Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Did the Buffalo Sabres Blot Out Their Chances of Drafting Connor McDavid?

Did the Buffalo Sabres blot out their chances of drafting Connor McDavid by inking Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Cody McCormick, and Andrej Meszaros during Free Agent Frenzy? Did their July 1st acquisition of Josh Gorges further dim their chances of taking the presumptive first overall selection at the 2015 NHL Draft?

Those are the questions posed by Jason Kay of The Hockey News after Buffalo--a team that is aggressively rebuilding--surprised commentators by stocking up on veterans with offensive upside.

While those moves may seem counterproductive, they were arguably part of (not a divergence from) the overarching plan to draft high in 2015.

Presumptive first-overall pick is as likely to end up in Buffalo as he ever was. (picture source)

Murray and co. have essentially signed players up for an impending fire sale. Why else would Murray re-sign a player that he acquired solely as trade once already? Did he have a change of heart after trading Matt Moulson?

That's doubtful. I suspect that he re-signed Moulson just to trade him again down the line. When Moulson ratchets up goals next season, he'll attract attention from teams that could end up in the standings anywhere between a wildcard spot in the playoffs or a seat on TSN during the draft lottery. Hoping for the latter outcome, Buffalo will gladly deal Moulson to that team in exchange for picks.

Buffalo's management, I argue, sees these new signings not as permanent fixtures but a crop of talent that will ripen into high draft picks for the organization. Come the 2015 trade deadline, Murray will put away his modest suit, put on a pimp hat, and tell Moulson et al. to go make him some money.

In the meantime, the players can enjoy the downtime between the start of the season and the trade deadline, when they will be acquired by teams who are pressing for playoff berths. Sure, Buffalo's impermanent additions will need to show up on the box scores enough to garner trade interest. None of them can perform a disappearing act like Thomas Vanek in the 2014 NHL playoffs. But there is no pressure for them to make the team successful. They are strictly auditioning for roles on playoff-hopefuls.

After shipping the talent to other markets, Murray can focus on calling up prospects in order to give them some NHL seasoning. They will, at times, look as hilariously helpless on the ice as Bambi, but the extended cameos in the major league will provide them with an inside track in their development.

Pictured: Rasmus Ristolainen works on shot blocking after being called up to join the Sabres. 

In other markets, putting prospects in losing situations might hinder their development. But in Buffalo, no one will expect them to carry the team. Indeed, there will be plenty of coaches, trainers, and managers to reassure them that failure is expected (for the time being), so they should focus on learning instead of winning. With any and all aspirations of a playoff appearance removed, the prospects will be sheltered from expectations that seem to have crushed other young players who were thrown into NHL action to soon (for examples see Oilers, Edmonton).  

The only wrinkle in this plan is the salary cap floor, but the Sabres will be able to resolve this issue easily. As Murray has noted, it's easy to spend money in the NHL. One quick solution would involve retaining money on the contracts that he's eagerly offloading.

Cup contenders will have problems squeezing potential difference makers into their overcrowded salary caps. Buffalo, however, can offer discounts (for the small fee of a first-round pick). Sure, they can't take this approach with every new acquisition. They won't likely retain a portion of Moulson's salary over the next five seasons, but they could definitely absorb half of Meszaros' 1-year contract and make him highly attractive as a discounted rental.

Moreover, Murray can charge premiums for teams who buy up some of his abundant cap space. The Calgary Flames attempted this scheme when they offered to take on Mike Ribeiro's and Cam Ward's undesirable contracts in exchange for first-round picks from the Phoenix Coyotes and Washington Capitals respectively.

The Flames likely failed because they attempted this ploy right before the draft, when hockey clubs have nothing to do but daydream about the potential of future prospects. Around the trade deadline, when teams are desperate to make the playoffs and the draft is a distant memory, GMs will have a better appetite for throwing in a high pick just to attain cap relief. And no team will be more ready, able, and eager to take on the other teams' millstones than the Buffalo Sabres.

So here's my prediction for the Buffalo in 2014-15: they will be a middling-to-poor team until the trade deadline, when management will decorate its war room to resemble the set from SNL's "Pimp Chat."  

Artist's rendering of Tim Murray receiving the "Pimp of Da Month" award for his work during the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Forbesing Ahead:Why Everyone Wants the Leafs to Win (even you)

Ken Campbell of The Hockey News took an interesting stab at a longstanding conspiracy theory this week when he suggested that the Toronto Maple Leafs  would not be significantly more valuable if they were more competitive.

The Leafs are currently the only NHL team on Forbes' list of 50 most valuable sports franchises, listed at #26. According to Campbell, their ranking would not change significantly if the team played in the postseason more often.

His comments are one take on the debate regarding the chronic mediocrity that the team has experienced (more than less) since its last Stanley Cup Championship in 1967. Some detractors and despairing fans allege that the team does not ice a competent (let alone competitive) team most years because there is simply no financial incentive for doing so.

Campbell doubts that MLSE is simply orchestrating the world's cruelest heist by icing a substandard Leafs team each year while making ever-greater profits off of delusional fans.

However, he notes that, in terms of per-game profits, the increased number of playoff games would not significantly increase the club's monetary value on the whole.

While MLSE may not see the value of its flagship franchise soar due to a streak of playoff appearances, I argue that the one-time windfall of a Stanley Cup Championship would be massive. That one-time economic boom is probably much more alluring to the club's owners than eking out steady profits through diligent mediocrity.

Indeed, everyone should want the Leafs to win the Cup, but most people don't know that yet. Here's an overview on the aftereffects of a Leafs championship.

You know that old conundrum involving everyone in China jumping off chairs simultaneously in order to set off a cataclysmic event? Replace "China" with "Leafs nation" and "standing on chairs" with "buying NHL jerseys," and you get an idea of the sort of economic groundswell we can expect when (if?) the Leafs win the cup.

Every fan and countless bandwagon jumpers will, at the very least, buy themselves jerseys with the Stanley Cup patch on it. "We may never see them win again," we'll rationalize. "I deserve something after all these years of disappointment," we'll insist. "My other Leafs attire brought the team nothing but bad luck for decades," we'll speculate in order to justify the needless acquisition.

The diehard fans will buy multiple jerseys, hats, coats, track pants, lawn gnomes, et cetera that commemorate the event. Some will buy a replica home and away jerseys with every player from the championship squad just to feel that they have owned the moment sufficiently.

On top of new memorabilia sales, MLSE will be able to empty its warehouse of unwanted inventory simply by "updating" it with a Stanley Cup emblem. For example, I'm willing to bet that the team overestimated the market's enthusiasm for Leafs-themed hammers.

Seriously, this is a real item that you can buy now through the NHL's online store.

Well, all the marketing team has to do to unload these niche items is slap a Stanley Cup sticker on them, jack up the price, and sit back as hordes of crazed fans invade the Real Sports store by the ACC. The ensuing chaos would resemble scenes from Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, except that the hordes of zombies will be trying to get into the mall so that stores can devour their bank accounts.

Toronto businesses will similarly profit from the "Merch Madness" that will descend on Toronto following a Stanley Cup victory. Everyone from bobble-head peddlers, to commemorative-program vendors, and even calendar salesmen will see a spike in revenues. MLSE, of course, would have a hand in everything--especially the celebratory bash, which will rival all other parties in human history (real or fictional).

I'm talking about a party bigger than the intergalactic festivities held to celebrate the destruction of the second Death Star. I'm talking about a Leafs Nation-wide dance party featuring Ewoks backing up the percussion section just like in Return of the Jedi--except, unlike in ROTJ, they will be drumming on the helmets of losing clubs instead of low-ranking imperial troops.

Sidenote: I'm pretty sure that using the enemies regalia as a drumset is a war crime. Way to tarnish an intergalactic regime change, Ewoks. 

The other NHL teams will despise the fanfare, but they won't quibble with the results when the extra cash flow enriches their markets. Cap constrained teams will gladly "raise the roof" along with Leafs Nation as the Blue-and-White's revenues raise the cap ceiling. Meanwhile, cash-strapped teams will benefit from the league having more profits to share thanks to Toronto's windfall.

Beyond the league itself, a Leafs championship may fix much of what's wrong with the Canadian economy. There must be a few legendary caches of Canadian currency stored in Leafs piggy banks, which no one has tapped for decades because they are bound to an oath to save the money until the Leafs win a championship. At such time, this Fort Knox of loose change hoards will be broken open, flooding the Canadian economy with unknown amounts of pocket affluence.

A strong Canadian dollar would make the northernmost NHL markets more desirable destinations for players. Some day we may read that a prized UFA turned down offers from the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings because he wanted to cash in on a deal with the Winnipeg Jets.

Basically, the Leafs winning the cup would be like the ghosts of John Lennon and George Harrison coming back from the grave to cut an all-new Beatles album. That album would single-handedly save the music industry for generations. A Leafs championship would be a similarly monumental coup for the NHL as a whole and for the Canadian economy.

So let's put away any ideas that MLSE has built the Leafs to suck perennially. The team has come by its mediocrity honestly, but those years of disappointment will make up for the years of pitiful (yet profitable) performances in every, highly-lucrative way.  

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Tre Maple: Celebrating the Swedish Invasion of Toronto

Earlier this year, Brendan Shanahan suggested that the Toronto Maple Leafs lacked a team identity. It seems that Dave Nonis has responded by changing the team's nationality all together.

The biggest news coming out of the Leafs' 2014 prospect camp is the number of Swedish skaters in attendance. William Nylander, Viktor Loov, Tom Nilsson, Andreas Johnson, and Pierre Engvall represent the 5 Swedes at the camp. Combined, Sweden is contributing roughly 1/6 of the young talent gathered for seminars, drills, and scrimmages at the Mastercard Centre in Toronto this week.

The MSM have commented extensively on Sweden's strong showing in Toronto. The topic has become part of Paul Hendrick's interviews with prospect attendees, and Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News has even suggested that the team has newly developed "an infatuation with Swedes." 

And is there any wonder given Nylander's "come forecheck" stare?

Meanwhile, fervent Ontario patriot and anti-European partisan Don Cherry is probably already writing the epitaph for the blue-and-white following this Swedish invasion. I, for one, think that we should welcome our new Nordic overlords. And so I've put together some jersey prototypes that embrace the Leafs' new Scandinavian identity.

Here's the new home jersey.

Here's the new away jersey.

And, in case you're not familiar with Sweden's iconic "Tre Kronor" jerseys, here are the models for prototype 1 and 2.

What do you think of the Scandinavian conquest of Toronto?

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Bolland era ends as a costly cameo

Imagine this: you work for a struggling company. In order to stay sustain itself in an increasingly competitive field of business, your company courts a marginal contributor from a successful competitor. Almost immediately after being hired, the new employee must go on sick leave for an extended period of time. During her or his absence, the company's struggles worsen to such an extent that it actually performs worse than it did before the new hire arrived. Right after the unwell employee returns to work, she or he demands an exorbitant raise or threatens to walk away from the foundering business.

That scenario is basically what went down between the Toronto Maple Leafs and their former forward, Dave Bolland, who left Toronto after spending more time on crutches than skates at the Air Canada Centre.

At the 2013 NHL draft, the Leafs gave up three draft picks in order to acquire Bolland, who played a mere 23 games in blue and white. Basically, Toronto gave up three potential NHL players for a guy who played less than one third of a single season. The Leafs essentially gave up significant (or at least not completely insignificant) assets for Bolland to make an extended guest appearance on their roster.

Bolland is to the Leafs what Leonardo DiCaprio was to the cast of Growing Pains.

Instead of taking a pay cut to make up for his disappointing debut in blue and white, Bolland relied on a fiction to boost his value and bargaining power. The story goes that had Bolland's ankle not been severed by Zack Kassian last November, the Leafs would have fared much better in the 2013-14 NHL standings.

That's right: an NHL player actually used a version of himself from an alternate universe as a bargaining chip.

Maybe that's a fair approach. Perhaps Bolland used his extensive knowledge of theoretical physics to prove that there is, in fact, a bizarro-world Bolland in a universe wherein--on the strength of his Conn Smythe winning efforts alone--he led the Leafs to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1967, and then celebrated in the off-season by discovering the secret to nuclear fusion and a bacon-flavoured cure for the common cold.

Such a player would certainly command the same salary cap hit as John Tavares.

Some of you might think that an NHL player is entitled to ask for whatever he wants when he becomes a UFA. You're right, in the sense that no crimes were committed yesterday when free agents asked to be absurdly overcompensated in terms of salary and contract length. However, being able to do something doesn't justify doing it. For example, there's no law prohibiting me from accusing squirrels of being Nazi sympathizers, but that circumstance does not justify my attempts to have Rocket J. Squirrel tried for war crimes.

I maintain that Rocky's full name is "V-2 Rocket J. Squirrel."

Ultimately, Bolland's contract demands are a testament to how disastrously Toronto misjudged their asset. The Leafs acquired Bolland as a character guy--in the sense that character means exemplary qualities of leadership, determination, and excellence. Instead, they got a character in the mold of a Dickensian dastard.

If Bolland had any interest in showing character (in the nobler sense of the word), he would have taken a one-year contract at around his former cap hit. That gesture of good faith would have shown a willingness to make up for the lost time. More importantly, it would afford the Leafs an opportunity to verify that Bolland can still play before signing him to a long-term, lucrative deal. Instead, Bolland eloped with the first team that was willing to take a gamble on his uncertain future.

Bolland's own parting words emphasize that he joined the Panthers purely for mercenary reasons. In explaining his reasons for joining the Panthers, Bolland remarked, "Florida was there with the money and Toronto wasn't." And so, after all the pageantry of the earnest, down-to-earth Mimico boy returning to his homeland last season, Bolland heads to Sunshine, Florida looking like a gold digger.

For Leafs fans, schadenfreude is perhaps the only consolation after #63's unceremonious departure: Bolland's ankle may very well become the Achilles' heel of the Florida Panthers' salary cap.