Winner: Ballard Memorial Award

Dear Lou

The winner of the Ballard Memorial Award, as the person who has done the most to perpetuate Leaf futility, is not even close.  Without a doubt, that award has to go to the man who pulled JFJ’s strings, and who handed the reins to BB under a dubious mandate to turn the team around quickly, with trades.  That man is Richard Peddie.

Peddie was the executive of the Teachers’ Fund, that owned the Leafs and several other franchises.  They were all financially successful, and I won’t judge whether this was because, or in spite of, Peddie.  But across the board, they were failures at competition.

When you have a metric-driven financial maven at the helm, responsible for delivering on quarterly earnings, and paid large bonuses for exceeding estimates, the urge to sell the future in order to meet or exceed this year’s numbers, is overwhelming.  Going into the playoffs this year is essential, from that frame of mind.  “Let tomorrow take care of itself, I need today.”  This leads to some really, really bad decisions, and robs the franchise of future playoff appearances.  But that doesn’t penetrate the bean counter’s head in any way that can compete with the pressures to deliver today.

The farm system was not in great shape when Pat Quinn was given the boot, but JFJ denuded it far more than ever.  Like a dog on a leash, he was instructed by Peddie all along the way as to what he could and could not do.  Not that I fault him overly for that part:  JFJ was grossly unqualified for the job.  But I do fault the hiring of JFJ, thinking that he could micromanage him to success.

When JFJ failed, as could have been predicted, Peddie brought in the one guy that he remembered as having the biggest mouth at ownership conferences.  He also mistook the amusement others had for his comments for actual respect.  Add one other factor – one that has never been admitted, or even alleged, to my knowledge – the pressure to win NOW, and you explain Burke’s tenure.  I’m suggesting here that Burke was hired after promising a quick turnaround.  Reportedly, Bowman interviewed for the job, and that never went anywhere.  Knowing Scotty, he would have flatly rejected the quick and dirty route.  He would have insisted on doing it the right way.  The slow way.  Again, I have no proof, but Burke’s actions in Toronto, starting with the Kessel trade, can really only be explained if he was trying to keep a promise to turn things around in a hurry.  One hopes that BB would have acted smarter, if he did not have those pressures, though one never knows.

The other factor that comes with this kind of management is in the way the team treats draft choices.  Luke Schenn comes to mind.  Cliff Fletcher drafted him, if I remember correctly, as interim GM.  Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether the elderly Fletcher thought he was drafting Brayden (or signing Jonas Frogren, rather than Jeff Finger), he was picked because he was considered a complete player.  Not because of expected upside.  And whatever upside he had may never be known, because he was rushed into the pressure cooker.  A proper development plan would have seasoned him a bit more in the minors.  Witness Toronto’s leading prospects, Nylander, Connor Brown, and others, who could probably give the team a shot in the arm now, but it would stunt their growth into what Toronto hopes they’ll become.

It takes courage, and patience, to do things right.  It sometimes means the GM threatens to resign in protest, when told to “just make a big trade and shake things up.”  It might have to be backed up with the threat of talking to the press, even at the expense of remaining years on the contract.  Ultimately, ownership has to buy in, and then stick with the plan.  That’s a risk that is always present, especially as this year’s losing record mounts.  There are no signs, yet, of ownership losing patience, but it’s not time yet to relax.  There are probably two or so years of futility ahead, before the new approach bears fruit.  So far, current ownership passes the test, although the appointment of another bean counter as President, is a worrying sign.  Peddie, overwhelmingly, failed that test, and guaranteed today’s futility.  The joke is, as he was shown the door, he demanded a Stanley Cup ring for him, if they turned it around imminently.  Call it posturing, call it naivete, whatever you like.  But in an honest moment, he has to admit that he was responsible for today’s sorry state of the team.

And since this was written on the eve of the appointment of the new President, whose expertise is financial, here’s one tip that will tell you things have gone bad:  If he comes to you, and says, “What can we do to speed up the rebuild?  To make the playoffs this year?”  Even next year, if he asks for it as a guarantee, then that means he’s going to emulate Peddie, and you have to threaten to resign on the spot.  That’s the only way to preserve your integrity against what is sure to come.  The same goes for Brendan.  In fact, he’ll probably be the canary in the coalmine.

Winner: Ballard Memorial Award

Not an NHL team

Dear Lou

I couldn’t watch, sorry.  That sort of effort is not worthy of an NHL team.  If that is to be the standard, and they weren’t saddled with the flu, or something, then you have to rid yourself of the whole lot.  Some nights, it looks better, but efforts like last night’s are outside what I can accept.  Mike can teach structure all he wants, and he can motivate, or try to.  But when it comes down to the final word, he can’t teach the desire to compete.  To me, that’s the big question.  How many of those guys have it?  They were assembled from castoffs from other organizations, where it may have been in question.  That’s the beauty of building from within.  The guy never makes it up from the minors if he doesn’t have it.  I only hope Mike’s energy holds up long enough to see the results of his labor.

Eyes.

Not an NHL team

Oh please.

Dear Lou

Does it make you as sick as it does me, to see the Habs players effusive in their praise for our guys?  Especially after beating us?  As you know, I was a lifelong Hab as a player, but there are certain things that should not be.  Okay, not many are classless enough to take shots at us.  Even Subban has grown up and acts responsibly.  But at least don’t say anything, don’t praise us.  Can’t they find at least one butthead rookie who will take a shot at us?  Something to parade around in the news, and post on the wall of the locker room?  A rivalry can’t survive this kind of love between foes.  So let’s either put an end to it, or put their guys in charge of UN peace negotiations.

Oh please.

Price is not the final excuse

Dear Lou

I read here and here how they lost because of Price.  Okay, Price is great.  The best.  But they played into his strength.  I don’t want to hear anymore about “just get the puck on net and it will happen.”  That works with weak goalies.  For ones on top of their game, it feeds into their strength, and reinforces their rhythm.  It was even the case for Mike, back in Anaheim, where Giguere took him to the Cup final.

Your guys need to develop ways to put hot goalies off their rhythm.  Aim for the skates of the defenceman standing in front.  Eventually, it will deflect in, and deflate everyone.  Learn to fan on shots, and flick the subsequent one in, lightly.  The goalie will be out of position, and unable to react.  To put it simply, when the goalie’s this hot, go for cheap goals, on purpose.  There are a lot of ways to do it, and your guys need to practice it.  It might mean fewer shots, but there will be more goals, and maybe even shaken confidence.

Too bad about our own goaltending situation.  Unless Bernie can pull it together, we don’t have a number one goalie.  I can see why Mike’s sticking with Bernie, hoping he does pull it together, and the young guys aren’t ready for the NHL.  I don’t think you should feel pressured and trade for a goalie, either.  You have to have a system that develops them, internally.  And you have to be vigilant that it’s being done right.  At this point, I don’t have confidence that it is.

Eyes.

Price is not the final excuse

Second Nominee

Dear Lou

The second nominee for the Ballard Memorial Award, for the man who did the most to perpetuate Leaf futility, is John Ferguson, Jr.  For reasons unknown, after Pat Quinn gave up the GM role, JFJ was brought in to fill that role.  It was never clear to me or anyone I’ve spoken with whether it was thought that JFJ was only there to relieve Quinn’s workload, and do the administrative work, while Quinn handled the strategic end.  I suspect this was how the move was sold to Pat.  But once in place, the true puppetmaster behind JFJ began to pull him away from Quinn, into his own orbit (more in a future post).

JFJ came in with impressive credentials.  Son of a legend of the game, and an SOB to play against, he held a law degree, and was a competent scout.  But being GM of a big-market team requires a lot more than credentials.  It requires years of being around the game, and seasoning in management.  You need to have seen the mistakes of others, and learn from them.  Continuity within an organization can produce this, but that’s something that the Leafs certainly never had, thanks to Harold himself, and a series of meddlesome owners since him.  And JFJ was in over his head.  That much was clear to all.  He did not inherit a rich farm system.  Quinn depleted it in his time, building by acquiring veterans.  But he made things even worse.  Tuuka Rask was a Leaf, but needed some seasoning, and honestly, so did the rest of the team.  Had that been allowed to happen, the suffering might have been short.  But they wanted someone who could play immediately, so they could meet the revenue expectations of the Teachers Pension fund.  Playoff appearances were essential to achieve that.  So JFJ acquired Andrew Raycroft from Boston, in exchange for Rask.  Raycroft was a pure butterfly goalie, who ignored anything higher than 2 feet off the ice.  That left the top half of the net open.  And it was during a time when shooters were learning to reverse the long-standing rule of shooting low.  A little insight would have gone a long way.  Boston was only too happy to make the trade, because they knew Raycroft’s time was limited.

JFJ probably had no idea of the big picture, and certainly never stood up to management, in support of the right way to develop the team.  The approach he had taken was an abject failure, and he was shipped out.  Word was at the time that Bowman was on the list of interviewees, but he declined.  Knowing Scotty, he wanted to do things the right way, and they wanted to hear none of that.  They wanted the quick and dirty way, and I believe Burke promised it to them.

There’s a lot of talk about the Blue Jays nowadays, after losing game 4 in spectacular fashion.  The snowbirds are mixed.  Some are resigned to the probability, in the face of the quality of KC opposition.  Others hold out hope for a miracle, the reverse of 1985.  But nobody seems to see that the team was hobbled together, and lacks that organic quality that comes from developing your own stars.  The 1992-3 team had a core of old-timers, with additions of Carter and Alomar, who made a difference, and others that did not.  Jack Morris, Dave Steward, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, those aged stars were looking for one more run at glory, but mostly ended up being passengers.  That’s often what you get when you hobble it together.

Stay on track.

Eyes.

Second Nominee

First Nominee

Dear Lou

There’s not a lot to say about the games this weekend.  They beat Columbus, but it would have been a problem if they had not.  And the goalies are not yet where you need them.  Bernier came through with a reasonable recovery in Pittsburgh, but not before again giving up early goals.  He has some lingering psych issues, in my opinion, from being burned out not last year, but the year before.  Deal with those asap.

Meanwhile, the first nominee for the Ballard Memorial Award is:  Brian Burke.  Brian came in shouting about truculence, and other words I don’t understand, and then proceeded to trade away the future for Phil Kessel.  Today, even the defenders of that trade see it to be a total shambles.  Everything else he did after that is coloured by that one trade.  And eventually, instead of truculence, he ended up standing for bear hugs in the corners, and had more interest in July parades of naked men than in managing the hockey operations (nttawwt).  To be fair, it was a very difficult time in his life, but he was more than a failure:  He left the franchise in terribly weak shape.  My own read is that he was hired with the expectation that he would quickly turn things around.  I’m sure they wanted another Cliff Fletcher, who would trade with a stupid management group, and steal their quality players.  Anaheim was not stupid, and would not trade Getzlaf for Stajan.  The NHL today is a lot smarter, across the board, than they used to be.  So he signed Beauchemin from Anaheim, and he would have been okay if he stuck to what he was good at.  But he was in too deep, and tried to do it himself.  He’s not Doughty, and he can’t do that.  He signed Komisarek, same story.  These were good B-level defencemen, who thought they now had to be “A” level.  He traded for Phaneuf, who never lived up to his potential in Calgary, or Toronto.  He turns out to be another B defenceman, but hyped by Burke, and eventually paid (by Nonis), at the A+ level.  And that was the story.  Having promised the quick turnaround, in an NHL where fools would not give him their treasures, he resorted to plan B.  He hired and acquired misfit B players, and crossed his fingers that they would gel and become an A group together.

When things did not work out, Burke started shuffling the deck, hoping that some magic ingredient would materialize, and give him the elusive chemistry he hoped could transform the group.  Versteeg was a head-scratcher.  As were others.  And he constantly provided distractions from the game, apparently auditioning for Don Cherry’s job with his commentary.  But Cherry has an impish charm, where Burke just seems like a boor.  I don’t know the true reasons for his abrupt dismissal, and maybe there was more to it, maybe not.  But his eventual dismissal was assured from the moment he promised the quick turnaround that did not build through drafting.

In the end, Burke does not win the award.  The team was weak before he came, and he got one playoff appearance out of them in a shortened season.  He likes to dwell on that, but I didn’t see any sort of dynasty forming there.  And Nonis took Burke’s flawed strategy and pushed it to its conclusion.  But he played his part.

Eyes.

First Nominee

Harold Ballard Memorial Award

Dear Lou

I saw that the Leafs are dead last in ESPN’s ranking of pro sports teams.  That’s not unexpected, and look at it this way, there’s nowhere to go but up.  I do think, however, that a cut in ticket prices, until the results come, would go a long way to repair this tarnished brand.

But it’s time to consider how the brand got tarnished like it is.  We all like to blame Ballard, who destroyed the franchise in the 70s and 80s.  He regularly put his own ego above every other consideration, and got rid of anyone who outshone him.  Keon, Sittler, Red Kelly, Roger Neilson, and the one that hurts most for the fans, Lanny.  But Ballard has been gone a while now, God rest his soul, and the results have not reversed, other than a few, brief flashes in the pan.  There is plenty of blame to go around, but in my mind, when this is done, there is one big winner (or loser), who did the most to perpetuate failure.

First, some onorable mentions.  Number one, I ave to mention Gerry MacNamara.  I know, he was GM under Ballard, but he gave a recent interview, where he said that he knew some of the things he was doing were wrong, but he had to, or Ballard would fire him.  In another sentence, he said that it was not his fault that the results weren’t there.  I give him onorable mention because of his cowardice.  If you know it’s wrong, you have to stand up for what is right, even if it means you get fired.  It will cost you prestige, and money, but it will save your honor, and your reputation.  Most people would have decided, as he did, that it’s better to make lots of money and shut up, but I don’t think you would have.  I think you would have quit, rather than let Harold push you around like that.  Gerry didn’t.

Onorable mention number two goes to Cliff Fletcher.  That may seem a funny choice, since he made the Leafs competitive with one single trade.  I might get hate mail for questioning the guy who brought Doug Gilmour to Toronto.  The reason I give him onorable mention is because he gave the impression that you can succeed with trades, instead of drafting and raising your own kids.  It almost worked.  And it created the impression that it’s the quick way to go, and avoid a long rebuild.  Every bad choice that came afterwards was founded on this mistaken view.  Let’s face it:  Cliff knew the players, having been in Calgary before.  He knew that Calgary management was stupid.  So he took advantage of others’ stupidity.  That’s not something you can repeat too often, because they eventually get the picture that you’re out to fleece them, rather than offer value for value.  The better GMs, such as yourself, can keep making deals, because the counterparty knows you’re not trying to screw them.  Pat Quinn also took this route, and also gets onorable mention.

Eyes

Harold Ballard Memorial Award