A Gem

Dear Lou

Just after I questioned Bernie’s future, he turned in a gem.  But be aware, it’s not simply the result –  a shutout.  It’s the richness and depth of the techniques he used.  He stood up on key shots, he slid across when he had to, and he used his stick to direct the puck when appropriate.  We simply don’t have anyone this good in our system – we have robo-goalies.  With his confidence back on the upswing, I now feel that if he can maintain that level of focus, he’s the guy to pin our hopes on going forward.  There were even echoes of Marty in his style.

 

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A Gem

Decision time is closer

Dear Lou

As I feared, Bernie has returned, unchanged.  My fear all along has been that he was permanently disillusioned two years ago, when he tried to carry the team on his back, and ended the season with an injury.  With some people, an untenable situation puts them into the mindset that they lose that competitive fire.  They almost never get it back.

A decision is in order, or will shortly be in order.  Between you, Brendan, and the board of directors, you have to decide, privately of course, whether this season is indeed a write-off.  That decision may have already been made, and it would not surprise me if I was not informed.  It would have to be kept close to the vest.  But here are some thoughts on the topic.

At one level, you may say, “Yes, the season’s a writeoff,” and give Bernie every chance, all year, to get his game back.  If he makes it, great, if not, you waive him next year, and possibly lose him.  That only gives you more cap space to waste on Stamkos, who’s never going to earn what his next contract pays him.  Still, there are no guarantees, and my gut says that not a lot of teams would take Bernie right now.

But what concerns me is that writing the season off will undermine the impression of invincibility that Mike carries with him, and is building with the team.  That’s worth more than a goalie, or a high first round pick.  This young team believes they can win most any game, if they have solid goaltending.  And if they make a good run for the playoffs, or even qualify, it will be invaluable in the confidence it gives the group.  Chemistry will improve, frustrations will melt away, and when the young talent eventually fills those empty slots, they’ll be off to the races.  Writing off the season could undercut all that.

Why is that relevant?  Because if you don’t want to write off the season, the leash that Bernier has is a lot shorter.  Two more weak starts, and you have to waive him, to send him down long-term.  It would otherwise send the signal that you’re not serious about winning, and that would be damaging.

Decision time is closer

Is the NHL Tough to Watch?

Buffery argues that the balanced skill level and sophisticated, stifling defensive play, make it less fun to watch the NHL.  To an extent, I admit the issue.  A lot of people found the WHA a lot of fun to watch, in its time, because there was no depth.  One ace could skate through the opposing team over and over.  And the time of Lemieux and Gretzky, post-expansion, but pre-Eastern European players, was similar.  Lemieux himself admitted that there were always D-men on the other team that he could simply skate around.  I’ve mentioned this in previous posts.  I’ve argued also that these factors have to be considered when looking at diminished goal scoring.  It’s not only about the goalie equipment.

But what draws my disagreement is the statement that this makes hockey uninteresting, at least for the expert.  Buffery is free to watch the minor leagues or the juniors, and he’ll probably be better entertained.  And he’ll save money.  Perhaps a lot of people who don’t really think about the game would be similarly satisfied.  The only thing missing would be the knowledge that there was a better league, where the best players went.  But for a lot of people, that’s what it’s all about.  It’s not really about enjoying the subtleties of the game.  It’s about highlights, and cheering for your guys.  And today’s game doesn’t produce as many highlights.

Highlights are overrated in my book.  For every highlight, there is usually an accompanying low-light.  A missed check, a giveaway, botched coverage, etc.  It’s like a football game where you only notice the touchdown, but not the missed block that led to it, or the stumble by the safety that let the wide receiver get away.  I see the lowlights.  When I watch juniors play, I see the unprofessional nature of the game.  I don’t enjoy that, any more than I would enjoy hearing an individual violinist in a symphony, because he’s playing out of tune, or otherwise spoiling the symphonic nature of the piece.

My advice to Buffery, and anyone else who thinks the same way:  It’s your choice.  Go and watch the little league players, and see your highlights.  Or, learn the intricacies involved in putting together the whole unit, and appreciate the symphony on the ice for what it is.

Is the NHL Tough to Watch?

Whether to Pursue Stamokos

Dear Lou

Being from Toronto, Stamkos is an obvious target for us to be pursuing, when he goes on the FA market, as he certainly will.  For him not to have put his contract issues behind him already means that he’s determined to play the market.  The question on my mind is whether he’s interested in coming home, or whether he’s looking for the sweetest deal on the market.

Players who make top dollar like that, especially when transplanted to another team, are rarely bargains.  That may seem stupidly self-evident, but think of it this way:  If you paid for a Stamkos but got a Gretzky, you would call that a bargain.  Stamkos is by now what he will be.  A very good player, and an accomplished scorer.  But he will be offered money beyond what reason would dictate.  Do you want to chase it?  Ilya Kovalchuk comes to mind as one you signed back when.  He was not a disappointment in terms of his production.  But was he worth it?  I don’t know.

Look at it another way.  Let’s pick a guy who Mike would list as someone he’d like to build around, if a younger version of him were available:  Zetterberg.  He rarely scores more than thirty, but you want him on the ice, because your team plays better when he’s there.  You don’t get scored on as much.  Other guys score.  Everything works better.  Is Stamkos like him?  My gut says no, Stamkos is more of a pure scorer.  This carries some risk.  I’m not saying he would turn into another Kessel, because I think he’s above that.  But when the value of a player is principally in the goals he’ll score, it’s a little one-dimensional, especially for the kind of game Mike teaches.  And when he slumps, you get nothing for your investment.  By contrast, the kind of player Kadri has become is valuable even when he’s not scoring.  I would argue that this is the kind of player we want to be building.

What is Stamkos going to score for Mike?  He’s had a sixty goal season, two in the fifties, and forty three last year, after returning from a broken leg.  Is he good for another sixty goal season?  What would you pay to take that risk?  If he’s good for forty-plus, that’s still an asset.  But wouldn’t you rather have a Zetterberg, who scores less, but wins more?  Or a Toews?  He’s only topped thirty twice, but he’s considered the better player.

The other danger you would face is to have Stamkos in his prime, while the team is not yet ready to support that level of talent.  He’d be spinning his wheels.  He’d underperform, and the media in Toronto would crucify him.  It would ruin him, and maybe you.

If there were no salary cap, or the size of the team’s market were factored into the cap for each team, it would be different.  Toronto would be allowed to spend more, to compensate the player for the extra pressure.  But under Bettman’s totalitarian regime, no such flexibility is going to be forthcoming.  So while Stamkos is a prize, I humbly suggest that it might be best to let someone else claim that prize.  For one Stamkos, you could probably have or keep a pair of two-way players who are good for twenty-plus goals.  That’s how cups are won.

Whether to Pursue Stamokos

What to do with Bernie

Dear Lou

I contend that Bernie’s problem started two years ago, when he played well, and took the team farther than it deserved to go.  But as happens with good goalies playing for poor teams, he burned out.  Show me a hall-of-fame goalie, and I’ll show you someone who had good defensive support through his career.  It goes like this:

A goalie for a bad team can steal individual games, but he can’t keep it up.  His mediocre performances won’t cut it, and the team won’t win.  The pressure ratchets up, and he’s asked to steal it for the team each night.  Naturally, that fails over the long run.  The goalie has a crisis in confidence, or simply loses the desire to try so hard, and quietly gives up.  On a good team, if he hangs in there on his mediocre performances, and makes key saves, the team can still win, by ensuring that he’s not the deciding factor.  That’s a critical difference, because he goes in knowing he only needs to hang tough and give it his best.  He doesn’t need to work miracles.  That goalie can stick around a long time, and make a hall of fame career, when he might not start off any better than his less fortunate counterpart.

Bernie was asked to steal it for the team too often, and he came to realize he couldn’t keep it up.  I’ve seen it before, and I don’t like the implications.  The most likely outcome, to be frank, is that his NHL career is over.  You can’t sustain yourself at that level of performance when you lose the mental edge that got you there in the first place.  So what to do?

I don’t like to throw anyone under the bus, especially since it was the team in front of him that caused his burnout.  Still, at the end of the day, we don’t owe him a living.  He’s had a good contract, and if there’s a letdown, its not because we gave up on him, before he gave up on himself.  No corporation would wait forever for a burned out employee to recover, and we have even less room for that kind of luxury.  Still I’d like to give him a realistic chance to recover.

What I propose is sending him to the minors.  There’s a risk he’d be claimed on waivers, and if that gives him a fresh start, so be it.  Let’s not stand in the way if he can put his feet on the ground somewhere else.  You can’t trade him right now.  Nobody would give you anything for him.  But let him go to the Marlies, where he can be given numerous starts to sort his game out, and you give him the chance to rediscover the passion for the game.  If so, you get back a top-notch goalie.  I know it’s a risk, and it might not solve the problem, but I just don’t believe it’s our way to throw a player under the bus without trying to find a way to rehab him, and save his career.  Even if we’re not the beneficiaries, it’s good karma to treat people well.

Addendum:  I see the choice was to send him down for a conditioning stint.  That’s a good interim measure.  The problem will be to decide what to do if he doesn’t emerge better.

Eyes.

What to do with Bernie