100 games a season: Gare Joyce's puck blog

Just like being in the scouts' & press' lounge, without the bad coffee and day-old Timbits

Location: Toronto

I've written for ESPN The Magazine and espn.com the last five years. My work has made the "notable" list of the Best American Sports Writing seven times and won four Canadian National Magazine Awards. My most recent book is Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts. I've written three other sports books: When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey's Cold War and Changed the Game; Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm; and The Only Ticket Off the Island: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

When Do You Pull the Plug? A Question for JFJ and MLSE

David Shoalts poses this question in a voice as loud as one of his shirts.


Right now, the Leafs (those being the GM and the guys who sign his cheques) are in No Man's Land. They don't know if they'll be in the post-season and they're not presuming they're out of the race. Buyers or sellers? Evidently too early to make the call. Two losses in a row--fold. A win over the Habs--all in. Options are limited down the line. Cap room? With big-ticket contracts like McCabe's and Kubina's it's like they're trying on a size 7 with a 7 and 3/4 noggin.

All you need to know about the state of the franchise: Expectations have been lowered to the point that the Leafs' season will be considered a success if the team makes the playoffs but doesn't win a game in the post-season. Anything that could be interpreted as a hint of the turn-around will be good enough, a mind-set that extends, one presumes, from sportbar to MLSE boardroom. That any team should be in this thing to win a Cup is a point lost on the brass. Keeping up appearances (and justifying another ticket-price increase) would be enough.

Re: Selling ... Back in the day, I asked Cliff Fletcher about the Leafs' "rebuilding." To this he replied that Leaf fans "would stand for rebuilding" in the classic tear-it-all-down, go-with-youth mode. Though he was talking about fans, I'm sure media was a significant part of the proposition, just unspoken. I had my doubts about that then, but the paradigms have shifted a lot in a decade. In the age of 24/7 news churn, Leaf TV, sports-network "insiders" and sports-radio bloviators, rhetoric is amped and insight doesn't necessarily keep pace. I think CF would be more right today than back then. It's a matter of self-preservation. JFJ didn't go wholesale into the market last spring when the dye was pretty well cast and I suppose part of this was political: You are going to be ripped as a failure if you admit to failures. Up to his lower lip in quagmire, Bush finally says that to the extent that "mistakes were made," he has to accept responsiblity. Selling hard (say moving Sundin and McCabe last year) would be like an admission that "mistakes were made" ... and the shouting heads would pin all the mistakes on JFJ though this wouldn't have been entirely fair or deserved.

Another thing Fletcher said does ring true. I once asked him who the most valuable player in the league was and his answer was sort of cryptic but entirely useful: "A player on your top two lines or top two D who's on his first contract." Which is to say that meaningful contributions from entry-level players allow teams to spend on roster upgrades and project costs (up to their arb eligibility)--it was true ten years ago and it was more true in the payroll-cap era. Hey, if Coliaicovo or White or Bell had emerged as real top 4 defencemen while on entry contracts would the Leafs have had to overpay on Kubina and/or McCabe? That's the unadvertised upside of the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin, Phaneuf, Malkin and other young stars: They're so good that we tend to forget they're so cheap. The Leaf puzzle is missing pieces--entry-level pieces, which traces back to the era before JFJ (though he didn't set the world on fire trying to acquire them).

The fine print ... I heard Bill Berg say on the Fan that Paul Maurice deserves an A as Leaf coach ... the rumbles I hear around the rink from veteran executives (who know) is that he's "average" or at best near the front of the second rank ... must be getting bonus marks for one-liners