Master of Puppets
A round table on how to fix the Maple Leafs
Regular readers will know I don’t do this very often, but given the current status of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I’ve taken to the blogosphere to solicit the opinion of another for a bit of a round-table discussion.
Pension Plan Puppets is, quite simply, a brilliant name for a blog about Toronto’s woebegone NHL franchise. Those three words somehow convey exactly how goofy the ownership situation is here at the moment, and when it came time to pick someone for a Q&A on the team, I went straight to the head Puppet himself.
In my opinion, the fact that an enormous pension plan is the majority owner of the Maple Leafs is precisely the reason they’re in the mess they’re in. (And the team is at the point that its worth so much that no one person could ever possibly hope to own them.)
Here are our thoughts on what’s happening in Toronto on the day that Cliff Fletcher replaces John Ferguson as general manager:
Mirtle: Number one, I love the name of your blog. I’m curious on your general take on what’s going on with the Leafs, how you came up with the name for your site, and how it applies to the mess they're in now.
PPP: This season has actually been a revelation in terms of unmasking just how much of an effect the MLSE board — and Larry Tanenbaum and [MLSE president] Richard Peddie especially — have on the running of the Maple Leafs. First, there was the whole senior adviser ridiculousness in the summer, which culminated in last weekend's revelation that the deal was basically in place to bring in Scotty Bowman but Peddie decided three weeks before the season he wanted to see where the team would go.
Then during the Leafs' first tough stretch, there was Peddie again, this time making ill-advised (read: stupid) comments that hiring JFJ [Ferguson] was a mistake.
More recently, there was Peddie's trip to the West Coast and the accompanying meetings that could have been quietly moved to this week when the Leafs had returned to Toronto. Instead, we were treated to daily interviews by Peddie, who clearly aspires to be the most quoted president in the league.
Finally, there is now the entire “Fire JFJ” saga which has gone from a seeming no-brainer move last summer to a daily drama that has made Ferguson a figure of sympathy and MLSE into a classless monolith that can't even fire a GM properly. Throw in the fact that the Leafs had just asked the Coyotes for permission to speak to Fletcher, and it's clear that the belief that MLSE just signed the cheques (which most fans and myself had shared) has been completely exploded.
As for the site name, I came up with the idea for the site during the Oilers' cup run when I found the Oilogosphere. Aside from being my inspiration for starting my own site, the stories and pictures of Whyte Avenue, coming on the heels of The Red Mile, led to a friend and I joking about how a Leafs’ Cup win could possibly lead to the biggest rioting and looting of a downtown in history. A quick scan of the OTPP's major investments showed some pretty serious holdings in downtown real estate.
The joke became that the pension plan was keeping fans happy by doing just well enough to tease at a possible ultimate victory without achieving it out of fear of the huge losses that would be incurred in the inevitable pillaging of Toronto. In effect, the fans were pension plan puppets.
At first the name was just a bit of a joke, but I wouldn't have guessed that how prescient it would turn out to be. This season's revelations about MLSE, Tanenbaum, and Peddie have shown that they really were focused on doing just well enough to make the playoffs as opposed to developing a plan to win the Stanley Cup. I outlined my personal "cutting the strings" moment here when I realized that the sum of the team was not equal to the parts and that major changes needed to be made. As I said before, this entire year has been a revelation in terms of the board involvement, but I get the sense that a lot more fans, even those that would rather focus on the positive side of things, have reached the same point. MF37 at Bitter Leaf Fan was one that was on the players before Ninja and myself, and he has a great few posts talking about firing JFJ, but this year was the point for MLSE and Peddie to start taking heat for their decisions.
Mirtle: This season has been a revelation, even for someone working in the media. But in this city, I don't know that people realize how much of an effect poor ownership is having — it seems, more and more, decisions are made entirely based on the bottom line given a risk-averse pension plan owns the team.
What that means is that they don't want to do things like firing Ferguson before his contract is up (that would cost money to bring in a replacement) and that any high profile candidates for the GM job aren't considered due to financial concerns.
It's becoming pretty obvious the team needs to really rebuild; how much hope do you have that this ownership group can see the light and do it?
PPP: You know, before this year and all of the issues that have arisen, I would have guessed that MLSE would be willing to make changes because despite what the legion of anti-Leafs fans think, you do make much more money with a winning team. Each home playoff date for the Leafs racks up about $1.5-million (not to mention the increase in merchandise sales during a playoff run). That's before you even think of the future benefits of price increases, advertising increases, etc., for the next couple of years after any Stanley Cup.
As much as those other fans like to believe that MLSE has maxed its profits, it is far from the truth. What does seem to be the truth is that MLSE is happy with the level of profits it has achieved.
The salary cap has obviously put a maximum on what they could spend on player salaries, but they haven't used their huge financial resources to put pay top dollar for management and scouting. They clearly didn't pay top dollar for a new GM, choosing to hire a rookie and let him 'grow' into the position. And as you mentioned, they didn't extend him before the season because they weren't sure about whether JFJ would last, but they didn't fire him either because they would have had to pay him almost $900,000 in severance.
The bottom line financially is the only thing that will motivate MLSE to make changes, and it won't ever be hit hard enough for them to see the danger of continued failure. As much as some Leaf fans clamour for change and stop going to games (I'm trying to sell my tickets to the remaining games that I have), the fan base is so large that there is always someone willing to step in and fill a void. Not to mention that such a large portion of Leafs season tickets are corporate tickets.
What incentive do they have to get rid of them? They'll still get their tax write-off and they'll still have clients that want to go to the games.
As much as opposition fans like to say it, Leafs fans aren't sheep. They love their team and want to see it succeed, but at the same time they are dedicated and loyal. Some might stop going to games and we might want them to lose, but we'll keep watching them on TV. And if they put together a run and push for the playoffs, we'll be there cheering them on and figuring out different scenarios that will get them in because we're true fans and that's what we do (but we'll hate ourselves for doing it).
Mirtle: You know, I'm actually shocked at the level of dedication of the fans here in Toronto, even through all of the nonsense the past few years. It seemed as though at the beginning of the year that things were going to turn ugly, what with the booing of Toskala, etc., but that seems to have lessened and they're once again living and dying with every win (and loss).
So I guess if the fans aren't going to stop going, and the profits aren't going to stop coming in, is the real hope then that the Teachers' Pension Plan thinks they can get top dollar in a sale and pull the chute?
It's a group that really doesn't seem overly concerned with poor PR or mismanagement, so is this a mess that stays put until someone new can come in? (Or as Tom Benjamin called it, a never-ending soap opera.)
PPP: A lot of people do have the hope that the OTPP will eventually get a deal so outrageously good that they can ignore (a) the massive profits (b)the yearly growth or (c) the potential risk from any other investment. Then, perhaps, they will sell, ideally to a single owner. (Before Ken Thomson's death, there were rumours he was interested.)
Even that wouldn't be a straightforward process. Each current owner has a right of first refusal option on the shares of the others. Not to mention that the last time the Leafs had a single owner, things didn't really go that well.
In the short-term, the status quo management and ownership remains the same, which is depressing. While a new owner could come in and be worse, there is still the hope MLSE will see the light and hire the best GM candidate possible and support any move he makes (more scouting, emphasis on player development) with the financial resources available to the company.
It never hurts to dream.
Mirtle: Speaking of dreaming, let's say MLSE loses their minds and after Peddie's long, arduous search, appoints me team president and Pension Plan Puppet as GM. What moves do we make? What's priority No. 1 and who are your untouchables? (And who do you dump for an eighth-round pick?)
PPP: Whew, that's a tough one.
Goalies: Raycroft - I'd dump him for anything, literally anything that another team would give us. If no one gives a sniff, waive him and call him back up and swallow the 50% of his contract. I wouldn't waste a buyout on him.
Toskala - I'd keep him for the duration because, as The Hat mentioned, no one learns in a blowout and too much losing can ruin players.
Defence: Wozniewski - He is basically Raycroft except he is allowed to screw up all around the rink instead of just in net. Same deal there.
McCabe - trade him in a heartbeat. The new defencemen don't need to learn his bad habits and a non-playoff team doesn't need a power-play specialist. MLSE would never allow three more years at his salary and his contract is structured so that he is paid less over the last three years, so if I couldn't move him then he'd be bought out.
Hal Gill - I love him and I'd want him to help mentor youngsters that have the tools to be good penalty killers — but he's no untouchable.
Ian White - I'd keep him since he's shown to be a pretty good third pairing defenceman and he would be good on the power play, but if a good enough deal came in, then I'd let him go.
Kubina - His contract would be hard to move and I am saving the other buyout for one of the forwards. People expect more offence for his price tag, which is fair enough, but he's the team's best full-time defenceman 5-on-5 according to Behind The Net's stats (35GF/29GA - 3.37 GFON/60, 2.79 GAON/60). If he could be moved I would move him though.
Kaberle - His contract is great, he moves the puck very well, he always gives 110%, and is ridiculously smart. He would bring a tonne on the trade market.
Colaiacovo - I wouldn't/couldn't trade because of injuries. Give him until the end of this contract to pan out.
Forwards: The youth is what I would keep. Steen, Stajan, Wellwood, Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Tlusty. The rest of the forwards are fair game. If we couldn't get anything for Tucker or Blake then I would use a buyout on them.
The only untouchables overall would be: Toskala, Stralman, Colaiacovo, Steen, Wellwood, Stajan, Antro, Tlusty, and Pony.
In terms of priority, the moves would be:
1. Get rid of Raycroft
2. Fire Maurice and his assistants. I liked him when he came in, but the fact that the penalty kill has been terrible, and that the team is the only one that plays man-to-man defence when it has shown a complete inability to is too much
3. Trade Sundin and Kaberle. Those two would have to bring in at least one younger guy that can play and a first rounder.
4. Trade/Buyout McCabe, Kubina, Blake, Tucker. Work the trade route for these four as hard as possible and if nothing is working then try to convince MLSE to swallow their contracts like Lou Lamoriello did with Alex Mogilny. Then, either buyout or put through recall waivers — depending on which option is the cheapest.
In my opinion Blake would be the easiest to move followed by Kubina. McCabe and Tucker would likely be buyouts, but the former is a luxury item and the latter is either playing hurt or has forgotten what got him his contract. Either way, time to move on.
Mirtle: Blake is going to be impossible to trade. He's ill, hasn't played well, and has a ridiculous contract ($20-million over five years) that takes him almost to age 40. Teams are more likely to take Kubina, and that's not very likely.
Tucker may find a home, but McCabe's staying put — especially given his injuries. And stashing any of them in the minors is a lot different than putting a 36-year-old Mogilny down for 20 games — they are still NHL calibre skaters, and it's actually only the size of their NHL deals which is out of whack.
The league would frown heavily on it, and I can’t see the weak-kneed ownership willing to take a stand on something like that.
Buy them out. If you're going with kids, who needs the cap space anyway?
The one thing I think you've picked up on is who the most valuable asset is here, and it's not Sundin. For all the “Trade Mats” talk, Kaberle is this team's most valuable asset, and he has a reasonable deal. He’d be would be worth a small ransom from some team that needs a top defencemen (re: many of them).
Here's another idea for you: Is building through the draft actually the way to go for the Leafs? Aren't the kids getting a little, ah, expensive right around the age they're useful?
PPP: Blake has suffered from being put in an untenable position — and not just with the cancer. He was brought in to be Sundin's winger, but he is not the kind of winger that has ever played well with Mats. His contract is definitely an anchor that would sink any potential deal.
The reason I didn't say buy them all out is because I thought that there was a cap on how many times you could buy out a player as a team. Not sure if that is right, but I was under the impression that you could only do it something like three times. Anyway, you're right, who needs the cap space — plus the max is going up.
The league would definitely frown on the Leafs trying to put NHL players in the minors, but what are they going to do to their richest franchise?
You've written enough about the salary cap and the increasing cost of youth to show that, despite what most people would have you believe, you can't just tank five years in a row, get five top picks, let them mature, and then win a Cup. Pittsburgh is already facing decisions with Staal, Fleury and Malkin. Chicago is getting into that territory in a couple of years as well.
The Leafs right now have a core of young players that I think — if they are flanked with the right kind of cheap veterans and supplemented with a couple of impact young stars (Stamkos/Doughty/Tavares) plus the guys they have (Kulemin, Vorobiev) — could in a couple of years be set to contend with the addition of one or two UFAs. The turnaround for going from bottom feeders to contenders could be a matter of three to five years depending on how results play out, how patient the Leafs are, and how player development comes along — which is why the next head coaching decision is so important along with whoever takes over the Marlies.
Basically, what I am trying to say is that it'll take more than just good draft position and a plethora of picks to get this team contending. The next GM will have to be a great talent evaluator in order to make decisions on the current group of youth and to use future picks wisely.
Kaberle is definitely the team's top asset. I think the reason that most people don't want to trade him is because he is currently in his prime and he seems like a defenceman like Leetch that can be effective late into his career. If this plan to clean house were to work, then I would keep Kaberle because in three years, he'll be 31 and he'll still be among the best puck-moving defencemen in the league. Realistically, with his current contract, he could fetch the Leafs the most on the open market.
As you said, most teams could use him. Hell, San Jose (15th PP) would probably be more interested in him than Sundin. Same with Vancouver (18th), Calgary (20th), New York Rangers (23rd) or the New Jersey Devils (28th). Even Ottawa (15th) might take a look at adding him — especially since they would be replacing Redden at the same time.
PPP: Okay, I thought I was making it up. So basically, you have to give away at least one of those four guys and maybe two — but at least you get rid of them.
Mirtle: Finally, what's the worst part about cheering for the Leafs? How long have you endured this agony?
PPP: I remember being about 6 years old one night when the Flames beat the Leafs 12-1 around Christmas. My dad was upset and called the Leafs clowns. I was already so True Blue that I turned around and called him a clown.
It was the end of my night and it was confirmation that I was doomed.
The worst part is every other hockey fan on the planet. We get hammered and blamed for every decision that management makes. We get harassed at every away game when I know that opposition fans don't get treated the same way at the ACC. Regardless of facts, the Leafs always suck, their players all suck, they've all sucked, they'll always suck, and people rejoice in their failures. MF37 at Bitter Leaf Fan had a posting about all of the teams that had not won a cup in the last 15 years plus the ones that had gone 35-plus and yet the fans of those teams still chant 1967 every game. We get the hatred normally reserved for the Yankees and none of the rewards.
It would be easy to take the path that basically every fan base in the NHL has taken at one point or another and stop cheering on the team or cheer for a new one but part of being a Leafs fan (like being a Red Sox fan) was knowing that you were going through the bad and that maybe, if things break the right way, there could be a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.
And if that day comes, God help every anti-Leafs fan because if you hated us before you're going to want to kill us.
My thanks to PPP for the round table. Hopefully we managed to solve something there — although that might run along the lines of bringing about world peace at this point.
Personally, I doubt we see much relief for 'Leafs Nation' in the near future.
Cliff Fletcher Named Interim GM [team release]
Leafs turn to Fletcher [Globesports.com]
Numbers Game: Ferguson by the numbers [Illegal Curve]