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Cloud9 Sports: Opinionated musing on the sporting world.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sports on Cloud Nine: Why the Toronto Maple Leafs can't win.

In all major sports there is an ebb and flow among their player personnel that is characterized by a combination of free agent signings, and player development – both internally among existing players and externally from players in the AHL, and junior.

The teams least favored to win, who will look to improve anyway they can, typically hold onto their cards and trust their blossoming talents will continue to develop and improve. It's best we don't burden ourselves with the equivalent of un-sinking the Titanic by trying to dissect their woes, so we'll move on to consider contenders (and pretenders).

At this point in the season it is fun to put on the General Managers' hat and think about what can be done to improve hockey clubs. For the likes of Ottawa, Pittsburgh, San Jose and Vancouver – all teams expected to be the at the pinnacle of their conference – it is most likely that free agent acquisitions, rather than development, will improve their chances of winning the Stanley Cup. They are granted this luxurious position largely to consistent success in player development. Their rosters feature a high relative percentage of mature young players that now CONTRIBUTE in their line up on a day to day basis. Think Spezza, Crosby, Cheechoo, and Bieksa. Listed from their respective teams above, they are exemplary models of what good player development can do for an organization.

Since we are playing GM, we can't overlook another huge reason player development is vital to success in the NHL: it is cheap! Free agents are always costly and ubiquitously overpaid, whereas nursing and nurturing talent from within allows you to sign them at a discount. This is why the Detroit Red Wings dominate annually with a roster full of skaters you've never heard of. They scout, draft and develop better than any team in the league over the past decade. Their soft division aside, the savings on their developed talent award them a little more freedom come the trade deadline when a costly acquisition might bolster their chances of making it to the dance.

Presented as a polar opposite from Detroit are their Original Six rivals down the 401 in Toronto. The Maple Leafs' model in the pre-salary cap era poo-pooed on talent development in favor of real time success. They would errantly discard prospects and draft picks for the good of that season and to the detriment of future campaigns. They were the NHL's New York Yankees as they unsustainably bought wins (but not Cups – Ouch)! However, in todays NHL where the ~$50 million salary cap handcuffs the big spendings in a futile effort to achieve parity, player development is the be-all, end-all when it comes to the success of your franchise. Thats right, I said it. Player development and the ultimate contributions they make towards improving your franchise will determine where the final resting place in the standings.

The Leafs represent the utmost incompetence when it comes to strengthening your organization from within. On their current roster players like Wellwood, Stajan, Steen (24th overall), Coliacavo (17th Overall), Antropov (10th Overall) continue to disappoint. I could continue, but I won't dare bore you with their mediocre numbers, personalities and contributions overall to the success of the Maple Leafs. Instead, I'll submit to you what I think is the most overlooked factor in the careers and lives of these young men playing in Toronto; a team whose surfeit of hacks and underachievers that can't seem to break out and make a name for themselves. But, why?

Toronto is the center of the hockey universe. The locker room is jammed with media personalities from the drop of the puck at the first practice of the pre-season. To think that it only picks up after that is just mind-numbing. Young Maple Leafs get the rock star treatment from day one and their celebrity status is instantaneous. They get recognized sooner, they get hot woman easier, they get more attention from everyone starting almost as prematurely as Leafs coverage on TSN. This is a phenomena almost unique to TO.

As a stark contrast to the Great White North, Americans largely don't give a rats' you-know-what about the NHL. In a big US city, the top 2-3 faces in the dressing room MIGHT be able to get into VIP at the hot local club, while the rest of the guys are waiting in line with the plumber from Boston, and the secretary from Washington. These small-market players are infused with a blue-collar type attitude that demands performance BEFORE recognition – something TO has entirely backwards.

As a result, Toronto players are bred with a poisonous heir of entitlement at a young age. This attitude, on both the conscious and subconscious levels is disastrous not just in sport, but many aspects of life. We can positively attribute their lack of development and subsequent mediocrity to this mental factor. Compare have and have-nots in any scenario in life and sport: the motivation to get out of the gutter is much greater when you don't have a pot to pee in (or a window to throw it out of). In cities where your not getting the time of day unless you're a top line player, the motivation for the young guys on 2nd and 3rd lines trying to make a name for themselves is immensely greater than that in Toronto. We can't underestimate the intrinsic fury generated by being ignored or overlooked – especially among young, testosterone/ego fueled professional athletes. Having to perform and excel in order to get to get your name in the paper, causes one to work harder in the gym and on the ice. Up and coming players in small markets have more success early because they need to succeed in order to get a piece of face time on Sportscenter, or to jack up their market value in the eyes of general managers around the league. The drive to succeed when you have been overlooked is MUCH greater than that of an individual who feels they have little to prove in lieu of their perceived success.

Lets tackle the other side of the coin in the media infested Toronto locker room, since I know the most common argument regarding the medias' affect on TO players is the added pressure. 'So what about the intensified criticism they are subjected to as a result of their prolific status', as many suggest? It doesn't matter. Most young cocksure athletes are sufficiently full of themselves to overcome the degree of scrutiny and criticism they face. I'd argue it is much easier to get by in Toronto, where even the godly Mats Sundin can't make it a week without his value being questioned. Once again, getting ripped is better than not getting noticed. Steen gets a pat on the back via a picture on Page One if he pops a game winner in TO. But, score 30+ goals in Colorado or Florida and you'll still just the guy listed in the Box Scores near the back. The Broncos and the football-crazed state of Florida couldn't care less about you, and more often then not I'd argue this defines the career of young up-and-comers in the NHL.

Just contrast the success rate for draft picks coming out of small markets and compare it to those from big market teams who echo TO's struggle to develop players. The New York Rangers have been victimized by a parallel course of action, but they are finally staged to make a run this year on the shoulders of their stud Goaltender, and 7th round draft pick, Hendrik Lundqvist. Think the Leafs will right the ship?

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