Sunday, August 28, 2005

 

For All you Leafs Fans, A Q & A with Berger

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

As a testament to the hockey traffic on this website, I frequently receive between 100 and 200 e-mail messages for every column I write – particularly when it pertains to the Toronto Maple Leafs. While I try to respond to the majority of reasonable questions, time doesn’t permit me to answer all of them. As such, I’ve jotted down several of the more prominent and interesting Leaf-related queries from the past several weeks, and I’d like to address them here. As always, if you have further comments, feel free to e-mail howard.berger@rci.rogers.com. Hopefully, I can give you some of the answers you are seeking in the following paragraphs.

Q. Why do you feel that Mats Sundin will leave the Maple Leafs after his contract expires in 2007?

A. I’m not convinced, at the moment, that Sundin will go elsewhere, but I think it’s a possibility Leaf fans should start considering. Beyond the fact that 13 years in hockey-crazed Toronto is enough to make any player loopy, there could be a number of reasons for Mats to move on. The most significant, of course, would be the chance to play for a legitimate Stanley Cup contender towards the end of his career, should the Maple Leafs not attain that status in the next couple of seasons. There is no guarantee that bolting to a championship-caliber team will put Sundin’s name on the Cup. Curtis Joseph went that route in Detroit, and it didn’t work. But, life-long Bruin Raymond Bourque certainly gained from his move to Colorado in 2001. The guess here is that Sundin will strongly consider it worthy of the gamble. And, don’t convince yourself that just because Mats signed a long-term deal with the Leafs a few years ago, he’s unwilling to play elsewhere. The circumstances in 2007 will be completely different. For one, the Leafs made it extremely worthwhile for him to commit, long-term, because they offered to pay him an annual salary that ranged between $8 million and $9 million – one of the highest in the NHL. And, Mats was a restricted free agent who really had no alternative. In ’07, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. Under the new CBA, no player can make more than 20 percent of the salary cap figure, and Sundin – at 36 years of age – won’t likely command an offer close to the maximum. So, money will not be the overriding factor. Nor is he tied to Toronto in other ways. Even if Mats gets married and becomes a father in the next two years, he’ll have minimal concerns over moving. When Scott Niedermayer left the Devils to sign with Anaheim, for instance, he had to deal with 13 years of family entrenchment in New Jersey. He took his kids out of their familiar school and away from their life-long friends. He still made the move to California, but not without emotional upheaval. Sundin won’t have the same issues, and do not underestimate how significant that may be. After his many years of loyal, distinguished service, he will owe absolutely nothing to the Toronto hockey community. Knowing Mats, it will simply come down to choosing where he can best live out his Stanley Cup dream. And, not many Stanley Cup dreams come true in the land of the Maple Leaf.

Q. Why are you acting so negatively towards the Leafs for the coming season?

A. Before I answer the question as it pertains to the Leafs’ chances in the Eastern Conference, let me clarify something important. Like I’ve mentioned numerous times on radio, I do not deal, as a reporter, in positives, negatives, optimism or pessimism. I never use the terms “fortunately” or “unfortunately” when speaking on a Leaf-related matter. Nor do my colleagues who cover the team on a regular basis. When I comment on the Maple Leafs, it’s the listener – based on his or her allegiance – who determines whether I’m “positive” or “negative”. If, for instance, I suggest that the Leafs will struggle to make the playoffs this year, a passionate Toronto fan might consider me “negative”. A fan of the Montreal Canadiens or Ottawa Senators, conversely, would look upon the remark quite favorably. To that person, there would be nothing unfortunate or pessimistic in my projection. So, it isn’t me – or any other reporter – who determines the connotation of a remark. It’s the listener or reader who does so, and that’s why many of us on the media side are encouraged by our employers to speak our minds. In a hockey-mad city like Toronto, an honest opinion stirs up interest and passion. More people read, watch, and listen when we offer strong views on the Leafs. It’s simply our job. Do I speak more passionately about the Leafs because I grew up in Toronto? You bet. It’s one of the main reasons I have this assignment. Nothing would be more tedious or exasperating than to hear someone from the outside speaking flatly and unemotionally about hockey in Toronto. It’s why columnists like Damien Cox and Steve Simmons are so widely acclaimed. Fans may not agree with their opinions, but they cannot dispute their credentials or background. Nor can they usually wait to read their next emotion-charged offering. Sadly, so many Leaf supporters are hopelessly narrow-minded. They won’t allow themselves to even consider that reporters or columnists who criticize the team are doing so honestly, and without a bone to pick. The attitude is symptomatic of a fan-base that has grown to expect failure. In Toronto, hearing or reading the truth about the Leafs becomes increasingly difficult to digest. With that as a backdrop, my sense that the Leafs will scramble for a playoff spot this season is based on a clear lack of depth at the wing positions. If the club goes through the entire season without suffering a long-term injury to one of its key performers, it might challenge the 100-point mark once again. But, we all know that isn’t going to happen. A trademark of the good Leaf teams in recent years has been the ability to plug holes in the line-up with efficient part-timers; to compensate temporarily for the hundreds of man-games lost to injury. Without proven wingers like Roberts, Nieuwendyk, Mogilny and Nolan, that depth has been lost, because their replacements (Ponikarovsky, Belak, Kilger, Wilm, Antropov, etc.) will now have to fill out the second and third forward units. And, they aren’t nearly as gifted, offensively. Some people have pointed out that Roberts, Nieuwendyk, Mogilny and Nolan were in the line-up together for only 19 games in 2003-04. So what? They still accounted for 77 goals while missing a ton of games (Mogilny only eight because of his hip surgery). Can the replacement wingers achieve that total, even if healthy all season? Not likely. And what might befall this Leaf team if any of Sundin, Lindros, Allison or O’Neill goes down for a spell? We all know it’s going to happen, at some point. Who replaces THEM? Certainly not the same forwards as in previous years, because they’ll all be regulars this season. Then there’s the never-ending issue of finding a kingpin defenseman. Ken Klee said the other day that the acquisition of Brian Leetch late in the ’03-04 season had little to do with the club compiling 103 points. Very true. But, Leetch was magnificent in his short tenure with the club, performing at a point-a-game pace on the blue line, and one can only imagine what his presence would mean to the current Leaf squad over an 82-game schedule. Obviously, we’ll never know, because Leetch recently signed with Boston. Who replaces him? You can spend all day dreaming that Antropov and Ponikarovsky will become 25-goal shooters. That Kyle Wellwood and Alexander Steen will be in a neck-and-neck race for NHL rookie-of-the-year. Or that Alexander Khavanov will suddenly contend for the Norris Trophy. But, until it happens, or until GM John Ferguson acquires scoring help on the wing, the Leafs will struggle to play as competently as they have in recent years. If the Leafs, as rumors indicate, are trying to acquire young Red Wings’ left-winger Henrik Zetterberg, they’ll have to make a fairly significant trade. Zetterberg is a restricted free agent, and Detroit will want at least one proven forward in return. Certainly, that’s what I’d be asking for if I were Wings’ GM Ken Holland. And, the Leafs don’t have many proven scorers to spare.

Q. Can Ed Belfour continue to be a standout No. 1 goaltender at age 40?

A. I think he can. If the surgery he underwent a year ago has alleviated his back problems, and if he hasn’t developed any damaging rust from the canceled NHL season, Belfour’s age shouldn’t be a factor. He is maniacally devoted to keeping his body in peak condition, and he studies his craft as intensely as any netminder. Remember, however, that Belfour is habitually a slow starter. If he struggles out of the gate, it may not be reason to panic. Many Toronto hockey observers (me included) weren’t aware of this in Belfour’s first year with the club (2002-03), and that’s why we tended to write off the Leafs after they wobbled to a 4-9-2 record. When Belfour found his game, however, the Buds improved dramatically and recovered from their brutal start. Mid-to-late-November is usually a better time to start evaluating the veteran puck-stopper. And while he stole a playoff series with Ottawa in 2004, Belfour hasn’t yet provided the Leafs with the same quality of post-season excellence that Curtis Joseph did. At his age, The Eagle is increasingly likely to tire as the playoffs progress. Perhaps that’s why he’s been less effective in Toronto’s second-round series. It will be up to Ferguson to provide him with an adequate back-up, and coach Pat Quinn to utilize that back-up in a manner advantageous to Belfour.

Q. Does Ferguson have a legitimate plan to keep the Leafs competitive?

A. That’s a question we’ll all be much-better equipped to answer two years from now. Certainly, many Leaf watchers were startled when Ferguson lay dormant during the frantic first week of free agency. But, he had no other choice. The club strangely did not position itself to compete under the salary cap for the best available players. Ferguson did a commendable patch-up job – signing Lindros, Allison and Khavanov, and trading a draft choice for O’Neill. But, those moves were not indicative of a long-term plan. And, as I’ve mentioned previously, the theory that Ferguson was banking on next year’s free agency crop is ridiculous. Let’s wait and see what he has up his sleeve. Lots of respected hockey people speak very highly of JFJ. I, too, think he’s an intelligent man. But, many-an intelligent hockey mind has failed to win the Stanley Cup. The jury is still out on the Leafs’ GM.

Q. Why did Ferguson re-sign Quinn for two years, when the club is sure to get younger?

A. This one is simple. Quinn was retained because he is one of the best coaches in the NHL. Period. Yes, he has strongly relied on veteran players during his Leaf tenure, and the club will get younger in the next few years. But, Quinn has simply not done anything to warrant being fired. He has kept an often injured team at or near the 100-point plateau and the Leafs have gone deep into the playoffs on several occasions. While Quinn hasn’t yet won a Stanley Cup, it’s unfair to judge him solely on that basis. Wayne Gretzky did not call upon the Big Irishman to coach Team Canada because Quinn asked for the job. Nor did Gretzky have any prior affiliation with Quinn. He simply felt that Quinn was the best man for the task. And, no one can say with any legitimacy that the Leafs have lost out in the Stanley Cup playoffs because of Quinn. If anything, he has overachieved with rosters that were either not deep enough, or crippled by injury. Ferguson made a very shrewd maneuver by bringing much-respected Paul Maurice into the organization. Barring the unforeseen, Maurice will succeed Quinn behind the bench for the 2007-08 season. Until then, Quinn has earned the right to stay where he is.



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