The NHL and NHLPA have now agreed to allow teams to exercise the first of their two compliance buyouts now rather than in the summer. Aside from allowing teams to rid themselves of some of their past mistakes, this amnesty clause provides teams, including the Leafs, with some interesting trade and free agent scenarios.
To begin with the obvious, the players who are bought out by their teams become free agents available to be signed by any team in the league. While it is exceedingly unlikely that a superstar such as Sidney Crosby will be bought out, that does not mean that there will be no value to be found in signing bought out free agents or even a diamond in the rough waiting to be mined. The best part of this sort of move is that it carries a low financial risk. The teams that buy out players are still required to pay the majority of their original contract although this does not count against the salary cap. Since a player would still be getting paid by his old team, this could allow his new team to sign him at a greatly reduced rate. Would an underachieving player like Scott Gomez benefit from a change of scenery and not having to justify his massive contract? Although it is unlikely that he could rediscover the form that earned him this contract in the first place, he could still be productive in a third line role getting paid fourth line dollars. And what of the Leafs’ well-documented goaltending concerns? If neither Reimer nor Scrivens proves to be the answer, and if Vancouver’s asking price for Luongo proves to be too high, why not take a chance on someone like Rick DiPietro, who seems to be a prime target for the amnesty clause. Although he has had injury problems since signing his ridiculous contract with the Islanders, signing him to a one or two year deal for the league minimum would not cripple a team financially in the future if he proves unable to stay healthy going forward. The point is: if teams are willing to take chance, they could capitalize on the mistakes of other teams to address their own needs.
Aside from the actually players being bought out, the amnesty clause itself could become a commodity. Mike Komisarek will probably be bought out by the Leafs at some point. With Matthew Lombardi traded and Tim Connolly in the final year of his contract, after Komisarek, there isn’t really an egregious contract that the team’s management should be itching to divest themselves of. A rich team like the Leafs could potentially use this to their advantage. It is an understatement to say that there are many teams in the league who are not as financially well-endowed as the Leafs, teams that may not be willing to pay a player to not play for them. A team like the Leafs could trade for such a player and use their remaining amnesty clause on them, on the condition that the sending team includes players, prospects, or draft picks in the deal as well.
This is all, of course, mere speculation. The point of this article is not to suggest that these are moves the Leafs will make or even should make. Rather, it is to suggest that this clause in the new collective bargaining agreement presents opportunities for a general manager crafty enough to exploit them. Teams have already started buying players out. Let the madness begin.
This is not an article arguing that Brian Burke has put the pieces into place to make the Toronto Maple Leafs a Stanley Cup winner going forward. Rather, I argue that through his support of charities and advocacy for social causes, and his encouragement of his players to do the same, Brian Burke’s reign in Toronto has been a success.
Burke showed a commitment to using his prominent position to foster social change that went beyond what many people in management or coaching are willing to do. Some choose to ignore or disavow their responsibilities. Others pay lip service to it but fail follow through when the chips are down. See, for example, the Toronto Blue Jays who mishandled the Yunel Escobar eye black episode and missed an opportunity to turn that incident into a teaching moment. Others actively discourage it. Consider Minnesota Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer who advised punter and outspoken same-sex marriage advocate Chris Kluwe to focus on his on-field performance and stop creating “distractions.” What Burke understood that Priefer does not, is that his organization is more than just a sports team, it is a part of the community and has the power and responsibility to give back. Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s colour barrier was a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement, but what if his manager had felt that playing him was a distraction?
In some ways, celebrities such as professional sports figures have more power to have a positive impact on society than judges and politicians. The latter group can create all the laws they want calling for equality, but it will not be a reality until the average person practices it in everyday life. This is where celebrities come in. Despite what some insist, they are role models. Their actions can inspire the masses and if they take a stand on an issue, people will listen. Consider how many people grew up with posters of political figures on their walls and how many had athletes and movie stars adorning their walls.
Brian Burke may not have built the Leafs into a team that fans can be proud to call their own based on their on-ice record, but in terms of their commitment to making the world a better place, he undoubtedly did. Every team in every sport should be lucky enough to have a man like Brian Burke as their general manager.
A strange week, to be celebrating four integral members of the NHL community while loathing most every other. It’s a grey area that none of us – the fans – deserve; to be forced into anger towards two parties that have held our loyalty for so long.
We’re tired, we’re bored, and now we’re apathetic. And as with any drawn out argument, it leaves us asking, simply, ‘why?’
Why do we cheer for a team that is owned by the very people withholding it from us? Why do we cheer for a team that hasn’t been competitive since the last labour dispute? Why do we cheer for a team that lacks long-term leaders?
The truth is, none of these things matter. It’s not about the owners; it’s not about the players. It’s not even about the game.
It’s about us.
Watching our team is more than a pastime. It’s more than cheering at a TV screen or drinking on a weeknight. It’s what helped your bond with your brothers when there wasn’t much to bond over. It’s what allows you to high-five a complete stranger in a society of social taboos. It’s what brings your group of friends together as age pulls you apart. It’s what you can always believe in and hold onto when everything else seems strange.
No, we haven’t yet faced our last disappointment. There will be many nights of frustration followed by many days of cynicism. It’s the truth in sport. It will come, but it doesn’t matter.
Despite the droughts or the trades or losses or the lockout, our hockey team is a symbol of some of the most important moments in our lives. A hockey fan isn’t what we are, it’s who we are.
And that’s why we cheer.
Looking at things from a glass half full perspective, at least hockey does not have the worst All-Star Game in North American professional sports. That ignominious distinction certainly belongs to the National Football League. While trying not to sound like too much of a curmudgeon, I argue that the All-Star Games in every sport are, in their current incarnation, fundamentally flawed. I do believe, however, that there is some merit in the concept which can be salvaged.
The crux of the problem with the All-Star Game is that it simultaneously attempts to provide an entertaining spectacle for fans and also provide recognition for deserving players. In the process, it accomplishes neither.
The game itself is beyond repair and needs to be scrapped. The “contest” is a glorified exhibition game where players have no incentive to play hard since the risk of getting injured by far outweighs whatever rewards that could be garnered from winning. This is a particular problem in hockey and football where physical contact is such an integral part of the sport. I am not saying a game is boring if it lacks bone-crunching hits or fights, but watching defencemen lamely swing their sticks at the puck or football linemen stand up, rather than engaging with one another does not make for an entertaining product.
Every single league has experimented to try and provide players with incentive to treat this annual contest as something more than a scrimmage. Among other solutions, the NHL has attempted to put players’ pride at stake. First nationalistic pride in making the game North America against the World, and more recently, personal pride, by allowing two captains to select their teams like kids playing on a backyard rink. The NFL has attempted to remove any fear of missing playing time through injury by holding the Pro Bowl at the end of the season. Major League Baseball has even tried awarding home field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the game. None of these changes, however, have succeeded in inspiring players to compete at a level that actually produces an entertaining product.
To generate more interest in the All Star Game, the NHL, as well as other leagues, have also allowed fan voting to determine some of the participants. There is nothing wrong with giving the fans what they want, it is in fact what a league should strive to do. The unintended consequence, however, is that allowing fans to stuff the ballot box and select their favourite players means that players who are more deserving are denied the honour of being recognized for their accomplishments. Additionally, for players who are at the game based on their accomplishments as opposed to the good fortune of playing in the city hosting the game, including less deserving players detracts from the honour of being selected.
The solution is to divorce the process of honouring players for their accomplishments from the All Star weekend competition. The process of naming the NHL All Stars should be reserved for those inside the league: players, coaches, general managers. Additionally, there would be no requirement to name at least one player from each team. This will hopefully ensure that only the best players are named All Star, keeping the honour meaningful, rather than making it a popularity contest.
This proposal’s biggest innovation is that instead of a dull exhibition game, the centrepiece of All-Star weekend should be the skills competition. Crucially, this competition would not be reserved only for All Stars. Rather, each team would send their best in each event: their hardest and most accurate shooters, fastest skater, best in the shootout, and so on. In many instances, the best players in these skills would not necessarily be All Stars. For example, while on the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chad Kilger who was never considered for an All-Star Game, set the record for hardest shot in history.
Having teams send their best in each category will give fans a greater rooting interest than they would if they were forced to choose between Team Staal and Team Lidstrom or Team East and Team West. From a neutral standpoint, this new skills competition would be of interest as it would determine who is the undisputed best at each skill since, as aforementioned, the league best in these skills may not even be present at the competition in the current format. Additionally, for players, the level of competition is not limited by a desire to avoid injury since these events, unlike a game, carry minimal risk to player safety.
This proposal will certainly have its detractors, but could it possibly be worse than the present arrangement?
It would be untrue to suggest the Toronto Maple Leafs have seen the caliber of goaltending needed of a playoff team. And with Ron Wilson employing a “win and you’re in” strategy with his netminders, the #1 goaltender job is, again, available.
For those who die by stats, let’s compare the contenders:
(Stats courtesy of the Toronto Maple Leafs)
|Games Started||Goals Against Average||Wins||Losses||OT Losses||Shots Against||Save Percentage|
Jonas Gustavsson has won more games and started less. Yet his goals against average is higher than that of James Reimer; his save percentage, lower. For some, this is enough to demand Wilson stand by Reimer. Truthfully, the gap between stats isn’t enough to make that judgment call.
Besides, how did the Leafs find a way to win more with the (statistically) poorer-playing goaltender? It’s a story the numbers can’t tell, and it’s one that’s difficult to uncover unless one were to comb through each of this season’s games thus far.
One theory? Perhaps it comes down to confidence. Perhaps in December, the team in front of Reimer expected him to carry too much of the load. And when Reimer faltered, the team lost confidence, falling as Reimer regained form. Considering the January 3rd win against Tampa Bay, the perceived relief coming from Gustavsson may have been enough to focus the team.
Ultimately, Toronto’s strange goaltending stats thus far make it difficult to pick out a path forward. Don’t forget, too; there exist no stats for “quality of chances.” A re-look of this half of the season may reveal the best Leafs goaltender, simply based on a comparison of skilled saves and soft goals.