Stripping the team down and starting from the bottom- this really isn’t what Toronto Maple Leafs fans had in mind this offseason. After a playoff run that delivered much more than expected, what really needed to improve was obvious. It wasn’t goaltending, and it wasn’t the wingers. The centres and defenseman needed to be better. Simple? Yes. Simple solution, not quite.
It was mentioned throughout the Toronto media the Leafs would be very active at the draft and coming into free agency. This was true. But was it activity to make the team better and approve upon their success mere months ago? Not when everything was said and done.
The Leafs gave up three 2013 draft picks to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for one of their staples down the middle, Dave Bolland. It’s a homecoming for the Mimico, Ontario native who has centred the Blackhawks third line extremely effectively seeing the results in two Stanley Cup Championships in four years.
So the Leafs need a first and second line centre, but pick up a third line centre. Hold on, this is what they did with Kris Versteeg of the same Chicago Blackhawks after their 2010 Stanley Cup Championship. A third line centre, very productive in that role the same way Dave Bolland was, moved up to centre the first and second lines for the Leafs. Disaster. You can’t ask a guy to perform above his head and excel at it. This is what they’ve done with Tyler Bozak.
As the Leafs first line centre for two full seasons, Bozak became a UFA for a couple hours while finishing his 5 year, $21 million contract. When you look around the league, this was possibly the Leafs only option to secure a centre for their first line. The Leafs don’t have enough assets they can part with in order to lure in a proven first line centre from another team.
That being said, Nazem Kadri is still young and holds a lot of promise for this franchise. He has shown tremendous improvement with the Marlies that translated well into the NHL playoffs. If he is to be your number one centre, you are going to have to pay him more than what Bozak makes, and this is where you run into trouble.
The Leafs locked up – what was rumoured to be for months – 29 year-old right winger David Clarkson. He was offered a 7 year, $36.75 million contract which he signed like any other human would. He’s not going to deny himself a large pay day when he knows the Leafs have the cap space to offer him maximum money.
If you’ve locked up both Bozak and Clarkson to deals that eat up a lot of money- and don’t necessarily plug any holes you had in the playoffs- what are you going to do in the future when you can plug those holes and you don’t have the cap space to do it?
There were two buyouts for the Leafs: Mike Komisarek, and Mikhail Grabovski. These buyouts helped free up cap space, not a little cap space, but a lot. Buying out your second line centre who anchored your second line for three years, maybe not a great idea. He’s also making a lot of money, comparable to the contract Tyler Bozak just signed so signing Bozak may have been more difficult with that contract on the books.
The Leafs roster as it stands right now shows your 1st-4th line centres as Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Dave Bolland, Jay McClement. Your wingers are David Clarkson, Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, Joffrey Lupul, Frazer McLaren, Colton Orr, and James Van Riensdyk. Your defense: Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles, TJ Brennan, Jake Gardiner and your goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer.
Those are all the names of the guys who are locked up and signed for the next season or beyond (excluding Kadri who is an RFA).
Whatever the plan was coming in, this can’t be the lineup the Leafs ice to begin the 2013-14 NHL season. There have to be some more moves coming to take this team from torn apart and pieced back together to a legitimate playoff team like they became this past season.