Do refs favor the Habs, and other burning reader questions

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I don't know why, but men with beards sure get a lot of mail this time of year. Having dispensed with the duties of Dec. 25, we see no better time to reach into the old mail bag and answer some of your more pressing questions.

Just wondering if you noticed the one-sided biased officiating in the Sabres-Canadiens game on Dec. 20? It seems every time I watch a Canadiens game (no matter who they are playing), they get the better of the officiating. Now don't get me wrong ... I understand that the success of the Canadian teams, along with big market teams, is necessary to keep the NHL going, but that was a great hockey game until the officials ruined it ... as is every Montreal game. It just seems to me that the NHL and its officials are doing everything to make sure the Canadiens have success this year. Any thoughts? -- Ken Dykstra, Jamestown, NY

I've heard or read these kinds of complaints every year since I've been covering this sport, Ken, and though there have been times when I too thought that the "ghosts" of Montreal hockey often wore striped shirts, it just isn't so. The Sabres lost that game because they weren't smart; especially in regards to not taking chances on marginal calls late in a road game. It's a hallmark of Sabres teams in recent years to blame everything and everyone but themselves for the tight games they lose. They need not to look at the refs, but in a mirror.

Do you think that Swiss players (Gerber, Hiller, Streit, Sbisa) have finally established themselves in the NHL? Are you expecting that more Swiss players are going to be drafted in the future? -- Walter Spahni, Ruefenacht, Switzerland

In a word, Walter, not yet. Okay, that's two words, but the view from scouts I've talked to is that the quality of competition there has improved, but it's not yet at the elite level of Sweden, Finland and other European programs. The Swiss are certainly moving past the likes of Germany and some of the old Soviet Bloc countries, but they aren't yet on a par with the Czechs, Slovaks, Swedes and Finns. The biggest problem is the Swiss players' consistency over an 82-game NHL schedule plus the playoffs.

Mats Sundin never had the drive to win the Stanley Cup with the Leafs. What makes other teams think he is capable of leading a team to the Cup? For example, if he didn't have a reputation as being a follower and not a leader, don't you think all the brains in Detroit would have found a way to get him there? -- Nick Romita, King City, Ontario

Nick: Did Doug Gilmour win one with the Leafs? Did Dave Andreychuk? Did Wendel Clark? Did any of the handful of really-good-to-near-great players since Dave Keon back in 1967 even get a sniff? There's a reason the Leafs haven't won since likely before you were born and Sundin isn't it. There simply haven't been enough good players in Toronto to make a difference.

Look at it this way: The Red Wings didn't get to championship level just by drafting and developing Steve Yzerman. They got there by keeping him, bringing in talent around him and investing in the best scouting, development system, coaches and players they could find. It's a process, one that the Leafs haven't embraced in 40 years until they committed to hiring Brian Burke, who still has a lifetime of work ahead of him to fix a mess that is not of his making.

This question is totally off topic, but I respect your opinion greatly. I have yet to personally witness a Steve Stamkos game. I will, but is Barry Melrose right? Is he too small and weak to play against NHL defenses or is the Tampa offensive system to blame? Please enlighten me. -- Grant Kammermayer, Hinton, Alberta

I think every kid coming out of junior is too young for the NHL, Grant, and I would have put Patrick Kane in that evaluation despite his first-year success. Stamkos is undersized right now, but he's still growing. He's a great talent who is caught in an ugly whizzing match between a failed coach and an organization that has stumbled badly in recent years. It's made worse by ownership that doesn't yet know what it is doing and a newly-minted general manager who is learning at a level two rungs above his experience quotient. Melrose didn't do Stamkos any favors, but the Lightning did him none as well by keeping him with a losing team that has no identity. Stamkos is too good to fail, but not so great that he can't be ruined. He should have received a nine-game look and then a return ticket to junior hockey.

From a person who didn't have the courage to sign his name regarding a note on the Lightning considering a lawsuit vs. Melrose for his constant criticisms, but the writer of this note did claim to be a solicitor and agent for NHL coaches. Reprinted as written:

Dear Jim,There are no such 'do not criticize us after we fire you' clauses in NHL Coach Contracts. Please check your facts or get a better source. Hoping someone loses every game, whether kept to ones self or annunciated over television is not a tort of libel, nor an 'inherent contract provision'. Please do better homework.-- G

Dear G: I normally don't respond to unsigned letters largely because if you don't have the courage to sign your name, you don't have the courage to stand by your claim. Still, readers deserve to know that coach contracts are written much like personal service contracts -- at least according to the lawyers I've spoken to who actually work in this area -- and almost always contain specific requirements regarding conduct deemed detrimental to the organization during employment and afterward. Heck, I had to sign such an agreement while working for a major sports television network that I can't name even now because it would violate my separation agreement.

Perhaps you should pretend to be something else in your remaining years.