. Saying that, the Leafs could have drafted Max Pacioretty, David Perron or PK Subban (OHL) with the pick. Admittedly, Subban didn’t go until the 2nd round and was an early bloomer. We’re just now starting to see the development of 1st round picks in that draft like Detroit’s Brendan Smith or the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh (a Habs pick mysteriously or drunkenly packaged in the Scott Gomez deal).
In June 2008, it’s been well-documented Cliff Fletcher traded a 2nd and 3rd round pick to move up two spots to fifth overall to draft Luke Schenn. It’s really hard to call it a bad pick. Of course it isn’t. I thought that draft was so deep that for any player other than Stamkos, Doughty, or Bogosian that it would be a mistake to trade up, but really with any of: Cody Hodgson, Tyler Myers, Erik Karlsson, Jake Gardiner, Michael Del Zotto, Joe Colborne (possibly…), Jordan Eberle or John Carlson, could you at all say you’d be disappointed with ANY of those players? Nope. Are all of them players you’d rather have than Luke Schenn one-for-one…and astute drafting gets you them and then you don’t give away your second and third round picks (the third was from the 2009 NHL Entry Draft).
Look, I do consciously believe the Leafs went away from drafting OHL players during that draft — saying that, with only a couple examples to counter it, they really didn’t have great opportunities to draft stars, with the exception of 2003 with Richards or Perry. Many OHL players simply didn’t pan out and develop as most scouts thought they would. But, and again, I urge you to look away if need be –
From 1999 to 2008, the Maple Leafs drafted 80 players. Only three of those players were Top 20 or higher overall draft picks (Schenn, Colaicovo, Tlusty). Only 14 of those 80 have played 200+ games. Of those 14, only Schenn, Kulemin, Steen, Stajan, and Ian White (5 of 80!) have played 200+ games for the Maple Leafs. Carl Gunnarsson and James Reimer are the only two Leafs who could, and Gunnarsson certainly will, pass that 200+ game barrier for the Leafs. It’s not good…it isn’t.
In those 10 drafts, the Leafs didn’t make a pick in the 1st round in ’07, ’04, and ’03, in the 2nd round in ’07, ’05, ’04, and the 3rd round in ’06, and ’99. You won’t win that way, and you certainly can’t build that way.
Bottom line? The Leafs DO need better result rates out of their drafts, and finding good players from the OHL is of course a key part of that. Eight Ontario-born players were on the Leafs 2002 playoff team which won 10 games and many feel could have and should have gone to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Red Wings. But lest we forget, seven Ontario-born players were on Paul Maurice’s 07-08 Leafs who finished dismally out of the playoffs and which brought the Burke/Wilson Revolution on.
I agree with all who say it — I don’t care where the player is from…but you’re doomed to failure if you ignore your own backyard, and the Leafs ignored both their backyard and the entire concept and principle of the draft in the first several years of the 21st Century, and as a result, find themselves where they are now.
Saying that, Burke hasn’t been able to sign an Ontario-born free agent, and certainly not one who would be impactful. We all know former Michigan Wolverine Mike Cammalerri had considerable interest in signing in Toronto on July 1st, 2009 and the Canadiens snapped him up instead. They also haven’t found the magic beans in an out-of-options UFA from the local waters like the Islanders did with Matt Moulson. Contrary to myth, Moulson was drafted, a 9th round pick to the Penguins in 2003. They gave up on him, and eventually so did Los Angeles after a few years in their system. He’s about to have 3 straight 30+ goal seasons with a bad NHL team on Long Island. The Leafs need a break like that — they need to find a Joel Ward (Owen Sound/OHL), Chris Tanev (Markham Waxers/Tier II), Rich Peverley (Milton Merchants/St. Lawrence University), or Andy McDonald (Strathroy Jr. B/Colgate University).
Yes, I’m VERY aware none of the above players will be the difference between winning a Stanley Cup and not, but the Leafs have been moribund at local achievements like this lately. Ontario-born players won’t guarantee success, but isn’t having NO players from a province so rich with with talent, and housing the greatest developmental league on the planet a guarantee for not succeeding?
Friday, March 2nd, 2012
So there it is. Ron Wilson has been fired. All the great ones get fired. Scotty Bowman in Buffalo….Bryan Murray in Detroit, Mike Keenan in (insert any of seven North American NHL markets here). Some of you will take great umbrage with describing Ron Wilson as a “great” coach. And that’s fair, but you don’t last as long as Wilson has in the NHL, with a tremendous international coaching resume as well by being a BAD coach.
I don’t need to defend his resume here as I’ve done previously so I won’t, but he is a lock to go into the US Hockey Hall of Fame and in the NHL, his most impressive accomplishments still remain taking the 1998 Washington Capitals, a 90 point regular season team to the Stanley Cup Finals, and winning five playoff rounds in four straight seasons with the San Jose Sharks, with the average-at-best Evgeni Nabokov as their starting goaltender.
Did he make mistakes here in Toronto? Oh sure, but I’d still maintain the same consistent comments I always have regarding Ron Wilson’s near-four year tenure in Toronto.
1. He had a team with “bottom ten” talent his first three season as head coach, and MAYBE this season, you could make a passable argument he has a roster (goaltending excepted) that is middle-of-the-pack, which of course sees its success compromised frequently by, for a fourth straight season substandard goaltending.
2. He never truly had a chance at making the playoffs with the Toronto Maple Leafs and had he made it this year, there’s no question that of the eight teams he’s coached into the NHL playoffs before (pre-Cap and post-Cap), this would have been the weakest club overall…yes, CERTAINLY including the 1996-97 Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
3. Was he abrasive too often and far too obsessed with making certain members of the media part of the story? Sure, he was. He handed Toronto poorly, no question. His boss is currently not handling Toronto much better, but where Burke has humour and charm to go with his outlandish beliefs about how chronically difficult it is to build a winning hockey team here (something he dared not suggest when he was first hired and introduced), Wilson simply seemed pissed off at it all. It was like a bad first date in some circumstances, but unlike those when you know there’s an end in sight, you somehow wake up with that person the next morning, and the next, and the next, and the next.
4. Me personally? I must have done 60-70 radio interviews with him, first at AM640, then later at Sportsnet 590, The Fan, including having a couple in-person visits with him. I never found him rude and abrasive towards me….if I asked a bad question I was never demeaned, as I’ve seen him to do to some, or he simply didn’t find it as bad or grating or mind-numbingly repetitive as he clearly has with others in this market. I make it a point to not play favourites in this business. But Ron never treated me terribly or embarrassed me, so I can honestly say I had no issue with his personality. Yet others did and I totally understood why. Why he chose to engage, again, some of the muckrackers and holier-than-thou members of the Toronto media is absolutely beyond me. I struggle with it sometimes too, far more so earlier in my career, but you simply have to not get into pissing matches with skunks. You’ll smell terrible at the end, win or lose.
I can tell you that Randy Carlyle has been in Brian Burke’s sightlines for a long time. Not quite from the moment he got to Toronto, but I had a “hockey person” I respect immensely (currently not a co-worker) tell me in Spring 2010, even, that were Carlyle to come available that summer in 2010, and certainly last summer, Brian Burke would have fired Ron Wilson then. Burke truly believes Carlyle is a superior coach. Hell, Burke believes he’s a superior coach to Mike Babcock, the coach he inherited in Anaheim. The coach who’s won the Stanley Cup, the Olympic Gold Medal, and gone to two other Stanley Cup Final Game 7s? All within the last 8 seasons? Burke gave Babcock a half-hearted one-year extension and soon after, the Red Wings had kicked Dave Lewis to the curb after two disappointing playoff campaigns and Babcock is probably now the most “un-fireable” head coach in the NHL, and maybe one of the most so in all of North American sports (Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich I’d lump in there with him).
So we’ll see — I have no personal experience with Carlyle. In scrums or in my lone one-on-one with him at a rink, he’s cordial, dry, tight-lipped, and won’t be either humourous or cuttingly sarcastic as Wilson was. Some of you will think he’s less of an asshole, others of you will find him remarkably boring.
The stupid thing is assessing whether he can “handle the market”, and given some of the ludicrous notions Burke has unleased both pre and post-trade deadline, he has some of his loyalists and water-carriers suggesting that a coach’s personality matters here.
If Ron Wilson had won a Stanley Cup in Toronto, you wouldn’t care who he treated badly, in fact as was the case with a couple run-ins with reporters, he’d be vociferously applauded for it. Pat Burns is praised universally for his time here, but he had his moments of losing his temper and treating people badly, and it was patently obvious many of his players in Toronto were sick of his act by the spring of 1996. You couldn’t meet a nicer guy than Paul Maurice, and a funny guy as well (for those slightly above the level of fart and dick jokes mind you), and most of you celebrated his firing because you thought he was a bad coach, not because he had kids who’d have to change not just school districts, but an entire nation to continue their education in.
But this team and these players had begun to tune Wilson out. There are two things I’m very firm on: Ron Wilson did not want Tim Connolly to be signed by the Maple Leafs, and Wilson was not as enthusiastic as Brian Burke was about Dion Phaneuf becoming captain of this hockey team. I still maintain, if Mike Komisarek had become the player Brian Burke paid for here, there’s every likelihood that Komisarek would have worn the “C”…not as a star player but as a dressing room leader, great with a quote, and great in the community. I am not saying Dion Phaneuf can’t grow to be those things, but I’m skeptical. Burke has failed Phaneuf and thus, failed Wilson by not placing other leaders in the sport who had “been there, done that” (let alone gone to a Stanley Cup Final) to support Phaneuf in leading the dressing room, and now, it is obvious to all who cover the team that despite that the current slump may have escalated it, there hasn’t been tremendous harmony in the Leafs room at all times this season, and there may not be until Phaneuf can be properly held in check by either younger players already here, or veterans with important and meaningful voices from other rooms across the league.
As for Wilson, he did seem to age quite a bit through his four seasons in Toronto. Again, he had no chance to make a winner out of the players he was given here by Brian Burke (and yes, to some extent, Cliff Fletcher during that magical 2008 summer). So do I approve of the change? Yes and no. Yes, because it’s the only way into the postseason this year, and it’s still going to be a dogfight even if everything goes right for the Leafs…they had no chance to make it if Wilson stays. No, because Wilson’s tenure here will be deemed by some as a failure, when in reality, the resources were never there to be a success.
Randy Carlyle DOES have a Stanley Cup ring, but he also took over a team absolutely loaded in 2005-06 for playoff success, achieved by Babcock a couple years earlier. Since Anaheim won the Cup in 2007, Carlyle’s Ducks are 11-14 in the postseason, missing the playoffs once, and they surely would have missed (and almost certainly still are) had he stayed.
Ron Wilson’s four seasons prior to coming to Toronto left him with a 28-24 postseason record, SEVENTEEN more wins than Carlyle’s Ducks over the same period, so be very careful about judging Carlyle as a more successful postseason coach. Does one Stanley Cup ring make for a great coach? It’s a dangerous observation to make.