Friday, April 04, 2008

The More Pretinent Question: Habs vs. Leafs

If you haven't read it already, it would be worth a trip over to Maclean's .

The argument presented – that the Toronto Maple Leafs are a victim of loyal and constant fan support and cash flow – is overly simplistic. It fits the need for those looking for an excuse, a way to hide from reality. In that way, it is not so different from calling the team unlucky. In fact, aren't they just unlucky to be based in Toronto? Can't everyone in Toronto say that?

Look, Toronto jokes aside, the Leafs are not unique in the sporting universe. There are countless teams in various sports that can rely on unremitting support and unending cash flow. The Boston Red Sox have benefited from support for years, yet they still figured out that the problem was in the team and its management, not some curse or cursed loyal fans. A little closer to home in the NHL, from Toronto you only need to look down the 401 to Montreal to see a team in the identical geographic monopoly situation. I remember the "lean" years from 1999-2001. Sure tickets were available, but most games were still televised and more than half of games were selling out.

So, doesn't that beg the question: "Why has Montreal been able to thrive in a hockey-mad market with near-unconditional support?"

The answer from the article (well done looking East for once), goes beyond simplistic to erroneous. The author states:

Over the same period, Montreal drafted eight future all-stars. Currently, 17 of the Habs' 25 players, including virtually all of its nucleus of young talent — Carey Price, Andrei Markov, Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins — were acquired through the draft.

This is due in part to the fact that the Habs have been subject to a healthy boom/bust cycle common to most teams. When the team falters, it uses high draft picks and a strong development system to rebuild.

Please allow me to deal with this first, and then I will move on to my take on Montreal's ability to succeed vs. Toronto.

The primary myth lies in the fact that the Habs have been through a boom/bust cycle over the past 20 years. In fact, 20 years the Canadiens were in the midst of a mini-dynastic period (call it the Patrick Roy era), which bolstered the remnants of the 1970s dynasty with Chelios and the class of a very good 1984 draft. The bust, propagated by bad trades and two very shoddy hirings (Houle and Tremblay) was not a true bust. Even with consecutive playoff misses, the best the Habs could muster was a 7th overall pick in 2001 (he's now Mike Komisarek). Funnily enough, the Leafs laid hands on a future 40-goal man (and dream Sundin wing-man) that year in Brad Boyes.

The writing off of Montreal's draft success as down to high picks is amateur analysis. What the Canadiens actually did, with a string of hirings from Andre Savard to Trevor Timmins to Bob Gainey (among others), was address the problems they had had with the draft over the previous decade. Someone with very good sense recognised the success that Ottawa was having in bringing up youngsters and went and poached 2 men key in building the Sens. The process continued this year – we hired the former lead Ottawa scout as recently as February.

If Toronto fans really believe that bust periods yield success, they should ask themselves why 10 consecutive top 10 picks from 1981-1990 did little more than provide trade bait for their GMs.

Reasons for Montreal's success since 1967 (juxtaposed with Toronto)

1) Anticipation

When I talk about anticipation, I am referring specifically to Montreal's keen maneuvering for the post-expansion era. Montreal and Sam Pollock in particular recognised the importance of draft picks before anyone else did. We all know about the Guy Lafleur coup. But, it was their 3rd first overall pick in 4 years after expansion. Not too shabby when you consider they also won the Cup in each of those years.

More recently, Bob Gainey has shown anticipation with his construction of a team to compete in the conditions of a changed NHL.

While Pollock was a genius, there was nothing stopping GMs from copying him. Toronto GMs were certainly slower to adapt to a system whereby players would all be picked from a pool, watching from the sidelines as their rivals from the 1960s left them in the dust.

2) Scouting

There have been a lot of clunkers for Montreal too, but in the early days of the draft, star players were identified with relative regularity. The 1993 team was mostly a homemade team as well, certainly there highly underrated back-end was. The 2008 editions is also draft-made, as noted.

Toronto scouts have not been the worst over this time, but they could hardly be called much more than average. Add to that, the Leafs penchant for trading away prospects that might have worked (Boyes, Rask) and draft picks, and it's hard to lay the blame on this crew. But, where Montreal overhauled the scouting department in the late 1990s, Toronto has yet to recognise the need for this in its own house.

3) Time for 10-goalscorers

I call this the Chad Kilger phenomenon. Montreal knew Chad Kilger was a stop-gap from the second game he played here. Toronto thought of him as a key piece to the puzzle. How anyone could sign Czerkawski after his debacle in Montreal is unbelievable. Toronto, the team that reveres 10-goal men, gave him a shot...

Montreal has been able to show greater ruthlessness to replaceable players in search for potential. Just recently, Bulis and Zednik were ejected. Toronto have been afraid to let go – perhaps tied to their poor scouting?

4) Personnel

The Canadiens seem to prefer "internal hires" to external ones. They have been able to draw on the success and know-how of various Cup winners over the years on their staffs. They can also rely on these employees understanding for the meaning of the CH to the players and the fans.

The Leafs seem to hire differently. Albeit, they don't exactly have a stellar cast upon which to draw execs, but even then some of their hires seem misplaced. Take the hiring of John Ferguson as a prime example – former assistant GM of the St. Louis Blues. Why not your own assistant GM? Why not someone who knew the Leafs? (Why not someone qualified?). Going into the summer, they are bound to repeat this mistake again as they scour the corners of the league for an experienced (read second-hand) GM.

5) Perspective

Call it perspective, call it judgment. Montreal GMs have been able to offer some perspective to fans: not every year will bring the Stanley Cup. In fact, they as much as told us they wouldn't be competing for the Cup for at least 5 years, oh about 5 years ago. Toronto has no such perspective.

Every summer, consecutive GMs have brought overblown optimism abetted by "big" signings. Most springs, they gave up a little of the future for that last piece. We can all see they are not one piece from being a contender. Somehow, the Leafs haven't been able to see that.

6) Luck

Call it luck, call it timing. Someone said you have to be good to be lucky.

When you look at our most successful seasons since the 1970s, there's been luck in play. Steve Smith scores in his own net to take Edmonton out. Glen Healy plays like a star for the first time in his career. 2 dynasties out of the way – 2 Cups. First ever open draft lottery: 5th overall pick – turn it into second best player in a deep draft.

Take Toronto's best chances: less luck. Not necessarily bad, just not as good. Where we get the Islanders in 1993, the Leafs managed to time playoff match-ups with Vancouver, Buffalo and Carolina during their isolated success. Compared to Carey Price, they managed only the 24th pick in the wide open 2005 draft.

7) Perception

Since 1993, the only difference between Montreal's success vs. Toronto's is perception. I could have written exactly this article in 2001 about the Canadiens, comparing them to the Leafs. At that time, our draft picks didn't look so hot, while Gary Roberts was an example of the perfect veteran free agent signing.

While the Leafs are perceived as a failure today – it is probably a somewhat unfair assessment. After all, this team is not Florida or Phoenix. They have much better plans for the future than say Atlanta. They will never wallow for as long as Columbus. Even when you look at their original 6 peers, they have fared much better than Chicago and even New York, in general. The Leafs are only one year removed from deflating Montreal in our bid to make the playoffs for consecutive years for the first time in a decade.

As long as Toronto measures themselves by Stanley Cups alone, they will never be able to break the cycle. I believe this, at the end of the day, is at the core of their failure. All their hirings are temporary moves. All their signings with next year in mind. Their attitude to prospects is coloured by the need for a Cup now,not in 11 years. More and more Leafs fans recognise this by the day. It's only a matter of time until the blow it all up and play the game the rest of the league does.

I rest easier knowing the best GM in the league and probably the best scouting staff are not going to be available to the Leafs though. Becuase that first step (our Andre Savard move) will be hard to make without an equivalent talent.

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