With the trade deadline coming in the next two weeks, the fever pitch on rumor sites and talk radio is beginning to thrust into overdrive. News out of Columbus yesterday was that Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson was in fact shopping Rick Nash in an attempt to improve his club in the long term. This is not entirely surprising as they have to be the first team in recent memory to be mathematically eliminated from a playoff spot before Valentines day (although conventional wisdom suggests that Steve Mason is more responsible for the current situation in Columbus). Toronto finds themselves sitting in the eighth position in the Eastern Conference, and the assumption most places is that Rick Nash would somehow solve the problems in Toronto of late.
This is not going to be popular among most fans of the team, but honesty seldom is. Rick Nash will not solve a single problem for the Toronto Maple Leafs that somebody else in the organization can’t solve. Neither will Jeff Carter, Eric Staal, or any other high end forward. The Leafs current woes are not the result of an impotent attack, rather it is the inability of the club to prevent goals that has caused the recent malaise in the standings. The Leafs are currently 7th overall in scoring in the NHL, and boast 2 top 10 scoring forwards in Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. They are also currently 23rd, or 7th worst in goals against in the NHL. See the issue?
As a preface to anything that is written below, this is not a blanket statement that no additions or subtractions of players would be beneficial. This is more written from perspective that the roster has been turned upside down and inside out over the last two years. Brian Burke has seen more player turnover since his taking over from interim general manger Cliff Fletcher than most teams see in a decade. The opinion is starting to develop, and I am finding myself in this camp, that the accountability that was promised when he had taken over is simply non existent. The St Louis Blues changed coaches early in the season, and are now challenging for home ice in the western conference playoffs. In defense of all other coaches, every other team that has made a change has seen any significant improvement.
Brian Burke made the decision to go with two young relatively unproven goaltenders rather than tender an offer to an inexpensive veteran in an attempt to prevent any fall off should the goaltending stumble. He also is the guy that determined that an injury prone Tim Connolly was a better fit for his club than staying with the status quo or letting some of the younger guys rotate in and out. It is also not unfair to say that he is responsible for not taking a more firm stance when his players are under performing that they spend some time upstairs. Trading players is no longer the answer. He has traded players over and over, and yet the results have not changed. They are in a better position for a change, but they are not a better team.
Ron Wilson did these things in the past. He was chastised for doing them, but Matt Stajan and Nikolas Hagman both saw time as healthy scratches when their play dictated it needed to happen. Why the sudden soft spot for Nikolai Kulemin and Tim Connolly. The play of these two in particular has to have most fans shaking their heads as to where the accountability is in this organization. And why the inconsistency in that stance when it comes to goaltenders? Most professionals agree that the mental aspect of playing goal in the NHL is the most taxing, and nourishment is often needed to help a young tender get over the hump. The man has never hesitated to throw his netminder under the bus when needed after a poor performance. It is especially infuriating as a fan when the team in from of the goalie provides 0 goal support in a loss, to blame the goalie. This is unacceptable.
I have written in the last two weeks and will continue to defend that the talent level of this team is not far different from the talent level of the New York Rangers. The Rangers are a slightly deeper and better squad, but the only thing from watching that seperates the two teams in the standings is the work ethic. Call John Tortorella what you want, but no coach in the NHL is getting more from his players than he is. The Rangers have all apparently bought in and the end result has been a team that very seldom loses games, and never gets embarrassed the way the Leafs did on Saturday night. It is also fair to mention that John Tortorella very seldom speak negatively of his players to the media, choosing to use his authority over ice time and roster space to send his messages.
The Montreal Canadiens play a boring trap game. This game has been chided by both the Leafs coach and general manager as being uninteresting. Not speaking for all fans, it would be fair to say that most would have preferred a 1-0 win over Montreal to a 5-0 loss. It would seem fair to say the Leafs could be challenging the Boston Bruins for some share of the division lead right now if they were willing to at least play something that resembled a road playoff game. Needless to say, they are not going to play that way and the fans of this team are going to continue to be stuck watching an exciting version of mediocrity. I often read Matthew Barry, a blogger for the Los Angeles Kings, complain about the lack of offensive punch in the California squad. Right now it would be a wet dream to have a group play that conservative of a game. Winning a boring game is far greater than losing an up tempo game.
Brian Burke getting fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs used to seem out of the question, but if this group fails to make a run into the post-season his tenure may be shorter than many are predicting. For the record, I personally like the guy. He has gone out of his way to change the culture of the sport with his initiatives in the LGBT and other minority communities. He has defended his players vigorously to the media and he has not at all been trigger happy in removing a coach. Brian Burke appears to be a very good guy, but he himself has made the statement that this is a results business. To stand pat with the goaltending in arrears going into this season may have been his most fatal mistake, and it would not be the first time that goaltending has cost him a job.
Burke often talks of the lack of respect that is directed at his team, and states that it is the fashionable thing to do. He is partially correct. How often do you hear the same type of insults hurled at the Detroit Red Wings or the Philadelphia Flyers? The reason for the respect that these teams are shown is simple, they have earned it. Respect is not something that is guaranteed or promised, it needs to be earned. Harold Ballard went out of his way for the better part of three two decades to destroy any of the respect that Conn Smythe installed in the Leafs crest. First Steve Stavro and then MLSE both worked hard to bring the reputation of the club back, but not for the reasons of winning. Both had financial aspirations that far outreached the goals of a championship, it was more of a happy accident that the Leafs made it to four conference finals between the two groups reigns. If Burke wants that same level of respect that the earlier mentioned teams have earned, he must win. Further, he must work tirelessly to make sure that the team always wins, which I know sounds ludacris. The Last time the Detroit Red Wings did not open the playoffs with home ice advantage was 1992/1993 when the Maple Leafs had won the Norris Division. This was twenty years ago, and that is why they are respected.
Now back to Rick Nash and why he would not be a fit in Toronto. This has several warning signs all over it, first off is the expected return for Columbus. Remember the Dion Phaneuf heist two seasons ago? Part of why Phaneuf was available was the term and money left on his contract. This not only made him available to Toronto, but also drove the price down significantly. This is not defending the position of Daryl Sutter for the trade, it was awful for the Flames, just rationalizing the reason it happened. Fast forward to Rick Nash, he has 10 years remaining at a $7.9 million with a no movement clause. How many teams would be willing to make that significant of an investment alone, let alone give up current and futures for it? Not many. This is why I believe the values being floated on sports talk radio and television have been vastly inflated. Not to say he won’t command a good return, but it will more likely look like the Phil Kessel trade did plus a prospect or two. This also has to take into account the fact that the guy has spent his entire career in Columbus, played in four playoff games winning none. This again is not a knock on his talent, but rather an objective look at a player that may be available. It is also a fair bet that his no movement clause would only be waived to go to a contending team as it is almost a certainty that he wants to play for a championship sooner than later.
If I were Brian Burke, which I am not, I would seriously look to spend some of what it would cost to acquire Rick Nash and invest in finding a stable goaltender for the long term. Not to say that James Reimer is not that guy, but he is seriously hurting in confidense right now. Jonas Gustavsson is most definitely not a long term answer, and Ben Scrivens just does’nt look ready yet. Why not take a position that was considered a strength and bolster it. The St Louis Blues have done this and it has served them well. The Nashville Predators have as well. If there was ever a position to make an overpayment to strengthen, it should probably be the last line of defense. Especially if that line is inconsistant at the best of time, and awful at the worst. If anybody understands this, it would be the Columbus Blue Jackets.