Life, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, racism and other isms, law, history, journalism/media…all through the lens of sport.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Leafs Trade Talk, and the uniqueness of the 2010 Draft Week

As I stated in my last post, we are mere hours away from the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and the tension is palpable.

Most years, we await (ironically) the sight of Gary Bettman taking the podium and officially opening the festivities to the delight of those in attendance and watching across the globe (thank you, TSN live stream for our friends across the pond.) I am convinced that a part of the anticipation is the buildup, the possibilities and question of what may be. For the weeks between the end of the Stanley Cup to the draft opening, we are bombarded with questions and possibilities, rumors and innuendos, columns and radio interviews... and this was before the birth of Twitter!

This year it is different. Why? A complete dearth in the free agency market quite frankly. There isn't much to be had out there, and the few decent parts that are out there are bound to be highly overpaid for their services. Even for those teams that are willing to pay the silly amounts that are certain to appear, they still have needs and holes to fill - a rabid fanbase and anxious stockholders may see the practicality of not spending twice a players worth in a sellers market, but that doesn't mean they'll accept it.

As a result, teams are going the other route - trades. This week alone, we have seen a series of big time deals that would typically light up the crowd in the first round of the draft. My memory goes back to when I had the good fortune of sitting in the lower bowl of Scotiabank Place during the 2008 draft, about 12 feet away from Bob Gainey and the Montreal Canadiens draft table. In the first hour of the draft, we saw big trades - Mike Cammalleri to Calgary, Olli Jokinen to Phoenix, R.J. Umberger to Columbus, Alex Tanguay to Montreal. It was a great night, but it was resigned to the one night.

We started last Friday. Around 2pm, there was clearly a 'disturbance' in the force.... the force being the Montreal Canadiens fans in my office. It was a quick surf to later than I saw the Habs had traded their Stanley Cup playoffs hero, Jaroslav Halak, to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for top tier prospect Lars Eller and decent defenceman prospect Ian Schultz. The weekend then carried through to Sunday with the Flyers acquiring the negotiating rights to coveted free agent defenceman Dan Hamhuis from the Nashville Predators. This isn't the first time it's happened - Philly has done this once before when they acquired the rights to Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timmonen in 2007 and subsequently signing them to some big time deals. The reason this was significant is because typically it's a draft pick going for negotiating rights, not highly tangible assets. In this case, the return was Ryan Parent - a physically huge defenceman who, while mediocre in the regular season, was a very solid performance on a Stanley Cup finalist. Maybe this doesn't seem like the most impactful deal, but it's significance in the marketplace can't be understated - teams are trading hard assets just for the CHANCE to sign the few solid free agents this summer.

Just when we thought that was surprising, we quickly got the news that the Predators had pulled off another deal - this time dealing captain Jason Arnott to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for prospect Matt Halischuk and a 2011 2nd round draft pick. This had many people raising an eyebrow, as Jersey had already given up a pair of draft picks in the deal to acquire Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline - again, another sign that teams are paying a premium in a climate where they may very much walk away with nothing after free agency. It is also a bit of a feel good story, as Arnott goes back to the team where he scored his Stanley Cup winning goal in the 2000 Cup finals.

A pair of trades in a day? Not bad. Enough to me by until Friday, I thought. That's when the big names were getting dealt. Horton. Kaberle. Byfuglien. Blackhawks cap issues.Drool......

Alas, it was not long for the storm to start brewing. Monday afternoon, the Boston Bruins pulled off a big time deal, and some may say heist, in acquiring former #3 overall pick in the 2003 draft Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell for Boston's 1st rounder this year (15th overall), 3rd rounder in 2011, and Dennis Wideman. You're kidding! This is supposed to happen on the draft floor! Early Christmas I say!

We're not done yet. Just today, the most surprising of all - Atlanta acquires playoff hero and mountain man Dustin Byfuglien, along with Brent Sopel Ben Eager and solid prospect Akim Aliu, in exchange for a kings ransom - a 1st round pick this year, a 2nd round pick this year, a solid prospect in Jeremy Morin and Marty Reasoner. AWHA? You've gotta be kidding me! Egads Batman!

This is unheard of. Very uncommon in this day and age. And a real treat, I'll admit. The best part is there is a very real chance it doesn't stop here.

The Maple Leafs still hold the card of one of the premier offensive defencemen in the league in Tomas Kaberle. Let's face it, he's not going to be wearing a Leafs jersey next season and will be converted into a more useful asset. As a Leafs fan this is a cause for much excitement - is it because I think Brian Burke is going to notoriously rip off some dim witted GM counterpart and pull of a crazy heist? Many Leaf fans would say yes - but I say no.

I will be happy because it will signify change. Change for the better, and a change in direction.

Many people, knowing me as someone who has likely devoted entirely too much of his life thinking about hockey, have asked me what I think is fair for Kaberle. So I'll take a few minutes to talk about it.

I agree with Brian Burke in acquiring a top 6 forward as part of a trade for Kaberle. The Leafs are desperate for scoring, and as much as I want to see high draft picks come back, they will not help us next season or, in the range of 15-25 which we would likely get for Tomas, the couple of seasons after that. While those would be great if we were in the midst of fully rebuilding, it doesn't work now. That said, Burke has to formulate a deal involving some picks coming back as well. It is a necessity in my mind that we continue to stock the prospect cabinet. Recent rumours have come to light about a possible deal structured largely around Tomas Kaberle to Boston in exchange for Marc Savard. Is it a wise idea to trade your prized tradeable commodity for a 32 year old player who, albeit immensely talented, is signed for another 7 years at 4M$ per season, and has had a history of concussion problems? Maybe, maybe not. If it were a straight deal, I'd say no - that said, there is a deal to be made, that I'm sure of... and I think the rights to Nikolai Kulemin, a player I think is greatly talented but who is dreaming in technicolour if he thinks he deserves 3M$ per season, could maybe help fill the gap if we can snag a solid prospect or player. It's hard to say, but I think there could be a fit there.

If you like rumors and trade talk like I do, stay tuned - it's going to be a great few days.

Would love to hear your trade thoughts, idea, and opinions guys.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It's that time of year again, hockey fans....

If you ask most hockey fans, they'll tell you the most exciting time of the year is the playoffs.... and the reason for this is because they don't watch the majority of games during the regular season.

The slightly more passionate fan will begin getting excited at the beginning of the season - ready to go through another 82 game grind, anticipating the sure victory that awaits their particular club that season with the kind of unbridled optimism a 0-0-0 record can bring.

Going to the more devout fan shows an excitement for two extra days on the calender - the trade deadline, usually around the last week of February to the first week of March, where they can watch their team either acquire high priced but high octane additions to their team to further galvanize their chances at Lord Stanley's mug, or watch their fledgling team sell off their veteran assets for draft picks and prospects in hopes of planting the seeds of a brighter tomorrow. The second of these days is Canada Day, the opening day of free agency where teams open their wallets to go to the market and buy that missing ingriedient to a championship recipe. Of course, this is also the day whe most mistakes are made as a General Manager, so optimism must be guarded.

Let me be the first to say, I am a part of all these fans. I take the day off on trade deadline day and camp out in front of my TV with my laptop for the duration, sending messages to friends and colleagues to keep them up to speed. I also love free agency day, and eagerly anticipate the beginning of the season.... playoffs however, as a Leafs fan, have been sorely lacking from my repertoire.

These are all great, but a true hockey fan they do not make. It is on a day like this Friday that the true futures of franchises are born, where hope truly does spring eternal, and where us real puckheads find true alliance with our fanatical bretheren.

That's right, folks - it's draft weekend.

To be knowledgeable about hockey is easy. Listen to the morning radio show. Read the newspaper. Watch a game or two. Put these together, and you pretty much know the current state of your team. To be knowledgeable about the draft however, at least past the first or possibly second overall picks, is a different animal altogether. This is where you don't just follow one team, you follow hundreds.

Reading scouting reports. Watching junior games. Tracking development and stats. Tuning into the World Junior Championships on Boxing Day and watching not just the Canada games, but every Latvia vs. Switzerland and Germany vs. Slovakia as well, and actually evaluating these 18-20 year old players on what they could do in the bigs. Memorial Cup? You can bet on some springtime action there too.

Follow just the NHL? Try the Canadian Hockey League, which is actually made up of the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League. Ditto the NCAA and Frozen Four tournament. How about the US National Training and Development Program? To get really familiar, you're also looking at the smaller leagues, such as the BCHL and the USHL.

That's just for North America though - and we all know that hockey is an international sport. Better be prepared to add the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, Swedish Elite League, SM-Liiga in Finland, Deutsch Extra Liga in Germany... and all their junior divisions (i.e. SEL Jr., Russia-2, Russia-3, Allsvenskan, etc.)

We're talking hundreds and hundreds of players. But what use is it in terms of the draft? Well, let's go back to knowing the NHL - do you know what the needs of those other teams are? You may have your team and know them very well, but do you know what the goaltending pipeline is for the San Jose Sharks? How about the depth on gritty left wingers for the Nashville Predators? The Ottawa Senators have drafted defencemen in their last two first rounds.... will they go for a forward this time?

This is the level of knowledge required to be a draft guy. A true fan of the sport, and not just the league. Draft day is an incredible thing as you see the stars of the future take their first steps as an NHL prospect, and getting a vision of where your team might be in a few years. Better yet, a draft brings together many hockey fans who are "birds of a feather" - at this point, you don't have guys who just know their team, you have guys who KNOW hockey, and with that comes a great mutual respect.

I've been fortunate enough to have been at the draft in 2008 and 2009 - I was also there in 2002, but that was a very different experience. In both of these cities, Ottawa and Montreal respectively who have an extreme lust to hate on the blue and white, I was not disappointed in the pure hockey fans that were there. Did I get shots for being a Leafs fan? Of course, comes with the territory, but it isn't personal. These were great people I could sit and discuss why a guy fell from the projected 3rd round to the 6th, or marvel at the either stupidity of brilliance of a GM taking a guy in the 2nd round when he wasn't supposed to go until the 5th.

Although I'm unable to go this year (convincing my wife to let me go to Ottawa and Montreal alone was difficult, Los Angeles would have been a suicide mission), I will enjoy it at home, and am grateful I'm on a few message boards that boast a strong, loyal core of knowledgeable hockey fans of all ages, from the college kids to the grandpas.

Yup, it's draft time again. And it couldn't be better.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Los Angeles Lakers, NBA Champions

Congratulations to the Lakers.

Frankly, I wanted to see Kevin Garnett get a second ring but, hey, that's how it goes, sometimes.

I do believe the Lakers have become the NBA's premiere franchise, even though the Celtics do have more rings. The Lakers have created a culture about them that has helped grow the league, while ensuring they are a championship threat each decade with the biggest names in the game.

I do think that Phil Jackson is a great coach, who has done more than people think. If winning is simply a matter of having great players, why didn't Del Harris win in LA with Shaq and Kobe? Jackson came in and won three in a row. Why hasn't Orlando gotten it done yet with Dwight Howard? Why is former Cleveland coach Brown out of a job altogether?

But I didn't want to have to start listening to all the "is Kobe the greatest?" debates. ESPN is running a poll and currently today's fans put Kobe 3rd all time. Are you kidding me? There is some merit in the "Kobe is the greatest Laker" argument, but I'm not convinced. Kareem has six rings over a 20 year career not to mention a 71 game high school basketball win streak and he is the NBA's all-time leading scorer; Magic lead LA to 5 rings starting with a dominating rookie performance.

Kobe has lead his Lakers to two championships in three tries. When it comes to "the greatest" argument, it's silly how far a reach that is. Bill Russell won 11 championships. Name another player, in any team sport, with that kind of hardware. I've already discussed Kareem, who is still a consideration on this list. And then there's MJ - he never lost a finals series, lead two "different" teams to three-peat championships, and in fact closed out every series in 6 or less games, never being pushed to a game 7. Magic is also a factor in this discussion - yes, he had fellow HoF on his roster, but he lead them, which speaks to how great he was, and those 5 rings are all under his leadership.

On my list, I could put Kobe anywhere from 5th to 8th. Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson and his career triple double, Shaq averaging 38 ppg as a Laker...Hakeem Olajuwon won two as the leader and is arguably the most versatile and quickest big man ever. Then there's Tim Duncan, George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, light on the hardware but a scoring machine who once averaged 50ppg in a season and is alone in scoring 100pts in a game (yes, Kobe got to 81 against the Toronto Raptors, and MJ reached 63 in a playoff game).

Anyway, what's done is done. Congratulations, LA. Now, the question is, will they try for another three-peat? And if they do manage to make it happen, who can argue Phil is anything but the greatest coach in all of NBA history with four three-peats over a 20 year period?

We'll all be watching and waiting for updates on whether they go for it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Chicago Blackhawks, Stanley Cup champions

The 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks are Stanley Cup champions, ending a drought reaching back to 1961. Congratulations, they were a top team all season and this is an appropriate resolution to the campaign. In a comment on a previous post, I predicted they'd win in six games, and here we are. Of course, it could have gone either way, but there's something right about it.

For me, the byline is that the Toronto Maple Leafs are now the lone Original Six team that has not won a Stanley Cup since expansion.