So let me get this straight: Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is transferred Friday from one massively profit-driven ownership group – the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan – to another (the unlikely consortium of telecom giants BCE and Rogers) and some immediately conclude that it’ll be a disaster for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ on-ice fortunes. Well, no, we’ll beg to differ.
In today’s NHL, it takes two things to win – good management and a little bit of good luck.
In a salary-capped world, ownership is a neutral factor, unless ownership is unstable and forces its managerial group to operate at a financial disadvantage, by imposing a strict budget on its operations. That was never the case in Toronto under the Teachers’ stewardship and it won’t be the case in Toronto under the new BCE-Rogers umbrella either.
Say what you will about the years that Teachers controlled the Leafs, which produced exactly zero Stanley Cups, it gave Brian Burke (and all his predecessors) carte blanche to do whatever was deemed necessary to win. If it didn’t always work – and it hasn’t worked right in Toronto since about 2004, or the last time the Leafs were a regular playoff team – it wasn’t because of heavy-handed ownership, or indifferent ownership, or ownership that didn’t care about winning. Winning is good business. Period. Paragraph. Stop.
The long history of the NHL, pre and post salary cap, is that competently managed teams win – or stay competitive – year after year; and poorly managed teams struggle, no matter how much money Glen Sather has at his disposal. The Detroit Red Wings are a team flush with cash that spent it wisely for most of two decades. The New York Rangers are a team flush with cash that spent it badly for most of two decades.
And Burke, since he took over the Leafs from interim general manager Cliff Fletcher back in November of 2008, has had all the cash and all the autonomy he’s needed to put his vision of the team into place. They will sink or swim under his leadership – and that will not change under the ownership changes unveiled Friday morning.
Yes, BCE and Rogers may alter the way the product is eventually presented. Yes, they may make it costlier to sample the product. Yes, they will make the product available on more and more platforms. But ultimately, they will have no impact on how the Leafs’ on-ice fortunes, which will continue to rise and fall on the basis of James Reimer’s goaltending, Phil Kessel’s scoring, and the Leafs’ perplexing inability to kill a penalty. (Hmm. Wonder if George Cope, BCE’s chief executive officer, has any helpful advice there? Just a thought).
It’s still all in Burke’s hands – and if there is one quality that’s characterized the first three years of Burke’s tenure, it has been the ability to judiciously smack around opponents with the pension plan’s massive wallet. Joffrey Lupul was picked up in a salary dump by the Anaheim Ducks (which also netted the Leafs prospect Jake Gardiner) and Lupul is No. 5 in the NHL scoring race. Pretty good-looking deal. Dion Phaneuf came over because the Calgary Flames were unwilling to keep paying almost $20-million to three defencemen (Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Jay Bouwmeester) at a time when they needed to find a way of signing Mark Giordano. Matthew Lombardi and Cody Franson were acquired from Nashville because of the Predators’ budgetary constraints.
The Leafs are at the forefront of the bidding for all prominent college free agents and have had a mixed bag of success dipping into the NHL free-agent market (Clarke MacArthur good, Mike Komisarek bad, jury still out on Tim Connolly).
But the Leafs are also young, fun to watch and, if Reimer shows he’s the real deal in goal and gets back on track here, they are also a playoff contender and a team on the rise, with its best days ahead. And none of that is going to change, no matter whose logo is now on the company letterhead.
KABERLE ON THE MOVE
Redemption of sorts for the Kessel deal (which cost the Leafs the chance to draft Tyler Seguin and world junior hopeful Dougie Hamilton) came for the Leafs last spring, when Burke shipped Tomas Kaberle to the Bruins for Joe Colborne and draft picks (one of which the Toronto flipped to Colorado for the rights to John-Michael Liles). Kaberle played on the Bruins’ Stanley Cup-winning team, but was largely a poor fit in Beantown – and it wasn’t working any better for him in Carolina either, where he landed as a free agent last summer. It is why Kaberle was on the move again Friday morning, to the Montreal Canadiens, a team needing help on its power play, in the ongoing absence of Andrei Markov. Note to Habs GM Pierre Gauthier, who presumably checked the stats before diving in: Kaberle had managed all of five assists in his first 27 games for Carolina, boasted an ugly minus-14 mark, and even had mild-mannered general manager Jim Rutherford calling him out last week. This is a recipe for success? In a city that booed Patrice Brisebois mercilessly for all of his perceived shortcomings? Kaberle will need to execute a significant about-face here in this, his third fresh start in eight months, or the Canadiens will continue to spin their wheels. Markov likely isn’t back until the new year and Chris Campoli’s return can only help so much.