Is goonery overshadowing Flyers' resurgence?
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff", ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: With Jesse Boulerice's hit Wednesday night and Steve Downie's hit from the preseason, is all of this goonery overshadowing the Flyers' great turnaround, which could be the model for other struggling teams?
Scott Burnside: Hello, Damien. I think it's interesting that the Boulerice hit (or, should we say, unprovoked attack) on the Canucks' Ryan Kesler came with the rebuilt Flyers up 7-2 and having chased Vezina Trophy/Hart Trophy nominee Roberto Luongo out of the net. It may not be as much a case of overshadowing the rebuilding effort by the Flyers, but rather highlighting the utter stupidity of Boulerice.
Damien Cox: Hello, Scott. Well, we'll get to the Flyers' rebuilding thing in a moment. First, some background on this enchanting Boulerice fellow. In April 1998, he was playing junior hockey in the OHL when he launched one of the ugliest stick attacks I've ever seen on Andrew Long of the Guelph Storm. Long suffered terrible injuries and Boulerice was banned by the OHL for the next season. Of course, hockey being hockey, a goon is always needed by someone. But why bother with a suspension in this case? Just tell this guy to get lost. Buh-bye. Find another job that pays you $475,000 a year since you obviously don't respect this one.
Scott: Agreed on Boulerice. He was charged and pleaded no contest to the hatcheting of Long. I think a lot of people were wondering how NHL Lord of Discipline Colin Campbell would follow up the 20-game suspension of Steve Downie, but this is a walk in the park for Campbell. Start with 20 games and keep going.
Damien: OK, but once again, you're being light on crime, something I've come to expect with some surprise from a former crime writer and caped crusader. If a year off didn't nudge Boulerice into thinking he needed to come up with a different approach to the sport, what will 20 or 25 games do? More to the point, what does a player like this possibly add to the league or the sport? Aren't you tired -- yet -- of seeing guys get these fabulous pro hockey jobs with essentially no other qualifications than their firsts and lousy dispositions?
Scott: I guess you're right. But the issue in these situations is about making the punishment fit the crime as opposed to making the punishment fit the criminal. If Daniel Briere had done this (OK, so he'd have had to get up on a box to take off Kesler's head as Boulerice did, but let's imagine it for a moment), would you still be advocating a lifetime ban? Don't think so. Let's assume Boulerice gets 20 or 30 games and the Flyers get along fine without him (this is a good segue into the changes in the lineup from last season), then they could release Boulerice and his career would effectively be over. At least until [Ducks GM] Brian Burke signs him.
Damien: OK, so you're going to be a softie again. How about this one before we move on to the Flyers' rebuilding. Shouldn't Flyers coach John Stevens have to pay to some degree because, apparently, he can't control his players? First, Steve Downie, now Boulerice. When is the coach held responsible? I always believed Marc Crawford should have been suspended after the Todd Bertuzzi attack on Steve Moore, and the NHL came very close to taking action against him.
Scott: I agree. Remember a couple of years ago when the Toronto media attacked poor Bob Hartley here in Atlanta after a particularly nasty dust-up when the Leafs were trouncing his Thrashers? The problem for Stevens is that his goons gooned it up (A) in a preseason game (huh?), and (B) when they were crushing the Canucks. That's the best evidence that Stevens has no control. Like the Downie suspension, the question is: If Campbell does dock Stevens a few pesos or keeps him from behind the bench for a game or two, do you then have to suspend every coach whose players go bananas? Or do you get a mulligan and then start laying down the law? Just asking. But how about those Flyers anyway?
Damien: The Flyers, despite their goonery, are getting lots and lots of attention around the league, and a lot of credit is going GM Paul Holmgren's way. Blowing it all up last season has quickly turned the Flyers from a team that looked too slow in the post-lockout era to a young, fast team. It's the Pittsburgh model, just done faster, and I can tell you this -- lots of folks in Toronto are wondering when in heaven's name the Maple Leafs are going to wake up and do the same thing.
Scott: The Flyers seem to have hit on a pretty good thing early on, thanks in large part to Daniel Briere (seven points in three games) clicking with Simon Gagne. And I think when people hear "blow things up," they think "get rid of stiffs and bring in good players." People sometimes forget the misery in Pittsburgh and even Carolina and Anaheim in recent years. Also, the Penguins had that monumental screw-up after the lockout when they brought in all that "talent" to play with Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby and they ended up at the bottom of the standings.
Damien: But is this really genius? And should fans be willing to pay for a season -- or two, or three, or more -- of crappy hockey while the team slowly drafts its way into contention? I mean, look at Washington. They're finally competitive, but unless they're refunding the tickets from the past three years, that's been a bad deal for the millions and millions of hockey fans in the greater D.C. area (tongue planted firmly in cheek).
Scott: Exactly. And in a market like Toronto, where do you start with a team that has prided itself on developing talent only by sheer luck? I wrote last season that the Leafs should trade Mats Sundin even though they were on the edge of the playoff bubble (and he has a no-trade deal) because he would have commanded as much as Peter Forsberg on the trade-deadline market, but was immediately shouted down by Leafs fans (no surprise there). So what would happen if they really did have a plan and that plan involved the future?
Damien: Of course, you have advocated trading Sundin since 1997. When will these people wake up and listen to the great hockey genius of the South!?
Scott: I knew you would come around to my way of thinking, eventually. But you know from covering the Leafs that they exist in their own little world, immune to things like economics and reality. They will continue on their merry way, keeping players like Sundin and cashing in draft picks and prospects for players like Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala and holding their breaths hoping the sow's ear turns into a silk purse (you knew I'd get back to the farm analogies, didn't you?). Why? Because in the end, it absolutely doesn't matter what the team does on the ice because it doesn't affect the team's bottom line.
Damien: Aha! Eureka! The boy finally gets it! But what's killing the Leafs is not having Sundin on the roster. He's very affordable, is still their best player (sadly) and is producing. The opportunity missed was two seasons ago when Bryan McCabe was among the league leaders in defensive scoring and unsigned at the trade deadline. They could have moved him for a bundle since they missed the playoffs anyway, saved all the money they're wasting on him and started a Flyers-like rebuild vs. a Pittsburgh-like rebuild. Would it be worth it to trade Sundin now? Sure, if you can't point to a trade involving a top player of a similar age that really netted anything of substance for the club moving the aging star.
Scott: But those are hard decisions. The decision to trade an asset like McCabe instead of wildly overpaying to keep him doesn't get made unless the bottom has been hit. Look at Los Angeles: terrible team, cleaned house at the top and now GM Dean Lombardi has a collection of 20-something players who look like they'll be the real deal for years. Pittsburgh, too. But the guys who made those hard decisions weren't the guys who'd gotten the teams in trouble to begin with. So it's not going to be John Ferguson in Toronto to write the new script and it won't be Don Waddell in Atlanta who charts the new and presumably better course. So just for fun, what would you do with this Leafs' squad if you were named GM tomorrow (and I understand that it's entirely possible that might happen)?
Damien: OK, who tipped you off? That Melrose guy?
Scott: They asked Barry, but he told them if Scotty Bowman wouldn't take the job, he wasn't interested either. Plus, they have a hair-length policy at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment that ruled Barry out.
Damien: Similar problem for me anyway, what would I do? Given where you are right this minute, you have to play this season's hand out, hoping that even if you're around the edges of the playoffs come February, there will be somebody out there willing to take a McCabe or Kubina or Tucker contract off your hands. Those guys do not represent the future. Awkwardly, McCabe and Tucker have no-trade clauses, but I'd pay 'em off to shove off. Re: Raycroft -- you move him as soon as a terrible goaltending tragedy befalls another club and you don't expect much back in return. Clear salary, try to get a first-round pick if possible in the June draft and start from there. Am I hired?
Scott: That looks like a plan. There will always be teams like the Thrashers or Islanders that will be willing to sell their souls to merely get into the playoffs because their situations (i.e., GMs needing to keep jobs) dictate they mortgage parts of their future for immediate gain. You have to love how a team like St. Louis has managed to very quickly accumulate good young assets and bounce back into a team that looks like a playoff contender. The question is whether there will ever be enough will to do something like that in Toronto?
Damien: Great question, and for that, I don't have an answer. I would have bet Ferguson would have gone down this path, but by constantly holding a pink slip over his head, Leafs ownership essentially forced him to think short-term as much as long-term. With a full house and even bigger profits since the lockout, Leafs ownership needs only to insulate itself in the cushy suites at the Air Canada Centre and pretend everybody loves what they are doing. It's a crime, really.
Scott: Well, the Leafs' season may not be totally lost. I understand Wade Belak is back in the lineup. That ought to make things right.
Damien: Leafs TV is already having a poll as to whether Belak is one of the 50 greatest Leafs, or just in the top 75. So, have we solved anything this week?
Scott: Only that we know more than almost anyone else we know. Next week, a discussion of 4-H Beef vs. Dairy. See ya.
Damien: And get those Thrashers goin', will ya? Later.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."