Monday, September 12, 2005

Berger Fix on Maple Leafs Training Camp


The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

CONSIDERING THE MAPLE LEAFS were in a state of paralysis during the height of the free agent scramble this summer, general manager John Ferguson has done a decent job of playing catch-up.

The process evolved in stages for Ferguson, and it began with astonishing incapacity after the club failed to position itself, financially, for the cream of the free agent crop. Part of that failure involved choice, as the Leafs, like most other teams, decided not to add salary by executing buy-outs of current players that would not count against the cap. While competitors eagerly scooped up front-line talent such as Peter Forsberg, Scott Niedermayer, Sergei Gonchar, Adam Foote, Brian Leetch and others, Ferguson stood by – allegedly dreaming about next year – which has long been a pastime for fans of the Blue and White.

His first true order of business involved a decision to negotiate with and retain role players Wade Belak, Chad Kilger, Clarke Wilm, Karel Pilar, Aki Berg, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky – and it remains to be seen whether it was worth committing a nickel of cap space to any of the aforementioned. Then, it came time to recoup the losses of his veterans from the 2003-04 season – forwards Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Alexander Mogilny, Owen Nolan, Robert Reichel, Tom Fitzgerald, Ron Francis, Mikael Renberg, and defenseman Leetch. Winger Jeff O’Neill was acquired from Carolina at the NHL draft in Ottawa for a conditional fourth-round pick in 2006. Tie Domi was retained as an unrestricted free agent moments before he would have defected to Pittsburgh. Jason Allison came aboard with an incentive-laden contract after missing a season-and-a-half with a severe neck injury. Steady defenseman Alexander Khavanov joined the club from St. Louis, where Ferguson had been second-in-command to GM Larry Pleau. And, the long-awaited arrival of Eric Lindros in Toronto capped off Ferguson’s initial foray into the second tier of free agency.

The final order of business involved the third-year GM looking at his roster, recognizing the number of unproductive and/or unproven players he was foisting on Coach Pat Quinn, and then negotiating with older, established pros. Winger Mariucz Czerkawski and defenseman Brad Brown were signed to contracts, while a pair of former Leafs – defenseman Bryan Marchment and winger Steve Thomas – accepted invitations as non-roster players. Both veterans will battle hard in camp to earn a spot on the club.

There are two ways to consider the Leafs’ line-up, as camp begins. The first – and most popular, it seems – is to zero in on the club’s potential for an injury epidemic. O’Neill, Allison, Lindros, and incumbent goalie Ed Belfour all come in with significant health concerns, based on a plethora of recent ailments. Captain Mats Sundin incurred a dreadful hip-muscle injury in the 2004 playoffs, and he isn’t a spring chicken anymore at age 34. All five claim to be feeling absolutely well and there is no particular cause for anxiety at the moment. It seems, however, that most Leaf watchers will have a clock on these players as the season begins, fearing that it’s just a matter of time before they are sidelined once again.

The second way to view the situation is to believe that the injury-prone are due for a bit of luck, and may have benefited from the rest they enjoyed during the canceled NHL season. It seems plausible that if Belfour, Sundin, Lindros, Allison and O’Neill can stay healthy for the bulk of the schedule, the Leafs will have a strong-enough nucleus to again battle for a solid playoff position. That scenario brightens even further if Czerkawski can score at least 25 goals, if Antropov and Ponikarovsky finally become reliable, productive NHLers, and if Thomas can make the team, contribute on the powerplay, and pop 15 to 20 goals (he had 10 in half-a-season with Detroit two years ago). A more unexpected bonus would see highly touted rookie Alexander Steen stick with the club and chip in offensively.

What I’ve documented here are the Maple Leafs’ best and worse-case scenarios. Chances are the season will be neither a disaster, nor a rousing success. Like in most years, players who are counted on for production will fail to match expectations, while others looked upon less favorably will deliver strong performances. Those who subscribe to the theory that the Leafs cannot possibly avoid an injury plague may have a leg up on the more optimistic observers. Why? Because the 82-game NHL season is not conducive to even a reasonable level of body maintenance.

Teams play three and four games a week, and the schedule this season is condensed even further by the 18-day hiatus in February for the Winter Olympics. Young players with no history of injury require some fortune to last the entire season. Older players, more prone to being hurt, need the luck of a sweepstakes winner to survive. And, we all know which category of performer dominates the Leafs’ roster.

But, the long, fateful journey begins today with the start of training camp – a commencement that seems a bit more jovial after the lockout calamity.

IN THE CATEGORY OF “meaningless statistics”, few rank lower than the one the Maple Leafs have been trotting out for much of the past decade. There it was again today, in the Toronto Star… that the Leafs are tied with Detroit, having won seven playoff series in the past six seasons – a number that ranks in the top four in the NHL While it’s unquestionably an achievement to win any playoff round, this type of consolation figure typifies the long-standing attitude of the hockey club and much of its fan-base. It’s a rather unique formula: A couple of playoff rounds + optimism for the following season = satisfaction. Nowhere in the equation is the Stanley Cup a factor.

The Leafs “budget” for two playoff rounds each spring, which is sensible from a business standpoint, as the team rakes in an enormous profit at a time when salaries are no longer being paid. It has also long been established that a reasonable playoff run is more than enough to appease the club’s followers. But, it doesn’t justify any person mentioning the Leafs in the same breath as the Red Wings, who have appeared in four Stanley Cup Finals since 1995 and have won three championships.

ONE FINAL OBSERVATION on the Maple Leaf-related Internet chat rooms. And, sadly, it’s a telling one. After my critical look at the message boards on Thursday, I was swamped with e-mails – the vast majority of them from chat-room participants. A common thread; almost a plea, in fact, from these people was that they enjoy corresponding with their fellow Leaf fans in a sensible, intelligent manner, only to have that enjoyment sapped by a preponderance of buffoons. The difference between these elements is obvious upon viewing the boards, and the latter component substantially outweighs the former.

Several of these e-mailers implied that a higher standard of moderation could serve to weed out many of the undesirables, and I whole-heartedly agreed. Each of the sites appears to have specific contributors who oversee the content – clearly, a difficult and thankless task, given what they’re up against. But, an essential job, nonetheless. It was my automatic assumption that these moderators were people who stood “above the crowd”, so to speak; were the leaders of the site, and set an example for others to follow. Then, I was directed by another e-mailer to an astounding submission on the board known as Fanhome, or And, my slim hopes were dashed.

Under a heading entitled “Nick Kypreos… how bright is this guy?” (One can only imagine the intellect of the chap posing the question) came a reply, on Saturday, at 3:50 in the afternoon, from someone who calls himself “Number 17”. Incredibly, the word “Moderator” appeared under the person’s alias. And the message – from one of the supposed overseers of the site – read: “Every time I happen to see him (Kypreos) on Sportsnet, I can’t help but to feel bad for guys like Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour and Felix Potvin who had to share the dressing room with this idiot.”

Unfortunately, that tells you much of what you need to know about these Internet boards. Though it’s unfair to paint everyone with the same brush, when the captains of the ship are hopeless, how can you expect anything from the deckhands? Oh yeah, Kypreos’s crime? He often criticizes his former team (the Maple Leafs) as an analyst for one of Canada’s all-sports-TV networks. No “bright” person would ever engage in that sort of iniquity.

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