Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bad Like Michael Jackson

"...not good enough to make the playoffs, not bad enough to get a top 5 pick."

I'm feeling a small amount of frustration over the notion out there that being bad will be good. I'm sick of the Leafs being bad. Being bad is terrible. Not trying to be better then bad is even worse. That's when I start yelling "You Suck!" Losing is not winning, although, there are good ways to lose and bad ways to win.

The Title

Actually attempting to be bad is one of the worst things you can do. It should be outlawed in every form. Especially the Michael Jackson form, but also in sports. Finishing in the bottom-5 of the league by design is not a success. For the fans, that's a tragedy. We all know the Leafs are going to struggle this year, but I will be supremely disappointed if, when they lose, it's without a struggle. Even a crappy team, trying their best and playing to win, instead of playing not to lose, is worth watching. In the NHL, parity is so thin, that attitude is often the real difference-maker.

The Quote

The sentence under the title is a direct quote taken from HockeyNews writer, Ken Campbell. It's especially frustrating because he has otherwise written a very good article about why Sundin would choose Toronto over Vancouver or Montreal. In fact, it reads an awful lot like my piece, The Good, The Bad, And The Brutal, except that he doesn't call Sundin a slut.

The Question

The big difference between Ken Campbell's article and my post is that Campbell is "mystified" as to "why the Leafs are interested in having Sundin come back". He obviously didn't read my follow-up post, or he'd know the answer. Sundin is, in one key word Ken, excitement. Win or lose, with him or without him, this team is rebuilding, and the character of the dressing room is gonna change. The vision is there, and it's the correct one, but there still has to be a product on the ice. MLSE has never sold "winning and losing" as a commodity. Like a casino, they sell excitement. Have you seen the roster? Can you imagine how exciting this team is going to be without Sundin? Leaf fans, now more then ever, need something to cheer for. Mats Sundin is a 100%, genuine, certified, bona-fide, garaunteed, no exceptions, crowd-pleasing, show-stopping, thrill-maker. Given that there are no expectations for success this season, the "joy of winning" will have to be replaced by the "joy of watching". Tomas Kaberle is one heck of a hockey player, but him and Jason Blake are not going to get Leaf fans out of their seats on their own. We demand entertainment. We require Sundin.

The Debate

Why do people assume that landing a top-5 pick will automatically make the Leafs a better team? Because Washington has Ovechkin and Pittsburg has Crosby and Malkin, I suppose. Yet, Washington finished in the bottom-5 three times in the last five years (03/04, 05/06, 06/07) and they were only marginally better then a Leafs team that still had Sundin as its Captain, and Paul Maurice as the coach. Pittsburg (02/03, 03/04, 05/06), is a different story, but aside from Crosby, they've been luckier then they've been good. As an example, Chicago (03/04, 05/06, 06/07) and Columbus (02/03, 03/04, 05/06) have also finished bottom-5 three times in five years. What do they have to show for their failures? More failure? L.A. (06/07, 07/08), Phoenix (03/04, 06/07), and St. Louis (05/06, 07/08) have all finished in the bottom-5 twice. Are they projected to be the league's best teams next season? Or will they be lucky to avoid the bottom five again? Other teams that have finished bottom-5 in the last five years are: Atlanta, NY Islanders, Tampa Bay ( all 07/08), Philadelphia, Edmonton (both 06/07), Boston (05/06), and Florida, Carolina, and Buffalo (all 02/03). Do any these teams stand out as a serious Stanley Cup contender? I don't even think any of them stand out as being clearly better than the Leafs. And to think, we were able to build our competitiveness without tanking it or suffering through bottom-of-the-league mediocrity! We thought we might be a playoff team in March and then we weren't in April. That was humiliating enough, but at least winter was almost over.

Besides, as long as Cliff is the GM, it doesn't matter where we finish, it only matters what place Florida and the Islanders end up in. If they're willing to swap draft positions for draft picks we don't need, and give us draft picks for players we don't need, then give us players for pucks we don't need, then all we have to do is worry about beating those 2 teams and making sure we finish higher in the standings than they do. The only thing better than a top 5 pick in the draft, is getting to select Luke Schenn with someone else's pick.

The Results

Detroit, San Jose, Dallas, Calgary, Nashville, New Jersey and Ottawa have all made the playoffs the last 4 seasons in a row. Since Detroit is the only team to win the Cup from this group in the last 4 years (New Jersey's Cup was 5 seasons ago, 02/03), the rest of these teams must be in a state of disaster, right? Aside from Nashville, the Leafs would do well, and surprise a lot of people, if they could keep pace with any of these teams next season. Making the playoffs and missing out on a top 5 draft pick does not seem to have hurt any of these teams or slowed them down at all. More than likely, (with the exception of Nashville again) each of these teams is heading for another playoff spot again this year, and will miss the big John Tavares raffle. Clearly, winning starts at the top with good management and strong leadership. Attitude. Losing is not winning, and it will only help you get better if you're smart enough to learn something from it.

And The Winner Is...

A team that competes hard every night, that plays up to its potential. and then beyond, is its own reward. It's not just if we win, but the way we lose, that makes heroes out of men who've never won a championship. When the players care, it shows on the ice - if not on the scoreboard or in the standings - and the victory goes to the fans.

Thank you.


Scott Baker said...

I'm not sure your assessment of winning vs. losing teams and the means for their success is clear at all, to be honest.

Let's take a look first at the bad teams. Washington was only barely better than our Leaf team while winning their division and getting enough points to make the playoffs? Regardless, Washington has not only Ovechkin to look forward to but Green, Semin, Fehr, Fleischmann, and Alzner fleshing out and coming through. Regardless of where those players end up they all have significant upside compared to the current crop of Leafs prospects we're looking forward to seeing.

Chicago is on the cusp of achieving major success after years in the basement under a horrific owner who did his best to stifle growth. I doubt we'll still be calling them failures in two years, or for the next five or six after that. Same for Phoenix, whose progress was stifled by Winnipeg's fire sale before the franchise was moved.

The Blues have had problems developing their young guys but also have a more solid team than it may seem, LA and Columbus are good examples of poor asset management.

Detroit was horrible in the 80's and used it's experience to hang on to it's resources and make a club that can now compete indefinitely. Both San Jose and Ottawa were absolutely atrocious in the 90's, leading to the teams we see today. Jersey and Calgary's times of success are starting to wane as their core gets older and they lack the players to come in and fill the void, I don't see Jersey winning the cup within the next decade.

I think the problem here is that we all want to think about player development in the short term, but that's not really the case with how draft picks help a team. Most players hit their prime a full decade after they're drafted, is it any coincidence that poor teams a decade ago appear to be powerhouses now? Does this make comparisons of success over the last 4-5 years seem shallow, especially as many of the perennial losers are now coming to the fore while a few of the perennial contenders are looking to fade out of the picture into the future?

Of course missing out on a top draft pick hasn't hampered playoff teams in the last 4 years, each draft doesn't have a Crosby or Malkin or Ovechkin to go along with it. When was the last time you saw Erik Johnson do anything spectacular? If, however, you double that timeframe I think you'll begin to see the separation of poorly managed successful teams versus well managed ones.

I don't think anyone's trying to imply the Leafs should just fold up game after game, they're professional athletes and they play for themselves as much as any of us. The competitive spirit is not in question, why we would wish to make moves to improve a losing effort regardless is. Draft picks are basically a weighted lottery, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose out, but the best odds of winning come at the top. Next years roster could play their balls out every shift and still come up short, why go out of our way to make them come up a little less short?

What we need is a system in place where we keep our draft picks, all of them, get a firm grip on our player development and culture, and then hope our scouts do their work. If they do and all goes well then I guarantee you'll see no such sign of it 5 years from now. In 10 however....

general borschevsky said...

Hi Scott. Thank you for leaving your comment. Sorry my assessment isn't clearer. Let me try to address your points one by one.
Washington's prospects are, no doubt, a lot brighter and healthier then Toronto's. But the future is unpredictable, it hasn't happened yet, and with prospects there's no guarantee of inevitable success. Regardless, MLSE has never sold optimism as a commodity. They sell entertainment and excitement.
With 10 games to go last year, Washington had 76 points, the Leafs had 74. Washington found their heart and team chemistry and won 9 out of their last 10. Toronto, disgracefully, did the opposite. If the Leafs had not completely sucked down the stretch, I think it's possible Maurice might still be telling us the team isn't as bad as we think it is. The big difference between those two teams in the last ten games was attitude. Oh ya, and they picked up Federov.
Also, winning the South-East division on the last day of the season is the same as almost missing the playoffs. Washington had 94 points, tied with Boston(8th) and Ottawa(7th), while playing most of their games against Florida, Tampa Bay, and Carolina. That doesn't really impress me.
Chicago seems like the Leafs of the Western Conference. They should be better, but will they be? Same with the Blues. More solid then they seem, sounds just like the Leafs. But again Leaf fans are a pessimistic bunch. Should be better isn't good enough anymore.
There's no way you can credit Detroit's success this decade with what happened in the '80's. There's no connection. Detroit's current roster is a miracle of shrewd drafting, super-intelligent managing, and attitude.
Ottawa was atrocious, yes, but it did not lead to the team we see today. Rather it led to a team with Bonk, and Lalime, and Yashin, and Arvedsen, and Havlat, and crappy skill-players with no heart, that Toronto used to beat all the time. Making the playoffs, and the learning expeirences of playoff battles, led to trades for, not better talent, but more character, players with the right attitude.
I'm not saying there isn't a benefit to having a solid core of youth and prospects in the system to build around. But, that alone, is not going to lead a team to the kind of success the Red Wings have had. Otherwise the NY Islanders would be the best team in the league, but they're not, as a long as they, and other teams like them, are mismangaed, then shrewd GM's like Cliff can shuffle draft picks and prospects for better draft picks and the right prospect.
many of the perennial losers are now coming to the fore while a few of the perennial contenders are looking to fade out of the picture
The problem with this statemnet is that I don't see it actually happening. The contenders in the '90's, with a few exceptions, are the contenders today. Dallas, New Jersey, Colorado, Detroit. The teams at the bottom of the leaugue, Florida, NY Islanders, L.A. Kings, Phoenix, are still there. It's almost 2009! How long do we have to wait for turnover? I'm starting to think it's not gonna happen. There's more to winning then just sucking for a few years. 10 years is too long to wait for something that isn't a guarantee. Players can lose their eyes, break their legs, develope coke habits, decide they would rather live in Europe, or the CBA could be re-written, the salary cap could be abolished, or Islamic fundamentalism could destroy the fabric of our society! Anything could happen by 2019! The Stanley Cup might be won by robots from the moon.
The competitive spirit is not in question, why we would wish to make moves to improve a losing effort regardless is.
Because it's not just the competitive spirit of the players that is in question, or even that effects the outcomes of games. It starts at the top with the right atitude. If one's employers are doing their best to ensure the success of the workers, the workers in turn, give a better performance. If, however, managemnets attitude is to allow current staff to flounder and suffer for the sake of a speculative long term gain that they won't be around to enjoy, then that attitude is also reflected on the job.
why go out of our way to make them come up a little less short?
Because that's the same as not trying. A winning attitude has to start at the top. Players need to know they have the support of the management and that they are doing everything they can to improve the quality of the team in the long term and to win the very next game as well.
I will not be turning my NHL standings page upside down, hoping the Leafs get closer and closer to the bottom, nor will I cheer when they lose and boo when they win. That's backwards, and it's the wrong attitude if your trying to build a championship, or change the atmosphere in a dressing room.
Play to win.
Encourage each other and establish a culture of ambition and success.
Fuck draft positions. Fuck John Tavares.
Wow. If anybody got to the bottom of this thanks for reading and thanks again, truly, to scott baker for his comment. Led to a discussion that far exceeded the origianl post. Cheers!

Scott Baker said...

Hey, thanks for the response, it was a long one but I managed :).

I don't think we're trying to argue dissimilar things here, and once again point by point seems the best way to do it.

MLSE is pretty terrible at marketing, no doubt, but part of it comes from the fact that they don't have to do anything. A day after we've added a player all the major journalists in town have tracked down his stats, but him in a line combination, then interviewed his dog.

Washington's success in getting to the playoffs was indeed helped by the fact that they play in the singular worst division in hockey. That didn't stop the Hurricanes from winning a cup though once all the Western superpowers were beat by a crappy Edmonton. I'd disagree that attitude was really the problem though, I think that before the Leafs lost the home and home to Boston the mood in Leafs Nation had definitely changed, and even perennial Leafs denouncers believed that the games they played against Boston would be easily winnable. We sucked down the stretch because we came back down to earth and realized that Stajan, a cancerous Blake, and a Tucker with no knee, are not a first line. Sundin and Antropov going down had a lot to do with our team's collapse, whereas Washington didn't lose anybody down their winning stretch (Semin was injured during their losing stretch). Also two points ahead doesn't seem like much with 10 games to go, but it's a point total that was insurmountable to more teams than just ours.

I think the reasoning is that teams like Chicago and Washington should be better because their core is a) young and b) the main reason for their success. Our young centres of Steen, Stajan, Wellwood, and Antropov had never broken 45 points a piece until Antropov got 11 more this season. That's not production that wins games.

There was the expectation that the Leafs would be better with a goaltender upgrade and the addition of a veteran scorer. The problem with that logic is that the success of our team was dependent upon two unknown quantities. Toskala took months to deliver, and Blake never did. After they struggled then it fell to an aging Sundin and a bunch of guys who'd proved in seasons past that they simply couldn't win games with their production alone.

In the end I think the 'should' have been better when applied to the Leafs was more wishful thinking than anything, at the end of the day our young core has never showed a glimmer of production beyond third-line duty. With teams like Chicago and Washington their rookies have already done so.

The Islanders and Kings are a picture of mismanagement, SI had a great article on the Islander's woes and the Kings are a young team determined to get younger and more inexperienced. Giving up Cammalleri for no appreciable gain while Kopitar and Frolov look for teammates who aren't headcases is a sure sign that organization will continue to struggle while Dean Lombardi is their GM. Acquiring role players in Stoll and Greene for a premier offensive dman in Visnovksy? Really Dean?

Florida's managed to give away the best goalie in the league and one of the better first line centers in the conference for next to nothing. They also seem intent on signing the leafs old throwaway veterans. Another franchise totally mishandling it's resources.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that attempting to lose isn't what made these teams bad, it's more that they have no idea what they're doing. All of the above have given away quality talent for no appreciable help for the talent they have remaining, and both Florida and the Islanders have been guilty of very, very poor personnel decisions. I think claiming that their fates have been intentional is misreading the situation.

Once again, I'm not advocating that the Leafs intentionally lose, I'm not going to games wearing my Stralman sweater cursing if he gets a point. I think the Leafs organization did a very good job of putting competitors into our club in Cujo and Nieuwendyk, and they've added Mayers almost solely because of his dressing room manner. I fully believe this team could (and will) surprise people. Montreal was ranked 13th, 14th, and 15th by most heading into this season. They won the conference. Toronto's got a lot of guys coming in with upside, has retained a lot of guys with upside, and it's reasonable to think that the ketchup bottle has to pour out soon.

But if, as you say, 10 years is too long then high draft positions become necessary for immediate future success. Name me a player drafted in the past 4 years who has become an impact forward and was taken in the bottom third of the draft.

On the flipside most of Detroit's scoring forwards were drafted 10 years ago. Datsyuk is 30, Zetterberg 27, Franzen 28, Cleary is 29. It really did take them this long to come into their full potential, and I doubt that Stralman or Tlusty or Kulemin will be as good two years from now as they are six.

It's not that I want to cheer for a loss, but some decent draft positions would be nice. I'm not trying to advocate trading away Pogge for two first rounders, as the Kings don't seem to be liking that strategy very much.

But I don't want to see us fill up our cap, as one-year deals are hard to come by and we need to inject more of our own guys onto the team, I think that's important to building a winning group. I also don't like us making trades like the Hollweg trade or the Grabovski trade, trades that appear to address the present but are filled with question marks and are actively sabotaging our future.

We all want the Leafs to do well, it's just a matter of how and when, I think.

general borschevsky said...

Well said, Scott. I don't think I have anything to add, really.
Competing for the bottom of the league, with teams like Florida, NY Islanders, and the Kings, could be just as hard as winning the Stanley Cup. Then there's the 'lottery', anyways. Knowing the Leafs, if they actually executed a strategy to finish last and land Tavares, they'd probably still finish 7th from the bottom.
Thanks for the discussion and keeping it positive. Leafs Nation: We're all in this together...