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Handling The Toronto Spotlight

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

It’s tough to play in Toronto.

The media will get to you.

Players perform better before they come to Toronto and after they leave.

It’s the pressure. Haven’t you heard?

It’s been said that if you say a falsehood often enough, it is bound to become truth, or at least an accepted version of truth.

So it is with the Maple Leafs, the team that has long been avoided, goes the conventional wisdom, by hockey’s most in-demand talents.

When Brad Richards was being wooed by the Maple Leafs last summer, it was generally assumed all things being equal, he would sign with the New York Rangers. The biggest stumbling block to making him a Leaf seemed to be Richards’ unwillingness to sign in this hot a market.  It was an opinion so often repeated that it seemed a prophecy when Richards went to the Rangers.

The truth is a little less sure-fire. Richards signed with New York for stratospheric money. He wanted to live in New York (who wouldn’t) and he had a symbiotic relationship with coach John Tortorella. None of this has much to do with the Leafs.

Just a side note: Brad Richards might go unnoticed on the streets of Manhattan but that doesn’t mean he is home free. The Rangers’ history is littered with big money signings (Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Bobby Holik, Wade Redden, Scott Fraser) who found a sinkhole in Madison Square Garden. If he swoons, anonymity won’t be much of an option.

It is never in Toronto, of course but if the limitless interest of Leaf fans, if the boundless coverage that will soon include a live practice show on Leafs TV is such a hazard, how have players who passed through fared before and after wearing the blue and white?

And why did some of the top free agents of their era, Gary Roberts, Alexander Mogilny, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour to name four sign with the Leafs?  For that matter, why did sure fire Hall of Famers such as Brian Leetch and Ron Francis accept trades here.

If there is a Leafs’ curse, I figured it would show in the record. Not the won/loss, heaven knows, but the performance of players before, during and after they played here.

I looked at the last significant moves of the last few years. For the purposes of this story, the players coming to Toronto in trades involving the players listed below were inconsequential.

What I wanted to see was how players performed after they left. In some cases, a player’s body of work in another NHL city made the contrast more interesting. I rounded off generously so players such as Jamal Mayers, though mentioned, did not skew things one way or the other. If a player’s stats were comparable from one era to the other, I called it a saw. It took a discernable, although difficult to quantify gap in performance to identify a trend. While he was not tendered a contract offer and not traded, I included  Nik Antropov in the review.

Coming to Toronto
1  player scored more goals: Nik Hagman
1 scored fewer: Kris Versteeg
2  players scored more points: Jason Blake, Niklas Hagman
0  scored fewer points after signing with the Leafs.

Leaving Toronto
1  player scored more goals: Lee Stempniak.
5  players scored fewer:  Alexei Ponikarovsky, Viktor Stalberg, Niklas Hagman, Tomas Kaberle, Matt Stajan.
2 players points per game improved: Lee Stempniak, Nik Antropov
7 players point totals per game fell after departing : Tomas Kaberle, Kris Versteeg, Francois Beauchemin, Viktor Stalberg, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jason Blake, Niklas Hagman.

Here’s a breakdown of the individual players.

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Tomas Kaberle
Games ---- 878 28
Goals ---- 83 1
Goals Per Game ----- .09 .001
Points ------ 520 10
Points Per Game ------ .59 .35
Plus/Minus ----- +25 +6

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Kris Versteeg
Games 170 53 29
Goals 66 14 7
Goals Per Game .38 .26 .24
Points 112 35 13
Points Per Game .65 .66 .44
Plus/Minus +22 -13 +4

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Francois Beauchemin
Games 273 136 29
Goals 21 7 3
Goals Per Game .07 .05 .10
Points 80 38 5
Points Per Game .29 .27 .17
Plus/Minus -4 -17 -4

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Viktor Stalberg
Games ---- 40 77
Goals ---- 9 12
Goals Per Game ----- .22 .15
Points ------ 33 24
Points Per Game ------ .82 .31
Plus/Minus ----- -13 +2

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Lee Stempniak
Games 233 123 92
Goals 46 25 33
Goals Per Game .19 .20 .35
Points 130 61 57
Points Per Game .55 .49 .61
Plus/Minus -24 -10 +13

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Alexei Ponikarovsky
Games ---- 477 81
Goals ---- 114 8
Goals Per Game ----- .23 .09
Points ------ 257 25
Points Per Game ------ .53 .30
Plus/Minus ----- +52 -3

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Jason Blake
Games 508 216 104
Goals 134 50 22
Goals Per Game .26 .23 .21
Points 286 141 37
Points Per Game .56 .65 .35
Plus/Minus -3 -10 -12

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Niklas Hagman
Games 481 120 100
Goals 102 42 16
Goals Per Game .21 .35 .16
Points 135 75 38
Points Per Game .33 .60 .21
Plus/Minus +19 -12 -3

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Jamal Mayers
Games 595 115 107
Goals 71 9 4
Goals Per Game .11 .07 .03
Points 158 24 20
Points Per Game .26 .20 .18
Plus/Minus -73 -12 +5

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Matt Stajan
Games ---- 445 105
Goals ---- 87 9
Goals Per Game ---- .19 .08
Points ---- 223 47
Points Per Game ---- .50 .44
Plus/Minus ---- -73 -3

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Ian White
Games ---- 296 97
Goals ---- 28 9
Goals Per Game ---- .09 .09
Points ---- 105 39
Points Per Game ---- .35 .40
Plus/Minus ---- 8 13

Player Pre-Leafs With Leafs
Post Leafs
Nik Antropov
Games ---- 509 171
Goals ---- 125 39
Goals Per Game ---- .24 .22
Points ---- 291 122
Points Per Game ---- .57 .71
Plus/Minus ---- +54 -5

Okay, let’s start with a few obvious truths.

No one drawing a paycheque is likely to slander their employer or the city they work in. For what it’s worth, you can put me in that category.

And yes, everyone is different.

“It depends on the individual and the experience he’s had, regardless of the team” said Matt Lombardi, a new Leaf who has also played in Calgary, Phoenix and Nashville. “Guys go to different places and love it. Other guys go to the same city and hate it. That happens regardless of what city you are talking about.”

Generally speaking, players do not perform measurably better before they come to Toronto than when they do after donning the uniform. And they do not fare better once they leave. If anything, the opposite is true.

Competitive people by nature want the spotlight.

“You want to play here,” said John-Michael Liles, who played on several excellent teams with the Colorado Avalanche.  “You know if you can play here, you can play anywhere.”

Does that necessarily make Toronto a tougher place to play?  Is Broadway harder than summer stock? Yes and no. The stage is still the same size. Only the audience and the interest changes.

“Best place to play ever,” said Colby Armstrong. “I don’t see how you don’t want to play here.
We are treated unbelievably well. You are playing for a fan base where every night is incredible. It’s just a great place.”

“It’s definitely different,” Armstrong said. “It might take a little bit of getting used to. At the same time, it’s exciting. Looking back on your career, when it’s all said and done you can say you played here and experienced the Toronto media.”

If you press a player, they will tell you some of their brethren don’t want to play here.

“I think I have heard guys say they don’t want to play in a big hockey market, especially if you are making good money,” said Clarke MacArthur. “They don’t like getting singled out.”

That works. GM Brian Burke has made it amply clear that he believes in self-selection.  To Burke, a player intimidated by the thought of playing in Toronto doesn’t belong here.

But for MacArthur, a veteran of the near blanket disinterest in hockey during his stay in Atlanta, playing in the other end of the hockey spectrum is unthinkable.

“This is the NHL,” he said. “You get to the rink and there are no fans and one media person. It’s like what is this?’  It’s not for me. Those kinds of places I don’t want anything to do with.”

“I have the rest of my life after hockey to have no one know who I am.”

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