After giving the Carolina Hurricanes a multimillion-dollar advertising consult for free – that’s what “bunch of jerks” has become – Don Cherry deepened hockey’s most delightful feud on Saturday.
Canadian broadcasting’s Foghorn Leghorn was in foul humour – it’s been that sort of playoffs for everyone who takes a paycheque from Sportsnet. In the midst of beating up on Carolina, Cherry called their fans “front-running.”
Ron MacLean tried to give him an out: “Hard not to embrace though, isn’t it?”
“They don’t embrace nothing!” Cherry bellowed, which doesn’t make any sense. But it would make a good motto for the NHL.
A few things are correct here.
Carolina fans are front-runners. The team is hard not to embrace. And notable portions of the Canadian hockey establishment will never embrace nothing like it – and we’re not just talking about the human bowling pin bit.
Take the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’re doing everything right. They’ve got their stars lined up, knocking contracts off one at a time. Mitch Marner’s the last piece. He wants something in the neighbourhood of US$11-million per, and he will get it.
After lying flat on his face during his end-of-season exit presser and begging forgiveness for pooching the William Nylander negotiations, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has no other choice.
That will leave the Leafs with four players (Marner, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Nylander) eating half the salary cap. But the future is secured.
The Leafs will be a remarkable regular-season team for years to come. Maybe the greatest regular-season team in franchise history. They can keep ticking over those “all-time-best” points totals and calling it victory.
But the playoffs? With these guys? Based on the available evidence? That remains an unknown. It doesn’t matter how many times someone says “things can only get better” – that doesn’t make it so. My investment adviser keeps trying the same thing.
It’s just as possible things can only get worse. That’s why we play sports rather than just project the scores and knock off for the day.
This sort of uncertain position wherein you have committed tens of millions of long-term dollars to a project which has not, as yet, proved viable is known in financial circles as ‘Edmontonoilersing’.
Here’s what we can say – the Leafs have a high-skill outfit that’s magic when the games are low pressure and the rink is wide open. The Leafs are surgeons operating in a sterile environment.
Carolina – and I’m not sure I want to credit it with much more than good luck on this – has built an April-to-June team. When the calendar ticks over and the hockey gets frantic, the Hurricanes turn into battlefield medics. They don’t mind working while bombs go off around them.
An April-to-June team – at least, the sort we’re seeing this year – is a hard marketing pitch. It has very few stars or, more likely, none. It’s not slick. It looks wretched in September when you’re trying to sell season tickets.
It is most likely to be constructed in some American second city where hockey is second or third or 15th on the popularity ladder. It only comes on late in the campaign. Where other teams are trusted entirely to the talent of a few (and lost because of it), the Carolinas put their faith in the collective and momentum.
The Carolinas weren’t “built” – not in the Maple Leafs/high-end hockey laboratory sense of the idea. They were thrown together with whatever low- to medium-cost material was at hand. They weren’t supposed to be winners. They were only meant to be competitive. Somehow, that has made them winners.
How have the Hurricanes thus far whipped two teams that were better than they were in the regular season? Simple answer – goaltending. Simpler answer – they didn’t try so hard to be clever.
Carolina wasn’t put together by a super-computer trying to maximize top-end performance. It’s a team of pluggers who plug when you ask them to.
The Leafs (and the Lightning and the Flames) are a team of non-pluggers who, when asked to plug, say, “I’ll have to check the plugging provision in my contract because I’m pretty sure my lawyer took that out.”
What money these non-plugging teams might have spent on several effective pluggers was instead spent on very few stars who, once April arrives, find the butt-end of a stick shoved into their faces every time they try to go dipsy-doodling in toward goal. It’s hard to be your best self under those circumstances.
It might be in the interest of those teams to think about rejigging their entirely star-focused model and marry it to a modified plugging one. Whatever motivation is required can be achieved by turning on the television this evening and noting that their employees are not on it.
But that would require embracing something unpopular, and will likely get you called stupid. Like Cherry, no sane Toronto executive is embracing nothing like that.
Marner will be signed, which leaves little or no money to re-sign plugging types such as Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. Along with a couple of others, that means Marner has to do everything. Given the way the finances are trending, he may have to throw in a couple of shifts every night playing on defence.
Marner’s a special talent, and good on him for getting every nickel he can. But it’s hard not to look over at a postseason wrecking ball such as Brad Marchand and think, “How come he only makes $6-million?”
Right, because Marchand doesn’t score goals in November.
Who would you rather have right now? Exactly.
Maybe this is simply a matter of tactics and motivation. If you can find the right combination of the two, your stars can be so effectively deployed they will swamp whole armies of plugging opponents with their brilliance.
Or, maybe all the clever boots who’ve grafted the NBA’s franchise-building calculus – two or three elite players plus a bunch of low-cost schlubs equals a winner – onto the far-more chaotic environs of the NHL have outsmarted themselves.