Maple Leafs media war; stretch drive star; more roundtable hot topics

Wednesday March 4th, 2015

Every Wednesday, a trio of staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This week, Sam Page, Sarah Kwak and Al Muir talk about Phil Kessel's confrontation with the media, offer their takes on the best and worst moves of the trade deadline, examine the wild card race in the East, and pick a player who is ready to light it up down the stretch.

First up:

• Phil Kessel went off on the Toronto media on Tuesday, defending the honor of teammate Dion Phaneuf and taking a veiled shot at team management. What do you make of it?

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SARAH KWAK: Yeah, I mean . . . It's easy to blame the media. And to an extent, maybe he has a point. But when they've played as poorly as the Maple Leafs have this season, especially the last few months, the players also need to answer for it. That's what accountability is. I wish he would have been a little more specific about which comments he felt crossed the line, which things he thought deserved apologies. Certainly, reporters and analysts don't always present perfectly valid points backed up with sound reporting or evidence; sometimes they get caught up in hot-takery. But saying generally that "media" treat him terribly without examples leaves me wondering if he knows or appreciates the difference. On another note, it was interesting to see Kessel stick up for a teammate. He's not always been the type. 

SAM PAGE: I think there's an impulse among some fans to lionize any professional athlete who tells off the media, because they have their own beef with the reporters, columnists and broadcasters. So I share Sarah's initial skepticism. But in this specific case, I think Kessel's point about management was well-taken. Phaneuf and Kessel are very good players. The problem has always been the surrounding talent.

AL MUIR: Very good support players, you mean. Neither is ideally suited for the roles they've been asked to play in Toronto, so that's definitely on management. But the key takeaway from this for me anyway, was the passion. I loved Kessel's passion. I loved that he stepped up to defend a teammate. Good for him. The only problem is he hasn't shown anything close to that intensity on the ice for months now. Really, since the end of Toronto's 8-1-1 run back in December. I'm sure the guys in the room appreciate the effort but I bet they'd rather see him flash that character when they're trying to battle back from a one-goal deficit rather than waste it on a takedown of a bunch of reporters.

Maple Leafs Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf threaten TSN with lawsuit

And speaking of takedowns, Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul have threatened a lawsuit against TSN for running an offensive tweet from a viewer during its trade deadline broadcast. TSN is owned by Bell Media, which just happens to be co-owner of the company that owns the Leafs. Got that? Always a circus up there. If you're going to play for the Leafs, you've got to be prepared to handle a lot of heat from the fans and media and some of that is going to be unfair. But just do it the right way.

• Now that the dust has settled, what's the one deal made on deadline weekend that you see having the greatest impact down the road?

KWAK: I'll go with the fairly obvious and say Keith Yandle to the Rangers. Bringing in the defenseman, who has put up more than 40 points in each of his last five full seasons (and 30 during the shortened 2012-13 campaign), gives New York what easily is the best blueline corps in the East and arguably the best in the league from top to bottom. In his first game with New York on Monday (against Nashville, the best team in the league), you could see how his excellent first pass will fit in perfectly with the Rangers' quick transition game. Sure, Yandle can be a bit of a liability defensively, but New York will eventually get Henrik Lundqvist back, and he's been their longtime liability-eraser in net. So with an offensive activator like Yandle to spark their speedy group of forwards, I think they'll give opponents fits and make a real run for the Cup.

PAGE: I'm going to probably circumvent the spirit of this question by talking about impact beyond this year, but I think the David Clarkson deal was the biggest to go down. Five million dollars of previously sunken cap space in the hands of Brendan Shanahan can go a long way in transforming the Leafs. If they dump Kessel, Phaneuf, and Tyler Bozak over the summer, that'll be nearly $25 million to play around with. Nathan Horton's back is going to afford Connor McDavid some good wingers.

MUIR: Well, there's a shocking prediction right there! McDavid as a Leaf? The center of the hockey universe would implode. And since you brought up Horton, let me just say how tough it is to see his career wind down this way. You just have to hope that he gets the best possible care and can go on to live something close to a normal, pain-free life.

Backing up to the actual question, short-term I like the Zbynek Michalek pickup by the Blues. Here's a guy who has played top-four minutes during his entire career, blocked more shots during the past decade (1,559) than any other player, offered up a smart, physical game and demonstrated that he can shut down hockey's top stars. He's a guy who wins the battles that help a team win the war. 

• So what was the biggest mistake made by a team at the deadline?

KWAK: I'm still a little baffled by Pittsburgh trading Simon Despres for Ben Lovejoy. There has to be more to it. But if I'm just looking at it as a hockey trade on paper, I have no idea how this isn't a mistake for Pittsburgh. I guess we'll see.

Trade grades for NHL deadline day's major moves

PAGE: The biggest mistake has to be the Oilers dumping Jeff Petry for very little. I know that bad teams trading their pending free agents is a matter of custom. But this off-season, with all their first-overall-pick forwards inching toward maturity, the Oilers will be desperate for a young, puck-moving defenseman like Petry. They won't get that player with the Habs' second round pick.

MUIR: Since you guys took my first and second choices, I'll say it was Peter Chiarelli's failure to either fish or cut bait in Boston. He either needed to find a way to improve his struggling team ahead of the playoffs or take a big picture approach and move some veterans with an eye to rebuilding on the fly. Instead, he added a pair of slow-of-foot depth wingers in Max Talbot and Brett Connolly in moves that seem designed to show action rather than purpose.

• Harsh. Speaking of the Bruins, is there a race for the second wild card berth in the East or can we just go ahead and give the spot to Boston now?

KWAK: Well, the Panthers certainly think there's still a race. And I think that their moves before the deadline could actually help make one. I still like Boston to come out ahead, but I also won't count the Panthers out. They have two meetings with the Bruins left on their schedule. Their fate will be in their hands.

PAGE: Never count out Jaromir Jagr

MUIR: What with Connolly's injury (he's out for the rest of the regular season with a broken finger), this just feels like the year where the Bruins spit the bit. I don't know about the Panthers but the Senators are starting to take on a real "team of destiny" feel. I think they'll make it interesting, especially with a pair of head-to-heads in Ottawa later this month.

• Seems like someone always goes on a tear down the stretch. Which player do you like to finish the season red hot this time around?

[daily_cut: NHL]

KWAK: I think Sidney Crosby, who's having the worst statistical season of his career, is feeling the need to assert himself as a dominant player in this league again. And so I have every reason to believe that—with the Penguins in a tight race for playoff positioning in the Metro Division—he will kick himself into the next gear and go on a run. During his career, after all, he's averaged 1.34 points per game during the month of March, by far the best among active players. 

MUIR: Nice stat, Sarah. Me, I'll take John Tavares. Loved his game on Tuesday night in Dallas. Always seemed to be on the right side of the puck. And the move he made on Jamie Benn to get himself into his preferred shooting position? Scary slick. He has 14 points in his last 10 games. I think he ends up winning the Art Ross Trophy.

PAGE: It seems impossible that Steven Stamkos is averaging less than a point per game. A lot of that has to do with reduced ice time, and I suspect the Lightning will lean on their captain down the stretch.  

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