Commentary

Leafs' limbo driving team into the NHL basement

Updated: January 14, 2008, 11:27 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

By almost any measuring stick, from their dysfunctional ownership model to their ill-advised signings to the astonishingly poor play, you can make a strong argument that the Toronto Maple Leafs are the NHL's worst team.

The Leafs were humiliated on their just-completed western road trip, losing 5-0 to Anaheim, 5-2 to bottom-feeding Los Angeles and 3-2 to San Jose on Saturday night, blowing yet another third-period lead. The trip wasn't a revelation so much as a confirmation that this team that prides itself on being at the very center of the hockey universe is virtually devoid of most things associated with success.

[+] EnlargeMats Sundin
Kyle Terada/US PresswireIf the Leafs want to deal Mats Sundin, the captain will first have to waive his no-trade clause.
What is even more embarrassing for this Original Six franchise is, even in the face of this free fall, ownership is so paralyzed by its constant infighting and lack of direction that it appears powerless to react.

When players pull the chute and lose 11 of 13, as the Leafs have done at a crucial juncture of the season, a normal team's owner will come down from his/her perch and fire either the GM or coach or both, or mandate a dramatic change in player personnel.

Instead, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment president Richard Peddie, who happened to be on the road trip, told reporters that GM John Ferguson doesn't have the power to unilaterally fire coach Paul Maurice (if Ferguson believes that is an appropriate course of action), nor does Ferguson have the professional latitude to trade captain Mats Sundin without first coming to the board of directors. Further, Peddie told reporters that the team's board will be discussing Ferguson's future in the very near future.

Have some humanity. Just fire the man and get it over with.

But that's not the Maple Leafs' way. This is a team that is rarely humane or decisive. With more heads than Medusa (and about as attractive), Leafs' ownership dithers and postures, and, meanwhile, a season slips away.

Earlier this season, the team tried to find someone to come in as a hockey advisor either to help Ferguson or to be groomed to replace him. The board couldn't get that done, and now Toronto is heading into the crucial trade-deadline period with a GM whose toes are hanging over the edge of the plank and an organization in which no one has the gumption needed to finish the job.

Dispatching Ferguson, as many expect will happen in the coming days, assumes there is a Plan B afoot. Yet, there is so little consensus in the boardrooms of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, a consortium of bankers and pension-fund investors masquerading as a hockey organization, that agreeing on who should lead this team is virtually impossible.

One person familiar with the organization told ESPN.com that finding the "right" GM is a moot point because ownership has its own agenda that supersedes the hockey office. Until the mangled front-office situation is rectified, moving forward is a pipe dream.

What must be frustrating to fans is that teams like Philadelphia, which was dead last in the league a season ago, have shown that meaningful change can come very quickly in the new NHL if there is a plan and vision.

Change for the Leafs means trading captain Mats Sundin, something Ferguson should have done last season. A player of his caliber surely must be sickened by what he sees around him. At this stage, this is long past loyalty or honor, but about self-preservation for both player and team.

Whoever is handed the keys to the Leafs' machine -- whether it's Scotty Bowman (who appeared on CBC on Saturday suggesting he was offered a job by the Leafs, but turned it down) or Doug Gilmour or Craig Button or Bob Nicholson or the ghost of Conn Smythe himself -- should work to find trade partners that might possibly take on Pavel Kubina, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe or even Tomas Kaberle.

It will start with Sundin, though, and it should start immediately, assuming Sundin would waive his no-trade deal.

But given the team's historic inability to come to grips with important decisions, look for poor Ferguson to be sitting in his chair at next month's GM meetings in Naples, Fla., with his team still looking at the bottom.

Slap Shots


Conklin

Good Week
Good week? Heck, this has been a dream month for Pittsburgh Penguins netminder Ty Conklin, who has gone from hockey's remainder bin to being virtually unbeatable. Conklin suffered his first defeat Saturday, albeit 3-2 in a shootout, to Atlanta. Prior to that minor stumble (he stopped 34 of 36 shots, including many of the sparkling variety), Conklin had won nine straight starts and compiled a 1.52 goals-against average and .952 save percentage.

Before becoming a Johnny Bower look-alike in recent weeks, Conklin was best-known for his gaffe in Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, when he turned over the puck in the last minute of a tie game, allowing Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour to score the winning goal. The Hurricanes went on to defeat Conklin's Edmonton Oilers in seven games, and he had played in just 16 NHL games since then before his current streak with the Penguins.

Is this 9-0-1 run the best he's ever played?

"Well, I think I feel good. I think the team's playing very well," Conklin told ESPN.com before Saturday's game. "I mean, we're playing really solid defensively. I'm getting some breaks, too. I think it's been a really good run for the team. When things go well, some guys get a little more credit than they deserve, and when things go bad, sometimes they get a few more fingers pointed at them than they deserve. I think that has a lot to do with it."

Conklin's stunning run has helped the Penguins jump from the playoff bubble to within two points of the Atlantic Division lead and the second seed in the East. Perhaps more important, Conklin's play has negated the need for GM Ray Shero to commit cap space and resources to acquire another netminder.

After Conklin started the season with the Penguins' AHL farm team in Wilkes-Barre, did he ever worry that he'd never get a chance like this again?

"I really didn't look at it that way, to be honest with you," Conklin said. "I wanted to play in the NHL and I wanted to get back there. But, for the most part, I was just concerned with playing well wherever I was and working hard wherever I was so that, if an opportunity arose, I was ready for it."

Mission accomplished.


Khabibulin
Bad Week
The Chicago Blackhawks can relate to the old country lament that if it weren't for bad luck, there'd be no luck at all. Chicago had lost eight straight games (six in regulation) before its 3-2 win over Nashville on Sunday. While the Blackhawks are enjoying a revival of sorts in terms of their fan base and profile in the city, they continue to be plagued by the worst luck with injuries. The Hawks are missing a bevy of regulars, including top rookie Jonathan Toews, Jason Williams, Ben Eager, Kevyn Adams, James Wisniewski and Dave Bolland. The thin lineup has effected the production of the team's other dynamic rookie, Patrick Kane, who is pointless in his past four starts. Then, there's No. 1 netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who continues to struggle with his consistency, regularly allowing bad goals at crucial times.

Stuck in Neutral
It wasn't that long ago that some of the best hockey in the NHL was being played in the Southeast Division. The division produced two Stanley Cup winners in Tampa Bay and Carolina and some of the most exciting hockey anywhere. But, once again, water has found its own level. When the division-leading Hurricanes blew a 3-1 lead against the Avalanche on Saturday after allowing three goals in just over 5-1/2 minutes in the third, they found themselves just one game over .500 and two points ahead of the Atlanta Thrashers. How bad is the division? The Washington Capitals, left for dead when they fired their coach at Thanksgiving, are just seven points behind Carolina with three games in hand.

Our top story lines of the week

1. All's well that end's well for Craig Leipold. The long-suffering owner of the Nashville Predators has managed the rare feat of leaving one NHL franchise in shambles only to take over one of the league's most solid franchises in the Minnesota Wild just a few weeks later.

Leipold, one of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's top soldiers in the war against the players' union that led to the 2004-05 lockout, insisted his small-market team could never compete against big-market teams without a salary cap. Yet, when the lockout yielded a salary cap, Leipold still couldn't make a go of it despite sucking up millions of dollars in revenue sharing and having one of the most generous arena-lease deals in the league.

He could have, and by rights should have, sold his team to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie last summer; but, as first reported by ESPN.com, he backed off under pressure from Bettman. Why? Leipold knew he was in line to take over Bob Naegele's majority share of the Wild and didn't want to rock the NHL boat. So he turned his back on a $238 million deal, settling instead for $193 million from a group of local investors and California businessman William "Boots" Del Biaggio III.

Leipold then insisted that he refused to go through with the Balsillie deal because he wanted to ensure the team's future in Nashville and Balsillie was publicly planning to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario.

It's funny how Leipold's path to long-term success in Nashville involved slashing payroll and raising ticket prices. His policy could keep fans away from Preds games in even larger droves than before. According to The Tennessean, the Preds have drawn an average paid attendance of 12,853 through the team's first 17 home dates. That's a recipe for long-term success in Kansas City, which is where the lame-duck team seems destined to land once the new ownership group realizes, as Leipold did, that Nashville is fallow land when it comes to hockey.

2. We applaud Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren for his no-nonsense response to problem child Steve Downie's sucker punch a week ago. Downie, suspended for 20 games for a violent preseason hit on Ottawa's Dean McAmmond, wasn't suspended by the league but was warned instead for punching Toronto's Jason Blake while an official restrained the Leafs forward. Holmgren, however, wasn't as delicate, telling reporters he let Downie know he thought the act stunk and it had no place on his team. It was a refreshing line of thinking from a team that has had five players suspended for a variety of egregious acts this season.

It all made former GM Bob Clarke's comments -- he told a Canadian sports program a few days later that he "loved" the sucker punch -- that much more puzzling, not to mention embarrassing, for the franchise. Clarke's insistence that Blake deserved the assault for comments Blake made earlier about Downie merely reinforce the long-held notion that Clarke exists in some strange parallel universe close but not connected to reality. Of course, this is a Hall of Famer whose claim to fame was breaking the leg of Russian star Valery Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series. At least he remains consistent.

3. Here's an idea for an ESPN.com poll -- how many players who were either voted onto or named to the All-Star team will bail out before the weekend festivities on Jan. 24-26? Vancouver netminder Roberto Luongo pulled the plug moments after he was named the West's starting goalie, saying he wanted to stay with his pregnant wife, who isn't expecting for several months. Dany Heatley went down with a shoulder injury Saturday in Ottawa's victory over Detroit and could miss several weeks. We guess no fewer than five will find some convenient injury and/or other excuse to avoid the proceedings.

4. Riddle us this: How can the talented San Jose Sharks boast the NHL's best road record (16-3-3), the kind of mark that suggests Stanley Cup greatness, and yet be such stiffs at home? With the Sharks' 3-2 win over Toronto, they moved to 9-9-4 in the comfy confines of the Shark Tank. Before the win, they ranked 28th on home ice. Last season, they were fourth in the conference with a 25-12-4 home record. Coaches often suggest their teams play more disciplined on the road but try to freewheel too much and "put on a show" for the home crowd. Maybe, but for a team that has what should be a good core of veteran leaders, including Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Craig Rivet and Mike Grier, you wonder how this could be possible. It's now become a mind issue for the Sharks. If they can improve their home play, they should be Cup contenders. If they can't, it'll mean another early spring in San Jose.

5. Wonder how the news of Alexander Ovechkin's 13-year, $124 million extension from the Capitals was met in Pittsburgh? The Pens were generally lauded for signing Sidney Crosby to a five-year, $43.5 million extension earlier this season, but the pressure will now be on to produce a long-term deal for either Evgeni Malkin or Jordan Staal, who will come to the end of their entry-level deals at the end of next season. Why? Well, whether you agree with it or not, the Ovechkin deal takes the Russian star out of the free-agent picture for years to come. Crosby is locked up for less than half the time Ovechkin is in Washington, and there will be some pressure for Shero to come up with some long-term security for Malkin and/or Staal before they become restricted free agents.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.