A Leaf Fan’s Wishlist

It’s no secret being a fan of the Maple Leafs isn’t easy.

The team has seen only mild success at any time over the last 45 years. Historically, management has made some serious hockey errors that has kept the team from returning to its past glory. Brian Burke was brought in to turn things around, but it hasn’t really worked out that way – not yet anyway.

For as much abuse as Leaf fans take from other NHL fans (for overvaluing their own talent, for sticking by the franchise in the face of so much losing, etc.), LeafsNation is in fact a knowledgeable and diverse group, no different than the fan base of many teams. True, there are often differing opinions on what should happen, how the team can get better, which players to hold on to, which to trade away. Without doubt there are many needs on this team, and a cruise around Twitter and the blogosphere reveals a wide range of thoughts on what the most pressing needs are. But it all goes to form what is essentially a wishlist, a collection of moves that could go a long way to helping the fans see that Burke and his plan will result in the Leafs improving.

Alex Galchenyuk could be the high-impact player Leaf fans crave. (Metcalfe Photography)

Wish 1. That the team is able to draft an impact player in the number 5 draft position.

Since Burke took the helm, the Leafs have had little success in drafting an impact player in the first round. In 2009, Burke talked about trading up and selecting John Tavares, which never occurred. Instead, the Leafs used their #7 pick to select Nazem Kadri, a speedy but small forward from the London Knights. The first round picks for 2010 and 2011 were traded to Boston in the Phil Kessel deal, though Burke managed to make a couple deals to draft Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy at #22 and #25 respectively in 2011. Kadri has done well for the Marlies and looked pretty good in 51 NHL games, and could be ready to assume a spot among the Leaf forwards. Biggs and Percy are just about ready to start their pro careers, likely with the Marlies next season. But with Toronto holding the number 5 selection in what seems a deeper draft, LeafsNation is abuzz wondering who among the top-ranked junior players will end up in the Leafs’ hands… and if he may be ready to step into the NHL lineup right away.

Could Leaf fans see a Grigorenko, Galchenyuk, Murray or Trouba on the ice in 2012-13? While LeafsNation knows there is value in allowing young players time to develop, as many successful franchises have done, there’s hope that perhaps this time, the first round draftee could make the jump from junior and become an instant ‘homegrown’ star. A centre with size, or a big rugged defender, someone who could fill an organizational need. Luke Schenn made the jump diretly to the NHL as a number 5 selection, and at times has shone, other times he’s struggled. But fans are hopeful that this pick could yield a potential Calder winner, one who could elevate the overall talent level of the team’s prospect pool and perhaps help change the fortunes of this team.

James Reimer Leafs
Can Reimer recapture his 2010-11 form? (Jerome Davis/Icon SMI)

Wish 2. That James Reimer rebounds and is able to be ‘the guy’ in net.

During the 2011-12 season, there was division in LeafsNation over goalies. Was goalie coach Francois Allaire the problem? Had Burke made a serious error in going with the two young ‘keepers? Were either of Gustavsson or Reimer actually NHL-calibre goalies?

The 2012 off-season presents interesting possibilities. Reimer is under contract, Ben Scrivens is playing well for the AHL Marlies, and it seems Jonas Gustavsson will be allowed to leave as a free agent. Burke has said he intends to address and upgrade at goalie. Rumours abound as to what that means… a veteran free agent? a trade for Luongo or Bernier or someone else? And where would Reimer fit into the new arrangement?

Blogger Michael Langlois, for one, is not ready to give up on Reimer. Fans point to the incident where Brian Gionta came through the Toronto crease and clocked Reimer with an elbow, concussing him. Some wonder if was rushed back, as he missed only 18 games and did not seem to be the same goalie on his return. The sample size is somewhat small… Reimer’s NHL career is only 71 games old. His career began with some stellar performances, but he seemed to become more ordinary as time went on. The wish for fans is that the combination of a concussion, a porous defence and uncertainty as to who was the number 1 goalie may have contributed to Reimer’s numbers falling off, and that full off-season of recovery and training, and perhaps changes to the team’s defensive systems, could see Reimer perform more like his 2010-11 self.

Wish 3. That a suitable veteran can be found to share the net with Reimer.

Further to Reimer regaining his old form, there’s a feeling that perhaps the Leafs would have been better off making a decision to go with either Reimer or Gustavsson, and keeping a guy like JS Giguere around. While not all of the blame should be placed on the goalies for finishing 26th overall, there’s no doubt the goaltending was below NHL standards. Burke has acknowledged this, and pledged to rectify the situation. For most, that seems to mean there will be a veteran goaltender with a more proven track record.

The trouble is, there may not be many available goalies, nor might it be the cure-all LeafsNation hopes for. Still, it remains high on the wishlist. In theory, the ideal situation here is comprised of a number of components. First thing is wish #2 comes to fruition – Reimer emerges as the guy he was to end 2010-11. Ben Scrivens would remain in the AHL as the starter (and by extension get more playing time than backing up Reimer in the NHL). That leaves a space open to sign an NHL veteran. This veteran would not be a ‘Luongo-type’ – not a number 1 who is bound to play 65+ games. Rather, the wish would be for a guy who has some decent abilities, perhaps nearing the end of his career, who could mentor Reimer and Scrivens, and be happy playing something around 25-30 games on the season. Should Reimer falter, that veteran could possibly play more, or Scrivens could be pressed into service. Granted, no one dreams this will be an automatic Jennings Trophy combination, but it would be a safer and potentially better scenario than was used last season.

Wish 4. That the Marlies advance to the Calder Cup final is proof there are some solid young players in the organization.

The Marlies advance to the Calder Cup final has rekindled some playoff excitement in LeafsNation. And with the success of the AHL farm team comes hope that perhaps at least some of the prospects will blossom into decent NHL players. Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed, but in the same way that other franchises, most recently Ottawa, have benefit from the success of their AHL affiliate, Leaf fans hope the same will be true for Toronto.

Granted, Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner saw some significant time with the Leafs in 2011-12. It seems reasonable that their time with the Marlies, playing through the intensity of the AHL playoffs, can only help their maturation process. Fans hope this will auger well for these players when it comes time to compete for NHL spots in the fall. It’s giving some fans who may not have followed the Marlies as closely a chance to see players like Korbinian Holzer, Jerry D’Amigo, Nicolas Deschamps and others who could also figure into the Leaf future.

Further, there’s a hope that the success of the Marlies is the start of a true ‘winning attitude’ being forged in the Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment family. Other organizations have it – a commitment to achieving loftier goals, to not be satisfied with simply playing out the season and raking in the profits of gate receipts, TV deals and merchandising. After decades of middle-of-the-pack results (and almost a decade of missing the playoffs altogether), fostering a culture of winning should be a priority throughout the Leaf organization.

Mike Komisarek Maple Leafs
Mike Komisarek could be a trading chip if he cannot find his niche with the Leafs. (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

Wish 5. That Burke can find a way to move one or more of Lombardi, Armstrong, Connolly and Komisarek.

Fans do have their favourite targets, but consensus seems to be that Lombardi, Armstrong, Connolly and Komisarek (known to some as LACK) represent too much money tied up in too little performance.

It’s unlikely that all of these veterans can be moved (or bought out if that option arises under a new CBA). Even if trades can be arranged, there probably won’t be a huge bonanza coming the back to Toronto. Ideally, if Burke could find a way to deal one, some or all of these large contracts, it would open up cap space as well roster spots for some of the aforementioned younger players. In the eyes of many Leaf fans, unless these guys can elevate their play and perform solidly in supporting roles, it will make little sense to see them playing in place of youngsters who might be NHL-ready.

For those who are not traded or bought out, coach Randy Carlyle will have to find the proper roles for them. For Lombardi, Armstrong and Connolly that likely means bottom-6 forward roles, while Komisarek will need to learn and adapt to Carlyle’s defensive system. Again, if they cannot perform adequately (and in spite of their high salary cap hits), LeafsNation will call for these players to sit in favour of the younger prospects.

Will LeafsNation see all their wishes come true? Most likely, no. The tasks needed to grant all five of these wishes will be a very tall order for Brian Burke to complete. And certainly, it doesn’t simply rest in his hands. He and his scouts will need to determine how they can best use that number 5 draft pick. He will need to make some crucial personnel decisions. And he will have to encourage and nurture that ‘winning attitude’ the Marlies seem to have found. Butplayers will still need to perform on the ice, or else it may not matter what moves management makes. If even a couple of these wishes come true, then the bigger dream of finally seeing NHL playoff action in Toronto may indeed materialize next April.

14 thoughts on “A Leaf Fan’s Wishlist”

        • Hey Jamie

          As deep as the Leaf blueline seemed to be, it showed it needed upgrading. I could see acquiring Schultz, though I know he’ll be pursued by other teams as well. I am not entirely sure why Burke went out and got Franson only to have Wilson play him so little during the season. Personally, I think both Gunnar and Franson could be valuable contributors to the Leafs, but of course you have to be prepared to give some quality if you want to get some quality back in a transaction.

          Thanks for your comment!

  1. Wish #1

    I’m sure they will be able to draft an impact player, but that player shouldn’t be rushed to the big club like Schenn, and they shouldn’t be yo-yo’d like Kadri. Not only is it bad for their development but it also forces the Leafs to sign them for more money than they are worth at the age of 20-22.

    Wish # 2

    If the Leafs are expecting Reimer to be “the guy” than they are in big trouble. They can’t return with the same problems and expect different outcomes.

    Wish # 3

    No question about this, the Leafs desperately need a solid backup. They should sign Josh Harding.

    Wish # 4

    Making a Calder Cup final may mean that the Marlies have some solid players, but it doesn’t mean they will be able to contribute in the NHL. There is no doubt that this championship run provides great experience, but who on the Marlies is truly ready to contribute at the NHL level?

    Frattin and Gardiner were already on the Leafs and they should be improved, but there isn’t any other impact NHLers on the Marlies right now. Kadri is still undersized and he needs to engage more, same for Colborne.

    Phillippe Dupsuis is leading the Marlies in playoffs scoring and he had 0 pts in 30 NHL games this season.

    • I think you are correct – draftees most often benefit from finishing their junior eligibility and then learning the game at the minor pro level. But, I think in terms of wishes, fans would be hoping more for that type of top-5 guy who can play right away… think Tavares, Stamkos, Duchene, Doughty, Hall, RNH, Kane, Toews… is that guy in this draft and going to be avialble to the Leafs at number 5? There’s a chance of it… that’s what I meant, it’s what the fans would be hoping for.

      Reimer may not be the guy, but I am of the mind that last season was a combination of his coming back to earth a bit, lingering effects from the Gionta hit, and uncertainty as to which goalie had the net. Again, the hope is he could recapture some of that magic from early 2011, and I think a solid vet to help mentor him would help a lot. To be fair, the goaltending was bad, but hurt by the poor defence also… it’s not an easy fix to be sure.

      As for the Marlies, it’s true, fans have to remember that some of the top performers are Dupuis, Zigomanis, Hamilton… guys who are AHL vets, not up-and-coming prospects. And, yes Frattin and Gardiner are likely to be Leafs, have shown they can play at that level. Who else is ready? Well, I think you have to say Kadri will have to show he is, or else he’s likely never going to be. Holzer is also reported to be NHL-ready, and Scrivens could be though he could likely use the work next season in the AHL. I also think D’Amigo has played well enough that he’ll be looked at closely next camp. Colborne is indeed further away than most would have hoped. Still, it seems much more than the Leafs had just a few years ago in their system.

      Thanks for the comments Tom.

  2. One idea that is maybe worth considering is letting thye Leafs move to Quebec and getting the league to put an expansion franchise in the ACC. This would accomplish several goals at once. It would piss off the Quebecers, because their joy at having a time would turn into sobs and moans before Christmas as they realize that they were hoodwinked. It would piss off the folks in Hamilton, who still hold onto the odd notion that they are going to get an NHL team, as they would have once again been passed over. And it would give Toronto fans some hope for the future. An expansion team would eventually be good, and it wouldn’t be stuck with whatever corporate cultural baggage that the Leafs are suffering from since long before Brian Burke appeared on the scene. OK, it’s not perfect, and it’s bound to draw the serious wrath of the media “experts” and the Don Cherry adherants, but it might be one of the few ways of saving NHL hockey in Toronto.

  3. HaHaHa. Written with all the usual lack of knowledge a typical Leafs fan posesses.

    Percy must either make the Leafs or return to junior hockey in Mississauga. He’s still not old enough to be eligible to play in the AHL. It’s a standard, long-time clause in the  NHL’s arrangement with the CHL.

    After wasting half a season trying to force a junior eligible player to play in the AHL when he wasn’t quite ready, the Leafs got lucky when Kitchener Rangers took on Jerry D’Amigo and re-established his path to a career as a tier two player. They won’t want to make that mistake again, not with scores of empty seats to fill at the Ricoh Coliseum.

    Biggs is likely to play this season with Oshawa Generals.

    • The Leafs must have more than one Stuart Percy I guess, considering he’s actually already made his pro debut, played a regular season and 3 playoff games for the Marlies. http://theahl.com/stats/player.php?id=4521

      further, Percy turned 18 in May 2011, meaning he meets the following requirement:
      What is the minimum age for an AHL player?
      Per AHL By-Laws, the age limit for eligibility to compete in the American Hockey League is 18 years or over, on or before September 15 of each season of competition. http://theahl.com/faq-p137653Biggs’ rights do belong to Oshawa, but frankly, going to the Generals seems a lateral move. He could perhaps begin the season with Oshawa, but leaving US college seems more likely to mean he and the organization see him with the Marlies sooner than later during 2012-13.

  4. I believe a goalie should be the #1 priority. They should go for a veteran presence such as Vokoun. I feel Reimer and him could balance the games out well, and let some pressure off Reimer. It could be a possibilty to move out one of those larger contracts with a package deal; possibly move out a prospect and a Connolly, or Lombardi, and possibly Macarthur to bring in a 2nd or 3rd line grit player (and maybe more), which they lacked all season. If they do somehow get rid of Komi’s contract, then they should call up Holzer. And they shouldn’t worry about their first rounder to become an instant impact. In recent memory the only players to make a huge impact out of the draft are the ones who went 1st overall; and a few rare exceptions. Let whoever they pick develop. Kessel, Bozak, and Lupul did well together, and I think they’ll continue to do so.

    • The goaltending does need to be better, and Vokoun could be a decent short-term answer.
      I also agree they could be more gritty at forward, and Holzer is now the most likely D to move to the Leafs. I think they see some combo of Ashton, Frattin, D’Amigo as guys who maybe could play wing with Connolly and Kulemin to be a grit/defensive/support scoring line.
      Bozak has come along, perhaps better than most thought he would. But he’s really not the right answer. Don’t forget, Lupul was playing great, but he could fall off a bit also – he may not produce a point per game, especially if Bozak is truly still only a 45pt guy between Lupul and Kessel.
      For a team close to the cap and with so many returning players, still so many questions really.

      • Agreed, trading will be must to clear some cap. Bozak would be short term for a couple years, like Vokoun. Hopefully Galchenyuk will be still around at #5. Lupul showed consistencey even before this year. He was paired with Kessel after the Beauchemin trade, when they had their hot streak. So personally I think he’ll be able to produce, even after the injury. Moving out Macarthur to bring in size for the third line would help, and call up Frattin like you said for that second line would be nice to see; I don’t think Ashton is ready yet.. And like I said before, attempt to move out Lombardi or Connolly’s contract (or maybe both) to make some room.

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