My standard reaction on reading a Dan Barnes column is to nod, think “Yep, that sounds right” and move on with my day. I largely agree with his latest column on the latest twist in the long running Mats Sundin story, and particularly his characterization of Toronto’s media as ravenous and self-centered. I would have used more vulgar epithets but reasonable people can differ and he is writing for a family publication.
The part that I can’t agree with is this:
Sundin won’t be the most desirable unrestricted free agent on July 1, assuming he doesn’t sign with Montreal in advance of the deadline. He doesn’t really belong in the top three spots, which ought to be occupied by Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell and Ryan Malone, given the benefits of their age and upside.
I’ve said my piece about Ryan Malone in a post below this one and elsewhere. I have a very difficult time with the suggestion that he is a more desirable UFA than Mats Sundin. Mats Sundin has posted amazing numbers over the past few years. There’s a reasonable argument to make that his scoring rates are better than Hossa’s; he’s a hundredth of a point behind in terms of ES scoring but blows him away in PP scoring rates. I don’t really think that there’s an argument to be made that Sundin has been playing in a better scoring environment either.
Sundin plays against the opposition’s best. The Leafs got significantly better results this past season when he was on the ice, even with the stiff competition: the Maple Leafs were +18 at 5×5 when Sundin was on ice, -25 when he wasn’t in 2007-08.
I accept that there’s downside for Sundin but he’s a far lower risk add for a hockey team. He might cost $7MM annually but it’s only going to be for a year or two. A lot can happen over the course of seven years at $8MM per which is the range for what Hossa is going to cost. You aren’t going to make Mats Sundin the centrepiece of your future but for teams loaded with young talent that’s cheap for the time being but will get expensive shortly, he may well be more attractive than Hossa. He’d be a fantastic addition for Montreal, I think, because he’s strong in one of their areas of weakness and his salary will be off the books before they need to start paying some of their younger guys.
Barnes’ bit about upside is, in my view, entirely groundless. As much as it pains me to admit this, there’s little left in the way of hockey development for hockey players born in 1979. Checkers are checkers, scorers are scorers, second/third line types are second/third line types and those who had to fall back on law school to avoid living on the streets on lawyers. Ryan Malone is not going to turn into a 70 or 80 point scorer at this stage in his career. He is, by and large, what he is. I’ve been thinking and I can’t think of a guy who made that leap at age 28 or later and had it be a real leap as opposed to a year where every thing one.
Of course, Barnes doesn’t just rest his case on the upside of Ryan Malone. He goes on to take some jabs at Sundin’s character:
The fact is he’s old, rather set in his ways, and simply hasn’t demonstrated the heart or appetite for anything but retirement or a continuation of a solid though largely unspectacular reign as a Maple Leaf captain whose team never wins anything.
…When he led the reverse mutiny at the trade deadline, refusing to jump the leaky Leaf ship and go anywhere as a rental player, we were told it was his innermost wish to stay with Toronto because he didn’t think the role of rental player would be comfortable or fulfilling, even if he won a Cup.
I don’t know where this comes from other than Sundin’s refusal to let Cliff Fletcher move him at the trade deadline. Is there something wrong with a guy not wanting to uproot himself for a one month to three month period after a long period in a single place? I’ve never quite understood why that’s so contemptible, particularly when he took less money to play in Toronto last year.
As for his unspectacular reign as Leafs’ captain, I’m struck by two things there. The first, the obvious point, is that Mats Sundin hasn’t been the president of MLSE the past three years. He hasn’t been the GM. The second is the absurdly short view of history taken by Barnes. Sundin’s reign as Leafs captain is described as “largely unspectacular” – the Leafs have gone to the conference finals twice with him as captain and he’s played well in the playoffs despite a supporting cast that’s been underwhelming throughout. His career playoff numbers are good. In my mind, there’s one question that matters: has Mats Sundin been an elite player in his given role on the Maple Leafs? I don’t see how the answer can be anything but yes. If he’s been an elite player in his role, why should blame for the failures be heaped on him? It doesn’t make sense to me.
Just a little more about Malone. I’m guessing that it’s his playoff performance that has guys like Robin Brownlee and Barnes so over the moon about him. He did score on a 25 goal, 65 point pace in the playoffs, something he’s never approached in a regular season. What just baffles me about that is that of all the reporters in all the towns in all the world, it’s guys in Edmonton who have fallen in love with a guy who takes a few pucks to the face during the course of a playoffs in which he scored at a slightly better rate than he ever has in the regular season.
You’d think that sitting next to Fernando Pisani in the press box for the first half of this year after watching him score 14 goals in 2006-07 after signing a 4 year $10MM deal would make them leery of judging a guy on the basis of a solid playoff performance. Maybe trying to get quotes out of Dwayne Roloson after he’s backed up Garon for the last 15 games after getting $11MM for his playoff performance would make them question the wisdom of this. These guys have had the price blowing a judgment on a player because of a nice 20 game playoff stretch on display for them for the past 164 Oiler games but they’re still hyping Malone. It’s mind boggling.
Barnes and Brownlee might be right and there may be a fat contract out there for Ryan Malone. There probably is – there’s a ton of demand for hockey players, the supply in the FA market stinks, NHL teams have shown themselves to be poor judges of what attributes make a player worth acquiring and two or three of those teams competing against one another can push the market for a player through the roof.
It’s happened countless times before with guys like Malone, players on a team that achieved success, who were either part of the supporting cast to better players or who went on a real run at a high profile time and were paid far more than their individual history would suggest that they were worth. Ask the Boston Bruins how well the Martin Lapointe signing worked out. Ask the Chicago Blackhawks how far into the playoffs they’ve been taken by Nikolai Khabibulin. Ask Doug MacLean how many playoff appearances he got out of Adam Foote. I’m having a hard time thinking of an example of a player plucked from a supporting role on a team that enjoyed success and placed into a larger role somewhere else, who went on live up to the contract that came with the promotion in role.
To me, the interest in Malone strikes me as being almost the diametrically opposite position of Barnes’ dislike for Sundin. The assessment of the individual is too greatly influenced by the success or lack thereof of the team. The assessment of Sundin is clouded by the Leafs’ recent failures and his refusal to help Leafs management get back on the road to making piles of profit by uprooting his life; the assessment of Malone is too sunny because of the situation that he’s in. In my view, he’s one of the top two forwards available and any team in the NHL would be better off signing him than signing Malone, given the likely price and term each will command. To be honest, I can’t really believe that they’re part of the same conversation.