Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Florida Panthers at Toronto Maple Leafs: Hockey Game and Public Execution

Leafs logoI wouldn't want to be Bryan McCabe heading into the Leafs' Thursday night game against the Florida Panthers in Toronto. Well, OK, the 86, 000 plus dollars he will pocket for the match-up (at the 7.1 million he will earn this season in the front-loaded contract that averages 5.75 million per year, divided by 82 games) would make it more than tolerable.

But it's still going to be a gut churning affair for the Leafs' defenseman. McCabe has been abysmal this season and things got a whole lot worse when he scored into the Leafs' net in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday. It was a performance in which he otherwise made relatively few mistakes in comparison to the blunder-fests of previous games.

Toronto fans have been relentlessly raining down abuse to let the highest paid player on the team know that he has to improve. The only other possible aim of the boo-boons is to pressure McCabe to waive his no-trade clause and hope the Buds can pawn him off on another team willing to take a chance. Players rebounding with different team-mates who complement the new arrival and elicit dormant skills is certainly not unheard of.

The huge salary plus no-trade clause for McCabe is the prime example that highlights why John Ferguson Jr. is rarely praised as being a shrewd operator. The fact that there are more than a few contracts with no movement provisions on the team is a hard one to fathom. It's perplexing that the person in charge of an NHL team would strip away his own power by so casually removing his ability to trade a player in the future.

No doubt many players and their agents now head into negotiations asking for no-trade clauses. But I find it hard to believe that such demands are deal breakers if not acceded to by team management. Eliminating your own options and giving unnecessary leverage to players is just not astute or forward thinking.

It adds credence to the claims that Ferguson is unqualified, inexperienced and soon to be unemployed. It's been a difficult year for Toronto's GM and he has probably questioned his own abilities at times. Perhaps Ferguson's unlikely hiring has led him to subconsciously want to reward players beyond their abilities. In the process convincing himself that they will overachieve as he must at times also believe about himself, lest he self-destruct. Or maybe it's far simpler than that. Maybe it's done in the naive hope that it will make the players like him because of his generosity and thus try harder.

But, just like with the morbidly obese contracts awarded to certain players, it's hard to fault the person on the receiving end of a job offer that he is unqualified for. In both examples, incompetence has introduced factors into the story which otherwise wouldn't be so important. Aspects that have been unfairly amplified and focused on simply because someone further up the chain blundered ahead with no concern for perception or long-term goals. The bottomless pit of billions at the disposal of the Leafs organization can't help in such situations either. If things fall apart, just start over with no concern for taking a financial hit.

For McCabe, his salary is what everyone mentions first and what justifies for so many the ruthless nature of the personal insults. And for Ferguson, the fact that he wasn't ready to take on such a big responsibility. A decision which has ruined his development as a general manager. When he is eventually sacked by the Leafs, it will be a long time in coming, if ever, that he gets another shot at running a big league club.

The two issues are directly related, as without the unwise hiring of Ferguson, the McCabe contract never would have become a reality. And so their fates are similarly intertwined.

The looming on-ice massacre by a million boos is the kind of story that even the casual fan can get his head around. This is not a media generated narrative. It resonates and transcends the interest of hard-core followers and has taken on a nasty life of its own. McCabe is one of those players well-liked in the dressing room and even by some reporters (despite the piling on and recent headlines), so there is more than a bit of sympathy for him.

If things continue to decline and he is traded, those who participated in the repeated verbal assaults will know that their efforts got to him in a personal way and succeeded. For he will be the one that has to request or agree to such a trade. If, on the other hand, McCabe pulls out his best performance of the year, he will briefly silence his detractors and just may be able to use it as a turning point.

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