The Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves in an unfamiliar position – a fairly secure playoff spot at the NHL trade deadline, Dave Nonis’ first as the team’s general manager.
As April 3 came to a close the Leafs had made one deal, acquiring Ryan O’Byrne from Colorado. The move to acquire a veteran goalie never materialized, as Miikka Kiprusoff decided against leaving Calgary, and no one was able to pry Roberto Luongo from the Canucks. Now the race is on to qualify for the post-season for the first time since the spring of 2004.
The question will be whether Nonis did enough at this trade deadline to help his franchise make it. That won’t be answered until the Leafs have clinched or don’t. But heading into the stretch run, it seems that maybe Nonis did as much as he could have.
Nonis Active Through Year
Remember, the O’Byrne trade was not Nonis’ only transaction of the year. He plucked Frazer McLaren off the waiver wire, and McLaren has filled a fourth line/tough guy role for coach Randy Carlyle. Nonis also made the call to trade Mike Brown and David Steckel in order to free up roster spots, and he demoted Tim Connolly and Mike Komisarek to the AHL Marlies. The franchise has instead employed players like Leo Komarov, Jake Gardiner, Korbinian Holzer, and Matt Frattin as well as 2009-first-round-pick-turned-leading-scorer Nazem Kadri.
The direction has been towards youth, away from some of the acquisitions of the previous regime (of which Nonis was a member) who haven’t worked out as well as hoped. And though opinions vary on whether it’s Carlyle’s coaching, the maturation of some of these youngsters, chemistry on the roster or some combination of it all, the Leafs are 3 points (and 2 spots in the standings) ahead of their 2011-12 pace. The difference of course is that this time after 37 games, there’s only 11 games, not 45, remaining. And the Leafs had a lot of trouble with the remaining 45 games of 2011-12.
Issues to Address
Are the Leafs a solid, well-built team, a lock for the playoffs and set to go deep? Well… no, they are not what you’d call ‘contenders’. There are still issues that some hoped would be addressed at the trade deadline.
The ‘sexy’ moves might have involved seeing Derek Roy, Jason Pominville or Ryane Clowe or some other addition to the forward ranks. But offence is not a huge problem as shown by the 115 goals (6th overall in the NHL). Carlyle is able to run three lines that can score, made possible by the emergence of Kadri as an offensive force. Grit and toughness have also been evident, and overall there’s been some okay defensive play and improvement to the penalty kill. It may be too much to say that Nonis didn’t want to upset the ‘team chemistry’, but the fact is, there is some chemistry here. Unless there was a deal that was an obvious upgrade (and remember, Iginla never listed Toronto as a team he’d go to anyway), there weren’t many forwards the Leafs would look at.
Of course, O’Byrne is now in Toronto to address some defensive issues. The Leafs’ defensive corps has at times been good, and at other times had weaknesses exposed. O’Byrne represents depth, a player that will fit into the coach’s schemes and provide some relief to guys like Mike Kostka, Mark Fraser and Jake Gardiner, who may have been playing more minutes than is prudent for the Leafs. If O’Byrne can pair up with former teammate John-Michael Liles effectively, it could also provide some relief to Dion Phaneuf who has been playing workhorse shifts on the Toronto blueline. His numbers may not be stellar, but if he can spell some of the more inexperienced guys and step in for an injured teammate, he’ll serve the Leafs well.
Goaltending was an area identified for an upgrade, and it wasn’t a big secret that Leaf management has coveted guys like Kiprusoff and Luongo. But on deadline day, only 6 goalies moved, and perhaps outside of Ben Bishop, few could be considered significant upgrades over James Reimer or Ben Scrivens, both of whom have played strong, solid games and have at times held the Leafs in games. No insult meant to Jeff Deslauriers, Steve Mason or Michael Leighton, but none of them are “battle-hardened playoff veteran goalies”, and really not the type of player to be trading picks or prospects away for.
A Relatively Quiet Day
Perhaps Toronto’s trade deadline was best described by James Mirtle:
That the organization only made the one minor addition was more reflective of where Toronto sits in its evolution more than anything. Not in the position to contend for a Stanley Cup or to begin a rebuild, Nonis was tasked with finding the middle ground of trying to add useful pieces without giving up much from his roster.
And that’s what it comes down to. This is a team not yet in a position to spend prospects or draft picks on “guys who can take you deep in the playoffs”, but also not in position to start shipping useful players out to stockpile “players who may play someday”. No expectations of a deep run… no eyes on the prize this season. It’s get into the show, see how far it goes, and then have the youngsters learn from it. And that’s going to be the growing pains of a franchise finally climbing back towards contending in the NHL.