Showing posts with label Toronto Maple Leafs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Toronto Maple Leafs. Show all posts

Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Return of Mike Babcock

Mike Babcock is set to be hired as the new head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 1, 2023. His four years in well-paid exile marks one of the most unique episodes in recent NHL history.

When the Leafs under President Brendan Shanahan and GM Lou Lamoriello hired Babcock in May, 2015, they hailed their new coach as one of the greatest ever in the NHL. And they certainly paid him like they meant it. He’s still the league’s highest paid coach ever at an AAV of $8 million per season. His contract runs out on June 30, 2023, the day before the Blue Jackets will likely announce his hiring as their new bench boss.

When the Leafs handed Kyle Dubas the GM’s reins in 2018, it was only a matter of time before Babcock was fired. In November 2019, with the Leafs struggling in the first half of the season, the axe came down. And then a mass pile-on began, the likes of which has never been seen in the NHL. As I discussed in an earlier post, Mitch Marner and his ‘entourage’ wanted to damage Babcock as much as possible as he was on his way out the door. Marner had to have sought permission from Dubas before going public, and no doubt the license was granted.

Babcock did not deny the alleged wrong-doing, though he quibbled with the details. He read the room, and the zeitgeist, very well. Societal sentiments at the time regarding all sorts of bad behaviour and wronged individuals were at a fever pitch. If you ransacked the pasts of numerous NHL coaches, you would likely find similar conduct or worse. But everything would have to line up perfectly as it did with Babcock for a similar spectacle to ever happen again.

The Toronto hockey media herd is like no other: larger, more desperate for access, and more willing to exchange positive coverage for leaks and other special treatment. The Leafs really need to do nothing to keep the herd in check. The herd monitors itself, engages in self-censorship and gleefully attacks the rare herd member who doesn't follow the unwritten rules. When the herd was granted the license to go after Babcock for his alleged sins, they dutifully swarmed into action. They did Marner and Dubas’s bidding and all but tarred and feathered Babcock on his way out of town.

So the moment in time was perfect, the media was on board, and a handful of grudge-holders from Babcock’s past stepped up to play their parts. I have no doubt former players coached by Babcock feel their gripes are legitimate. But Babcock has no chance of ever receiving a fair hearing regarding their claims. At least one of the aggrieved individuals bemoans the fact that he simply has no choice but to embrace the recognition on offer every time Babcock is in the headlines. The point is, all these factors helped create a situation ripe for the zero-nuance, mob mentality social-media spectacle that played out after Babcock was fired by the Leafs.

Argue about the horror of ‘the list’ all you want. But it’s hard to deny that Babcock could have played his post-Toronto hand any better than he did. He did some analysis on TV, volunteered with the University of Saskatchewan’s men’s hockey program, and mostly enjoyed life. And for the most part he kept his mouth shut. The $20 million-dollar plus salary the Leafs paid him for not coaching for the last 4 years of his contract likely helped. He’ll be paid every last penny of the contract, which finishes on June 30 of this year.

The Dubas media sycophants have mostly stuck to their guns about Babcock. Maybe some nuance has been introduced with the passage of time and because the Leafs’ core four (John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander) have achieved nothing in the post-season since Babcock’s departure. Gutless, overpaid and coddled into emotionless, dead-eyed, post-elimination delusion, the core four’s annual disappearing act is the main reason for the Leafs’ playoff failures since Babcock was fired. But did you see the effort by Marner and Nylander in the Leafs’ final game of the 2022-23 season as they tried to achieve those personal milestones they always claim are so meaningless? Incredible!

Dubas’s cack-handed public machinations in trying to squeeze more money and power out of MLSE may have caused some people to reconsider the entire Babcock saga. Perhaps Dubas’s bizarre final media availability as the Leafs’ GM forced Shanahan to rethink how the Babcock firing was handled and confirmed some suspicions he had about Dubas. Who knows? Maybe it was even front of mind when he gave Dubas the Luca Brasi treatment.

Regardless, it’s not hard to believe Babcock was right all along in his handling of the Leafs’ young stars. But one thing is for certain, the Blue Jackets will be a bigger draw in the coming NHL season, especially when they play Toronto or Pittsburgh. Many fans and hacks will want to cast Babcock as a villain. He’ll joust with reporters, answer questions about Marner and Dubas, and pontificate on whether he’s changed as a coach. And I have no doubt he’ll enjoy every minute of it.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Tale of Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs: Power, Pity and the Proverbial Ton of Bricks

When Kyle Dubas arrived to speak at the Maple Leafs’ year-end media availability on May 15th, 2023, his attire was the first indicator that things weren’t going to go well. A pullover sweater in May is not a good look. It was reminiscent of the Sally Ann sports jacket Craig MacTavish wore at one of his last press conferences as the Oilers’ GM a few years ago. Whether contrived or simply representative of how he felt, the sweater was a bad omen. The slumped shoulders, the down-beat tone and talk of his family only confirmed the worst. We were watching either a defeated man or a shameless manipulator. If you go with ‘manipulator,’ then you have to acknowledge that Dubas has a crater-sized lack of self-awareness in his personal make-up.

Whatever the truth is, after five years as the Maple Leafs’ GM and nine years in total with the organization, Dubas is out. It’s hard to believe he was given the chance in the first place. With zero NHL experience, Dubas was hired as the Leafs’ assistant GM at the age of 28. Four years later, he was promoted to GM. On-the-job training as an NHL general manager with one of the league’s most valuable franchises, and the one which undoubtedly receives more media scrutiny than any other. It’s hard to fathom. But then, the person instrumental in hiring him, Brendan Shanahan, is also a rookie in his role as team president.

Though Shanahan had a long and successful NHL playing career, he’d never had any team-executive experience before signing on with the Leafs. In turn, Dubas as Leafs’ GM hired his buddy Sheldon Keefe, who also— that’s right—had zero NHL coaching experience at that time. It wouldn’t be hard to advance the theory that Shanahan hired a neophyte in Dubas in order to insulate himself against the aspirations of a more seasoned GM. Shanahan, had, indeed, hired Lou Lamoriello as the Leafs’ GM earlier and then replaced him with Dubas. Perhaps taking his cue from Shanahan, Dubas pulled the same stunt by hiring Keefe as head coach.

Regardless, that’s the situation that existed. Dubas was handed the dream job of a lifetime without any real experience. So what went wrong?

You have to first look at Dubas’s record of negotiating contracts as general manager. When Dubas took the general manager’s reins, the core of the team was already in place, including Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly. A few months after boy-wonder Dubas was handed the keys by Shanahan, Dubas signed John Tavares to a seven-year contract at an AAV of $11 million. Even at the time, many fans and pundits questioned the deal. Though Tavares produced for the first four years of the contract (even in the season just finished his totals were respectable, though 5 on 5 points for him are now rare), he’s now hitting the aging curve hard and will undoubtedly be shifted to the wing next season. More importantly, the massive over-payment will be a millstone around the franchise’s neck for the final two seasons of the deal.

The Tavares deal set the stage for Dubas to renegotiate new contracts with Nylander, Matthews and Marner. Dubas was taken to the woodshed on all of those deals, a sequence of failed contract negotiations (read: team-unfriendly) perhaps unmatched in recent NHL history. All the deals were bad at the time, and though Nylander’s deal now looks better than the others, they all combined to handcuff the team and limit the all-important depth pieces that could be added later. Marner’s contract negotiations were particularly unpleasant and cemented his reputation as a shameless money grubber whose lack of self-awareness is maybe only matched by Dubas. While Matthews has improved as a player over the past few seasons, and his contract’s AAV was acceptable based on his scoring ability, the term was the real killer. In addition, Matthews has now taken on the dreaded ‘chronic injury’ label and may never again match his 60-goal, Hart-trophy winning season.

So Dubas had his skull caved in with the so-called core four’s contract negotiations. Forty million dollars, nearly 50% of the cap, tied up in four players. Dubas paid them as if they’d already won a Cup or two. He tacitly announced he was doing things differently. More than a whiff of arrogance emanated from Dubas when he discussed the players he’d blessed with mammoth contracts.

Yes, the Leafs’ regular season record under Dubas’s guidance as general manager was impressive. But the core four, already in place when he took over, has failed repeatedly in the postseason and now will undoubtedly be broken up. Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander are oddly similar in the way they perform in the playoffs. Gutless, emotionless and rarely rising to the level of play that their contracts demand. At least Tavares seems to give an honest effort most of the time. But the other three regularly disappear for stretches in games and sometimes for full games in the postseason.

While Matthews has improved his back-checking and fore-checking and throws more hits than at any time in his career, his demeanor and actions when challenged are bizarre. There’s literally no fight there when an opposing player gets in his face. Marner plays scared in the playoffs and has recently adopted a rictus grin when he’s being rag-dolled by an opponent—the same kind of grin Matthews has sported for years when someone gets in his face during a game. And all of those four players deliver eerily similar, don’t-give-a-fuck responses when their gutless play results in another early postseason exit.

Dubas’s performance on other fronts is mixed. On trades, he’s made some horrible blunders, including shipping Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche for Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot, Mason Marchment to the Panthers for Denis Malgin, Matt Martin to the Islanders for Eamon McAdam, and a first-round pick to the Blue Jackets for Nick Foligno. Foligno played 11 games for the Leafs and accomplished nothing of note, unless you count a staged fight against Corey Perry in the 2021 playoffs. Dubas also puked up numerous other first-round picks for various trades, some of them rentals.

On the other hand, Dubas has made some decent trades as well. The Jake Muzzin trade in 2019 with Los Angeles worked out well until Muzzin’s body fell apart. Even the trade the following season, again with the Kings, that brought Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford to Toronto in exchange for Trevor Moore and a pair of third-round picks wasn’t too bad at the time. Dubas no doubt got the best of the Penguins when Toronto received Jared McCann in exchange for Filip Hallander. The problem was, Dubas promptly turned around and protected Justin Holl instead of McCann in advance of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

That brings us to one of Dubas’s fatal flaws. He often makes decisions based on emotion instead of cold, hard logic. Despite all the talk of Dubas’s reliance on analytics, it’s perplexing how often he goes with sentiment when making a decision. Mixed in with that emotion is a huge dollop of arrogance. His decisions as Leafs’ GM were precious to him. Things to be guarded, stroked, revisited and doubled down on. His invincibly rigid stance on any player he signed, traded for or otherwise considered ‘his’ is a story of a strange kind of neurosis. His commitment to the gutless four ensured that the same story played out postseason after postseason, with the same sullen, vaguely disinterested post-elimination interviews from players.

And then there’s his pathological obsession with former players from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the Ontario Hockey League team Dubas cut his teeth with on his road to becoming an NHL GM. He started out as a stick-boy with the ‘Soo’ because of family connections and ended up as the team’s general manager. And during his time as Leafs’ GM, Dubas was often single-minded in his pursuit of signing or trading for former Soo players. Before the start of the 2022-23 season, Dubas acquired Soo alumni Matt Murray in a trade with the Ottawa Senators. No one else in the league wanted Murray, despite the two Cups he won with the Penguins. In fact, in Murray’s last season with the Sens, they put the egg-shell fragile goalie on waivers and no one bit. But Dubas knew better. The rallying cry at the beginning of Dubas’s final season with the Leafs was ‘Matt Murray’s got a lot to prove.’ This line was repeated numerous times by Dubas, Keefe and even Shanahan. It was one of the worst trades Dubas made as the Leafs’ GM. His mulish stubbornness ensured his Murray obsession became the final word on his inability to ever fully sort out the goal-tending situation during his time with the Leafs.

Dubas’s drafting with the Leafs was also less than stellar. It’s hard to develop home-grown talent when you keep trading away picks. At least Leafs fans can probably look forward to Matthew Knies contributing in the coming seasons, though even that expectation is a bit premature.

Despite all Dubas’s shortcomings, he has many things going for him. Most importantly, he’s a good communicator and is obviously well liked by his players and peers. His ability to speak about both the game and the increasing importance of analytics, and his vision for how to build a winning team, undoubtedly cast a spell on Shanahan and led to Dubas being hired in the first place. While he doesn’t speak to the media in public more than any previous GM, when he does, he is eminently respectful and somewhat forthcoming. It’s hard to believe that it took Dubas to figure out the ‘speak nicely to people who buy ink by the barrel’ angle, at least when compared to some of the blowhard Leafs’ GMs and coaches of the past.

And maybe in this day and age, that ability to communicate directly with the media and fans is more important than ever. Coupled with Dubas’s instinct for understanding the zeitgeist and how professional sports teams now have to be conscious of so much more than in years gone by, it’s easy to believe that he will land another NHL GM job at some point in the future. Especially now that his training wheels are off and he will learn from his numerous mistakes with the Leafs. But there’s a very real chance Dubas has learned nothing at all.

Of course, there's more to interactions with the media than speaking in scrums or at press conferences. It’s clear that Dubas has cultivated some media members to do his bidding in their on-air hits and in the columns they write. I have no doubt that he leaks info to certain media dupes and engages in quid pro quos: access and information from Dubas in exchange for favourable coverage. But not everyone in the media plays along. In a recent 32 Thoughts podcast, Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek discussed a situation in which Dubas sent a profanity-laced text to them when they mentioned something on Hockey Night in Canada that didn’t sit right with him. And they suggested it was something that wasn’t uncommon from Dubas. Once again, arrogance and temper tantrums. And a personality far different than the one he tries to project in public.

But what about his relationship with the players? Yes, as mentioned, it’s obvious the players like him. But then, why wouldn’t they after the largesse he’s rewarded them with before they’ve won anything? By all reports, he’s hired dozens or perhaps even hundreds of people within the organization in an attempt to make life as enjoyable and stress-free as possible for his stable of millionaire players. And that may be part of the problem. Together with his penchant for sentiment over stepping on necks when the time is right, Dubas is loyal to a fault. It’s created a sense of security among the gutless four, and instilled the idea—confirmed year after year—that there are no consequences for lack of postseason success. Whether Dubas set out to cultivate loyal sycophants, or he simply came to the understanding of how taking care of people pays off, the reality is he likes the outcome. At times the whole set-up has a vaguely cultish feel to it.

And when Dubas’s arrogance and lack of self-awareness flare up, things get weird. Those public temper tantrums near the end of the just-finished season contrast oddly with the image Dubas tries to maintain. He passed off those incidents as displays of passion. I don’t buy it. It’s a lack of self control. People with anger problems like to grant themselves the license to be enraged. I think Dubas wasn’t pleased that he was left hanging throughout the season without a contract extension. The tantrums were the result. But Dubas’s end-of-season tantrums aren’t something new. Justin Bourne, sports-radio host and former video coach for the Toronto Marlies, says he witnessed Dubas explode on a regular basis when things didn’t go his way. Framed pictures shattered on the floor and other destroyed objects were often the result, according to Bourne.

That arrogance was no doubt simmering under the surface when Dubas took the podium for his year-end media availability. But what really did him in was his lack of self-awareness and terrible mis-reading of the situation. Perhaps a touch of greed also spurred him on during that odd display. After being given the chance of a lifetime by Shanahan, and—have I mentioned this yet?—having zero experience with an NHL team before the Leafs hired him, Dubas went with the pity-play and mused that  perhaps he did not even want to return as GM. While Dubas may have discussed this with Shanahan prior to speaking publicly about it, Shanahan was no doubt stunned to hear Dubas openly expressing doubts about whether he wanted to sign an extension. After hearing everything that Shanahan said on Friday, May 19th, it’s hard not to believe that Dubas was trying to wrong-foot Shanahan and MLSE with this comments earlier in the week. Dubas has not responded specifically to the timeline laid out by Shanahan. Which tells me that it's probably accurate for the most part, though Dubas will undoubtedly one day add his own spin to those events.

But let’s get this straight: Dubas mewled and whimpered about his family and talked about how hard the whole enterprise was while likely making $2 million or more per year? This as the world is coming out of a pandemic that cost almost seven million people their lives? The resulting economic convulsions have resulted in housing and affordability crises in Canada that have crushed thousands and thousands of people. And this little whiner offers up this horse-shit? He painted himself as invincibly arrogant, insulated and monstrously self-absorbed. And now we find out that Dubas’s agent sent Shanahan a new ‘financial package’ on Thursday followed up by an evening email from Dubas that he was now onboard with returning? Word is that Shanahan and Dubas were earlier working on an extension that would have given Dubas $4 million-plus a year over five years. And that wasn’t enough for him? Speculation floating around online, thought unconfirmed, is that the new ‘financial package’ was close to $7 million per year. The $4 million per-year offer was probably double his five-year, on-the-job training contract. And he was looking to almost double again the offer he’d been discussing with Shanahan?

Something is fundamentally wrong with Dubas if all this information is correct. And of course, the caveat, especially regarding the contract details, is that we don’t know for sure. But again, Dubas has not disputed the series of events that played out as detailed by Shanahan after Dubas’s cringe-worthy public display  on Monday. And so the whole talk of family starts to look like a ploy. A rather shameless and myopic ploy. Or maybe both things are true. Perhaps Dubas was genuine when he spoke about his family. And it just happened to come before he jacked up his salary request. All that loot would no doubt help ease the stress experienced by his wife and children. But the quick turn-around and last-minute request for a huge increase in salary is very slithery. I don’t see how Shanahan had any choice but to turf Dubas at that point. If Dubas is willing to play public games to extort salary increases (and isn’t it rich for Dubas to suggest in his vague statement released on Twitter that he won’t talk about private discussions?), what other stunts would he pull in the future?

Perhaps this whole talk of family is a generational thing. Everyone cares about their family. But to talk about it in such a way that can be so easily seen as disingenuous is very risky. Psychologists say that pity is the trump card of sociopaths and hard-core narcissists. That’s not to say that framing yourself as hard done by makes you a sociopath or narcissist, and I’m not saying that about Dubas. But by God, suck it up and be grateful for the privilege of having such a rewarding, high-profile job that would be the envy of many. His salary probably puts him in the top half percent of all earners in Canada. I guess attention seeking via airing in public your every weakness, doubt, grievance and instance of not getting your own way is considered ‘authentic’ nowadays.

But back to the blow-by-blow details which Shanahan provided regarding the breakdown in talks and eventual firing of Dubas. Some people suggest it was egregious to disclose exactly what happened. Perhaps in normal situations. But Dubas is the one who got the ball rolling with his performance at the media availability. Shanahan advised him not to do it. Dubas did it anyway. Shanahan is his superior and could have told him not to speak in no uncertain terms. Perhaps at that point, Shanahan still trusted him somewhat. Following the emoting session by Dubas, Shanahan still trusted him, but unfortunately for Dubas, it was only as far as Shanahan could swing a bull by its balls. Shanahan had to get in front of things and advance a narrative. It’s called ‘prolepsis’ (look it up).

Again, the Dubas arrogance and lack of self-awareness. After working alongside each other for nine years, without question Shanahan had seen other warning signs regarding Dubas. And oh yes, there was another very public incident that played out under Shanahan’s watch while Dubas was GM. One that is unique in the history of the NHL. It received almost unanimous praise at the time from Dubas’s sycophants in the media. He’d already built up good relations with the media at that point. And remember, many of the Toronto hockey hacks indirectly work for MLSE. Bell and Rogers own MLSE. And Rogers also owns Sportsnet, which employs numerous fawning, desperate-for-access hockey journalists. I use the word ‘journalist’ lightly because perhaps no other sports media outlet employs so many flat-out terrible writers. But that’s the subject for another article.

So what event am I talking about? The sacking of former Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. When Babcock was hired by the Leafs in 2015, there was a lot of fanfare. Babcock was hailed as one of the greatest NHL coaches ever. And he was paid more than any other NHL coach before or since. His $8 million per-year contract with the Leafs skewed head-coach salaries sharply upwards in the NHL. Brendan Shanahan was instrumental in convincing Babcock to come to Toronto. Babcock had coached Shanahan for a time in Detroit, and Shanahan couldn’t say enough good things about his former coach. The Leafs improved under Babcock but still couldn’t break through in the playoffs. But perhaps more importantly, Babcock didn’t coddle the gutless four. And so, the time was right when the Leafs got off to a slow start in the 2019-20 season, and Dubas fired Babcock. Shanahan had to have been on board with the firing. But what about everything that came after?

As Babcock was on the way out the door, Marner shared his opinions of Babcock with the Toronto hockey media herd. And what he had to say wasn’t very complimentary. It seems Babcock has a vicious streak and convinced Marner to write out a list of who he, Marner, believed were the laziest players on the team. And then, according to Marner, (and yes, later confirmed by Babcock) Babcock by accident/on purpose, let some other players know who Marner had ranked on that now-famous list. The horror! A list! Sure, a bit manipulative if we take Mitchie boy's word for how it went down. But anyone who knows anything about hockey and the history of the NHL knows how utterly tame that incident really was, regardless of the details. Yes, things in the league have changed for the better in past decade and nastiness isn’t going to build trust with players in the long run. But I bet Marner was thrilled at first to think he was being brought into the inner circle and asked for his opinion.

Regardless, for that knee-capping of Babcock to take place, a couple of things had to happen. First, Marner and his ‘entourage’ would have gone to Dubas and told him what they wanted to do. And Dubas would have said ‘Yeah, sure, let’s get it done!’ That’s remarkable. After the Leafs had praised Babcock as one of the greatest coaches who’d ever lived, they now thought it was a grand idea to try to ensure that he would never again coach in the NHL. Was Shanahan fully on board with the career assassination of his former coach? He had to have been to some degree. But perhaps it was floated to him in one way and then it played out in a harsher manner than he’d anticipated. Perhaps Dubas already had numerous staff and management types on his side and made a real push to show everyone to what lengths he would go to protect one of the gutless four.

I imagine that whole sordid affair was in the back of Shanahan’s mind as he laid out the timeline of poor little hard done by Dubas’s final days with the Leafs. One interesting footnote to the Babcock affair: Babcock and Dubas’s contracts expire on the same day: June 30, 2023. Except Babcock got paid a lot more not to coach the Leafs than Dubas did to perpetrate his failed on-the-job training experiment on the team. Regarding that huge amount of money that Babcock was paid for four years after being fired: even for an empire like MLSE, $20 million for not coaching is a lot of money. That must have grated and was likely a black mark on Dubas’s record (and Shanahan’s) as far as MLSE was concerned.

It now appears that Dubas will take some kind of management job with the Pittsburgh Penguins only a week or so after he said it was Leafs or no one. And right on schedule, the media shills say that going against his word doesn’t really matter. It does matter. It shows him to be a shameless manipulator willing to say and do a lot to get what he wants. He thought he was rocking MLSE with Machiavellian masterstrokes, but he was really offering up cack-handed blunders that highlighted him as the lacking-in-real-world experience novice he actually is.

His most loyal media lackeys are currently in full cloak-and-dagger, palace-intrigue mode. A couple of The Athletic’s writers are doing their best to please Dubas with teary-eyed pieces about the emotional destruction suffered by the servile troops left behind to soldier on without their fearless leader. These are some real hyper-sensitive Leafs staff members who need immediate triage for the horror they’ve experienced. What trauma did they go through? They had to watch the person who handed them their cushy jobs find out what consequences are all about.

Another access-seeker who likely fancies himself a real operator in the world of ‘NHL insiders’ says that Dubas’s words about not going elsewhere no longer matter because of a ‘paradigm shift.’ Mind you, he’s the same person who claimed that Auston Matthews’s vicious cross-check into the side of Rasmus Dahlin’s head at the 2022 Heritage Classic in Hamilton wasn’t what it seemed. Trying to defy reality but failing miserably, the journalist in question said that Matthews didn’t drive the cross-check into Dahlin’s head at all. In fact, the fabulist claimed, Matthews drove the vicious blow into Dahlin’s shoulder, and pesky fantasy-world physics did the rest. No one bought it, least of all the NHL, who assessed Matthews a two-game suspension for the gutless assault. Nothing warmed Dubas’s heart during his time as Leafs’ GM more than a loyal media boot-licker going to bat for one of the gutless four, regardless of how unhinged or divorced from reality the claims may have been.

So the fallout from the media availability, Dubas’s sacking and Shanahan’s public account of how it all went down has included numerous questionable articles in the media. Though it may seem like ex-post-facto reasoning, the flood of nonsense from Dubas’s media shills lends support to the logic behind Shanahan’s sharing of details at that press conference. Even if he hadn’t done that, the innuendo and gossip about a supposed power struggle would likely have shown up anyway. Shanahan had learned enough about Dubas to understand what he was dealing with. So he protected himself.

This is not to suggest that Shanahan looks good after all the melodrama. He doesn’t. But getting his side of the story out first makes more sense than ever after the articles and leaks which have followed. And it's important to note that not all hockey writers are going along with the Dubas-friendly narratives being peddled. Push-back has appeared and more is coming. As mentioned, Friedman and Marek are offering up less than flattering accounts of blunder boy’s time as Leafs’ GM. Friedman is one of the most reliable NHL insiders. He covers the entire league instead of one team and strives for accuracy and fairness. He apologizes when he screws up. And based on everything else we know about Dubas, Friedman and Marek’s anecdotes have the air of truth about them.

And what exactly does Fenway Sports Group see in Dubas? I’m not exactly sure. They’re on record as saying that no one they currently employ really knows anything about hockey. But for whatever reason, they like the cut of Dubas’s jib. His communication skills (when he’s not in tantrum mode) have got to appeal. And his ability to develop mutually beneficial relationships with the media also have to be a selling point. Similarly, years of postseason failure with the sword hanging over his head but never falling, has got to impress his potential new bosses. And Fenway have made it clear, through the forced actions of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke in their final season with the Penguins, that Fenway, like Dubas, understands the importance of coddling and hanging onto to marquee players, no matter their age or ability to deliver when it matters most.

Or maybe, more simply, they just speak the same language as Dubas. They come from the same privileged backgrounds and can speak off the cuff, crafting clever new platitudes on the fly while using all the right words to appeal to the emotions of the fan base. Perhaps that dubious display of emotions in Dubas’s final press conference with the Leafs actually impressed them. In the modern era of North America’s bloated, 30-plus-team professional sports leagues, winning may come along but once or twice in a generation. Or not at all. Maybe hiring a GM who can spin narratives, feign emotions when necessary, and be someone younger fans can identify with, is now more important than having a winning record.

But if they don’t know much about hockey, what are they going to ask Dubas when they sit down to interview him for some kind of management role with the Penguins? Maybe they’ll go with the free association, get-to-know-you-over-several-days-and-different-interactions type of examination. Stand to the side and see how Dubas performs when interacting with Penguins players for the first time. Get him yapping about his vision for the team and see how well he distills esoteric information into something the layman can understand. Invite him for a nice dinner at a restaurant with some important people, get a few drinks in him and see if his table manners hold up. And then when he’s feeling relaxed and thinking it’s his job to lose, hit him with one of those classic questions and gauge his response. “So, Kyle, can you tell us what really happened?” 

Dubas is one of those hipsters of a certain age who thinks he’s got the world figured out, but as his actions have demonstrated, he’s still got a lot to learn. In short, he’s a punk. He’s been involved in hockey his entire working life and obviously has some gaps in knowledge about the ways of the world. Here’s a hint, Dubas: if they ask you that question, offer a bland, diplomatic, anodyne dodge and that’s it. If you give them the real dirt, then they immediately wonder what you’ll say about them when they’re not around. Got it?

Almost certainly, Fenway will want to probe Dubas about that now-famous media availability. Though they probably won’t phrase it so directly, what they really want to know is: “Could you one day do the same thing to us as you pulled with MLSE (negotiating through the media, using the pity card etc.)?” As mentioned, there well may have been aspects of Dubas’s performance that appealed to Fenway. Shamelessly manipulating the fan base and doing whatever necessary to save your own skin is one thing. But when it was apparent Dubas was playing games with the people who paid his salary and tolerated the team’s lack of success under his watch, then Fenway’s ears likely pricked up. It’ll be a tough one, but they’re likely looking for a ‘What have you learned?’ type of response.

It would have been fascinating to sit in on that final meeting with Shanahan and Dubas. When Shanahan stood, swung the metaphorical ball-peen hammer and landed the blow directly between Dubas’s eyes with the news that Dubas would not be returning as Leafs’ GM, how did Dubas react? Did he cry out? Slump into his chair, defeated? Stare, uncomprehending? If his past actions are any guide, my guess is he lashed out with a temper tantrum for the ages.

Whatever happened, it’s almost certain that waves of life-altering regret are currently washing over Dubas. He’s a bit too young now. But in ten years or so, depending of course on what comes next in his career, when the mortal bell is tolling not as far off in the distance as it once was, the true horror of what Dubas did to himself, and yes, his family, too, will come down on him like the proverbial ton of bricks. But at the moment, perhaps he's so monstrously arrogant that he's now driven on by rage that he couldn’t finagle things to a situation he felt he deserved. 

One thing is certain, employers and employees never get exactly what they expect. Dubas may find that, if he’s hired by Fenway in some management capacity with the Penguins, he might walk into a situation where he has less autonomy than he had with the Leafs. And Fenway may soon realize that Dubas isn’t the genius they thought he was.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Leaf-Hounds

Everyone develops algorithms and heuristics for decision-making, whether they are conscious of the fact or not. Kyle Dubas, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs has a very simple approach when it comes to signing or trading for a player: if said player previously played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, preferably when Dubas was part of the organization, the player rises to new heights of desirability. He must become a member of the Leafs at all costs regardless of recent play and injury history.

Dubas's love affair with former Soo players was vaguely endearing to Leafs fans over the past few seasons. But now his obsession has risen to the level of neurosis. Sure, Dubas has had some success with signing players from the OHL organization where he got his uber-privileged start as a stickboy on the same team his grandpappy used to coach. 

As the walls close in and the Leafs playoff-round winless streak with Dubas as GM stands at 4 seasons (18 in total), Dubas now seems to rely on nothing else but the Soo connection when adding players to the roster. How else can you explain his decision to take Matt Murray in a cap-dump trade from the Ottawa Senators? With only 25% of salary retained and some late-round picks from Ottawa thrown in (and the Leafs still owing the Sens future considerations), Dubas has effectively made Murray the Leafs' starting goaltender next season at a salary a shade less than what Jack Campbell was seeking.

Toronto Leaf-Hounds

But Campbell wants more term, the invincibly gullible Dubas acolytes say. That's no rational argument about a Leafs team stripped of first-round picks over multiple seasons by Dubas as he continually tries to band-aid over his blunders. Besides, Dubas will be long gone by the time Campbell's next contract, now likely with the Oilers, reaches its twilight stage. 

Over the past few seasons, Campbell has undoubtedly been a better and healthier goaltender than Murray. Murray's save percentage was lower than Campbell's during that stretch, he's started far fewer games and has been absolutely hammered by injuries. When Murray has been bad with the Sens, he's been waived-and-no-other-team-gave-him-a-second-look bad.

Does Campbell have issues as well? Of course. He hasn't been immune to injuries. And his borderline weepiness after tough losses and self-admitted mental weakness aren't selling points. But he's played lights-out during stretches and at a level that should at least give the Leafs a chance to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. But the core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John 'Legs-Turning-to-Cement-in-Real-Time' Tavares have hardly shown their worth in the playoffs when it counts the most. 

The irony is, Campbell is also a former Soo Greyhound, traded for by Dubas when he was GM of  that team and made the starter over, you guessed it, Matt Murray. And that in a nutshell is Dubas's fatal flaw, the basis of his Soo obsession: he's a sentimentalist. For all the talk of advanced stats and whiz-kid analytics, Dubas is no more forward thinking than other NHL GMs born two or three decades (or sometimes four) before him.

The Toronto sports-journalism herd had always had its share of braying mules in Dubas's corner. Dubas is forever respectful of  those around him (though it's been said that Dubas throws some classic tantrums behind closed doors), especially the hacks, who can turn nasty when the time is right. So it's not surprising that some are giving him a free pass on the latest head-scratcher. The argument in this article is basically, 'well, what else is he supposed to do?' Which nicely avoids the fact that Dubas's over-payment to his top four playoff under-performers has handcuffed the team for the duration of their contracts.

Dubas is in bunker mode now, oblivious to the waves of criticism and ridicule crashing down around him. He and his Soo alumni (Head Coach Sheldon Keefe, Head of Goalie Development (?) Jon Elkin, among others) have their narrative and they're sticking with it. Dubas recently made a slew of hires that only an organization like the Leafs could justify: assistants to assistants to assistants. All well qualified, accomplished people who will go on to have long careers in the hockey world and can return the favour long after Dubas's tenure with the Leafs ends.

Could the wild, flailing, low probability Matt Murray trade work out for the Leafs?  Of course it could. But betting on sentiment alone is a risky move for a GM whose time remaining with the Leafs is now measured in months instead of years.

Monday, November 8, 2021

All or Nothing Toronto Maple Leafs: An Embarrassment of Riches

When the most intriguing scene of the teaser for All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs doesn't appear in the actual series, you know you're in for a monumental disappointment.

Leafs All or Nothing
At least All or Nothing didn't disappoint in the disappointment category. That scene you might have noticed in the promotional lead-up to the release of the Amazon series? The scene where Kyle Dubas says his patience is wearing thin? Nowhere to be seen in any of the five episodes. 

The makers of All or Nothing were granted behind-the-scenes access to the Toronto Maple Leafs for the entire 2021/21 NHL season and the playoffs. Hundreds of hours of footage, they said. And this is what they came up with?

For the most part, we get maudlin set-pieces featuring a half dozen or so players. And many viewers may go for that kind of thing. Interviews with the families of Auston Matthews and Jason Spezza. Nick Foligno saying goodbye to his family as he departs for Toronto after being traded to the Leafs. Zach Bogosian with a nice story about his grandmother. And a couple other similar bits involving players and coaches.

What about the everyday goings-on at the rink? Some players clearly like the camera more than others. Joe Thornton seems at ease and rather likable though he veers into buffoon territory a few times. Matthews makes numerous bland, post-game comments. Others, including Morgan Rielly, are rarely seen or heard.

Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Leafs, is probably on camera more than any other single member of the organization. At practice, in meetings, talking with Kyle Dubas, Leafs GM, and behind the bench during games, Keefe is generally heard yelling and cursing. Other interviews with Keefe were obviously spliced in after the season to make him seem more prescient and less of a loud-mouth.

And the oft-criticized Mitch Marner? He seems to shrink in behind-the-scenes footage. He's oddly silent in locker-room intermissions. Or perhaps he and his entourage demanded his utterances be sliced out of the final cut. Judging by his cringe-worthy commercials, it was probably a good idea.

Speaking of endorsements, Marner sure likes wearing hats featuring a sponsor's name and logo. Throughout the series, does he show up outside of the rink more often in Leafs gear or sponsors gear? Not sure. Maybe worth another look.

Marner Height Weight
And here's one for the conspiracy theorists. In a few scenes in Kyle Dubas's office, we see shots of magnets with all players names and info on a whiteboard. But only Marner's magnet is absent height and weight information. Why might that be? Probably nothing more than a simple oversight. Or perhaps his stats changed recently and hadn't been updated (though certainly he's finished growing height-wise).

But that won't stop people from speculating. Marner has developed a reputation as being obsessed with managing his image. And his entourage has a reputation for meddling. So a demand to keep his official height and weight secret wouldn't be surprising.  

The narration is on par with everything else in the series. The narrator, Will Arnett, has a good voice. But the script is lacking. Using 'we' 'our' and 'us' just doesn't work. Sure, plenty of fans have the habit of speaking of their team in that way. But here, it comes off as contrived. Be sympathetic and biased in the team's favour? Sure. But with some separation and a more impersonal tone, the tension could have been increased, the suspense ratcheted up, the official party line challenged to some degree. But here you get a sycophant for a narrator. It's overwrought attempts at inspiration, simplistic observations, an occasional cringe-worthy try at humour and a few instances in which he inserts himself into the narrative with personal anecdotes.

Even game footage in the show disappoints and often fails to capture the essence of what transpired. Remember Game 6 against Montreal? And that disastrous sequence that included William Nylander's goalie interference penalty, Keefe’s ill-advised challenge on the Habs resulting power-play goal and then Marner's puck over glass penalty to put the Leafs down two men? Never appears in the game action. Not even a mention.

To be fair, aside from the games, there is some drama. After a regular season loss, Auston Matthews says in a post-game interview that the Leafs played "too safe." This sparks a discussion between Keefe and Dubas. Later, Keefe addresses the comments in an off-ice meeting with the team. If that off-hand comment resulted in real concern and urgency, then you know the best stuff never made the final cut.

A handful of players—Jimmy Vesey, Frederik Andersen and Ilya Mikheyev—receive some criticism in face-to-face discussions with Keefe and are the subject of some conversations when they're not around. Andersen and Vesey were no longer with the team when the series was released, and Mikheyev is not part of the team's core. That's basically all you need to know about whose egos have to be managed with the greatest care and who can be called out in public.

I can't really blame the players and the team for the content of the series. They want to protect their reputations. So they no doubt demanded the right to have final say on what scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. That’s too bad. Because with a subtle hand, the results could have been iconic and memorable.

People being interviewed tend to respond with clichés. Professional athletes even more so. And so you push back. Ask the same question. Re-phrase it and ask again. Seize on hesitation, doubt, the merest hint of an original thought. Gain the trust of the interviewee and slowly you draw something worthwhile out of him.

Most documentary film-makers will tell you they start out with an idea and begin filming. But reality inevitably takes things in a different direction. And so they go with it. But this documentary has the feel of setting out to, above all, soothe egos and avoid embarrassment. No unscripted insight from the stars of the team. Nothing that might make them seem more human. No indications of fears, worries or doubts. Mostly stock answers given in press conferences after games or carefully worded Hallmark card sentiments in the fluff pieces.

Surely there were some compelling storylines that emerged. Some tensions that came to the surface. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. When rich young athletes get together, one thing is certain. Arrogance, entitlement, jealousy, resentment and self-doubt are in abundance.

Game 7 Loss to Montréal
Ultimately, the mediocre final result falls on the film makers. Sure, they may have been limited by what the organization was willing to share. But they were also too desperate not to offend or sorely lacking in creative instincts, or both. Nothing authentic emerges here. A better title would have been An Embarrassment of Riches, for the overpaid star players who consistently under-perform when it matters the most and the film-makers, who had a glorious opportunity to make something memorable but failed. 

The final clichéd scene shows Matthews and Marner alone in the dressing room after the Game 7 loss to Montréal, towels over heads. They either knew what was expected of them or it was completely staged. Either way, together with the closing voice-over—one last cringey attempt at earnest, moving commentary that falls flat—it perfectly sums up the series. Just not in the way the film-makers hoped it would, 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Ron Wilson Fired as Head Coach of Toronto Maple Leafs

Maple Leafs logo
With fewer than 20 games to go in the 2011/12 regular season and with the Toronto Maple Leafs shrieking head-first towards earth without a parachute, the likelihood of missing the playoffs for the 7th consecutive year hammering towards them like a semi-trailer truck traveling at 100 miles an hour with the driver dead of a heart attack slumped at the wheel, Brian Burke has finally fired Ron Wilson.

Proof once again that pressure can never fully by resisted, even by the biggest blowhard of a GM in the NHL.

Cringe-worthy Behaviour

Wilson contract extension tweet
Most sane people cringed when Burke, in a  bizarre move, handed Wilson the right to announce his own contract extension. Wilson chose Christmas day 2011 to make his smug  announcement on Twitter. Strange decision by Burke and disrespectful to fans.

But every criticism directed against the Leafs this year has been brushed aside by both Burke and Wilson. They seemed consumed with their hatred of the Toronto hockey media and used this to justify just about everything.

The fans wanted to see Wilson fired? According to Burke, that is because the media has presented Wilson in a negative light. It's got nothing to do with the horrid special teams, the inability to motivate players, or the abysmal slide the Leafs are on that sees them with the worst record in the NHL in the past ten games.

So what finally pushed Burke to pull the trigger on Wilson? Perhaps the realization that his own job may be at risk as his fourth season as Leafs GM draws to a close. With little success to point to and numerous failed signings and questionable moves, the self-preservation impulse likely kicked in.

Or maybe Wilson provided all the justification Burke needed when Wilson dared to offer up a borderline criticism of Burke:

“Everybody is frustrated right now. We did not do anything at the trade deadline and we came out tentative, to say the least, and got behind early.”

This after the Leafs lost 4-2 to the Washington Capitals after the trade deadline had passed without any significant moves by Burke.

In Burke's arrogant, self-serving world, he establishes the goal posts and moves them at will. He offers up deflections, excuses and insults to journalists who aren't appropriately deferential.

When Burke said the negative pressure was now off and insinuated that the Leafs were ready to start winning, the subsequent losses coupled with Wilson's subtle jab were likely enough to provoke Burke to take action.

Wilson has got his 1400th game as an NHL coach and a nice fat contract extension/severance package to ease the pain of being sacked.

But have the Leafs got enough time and the necessary tools to claw their way back into a playoff position?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Leafs GM Pledges Commitment to Fans

As the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs,

—tasked with bringing the Stanley Cup back to Toronto after 45 years,

—and having been given a 6-year contract at numerous millions of dollars per year

—with the weight of millions of fans' expectations on my shoulders

—and a legion of scouts at my command

I pledge to you that my first priority above all else is to...


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange

The Toronto Maple Leafs have more fans than any other single NHL hockey team. They also have more "followers" than any other team.  A follower is someone who enjoys the soap-opera quality of the team and all the related drama but does not necessarily want the team to win.

Followers are perplexing to true fans and are often labeled as "haters" (to which any good follower will simply respond with "If I'm a hater, then you're a fellater." Or to the equally ridiculous "Haters gonna hate"—one of the many clichés of the mindless discussion board simpletons who are flummoxed by nuance—"Fellaters gonna fellate.")

Like any good ongoing social experiment played out for the whole world to see, the Maple Leafs and their fans provide never-ending intrigue and insights into the human condition.

Both fans and followers of the Toronto Maple Leafs will enjoy Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange. Despite the title of the book, the picture on the front (a Leafs fan with a paper bag over his head), and quotes that appeared from the book when it was released in 2009, this is not a book true fans should shy away from. While it will make for tough reading at times because of the realization of how good the Leafs could have been over the years, it is not the book-length screed that many fear.

It is simply a fascinating look at the Leafs and some of the reasons that have contributed to their ineptitude over the past 40-plus years.

Arrogance and Incompetence

The theme that emerges as Feshchuk and Grange look at numerous factors is that of mind-numbing arrogance and hubris. A long line of blundering, smug, self-satisfied individuals who have held the reins of the Leafs has resulted in long stretches of horrible play and no Stanley Cup since 1967.

One of the ways that this arrogance manifests itself is in the passing over of some of the greatest players ever to play the game.  It's as if the almighty egos that have soiled the Leafs team ownership and management over the years were affronted that anyone dare to suggest that a great player should be given the chance to play for such a club.

Imagine the player considered the greatest to ever play the game, who grew up worshiping the Leafs and would have given anything to play for them. Yet the moronic Leaf owners were so full of themselves that they let Bobby Orr slip away. This is Orr on why he never had the chance to play for the Leafs:
"Like all kids growing up in Ontario, I watched the Leafs play each Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada and listened to Foster Hewitt on the radio," Orr would tell Howard Berger years later. "They were my favourite team because I saw them every week. I hardly knew anything about the Bruins. So I'm sure my parents wouldn't have been too disappointed if Toronto had shown the same amount of interest in me that Boston did."

How did the Leafs miss?

"My people," Stafford Smythe would later fume, "were too goddamn stupid."

In today's salary cap world, the popular claim is that while the Leafs are by far the wealthiest team in the league, their spending power no longer results in any advantage (not that they were able to use this wealth to give them any leg-up when there was no cap).

But the ability to buy out players and invest in what should be the most comprehensive and far-reaching scouting system in the NHL puts the lie to that sorry excuse. What is even sorrier, however, is that the Leafs are not known to have any sort of advantage over their rivals when it comes to scouting.

Feshchuk and Grange write about this subject and raise it with Richard Peddie, President and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment:
For most teams it's not a huge expense. When scouts travel they aren't staying on Central Park South in New York—more like the Four Points by Sheraton in Kamloops. Logic suggests that the highest-revenue team in hockey, playing in a city that's mad for a Cup, would blow the rest of the league away when it came to spending on finding talent. The salary cap dictates that the Leafs can no longer out-spend their rivals on player salaries, but they can spend all they like on scouts and coaches. If you want to improve, according to the Peddie mantra, you measure. But suddenly the numbers escape him. "I can't remember where we're at," he says. "But I look at it."

Do the Leafs spend more than any other hockey team?

"No," he admits. "We haven't to date."

They go on to rip Peddie for the meddling that resulted in, among other things, the hiring of John Ferguson Junior as general manager of the Leafs. The authors make a pretty good case that Ferguson was hired because he was relatively inexperienced and therefore was more receptive to being manipulated by the likes of Peddie.

Dough Boy and the Cement Head

Players are not spared here either, as the celebrity culture that surrounds the Leafs is explored and some of the worst offenders over the years are skewered. Feschuck and Grange seem to have a special loathing for Tie Domi, and highlight him as an attention-seeking buffoon who was more concerned about promoting himself than the interests of the team. (And if there is any such thing as hockey karma, surely the pre-game celebration that the Leafs put on for Domi's 1000th NHL game will result in another 70 or 80 years of Cup-less seasons.)

Kyle Wellwood gets similarly ripped:
As a young kid it was a lot of fun, I definitely miss it. If Tie was bringing you out, you got a lot of attention, but it was nice. It was tough for the guys who were married or had a girlfriend.  .../That Wellwood could play three seasons in what is supposed to be one of the most demanding places for a hockey player to ply his trade, undergo three surgeries, miss the playoffs all three  years and wind up unceremoniously waived, and still say it was "funnest time of my life" makes a pretty strong case about the ancillary benefits of citizenship in Leafland.

A player with a conscience might feel differently.

Throughout the other chapters, readers are regaled with some great history and histrionics and numerous people are highlighted as the assholes they no doubt were/are. Consider Harold Ballard, a freakish anomaly who was one of the nastiest, most self-serving pieces of human garbage to ever own a sports team and proudly rode the Leafs into the ground during his reign. However, not sure if the amount of venom that Feschuk and Grange reserve for certain individuals is based on personal dislike or the degree of arrogance displayed by the person under the microscope.

For example, Larry Tanenbaum, the largest share holder of MLSE stock after the Ontario Teacher's pension plan, doesn't come across nearly as badly as you would expect for someone who stupidly predicted that within a few years of taking the position as chairman of MLSE in 2003 that the Leafs would win the Cup. Also, he seemed to be quite the enabler for that same Domi that Feshchuk and Grange despise so vehemently.

One Passionate Owner Could be the Key

But Tanenbaum has a quarter billion dollars of his own money invested in the Leafs, and for Feshchuk and Grange he represents the best current example in MLSE of an interesting theory that they discuss in the book. Perhaps the Leafs' failures over the years aren't only down to the arrogance and stupidity of ownership.

Or rather, perhaps that certain blend of smugness that produces such raw, unfettered crap on the ice is due to the fact that no true owner who is accountable and who lays it all on the line has been around since the days of Conn Smythe. After all, there are plenty of arrogant and successful team owners out there in hockey and other sports.

For the current Leafs, while the arrogance is present and leads to numerous horrific decisions, the final conclusion by Feschuk and Grange is that the nebulous structure of the current ownership is what likely brings about repeated dismal seasons.

The authors point out numerous other sports teams in recent years whose owners were motivated by a love of the game and not only profits. The theory fits with the Leafs as well. In the past 25 years, the most success that the Leafs have had has been under Steve Stavro, who truly was a fan, and did try with all his might to put together winning teams. The '93 and '94 squads with Doug Gilmour leading the team made it to the conference finals, and were it not for the failed call of a certain referee, would have been in the finals in '93.

But a single passionate owner isn't the case now, and it doesn't seem to be something that will become a reality anytime soon.

Burke the Blowhard

The unanswered question through all of this is, does the organization create arrogant self-serving individuals, or are the arrogant smug bastards somehow drawn to the whole insane freak show? Hard to say, though if the final hopeful chapter on Brian Burke is any indication, the answer is: it's probably some of both.

As the book was written before Burke had ridden the Leafs to 29th overall in the 2009–10 season, this quote from the blowhard that appears in the final chapter is very telling:
"The system that I have put together, the system we used successfully in Anaheim, we stole a whole bunch of that from the Colts. I didn't want learn how to handle  a cap when it came in. I spent the better part of three years studying how other teams did it. Rule number one is, you better draft well, because if you have star players, you need entry-level players that are playing, not just taking up a uniform, but contributing. If you've got star players on your team—guys making $5 and 7$ million—you'd better  have guys who are dent making $700, 000."

While the Phil Kessel deal doesn't make Burke a complete hypocrite in relation to this quote, it does at least show how the pressure of being the GM for the Leafs can change things very quickly.

Great, readable style in Leafs AbomiNation. None of the sycophantic drivel that plagues some hockey books. The observations are sharp, rightfully harsh in places and yet still provide some hope that one day things might change.

Another great year of Leafs hockey is in store for the legions of the team's followers. For fans, probably not so much.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Have Leafs Ticket Holders Finally Had Enough?

Leafs logoCould things possibly be changing?

With the Leafs:
—well into their fifth decade of incompetence,
—on a winless streak to start the season that has them at the bottom of the standings,
—demonstrating that whoever occupies the position of GM is instantly enveloped in a haze of buffoonery and shortsightedness,

and most importantly, with the arrogance of ownership that

—truly doesn't give a damn,
—has the shameless, insidious gall to maintain the highest ticket prices in the league by a wide margin,
—raised ticket prices once again this year in the face of a long rebuild,
—and devotes more energy to keeping other teams out of "their territory" than actually trying to put together a winning team,

Leafs ticket holders may finally be waking up to the absurdity.

This Toronto Star article gives great hope to those who have been for years wishing for a colossal karmic bashing for the individuals who make up MLSE.
The legendary willingness of Leafs-loving Torontonians to dish out mortgage-payment-like sums to witness a perennial loser may have reached its breaking point.

Tickets to Maple Leafs games are being sold for unprecedented low prices on the open market – in what ticket brokers and resellers say is an early sign of a backlash against the club's league-topping ticket prices and basement-dwelling performance.

Sure, it's nothing that a two game winning streak won't solve. And of course, the seats are still full and the falling resale value of tickets doesn't have much of an effect on MLSE. (Though it would be interesting to find out if the Leafs get a cut from ticket brokers. Regardless, guaranteed they fret and fume about finding ways to get their mitts on some of the profits that scalpers make.)

The great thing about pressure is that those on whom it is exerted simply can't resist its effect. But in a situation where the possibilities for exerting pressure are almost non-existent, it can create nastiness, stagnation, and a lack of incentive to improve. Insatiable demand, and a loyal, hockey-mad fan base (like the shirt of the Leafs fan pictured in the article says, "still loyal, just upset") has, for years, sent the message to MLSE that fan fealty is unconditional.

So the news that the rabid devotion may be leveling off is a sign of hope. Imagine the support the Leafs would generate if they offered up a good will gesture like dropping ticket prices.

Genetic Manipulators from the Stars

Ironically, for those of us who aren't Leafs fans, but follow the team for the sheer social experiment/entertainment value, interest may be rising instead of falling.

Maybe the genetic manipulators from the stars who control the Leafs are finally sending the whole circus careening off in a new direction.

As for the current losing streak that the Leafs are on, the odds of breaking it inevitably increase as the schedule advances. On the other hand, no team wants to be the one to give up the first win of the season to the Leafs. The game against the New York Rangers on Saturday, October 17th at the ACC should be a good one. A blowout against the Leafs or a loss coupled with an obvious lack of effort, and the fan rage will ratchet up once again.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ron Wilson and Media Relations 101

Leafs logo"Don't get in a pissing match with people who buy ink by the barrel."

A saying that has long applied to politicians is also applicable in the hockey world. Even the most insignificant relationship between scribe and coach will guarantee that the coach gets an easier time of it in the morning paper.

It's a natural human tendency to feel empathy for those who are closest to you. But it's also amazing how much your attitude will change regarding a complete stranger if the smallest bit of good will exists. Which is why different industries spend billions a year in handing out trinkets to those with whom they want to do business.

Howard Berger has touched on this fact numerous times over the years, and had the guts to admit that criticizing a player like Mats Sundin was harder for the simple fact that Sundin is such a decent person and always had the time of day for the press.

Damien Cox gushes every time Wayne Gretzky's name comes up because the Great One has granted him a handful of interviews over the years. When Gretzky was getting hammered by many observers in the hockey world for his behaviour in the Coyotes fiasco, Cox dutifully played devil's advocate.

So it's perplexing that Ron Wilson is apparently one of the surliest, media hating coaches in the NHL. Toronto is one of the toughest markets in the league in which to coach. Primarily for the fact that any coach who ends up there is saddled by a freakish management outfit that seems to enjoy the whole sideshow entertainment value of watching others take the heat while they rack up the profits.

So as the Leafs are off to a horrid start, aggravated by some equally terrible expectations management courtesy of Wilson and Brian Burke, it's no surprise that Cox and others have started suggesting that Wilson is the weak link. Not outright beating the drum for Wilson's firing mind you, but it's only a matter of time. Cox planted the seed in the most thinly veiled ways, acting incredulous that anyone would dare suggest that Wilson was already in firing range while doing exactly that in the process.

Not that he is the only one in the media hinting at the need for someone to take the fall early on in what is shaping up to be one freakshow of a soap opera season even by Leafs standards. The aggravation at having been snubbed or insulted by Wilson will make many in the media gleeful at the prospect of seeing him get hung out to dry. And they will only be too happy to push the narrative along.

And once you go down the road of criticizing and ridiculing someone, especially in such a public way, there's no going back. Self-justification and dissonance ensure that any twinges of regret at ripping on the individual are set aside and the rationale always becomes, well, the son-of-a-bitch deserves it.

Does the criticism have anything to do with lack of results and the apparent inability of Wilson to motivate the Leafs to play better? No doubt. If Wilson were on better terms with the media, would they be willing to cut him more slack? It's a good bet.

As the Leafs get hammered once again, the need for an instant scapegoat mounts. Because of his self-defeating relationship with the media, Wilson has helped to ensure that they will target him as the likeliest candidate.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cliff Fletcher Fails as Maple Leafs' Interim General Manager

Leafs logoOf course, his time isn't finished yet. And he well may do something to improve the team and set the plate for whomever his successor turns out to be.

But as far as the all important trade deadline and the potential for increased returns because of the impending playoffs and the added pressure on the league's other 29 GMs, Cliff Fletcher failed like a senile old bastard who'd been out of the game for nearly 15 years and had lost all his hockey contacts and abilities to influence people. Oh, wait...

Let's take care of the requisite spreading of blame that is essential when assessing blunders in this truly hopeless franchise. The clods who hired Fletcher were as clueless as anyone regarding what it would take to make some immediate improvements. They looked at the last whiff of decency the team had emitted and went out and got the person who had some hand in those years of success.

Now, onto Fletcher's failed attempts to right this sinking ship. A goal that was unrealistic to start with but still provided some leeway for moderate gains and improvements.

The public tone set by Fletcher early in his current, temporary tenure was wrong-headed. If any market's media hounds can be used as a club to bludgeon players into seeing the light and waiving their "I'm a petulant mule and I ain't budging" clauses, then Toronto is it.

Fletcher essentially prostrated himself at Mats Sundin's feet and said "Hey big boy, I've got a kind of twisted man-love fixation for you, it thrills me to think I helped bring you here, and if the 80 million you've bagged as a member of this team ain't enough, I'll protect your ego from the slings of these nasty individuals who actually want a winner out of this dysfunctional franchise."

Fletcher introduced no strong story-lines into the melodrama. Nothing that fans and journalists could latch onto. Nothing that could be used to spin the fact that the very best thing for the Leafs as an organization was to convince Sundin that it was time to move on. Instead, it was the tiresome mewling about how everyone should respect the Swede who has grown sadly familiar and comfortable with chronic losing.

Yes, we all know it's his right to refuse to waive his no trade clause. No one's arguing that. And so too it is the right, nay the duty, of those in control of the team—who are charged with making it as competitive as possible—to put enough pressure on him so that staying is less comfortable than leaving.

But the meaningless narrative about respect, rights and tens of millions of dollars worth of loyalty ruled the day. Stoked by columnists who admit they are personal friends of Sundin, Fletcher's voice became almost non-existent in the whirlwind of saccharine and overly dramatic posturing.

No-trade and no-movement clauses are the antithesis of team sports. The ultimate act of putting the cart rammed full of cash and benefits before the tireless horses these prima donnas should become before they insist on being anointed icons and legends before they prove themselves. (No doubt this notion applies to varying degrees. A player such as Sundin has of course long since proven his worth and is one of the greatest Leafs players ever.)

They say, "I will not be subject to the vagaries of injuries, the shifting winds of team chemistry, declining play or the potential to acquire a reputation as an all-round nasty individual."

Of course, the fact that they have become relatively widespread is a testament to the strides made by players and their increasing leverage in negotiations. Who wouldn't leap at the opportunity to have more control over their future?

But the whole concept flies in the face of an organization controlled by an owner and manager determined to do whatever is necessary to build a championship team. And so they must be taken on by players with the full knowledge that the only time they will ever become an issue is when these situations arise. They are inherently contentious and conflict-creating instruments.

No doubt some blame has to be accepted by the general managers in the league who bend to the wishes of players out of the fear that they will bolt to another team. As many others have already pointed out, some of their excuse-making on the issue falls a bit flat.

John Ferguson Junior recently stated that he had no choice when it came to many of the players who demanded no trade clauses in their contracts. He claims that if he hadn't agreed...they would have gone elsewhere.

"You'd better give me a guarantee that I never have to leave this place I love and cherish so much...or else I'll leave!!"

The whole concept of playing with a desperation that makes it a moot point seems to be getting lost on both sides of the negotiating table.

If a player is willing to push for a no-trade clause, he must also accept the fallout if it comes to a showdown. Just as a player is tacitly stating, "My personal wishes supercede the goals of this organization and by association, many of its fans ," management must actively respond with whatever is in the best interest of the team. Just as a cop will continually ramp up the level of force when a suspect resists, with the logical end result being death, a manager must use threats of marginalization and potential humiliation or at least make it clear he is willing to consider such a direction.

Fletcher did neither and casually acceded to the wishes of the players whose refusal will now stall the Leafs' rebuilding. This fact seemed to have dawned on Fletcher (along with his now sadly inappropriate handle "trader Cliff") at a press conference, where he expressed some of the callousness and urgency that should have been present from the beginning.

Leafs fans better not dream of champagne anytime soon. The only thing they'll be sucking on for a long time to come is tired old sentiments and empty promises. And as they do, perhaps they can be at least satisfied in the knowledge that a handful of players were able to write the script for their final days in the league without concern for one of the great motivating forces that has long been part of professional sports.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

NHL Hits and Suspensions: Derian Hatcher, Alexander Steen, Joffrey Lupul

Maple Leafs logoFlyers logoThe Philadelphia Flyers are at it again. This time, however, the attempt to inflict damage on an opposing player backfired.

The hit was delivered by the Philadelphia Flyers' Derian Hatcher, fresh off accusations that he bit the finger of the New Jersey Devils' Travis Zajac when the two teams played on January 4th at the Rock in Newark.

But this Downiesque attempt to take off an opposing player's head had unintended consequences during the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Flyers on January 5th, 2008.

Hatcher hitIn the second period of the game, Hatcher lined up Alexander Steen with an open-ice hit, clearly launching himself at that crucial last second before impact, where the physics of such a move guarantee the most momentum and effect.

Unfortunately for Hatcher, and even more for his team-mate Joffrey Lupul, Steen's instincts kicked in and he hit the ice. Lupul took the elbow intended for Steen straight in the chops, going down under the full weight of the lummox Hatcher. Lupul was helped off the ice with images of cheese steaks and freight trains dancing in his head.

Hatcher Steen LupulThe spinning has already started with rabid denials of the reality staring people in the face in the form of video from multiple angles.

Considering the usual template that is applied in the aftermath of such incidents, there could be some synapses short-circuiting amongst the sociopath set.

Does Lupul deserve the (potential though unconfirmed at the moment) injury he suffered because he didn't anticipate the hit?

What about that tiresome cliche that was being spewed with regularity by certain fans early in the season? Does it get tweaked slightly?

"It's great to be feared again to have our players scared of getting their heads taken off by one of our own goons!"

It also presents an interesting conundrum for NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell. Do you suspend a player clearly engaging in the type of behaviour that has been suspension-worthy this season? Or do you let the fact that the hit took out one of the Flyers' own players stand as punishment enough?

Contact and degree of injury are two of the obvious tests for the league in determining whether they will hand down further punishment for an illegal hit. It would be remarkable if the NHL expressed their displeasure for Hatcher and the Flyers by doling out an official sanction in this case.

Campbell and Gary Bettman have both hinted recently that the next incident from the Flyers would result in fines against the team.

If anyone had doubts about whether the series of attacks and illegal body checks (some blatant, some border-line) that resulted in suspensions to Philadelphia were unfortunate "coincidences," there has been little question for some time now that they are part of a conscious and deliberate approach to the game.

As for the match-up between the Leafs and Flyers, Steve Downie's style of conduct was on display again with a sucker punch to Jason Blake that resulted in two minor penalties and allowed the Leafs to get back in the game with a power play goal. Downie's actions may well be in for a review by the league as well, especially considering his antics earlier in the season.

The Flyers went on to win the contest 3-2. Though it helped them little in this game, their fans will likely brush aside criticism of their style of play with the claim "winning is the most important thing, no matter how you do it."

Video of Derian Hatcher's Mistaken Hit on Joffrey Lupul

Friday, January 4, 2008

NHL Hockey Fights: Jarkko Ruutu vs. Darcy Tucker

Leafs logoPenguins logoListening to the Toronto Maple Leafs/Pittsburgh Penguins game on radio, I didn't get a clear sense of who had won the fight between Darcy Tucker and Jarkko Ruutu. Shameless homerism by announcers has been known to result in less than objective descriptions.

This fight took place during a game between the Leafs and Penguins in Pittsburgh on January 3rd, 2008.

It starts out at about the midway point of the second period with the game tied 1-1.

Ruutu lays a hit on Tucker in the Pittsburgh zone. Tucker starts yapping, goes after Ruutu and both players throw down their gloves. They grab hold of each other and Tucker starts throwing the right cross, three ineffectual shots barely making contact with Ruutu's face.

Ruutu gets a hold of the sweater behind Tucker's head, pulling his head down and knocking his helmet off. Tucker continues throwing blind shots, his right hand landing behind his opponent's head and having little effect.

The two are now in a momentary standoff , circling and trying to get their arms free. Tucker's face is an almost comical beet red from exertion and rage. Ruutu tries to get his right hand up and over to land a punch but Tucker has a strong hold on the sleeve of his adversary's right arm.

Now in an almost identical reply, Tucker tries to throw a right but Ruutus's grip renders the punch meaningless. Tucker shows some fighting skill and instantly counters with a left hook that doesn't connect but the force of his swing knocks Ruutu slightly off balance. Once again a mirror image response as Ruutu throws a looping left hook that is way off the mark and the two fall towards each other.

Tucker eye gougeThe natural physics of any fight will force the combatants to adopt similar tactics to counter whichever situation develops and the attack style of whomever has the upper hand. Hockey fights are no different--and probably more so because of the logistics-- but this bout is uncanny in the near simultaneous actions of both players.

Ruutu Tucker fightIt couldn't have been choreographed to coincide more perfectly as both players rake their clawed hands across the other's face at the same instant, with Tucker perhaps getting in an eye gouge in the process.

Both come out of that nasty bit of intimacy and get their right hands free at the same time. Ruutu throws a right hook that lands behind his opponent's head and then brings his arm down and pistons a few shots into Tucker's guts.

Tucker Ruutu fightNow they both have their right arms up and identically timed right hooks glance off both of their faces. Another pair of right hooks at the same time. Tucker throws another that knocks off Ruutu's helmet while Ruutu leans away to adjust to having his lid removed and manages one weak right cross at the same time.

Tucker throws a few more quick right hooks but only one more lands, giving him three out of six since this recent flurry began.

A brief let up from both. Now Ruutu throws three solid right hooks, all landing. Tucker stops the barrage by getting his left hand over top of Ruutu's head and briefly holds onto the back of his sweater. Ruutu is looping punches around Tucker's arm however, a few of them crunching into the Leaf player's skull.

While maintaining a slight edge to this point, the momentum now clearly shifts to the Penguins' player. Ruutu rattles off 2, 3, 4 5, 6 right hooks to the side and back of Tucker's head, some of them hitting home harder than others.

Now Ruutu gets his right hand completely free and throws at will, landing nine solid right crosses directly into Tucker's face. Hard meaty blows into Tucker's blazing red mug. Tucker takes them all and doesn't waver once, gamely flailing with his right but connecting with none except for perhaps the last punch of the fight that may have hit its mark.

The body language says it all as the refs come in and separate the two. Tucker nearly collapsing into the safety of the penalty box, spent and thoroughly destroyed by Ruutu. It appears Tucker is almost out of it, the look of of a deer in the headlights that just got run over, conscious that a linesman is conversing with him but likely unaware of exactly what is being said.

Ruutu is loose, relaxed and confident in the knowledge that he has won handily. Praise from his teamamtes for success in battle will come when he rejoins them on the bench and later in the locker-room.

Though Tucker clearly lost this battle, his fearless approach to the fight is the only reason Ruutu could score such a victory. Remember also that Ruutu has 3 inches and at least 20 pounds on the Leafs' player, with the added advantage in reach that goes with such a size difference as well.

It's of course easy to dissect a fight after it occurs. In the heat of the battle the announcers are calling it in real time without the advantage of repeated replays. Still, the bias in this one is glaring.

YouTube Video of Fight Between Tucker and Ruutu

It's admirable that Tucker didn't go down under such a bludgeoning. But the long term effects after that kind of beating can be significant, especially for someone like Tucker who has to play with an edge to contribute to his team. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back in subsequent games and how willing he is to throw down the gloves in the near future.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

NHL Goalies: Andrew Raycroft and Ray Emery

Leafs logoSenators logoAndrew Raycroft has let in 13 goals in his three most recent starts for the Toronto Maple Leafs, dropping the team to 13th in the Eastern Conference with the Leafs' most recent loss, a 6-1 disaster against the New York Rangers.

Raycroft is another millstone around the neck of the organization courtesy of John Ferguson Junior. Over-paid, under-performing and a bit too comfortable with the notion of losing. The Leafs don't have a hope in hell of unloading him in a trade anytime soon.

A player just can't win regarding his reaction to losing, can he? Play it as smooth and professional as Raycroft and he comes off as flippant and not too bothered about whether things ever get turned around.

Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star wrote a column at the end of last season that solidified the image of Raycroft in my mind as a goaltender who is somehow a tad too casual when the losses start piling up. Being able to look on the bright side of things is an admirable and helpful quality to have in most situations.

But "that's good enough," or "at least it wasn't 7-1" doesn't instill confidence or impress people in the world of professional sports. Especially when fat contracts have been slurped up and performances to match the accompanying dollars have been in short supply.

Whether the image projected by certain mannerisms or responses is an accurate indication of a person's character is often hard to determine. Personality traits and speech patterns elicit niggling feelings in others, though at first they may push such concerns aside or not even be conscious of them. It's when on-ice performance coincides with those suspicions that the initial feelings or hunches are validated.

Regardless of how much he's being paid, it's hard not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for Raycroft. He could be in for the defining, and quite possibly final, stretch of play in his professional career.

What Leafs management say about Vesa Toskala is essentially meaningless as they have shown that they flat out lie regarding player injuries. He will probably be out for at least a few more games. While Scott Clemmensen has been called up from the Toronto Marlies, Raycroft will likely get ridden into either passable play or see his limited skills further disintegrate.

Goaltending problems are plaguing the other NHL team from Ontario as well.

With the Ottawa Senators, their 25 year-old back-up goalie Ray Emery is lowering his stock with his fellow players and other teams that might have been willing to take him in a trade with the Sens. His situation is in many ways the opposite of Raycroft's.

Emery has proven he can play (though not at the level of an elite tender in my opinion). But when faced with the proposition of recovering from an injury and playing behind Martin Gerber, his less than professional conduct has him veering towards those reputation-killer tags in the NHL: "locker-room cancer," "selfish," and "undisciplined."

Some fans spin the over-the-top, near tantrums from Emery as the antithesis of Raycroft. Apparent proof that he hates being denied the opportunity to compete and win so much that he will stop at nothing. If Emery's work ethic and discipline matched this supposed desire to win, then such claims might have some credence. As it is, he's turning himself into a liability.

Loyalty runs out faster with players who are full of themselves and they become expendable a lot sooner than they might have otherwise. Especially when they can't always back up such arrogance with real results.

A happy medium between these two extremes would be the ideal.

A sometimes snarling, usually even-tempered piece of work who puts on the odd display of emotion, takes care of business on the ice, sucks it up when he has to take one for the team and somehow projects the feeling that he's thankful for whatever time he has in the NHL.

Oh, and a cool mask.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

NHL 2007-08 : Spinning the Season

Sens logoFlyers logoLeafs logoFlames logoOilers logoThe Ottawa Senators are winless in seven games but have collected three points in that span and still sit atop two of the three standings' categories. They've got a decent lead within the Northeast division, though the New York Rangers are now nipping at their heels for the top spot in the Eastern conference. And with the Sens in the midst of this slump, the Detroit Red Wings have the best record in the league with a nice fat 40 points after 27 games played.

While it's been a difficult string of games for Ottawa, it's a testament to their early season dominance that they are still statistically the best team in the East. In fact, it's probably good for the team to encounter some adversity early on, have the chance to overcome obstacles, realize that it's going to take a huge effort to reach the next level and...

Ah, spin! You really take whatever you want from any particular situation, match-up or stretch of games.

Take the handful of Leafs' fans who are actually bemoaning the fact that their team has gone on a mini-tear with three wins in a row. The thinking on their part is that a few more dismal performances would have guaranteed some kind of change while this delusional burst simply lulls many into the false sense that a significant turnaround has occurred.

I say take wins any way you can and let everything else sort itself out.


A widespread rage against the Flyers from opposing teams' fans is apparent on most NHL discussion boards. The bland refrain from Philadelphia supporters when the wrath and threats flow their way? "I love being hated! It's a great feeling!"

I suppose that's the only way to deflect and spin the anger that is being directed at them as a result of the cheap-shots and the accompanying suspensions levied against five separate Flyers' players. It would be hatred well-earned if the team actually benefited from these tactics but it's hard to argue they have gained anything tangible.

Most of the illegal hits took place after the games were out of reach and they have now called so much attention to themselves that they are unlikely to receive the benefit of the doubt in any future incidents.

On the other hand, they haven't lost much either. Mainly marginal players delivered the hits and their absences haven't affected the team's chemistry. And in the most recent situations they've only had to sit out a handful of games.

While they have injured opposing teams' players and likely carved out some room for themselves on the ice through intimidation and fear, that too comes at a cost. As other teams look at the pros and cons associated with the style of play euphemistically classed as "on the edge," at some point they will consider payback in kind. A fist, stick or elbow named revenge could be directed at some top Philadelphia players just in time for the playoffs.

No doubt the perpetrators of such acts will argue, just as the Flyers organization and fans have, that it was unrelated to anything and took place in a kind of vacuum that repeatedly induces these odd coincidences. No, there's no pattern, culture or strategy evident here...


Spinning the battle of Alberta is all about expectations. Despite a nice win against the St. Louis Blues last night, the Calgary Flames have to rank as one of the biggest disappointments in the NHL so far this season. Bringing in the worn-out, outdated Keenan is looking like a bigger blunder by the day as the Flames continue to underwhelm.

The Edmonton Oilers on the other hand, have improved as of late with a 5-3 record in their last eight games and three wins in a row for the first time this season. And in the "looking for positives to build on" department, they are now one point up on their provincial rivals and lead the league in shootout victories with an insanely good 7-1 record.


Interesting article on goalie masks at USA Today.