The final installment of my interview with the Leafs' former GM and coach Pat Quinn.
PPP: One of the main arguments that has come up, specifically from Damien Cox, is that the Toronto media and the ensuing scrutiny would cause irreperable damage to Luke. Obviously, with four major newspapers, three television networks, and two radio stations all vying for news it's much different situation than Drew Doughty in Los Angeles or Alex Pietrangelo in St. Louis. Do you think that the scrutiny could have a adverse affect on Schenn?
PQ: "I think that it's a valid point by Cox." If I had not been focused on taking notes those words would have left me speechless. As it was, Quinn qualified the statement to show that it's not a definite outcome of playing in Toronto. While, he conceded, some kids will develop better out of the limelight othes understand the pressure, welcome it even, and they will thrive under that kind of scrutiny.
Obviously, it's a tougher learning curve on the back end and the Leafs do have a history of kids that have struggled (Berehowsky, Turnbull) but they have had others that have succeeded including Kaberle who made his debut on Quinn's team as a 19 year old. The key is how the kid responds to the scrutiny especially during the preseason and the first nine games of the season. Then came the quotation that made my day:
"It's important for Luke to be aware that the Toronto market is super competitive. You have guys that see sports coverage as entertainment and think that they are the story. There are guys that don't care about the facts and a lot of the criticism is disingenuous. This environment means that a lot of time the coverage in Toronto is not fair."
And that, in a nutshell, is why I love Pat Quinn.
PPP: Ron Wilson has recently made some headlines in Toronto by questioning the leadership inside the Leafs dressing room over recent years. In your experience, how much of a role does having a "good room" play in a successful team? Do fans have a realistic view of what it means for a player to be a leader or have you seen things as a coach that might surprise us?
PQ: This topic actually seemed to touch a nerve with Pat. The overall impression that I got was that he did not like having outsiders guess at what was going on in the room or the idea that people outside of the dressing room could judge it's efficiency.
He noted that since he wasn't in the room the last two seasons that he couldn't really address it's state during that time but Wilson wasn't there either so he would assume that Ron was commenting based on the player interviews that he would have conducted upon his arrival in Toronto. The key point being that if you have guys that are willing to finger point then that isn't necessarily a sign of a good room.
Pat's basic premise was that it is very difficult for someone outside of the dressing room to get a sense of the leadership structure. One thing he pointed to was what he termed the Mark Messier Myth that all leadership comes from the captain. While Mark Messier was a great leader (for a second I thought that he was saying that Messier wasn't the Cold FX Greatest Leader ever) it comes from all over the dressing room.
Team leadership is a major key to success but Quinn made a point of emphasizing that it's not always the most talented that are the best leaders. An important aspect is having good team members. Having been in a lot of successful dressing rooms he know that factions, for whatever underlying reason whether it's a shared language or junior team, develop. They do not have to necessarily all love each other but they do have to work together towards the same goal or ultimately the team will fall apart.
While he was "one of the unlucky coaches that missed the playoffs once and was fired while others can miss the playoffs often and keep their jobs" Quinn again mentioned that there is a certain mythos that has grown around coaches, he termed it the Knute Rockne Myth, that thinks that they can give fire and brimstone speeches that will save. The reality is that leadership comes from all over the dressing room and everyone in that room has some responsibility for its state of affairs.
As for Mats, Quinn was, in my eyes rightfully, angered that Mats had been quesitoned as a leader. He called the very thought of questioning his leadership "baloney" and said he'd defend his record to anyone as a great leader. Quinn actually had the same vehement defence for Darcy Tucker which, based on the good years, is not that big of a surprise.
PPP: Cliff Fletcher has made a lot of moves to clear cap space and "clear the deck" for the future Leafs GM. While some GMs, like Ken Holland in Detroit, have proven adept at dealing with the salary cap some others have struggled. How do you think that the salary cap has affected the way that GMs build their teams?
PQ: He liked the moves that Cliff has made so far. He was confident that he'll have done an excellent job setting the table for the incomin GM. While the Leafs seem to have found a new religion what they are preaching, drafting and development, is not a new development. On one hand, he noted, it is important to have your first rounders develop in order to succeed as an organization but, on the other hand, you need to have the skill (and luck) that the Red Wings have had with their late round picks or the Leafs have experienced with Tomas Kaberle.
However, you can't count on being good at picking gems in the later rounds as a strategy. You need to keep a focus on maintaining as many of your first rounders as possible because once you lose first rounders it's hard to replace the players that your team would have had via trade or free agency.
In terms of the salary cap, you can still be a buyer but the long-term deals have to be the right ones or else it's impossible to get out from under them. It's a much tougher challenge to build without a dedication to drafting and developing your own talent and keeping your first rounders are an important part. As an example, when he was in Toronto the top five accounted for a large portion of the salary but that was fine because there was no cap. However, there comes a time when the team has to make a move to go for the Cup. Pat specifically mentioned the Owen Nolan trade (for Brad Boyes, Alyn McAuley, and a 2003 first rounder) as one which was made in an attempt to win a Stanley Cup.
The result of that trade and others made with a similar goal was that going forward it wasn't a healthy strategy. The Leafs struggled because not only didn't they have the first rounders coming through but they weren't able to develop any of the late-round picks into NHLers either. Quinn noted that it's very easy to get off track from a focus on drafting and developing your own players and get stuck trying to play catch-up.
One issue that he did have with the strategy is that now, in part because of the salary cap placing a renewed focus on homegrown players, everyone is trying to sell that strategy. So instead of a devotion to player development it has become a selling point for teams. "The result is that you'll see some 18 year olds in the NHL that shouldn't be there because it allows the club to sell the future to their fans."
And on that note, I thanked Pat for his time and patience. We spoke for over an hour in which he spoke with a real passion with the game and a willingness to educate a curious interviewer. It goes almost without saying that I am looking forward to seeing him behind Canada's bench this Christmas.