Tuesday, August 23, 2005

 

Tonight's Berger Fix

Luongo has opted to not accept the deal. Arbitration tomorrow morning...

Now for the ever popular Mr. Howard Berger

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590, Toronto

It was nice to see that my late-summer attempt at forecasting the standings and playoff match-ups this season was not taken seriously! Holy Cripes. A couple of e-mailers ask me in a light-hearted way to have some fun with predictions – more than three weeks before training camps open!!! – and people are treating it like a Bin Laden videotape. Not surprisingly, it was the myopic Leaf zealots who were gripping the most. The mere notion of the Leafs re-entering a pool of teams that might scramble for a playoff spot is a bit much for the Blue and White denizens. After all, a 100-point season, followed by another aborted Stanley Cup run, has always been more than satisfactory for the Toronto crowd.

Perhaps, through all the criticism from media types the past three weeks, this really is an attempt by the Leafs to take a fork in the road. I hesitate to use the term re-build, because it normally indicates that a team is stepping back after winning something. And the Leafs haven’t won anything in 38 years. But, maybe the Buds are realizing that they must founder for a short period before taking another legitimate run at ending their Cup famine. It’s not a strategy the organization would ever confess to, for fear of touching off a suicide binge in southern Ontario. But, it seems like the short-lived days of yielding future accessories for immediate help (Owen Nolan, Brian Leetch) are over, and may never return under the salary cap.

Why is it so implausible to think that the Leafs might struggle for a time? It wasn’t all that long ago that merely qualifying for the post-season was the club’s unspoken objective from year to year. Heck, as recently as 1997 and ’98, then-coach Mike Murphy would ponder making the playoffs as a goal practically every day. It’s not that Murph didn’t want to aim higher, or even win a Stanley Cup. It’s just that he was a realist… not a dreamer. When Pat Quinn came along, the team began to threaten a bit more seriously, and Quinn is primarily the reason why. Though he still appears to be abhorred by a large segment of Leaf rooters, Quinn has been a terrific coach – one of the best in the franchise’s history. Through annual roster fluctuations, the players have repeatedly responded to Quinn, often under dire circumstances (i.e. the 2002 playoff run with half the team in sick bay). There is still a huge Stanley Cup vacancy on Quinn’s mantelpiece, but the guy has hardly been a failure.

This season is surely to be Quinn’s most imposing challenge. And, it’s the very fans that refer to such a statement as “Leaf bashing” who realize it the most. For reasons that have been thoroughly debated since Aug. 1st, Quinn is likely to enter the 2005-06 season with the most shallow roster of his Toronto coaching tenure. The king-pin defenseman the Leafs had for a brief spell (Leetch) is gone. Though Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Alexander Mogilny and Owen Nolan were fast reaching the stage where they had to be replaced, they represented too much of the club’s scoring balance – as wingers – to be purged in the same year. There are few NHL teams that could immediately recoup such veteran depth, and the Leafs had no chance of doing so with their self-imposed cap squeeze.

Therefore, Quinn will have to lean heavily on men who have previously skated in supporting roles, and have not been relied upon to score regularly. Does it mean the likes of Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Chad Kilger, Tie Domi, Wade Belak and Clarke Wilm cannot record better numbers? Well… probably, but not necessarily. There are examples of players who have responded at least briefly to increased responsibility – few better than Alyn McCauley in the ’02 playoffs. When Mats Sundin was sidelined with a fractured hand, McCauley stepped in alongside a possessed Roberts and played the best hockey of his career. But, it’s fair to point out that Antropov, Ponikarovksy and Domi have been with the organization during most of the years in which the club felt it needed to add proven scoring depth through free agency and trades – Roberts, Mogilny, Nieuwendyk and Nolan all prime examples. Quinn has obviously never felt that the two Russians and Domi could adequately fill the gaps, and rightly so.

Prior to this summer, Kilger, Belak and Wilm would not have been remotely considered as vital cogs in the Leaf attack, or even as players to dress each night. Now, they’ll be deployed regularly as third and fourth-liners. Why, then, is it so incomprehensible to think the Leafs might slide back for a year or two? Or that sliding back isn’t the only way to ultimately move forward again in the NHL’s new economic order? For months, we’ve been saying that the Leafs will be affected as much as any team in the beginning of the salary cap era, given the club’s penchant for buying players in recent years. It seems to be ludicrous, therefore, that fans should expect another 90 or 100-point season (hoping it will happen is a different matter). Eric Lindros, Jason Allison and Jeff O’Neill were potentially smart acquisitions – injury prone like the men they replaced, to be sure – but two of the three are centremen. One of Lindros or Allison – or perhaps even Sundin – will likely be shifted to the wing, but that will deplete the strength up the middle. You can’t borrow from one area to feed the other and not suffer consequences, especially with the new rules coming in designed to open up the game. Depth, among other things the Leafs are missing, is absolutely mandatory for any Cup contender, and Toronto has less of it than it did last season.

Also, the practice of suggesting what the other Eastern Conference teams might be lacking doesn’t wash. It’s simply rationalizing, especially in Toronto. The Leafs’ opponents have been deficient in key areas year after year after year, yet the Buds are the only established team not to appear in the Stanley Cup Final since 1967. During that time – and as I’ve pointed out – 23 other franchises have somehow made it to the Dance. Only Ottawa, Columbus, Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose and the new Atlanta and Minnesota entries have missed out… along with the Leafs. That may be sobering, but it’s reality.

If they do slip back, re-attaining contender’s status won’t be as easy as some were suggesting two weeks ago, when the apparent plan was for the Leafs to swoop in on all of next summer’s delectable free agents. Already, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton and Vinny Lecavalier have been eliminated from that group, with more to follow. If GM John Ferguson does create significant cap space, however, the opportunity may present itself to re-coup through other means. It all depends on how cunning and creative Fergy can be.

Through all of this, the impression is that I’m suggesting Leaf fans give up on this year’s club. Not true. With Quinn’s guidance (and patience), some dormant character might emerge. The team could, in fact, be fun to root for if it plays to the hilt each night to compensate for its shortcomings. Quinn’s Leaf clubs have done that in the past. But, those who brainwash themselves into thinking the group currently assembled will not suffer a few significant bumps, are likely to be in for an enormous let-down.



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