8 Things the Leafs Should Do as Part of Their Rebuild

If I’ve learned anything in the last few weeks, it’s that there is an incredible and surprising appetite for Leafs news in the middle of the summer. Were the Leafs a good team, this wouldn’t be so shocking, but the Leafs have had one Playoff appearance in the last ten years.

For most teams, this would be a disaster and drastic moves would be taken to avoid a bankruptcy. Is their any other product in the world which could actually grow and improve its customer base after ten years of failure?

Probably not.

Toronto hockey is unique and what this means to anyone who isn’t a share holder in the team is that despite over a decade’s worth of ineptitude, the Leafs can still afford to focus on building a winner in a patient and careful manner. Think about it: no other team in the NHL – possibly professional sports – would dare try a long-term rebuild centered around patience and planning after ten years straight of losing.

So that being said, and it being the middle of the summer when news is, predictably, at a stand-still, I present to you the eight moves the Leafs should make – right now. Keep in mind that I realize they’re a patient bunch and that there probably isn’t any rush to do anything with a new GM just coming on board and training camp about six weeks away.

It’s speculation and it’s just for fun.

8. Trade Roman Polak

I’ve heard a lot of people say that the Leafs should hang onto Polak until the deadline when his salary will be almost nothing and he’ll be great insurance for a team approaching the Playoffs.

That could well happen. But, I think it ignores the opportunity cost of keeping him. For instance, if the Leafs play until March with Polak in the lineup, they can’t dress and develop a player who’ll possibly be with the team in the future.

You can go ahead and pencil in Rielly, Gardiner, Phaneuf, Marincin and Hunwick into the Leafs’ opening night lineup. If Polak is in the lineup too, that means that they can’t see what they have in T.J Brennan, and that Harrington and Percy are stuck in the AHL.

I just don’t see the slight upgrade in  a return for Polak being worth the lineup spot for a team with no real designs on the Playoffs this year.

I’d put it out there that I wanted to trade him and take the highest pick offered. It’s something.

Tyler Bozak

7. Trade Tyler Bozak

The rationale with Bozak is basically the same as with Polak. It doesn’t hurt to keep him around in the hopes that someone will get desperate and make you a better offer than you could get now, but realistically, all he is really going to do is take away someone’s ice-time, and so getting rid of him in itself is an “addition by subtraction” scenario.

I don’t think anyone really expects Nylander, Brown or Leipsic to stick in Toronto this year, but if they have great camps they’ll need a spot. But what about Sam Carrick and Frederick Guathier? Some other surprise player?

The Leafs don’t really have any roster spots open at the moment, and taking what they can get for Bozak is a good way to go about doing that. Even if no rookies make the team (which makes no sense from a development perspective) the Leafs should have Kadri and Holland as their top two centres, and then have Matthias, Winnik, Arcobello and Spaling as options for the bottom two spots.

Keeping Bozak around just creates unnecessary roster clogging, not to mention that any time he might end up taking away from Kadri and Holland only hinders the team down the road.

6. Trade Joffrey Lupul

This one’s pretty obvious, but Lupul has three years left on his contract and it isn’t really too attractive given his injury history. The thing is though, Lupul is quite a good player when he does play, so I believe he is tradeable, especially when you consider most of his injuries are just poor luck, and aren’t really chronic.

With Lupul, as with Bozak and Polak, it’s not so much the return that is valuable, but rather the cap space and the chance to give their jobs to players the team is trying to develop.

Honestly, if all the Leafs got for these three players was a 3rd, 5th, and 7th, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

5. Trade Leo Komarov

With three years at almost $3 million left on his deal, this might also prove difficult. Komarov is overpaid, but he’s useful – certainly more useful than either Bozak or Polak. I really like what he brings to the team, but he’s just taking up room at this point.  By the time the Leafs are competitive, he’ll be over 30, so if they can get anything for him now, they should.

(Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)
(Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

4. Inquire about Sean Couturier

If you look at the NHL over the past eight years, only five teams have won the Cup. Of those five teams, their #1 centres were Datsyuk, Crosby, Kopitar, Toews and Bergeron – basically the five best two-way centres of their era.

While we often look at points as the standard for player evaluation, the success of players like Kopitar, Bergeron and Toews should give us pause because it is their defense that makes them so good.

Now I don’t know if Couturier can have the offense to match those players, but he can match them defensively. I believe that Philadelphia has limited his offense by playing him in too much of a defensive role, and he’s a player I’d be happy to build around.  I don’t know what the cost would be, but If I was the Leafs, knowing that he’s an RFA after this season and that the Flyers still have to sign Voracek, I would inquire.

3. See If they Can’t Help Out the Flyers 

Speaking of the Flyers, they’re in a tight spot. They have the makings of a good team, but maybe if they don’t get some cap flexibility their going to have to flush away some key pieces.

Voracek is 25, Brayden Schenn is 23, Simmonds is 26 and Giroux is 27. If they can time these player’s primes with the emergence of Scott Laughton and their amazing young group of defensemen (Provorov, Morin, Gostisbehere) they could have a great team for years to come.

Enter the Leafs.

With Komarov, Polak, Bozak, Lupul all gone, the Leafs would have $15 million in free cap space. In addition, they have $6 million currently free, as well as the contract of Nathan Horton ($5+) that allows them to exceed the cap by an amount equal to his salary. Basically, they are potentially the Flyers’ best friends.

Even if they take less than they can get later to get rid of the above mentioned players now, the Leaf can still accelerate their rebuild by using the cap relief to help the Flyers by taking one or more of R.J Umberger, Vincent Lecavalier or Andrew McDonald.

The Leafs could get picks, prospects or Couturier for helping out the Flyers.  At the very least, it’s something I’d be looking into if I were the Leafs.

2. Trade Bernier

For a goalie hoping to establish himself, Toronto isn’t a very good spot for Bernier. They’re likely going to be bad and he can’t help them. I think he can be a very good goalie for a team with a decent commitment to defense, but even at just $4 million, I see no reason to lock yourself into a contract with a goalie when you’re not even going to be caring who your goalie is for the next three or so seasons.

Given the return on goalies I’d rank lower than Bernier, like Jones and Lehner, I think the Leafs should see if this surprisingly hot goalie market has any juice left in it.

James van Riemsdyk trade
James van Riemsdyk on the trading block? (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

1. Trade JVR 

If not for the lockout and some bad luck last season, we’d be able to call JVR a consistent, three-time 30 goal scorer. He got 27 last season, 30 the year before and 18 in 48 games during the lockout.

He’s big, he’s still only 26 and his contract is affordable, even desirable. Also, he may still have some upside.  So why trade him?

The answer is simple: If he hasn’t peaked yet, he’s close and by the time the Leafs are competitive again, he’s going to have declined. Furthermore, he’s the team’s best trade chip and could be used to fix the club’s biggest weakness: having no high-end defensive prospects after Morgan Rielly.

As I wrote before, I think Anaheim is the perfect  fit for him. They have several talented young defensemen, they are in a “win now” mode, and JVR would be a great addition to either ride shotgun with Perry and Getzlaf or join Kesler on the second line. Also, they can afford the salary.

In exchange, the Leaf should target Ducks’ prospect Shea Theodore, one of the NHL’s most highly touted defense prospects.

Whether or not the Ducks line up as good trade partners, this is the kind of trade the Leafs should be looking for because with Nylander, Kadri, Marner, Kapanen, Leipsic and Brown already in the fold at forward, it makes sense for the Leafs do deal from a position of strength and to capitalize on the urgency of a team like the Ducks.

Thanks for reading