One year ago Monday, Brian Burke brought Dion Phaneuf to Toronto in a sweeping assault on the state of the Maple Leafs.
Since then, after moving 30% of his roster in one swoop, almost everything expected to change hasnít.
Phaneuf has not been the leader, the developing defenceman, the offensive force, the power-play specialist that Burke believed would jump-start the Leafsí revival. Instead, with 59 games gone by as a Leaf, Phaneuf has made some impact, just not enough. He has been all right, but nothing great, with the club losing 32 of the 58 games he has worn the blue and white.
Of all that was expected and all Burke thought possible ó often last summer, he would reference Jan. 31 as a turning point in his stewardship of the Leafs ó the disappearance of Phaneufís offence has been the most notable. In fact, in his time as a Leaf, the stay-at-home Luke Schenn has outscored the once-explosive Phaneuf 5-3 in goals without any power-play time to speak of. And Phaneuf has barely managed more points than Schenn (21-18) in the year. Where once Phaneuf was first among all defensive shooters in the NHL, he is no longer even in the top 20.
The disappointment in Phaneuf represents a pattern of woe with current Leafs management. In no particular order, major signings or acquisitions such as Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Colby Armstrong, Kris Versteeg, J-S Giguere, and Jonas Gustavsson have all performed at a level below what has been expected of them. Until that changes, beginning with the play of the captain, little is likely to change with the Leafs.
This and that
The selection of Cam Ward first overall in the NHL all-star fantasy draft is indication of just how small and occasionally small-minded the NHL can be. Was Ward the best player available? No. The best goalie available? No. The most famous? No. He was picked because he happens to be captain Eric Staalís teammate in Carolina. Which is nice for the good people of Carolina. But quite ridiculous with Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos and others available. The idea of the draft was campy, but the format worked. It should have some life going forward, but it works best when the best players are taken and the broader picture is looked at. The all-star draft was a national event, not something to pander to a local market ... Of all the people to get chosen last ó no one hates attention more than Kessel. He is uncomfortable when heís alone ... And somewhere at home, wasnít Mikhail Grabovski thinking: That should have been my car? ... Clearly, captains Staal and Nicklas Lidstrom donít stay up late at night. How else to explain Anaheimís Jonas Hiller being the last of six goalies selected? They canít be watching the Ducks play if they waited that long for Hiller, whoís ahead of Ward in every meaningful statistical category.
Hear and there
Sunday Quiz: If you turn to someone in Los Angeles today and tell them that Anze Kopitar is playing for Team Lidstrom, would they have any idea what youíre talking about? ... Coach Ron Wilson has to be happy Kessel won the car. Heís been trying to get him to drive all season long ... The all-star game format I never understood: Campbells versus Wales ... NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says he has no plans to expand or move franchises, which makes him half-right at this time ... One thing that has to change about all-star draft format: You canít have it set up so only a forward can be chosen last. It would be way more fun, for everybody, for Brian Burke, if it were more of a random selection, not a player left over after all the goalies and defencemen were selected ... One more Ward question: Why ever pick a goalie first in the all-star game? They tend to be the Mr. Irrelevant of NHL all-star games. When you donít check and donít play defence, goalies donít matter ... Itís understandable that the New Jersey Devils started playing better after the legendary Jacques Lemaire returned as coach, but how do you explain the Calgary Flames playing better after they fired general manager, Darryl Sutter?
Scene and heard
I seem to be in the minority on this, but I worry about the Blue Jays. I wonder how theyíre going to replace the 60-plus home runs theyíre bound to lose with Vernon Wells and John Buck gone and Jose Bautista certain not to hit 54 again. I wonder who is going to step in for the 195 innings Shaun Marcum pitched, the 15 starts that he took them into the seventh inning or deeper? I wonder how many infield errors there will be with Adam Lind playing first base instead of Lyle Overbay? I wonder if itís possible for Brett Cecil to go 8-2 against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays, again. I wonder if the Baltimore Orioles, 34-23 after Buck Showalter took over as manager, push the Jays closer to the bottom of the American League East, rather than closer to the top. The Jays were 15-3 against Baltimore last summer, most of those wins coming before Showalter took over. That wonít happen again. There is little doubt that GM Alex Anthopoulos is building for the future and his intense and private work has been indeed impressive. The Jays won 85 games last seaso,n but the only on-field area in which theyíve improved is in the bullpen. An 80-win season might not be possible.
And another thing
Itís supposed to be guaranteed win night in the NBA when youíre playing Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Memphis at home. Just not for the somewhat irrelevant Raptors. They have the second fewest home wins in a league that itís all but set up for home wins ... A Grand Slam tennis tournament without Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer in the final ó either one, or preferably both ó just doesnít feel right ... The highest scoring players not in the NHL all-star game: Henrik Zetterberg, Jarome Iginla and Mike Richards ... Ben Cahoon retires with all the big receiving records in the CFL, but I canít call him a Canadian. He qualified for the exception only by the wonky rules of the league ... The NHL all-star game is hard to watch. The NFL Pro Bowl is worse ... The impossible to explain Dominic Hasek turned 46th the other day and celebrated with a shutout in the KHL ... Every time I hear mainstream media referring to Twitter, I wonder: Do 80% of the people listening know, care or comprehend what Twitter is? ... Happy birthday to Gene Hackman (80), Cameron Wake (29), Jalen Rose (38), Sharone Wright (38), Danielle Goyette (45) and Alex Khavanov (39) ... And hey, whatever became of Dale Craigwell?
The emergence of Skinner
Last June, there was much talk about who would be chosen first in the NHL entry draft, Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin. But Paul Seguin, Tylerís father, had another subject he wanted to talk about. He couldnít believe how low Jeff Skinner was rated by the NHLís Central Scouting Bureau ó 34th overall ó and didnít mind telling anyone who cared to listen. ďThis is a top-fove kid,Ē Seguin told me at the Stanley Cup final. ďYou watch what happens to him. Whoever gets him is getting a great player.Ē Seguinís son and Skinner had played much of their minor hockey together in Toronto. ďI know what heís capable of,Ē said Seguin. ďIíve seen his skill level up close.Ē Skinner, selected seventh by Carolina, leads all NHL rookies in points and has more than doubled Seguinís first year total. On Sunday afternoon, Skinner will become the youngest to ever play in an NHL all-star game.
In praise of Joe Bowen
There isnít much best to say about the Maple Leafs, but the more I watch my NHL package of games on cable, the more convinced I am that Joe Bowen is the best local play-by-play man in hockey. By now, I believe Iíve heard them all, from the very sound Ken Daniels in Detroit to the excitable Rick Jeanneret in Buffalo to the unlistenable (hit the mute button) voice of the Calgary Flames, to so many nameless vanilla American announcers whose cadence of the game seems absolutely lacking. Doing a local team isnít the same as being a national voice, like Bob Cole or Gord Miller. Youíre getting game perspective from one side only with the locals. But you know when itís Bowen doing a game. He is loud and emotional, on the play, almost in the play. The team might be among the worst in hockey. The play-by-play, though, is absolutely first-rate.
Super Bowl matchup
The first NFL game I have real memory of was played at Green Bay in 1967. By now, youíve probably heard about the frozen tundra at Lambeau Field and seen the NFL Films with chilled air blowing out of the mouth of Packers quarterback Bart Starr. If you saw that NFL championship game between the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, you never forgot it. The Packers owned the game back then: Just as the Pittsburgh Steelers owned football when Terry Bradshaw threw and Franco Harris ran and Lynn Swann made acrobatic catches. Either those Packers teams or those Steelers teams represent the greatest we have ever seen: And now they meet in a Super Bowl, years after those spectacular dynasties. The matchup, for purposes of history and football romance, couldnít be better.