It’s guaranteed to be an interesting off season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The daggers are out. LeafsNation is unhappy, and with good reason. Things looked so good, then turned so bad, and the Leafs failed to take the smallest of ‘next steps’ – moving from also-ran in the east to the top 8. This after Brian Burke was hired in November 2008, saying at various times that he did not believe it would take 5 years to build a contender – that he believed he had a playoff team. He was wrong, on both counts, and it has some questioning if he can do the job.
There’s no shortage of opinion on the shortcomings of this team. That’s because there are a number of shortcomings. Even at mid-season, defensive play and the penalty kill were identified as issues, Goaltending, while not completely inadequate, failed to provide any ‘game-stealing’ performances. The roles of some players are not well-defined. Even after the very decent start, this team missed the playoffs – it cannot be considered a good team. Changes should be expected. It’s nothing a skilled centre with size, a true ‘shut-down’ defenceman, and reliable NHL-calibre goaltending couldn’t fix.
Burke will not have the luxury of simply solving everything at once. There are players who fit into the plans going forward, others who do not. And among those are some contracts that won’t be easily moved. There’s prospects who should be given a chance at making the NHL club, but no guarantee of roster space. They have little cap space available for 2012-13, though on the positive side, they own the #5 pick in this year’s entry draft, with which the Leafs could land a very good player, or flip for other assets.
We know coaching will be in place come training camp. Randy Carlyle replaced Ron Wilson on March 2, 2012 and given a 3 year contract. He brought in assistant Dave Farrish, while Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin have only completed their first year with Toronto. This is the coaching staff going forward, and now Carlyle will institute a defensive system, quite different from the more open, free-flow offensive style that Wilson ran, and it seemed this team was built to exploit.
As for player personnel, there are some relative certainties. There is a core Burke intends to build around, and they are not likely going anywhere.
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*indicates career best
These players are part of the plan, based on a combination of their performance, their current salary & term, and in many cases, Burke made a concerted effort to acquire the player. Frankly, Kessel and Lupul are major offensive contributors, Grabovski is the organization’s best option at centre currently, Phaneuf is the captain, while Gardiner and perhaps less so Reimer are among the best young players the franchise has. This forms the backbone of Burke’s blueprint, and at that he is taking some risk that these players will perform to their expected levels.
Beyond that, things are little more uncertain.
Acquiring prospects is one of the positive things Burke is credited with. The thing is, those prospects eventually need to make a contribution at the NHL level, and now may be time to give them a look. Nazem Kadri had 7 points in 21 NHL games this season and Joe Colborne had 5 points in his 10 games. Recently acquired Carter Ashton also saw a few games as the season ended, and may be looked to for size and grit. Reports are that Korbinian Holzer is primed to make the jump to being an NHL defenceman, while Jesse Blacker could also claim a spot. In essence, that would necessitate clearing 5 roster spots. Matt Frattin won a roster spot out of training camp and played 56 NHL games, posting 15 points (and 81 hits), but becomes a restricted free agent on July 1. He should be a likely candidate for re-signing.
Speaking of re-signings, six players from the NHL roster become free agents unless re-signed. Jonas Gustavsson is unrestricted, and one has to wonder if there is any interest on either side to have him back. In 3 seasons in Toronto, he’s shown flashes of greatness, but overall been less than stellar, and most observers believe Burke should be looking to upgrade in net, even if only to provide a veteran to help Reimer out. Ben Scrivens is an RFA, though likely ticketed for the AHL again if re-signed. Nikolai Kulemin is an RFA, and a decent defensive forward, though his offensive slump this season could see him lose his top-6 status to a Kadri or Frattin. Cody Franson is also an RFA, and had an uneven first season in Toronto. He was often a healthy scratch despite decent statistics and that the Toronto defensive corps had so many issues, leaving one to wonder if he would want to return. Forwards Jay Rosehill and Joey Crabb are also free agents. Rosehill got into the lineup after Carlyle took over, while Crabb’s role was expanded. Still, if Toronto is to get better, shouldn’t some of these free agents be allowed to walk in favour of more talented players?
It’s also no secret that Brian Burke has made 4 acquisitions which to many observers carry contracts disproportionate to the player’s effectiveness.
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Expectations for Armstrong, Connolly, Lombardi and Komisarek were somewhat high. Armstrong was to provide some sandpaper from the third line; Connolly would be the creative centre for Kessel; Lombardi, though returning from injury, had speed and veteran savvy; Komisarek was to be a solid, physical defender. Consensus opinion is none of these players has lived up to their billing. As a result, the Leafs have $15.75M in cap space (4 roster spots) tied up in players who are oft-injured, and ineffective when in the lineup. Without doubt, Burke should be looking for ways to unload some of all of these contracts, though it won’t be easy finding takers (note that Connolly and Komisarek both possess some form of no-trade/no-move clause).
Burke noted in his season-ending press conference that he’d like to address the issues of team size and toughness, as well as strengthening his goaltending. It’s not realistic to think players like Armstrong, Connolly, Lombardi or Komisarek would be the currency to get that done. Burke would prefer not to trade players like Colborne or Kadri, and certainly not Gardiner. But among those who could be trade bait are John-Michael Liles, Carl Gunnarsson, Tyler Bozak and Luke Schenn.
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*indicates career best
Liles was recently re-signed, and had a decent season going before a concussion side-lined him. He returned but was much less effective in the second half. His new contract makes him slightly pricey (and he has a limited no-trade clause), but he’s been a proven performer, and many teams are interested in defencemen. Gunnarsson was fairly solid all season, wilting as the season wound down, but his low cap hit makes him an attractive trade commodity. Bozak accepted the first-line centre role and did well, but he is more obviously suited to being a third line player in the NHL. He could bring interest as a ‘deal-sweetener’. The big decision would be about Schenn. No doubt Schenn’s play regressed, but at 22, and a relatively affordable $3.6M/yr signed through 2015-16, many NHL teams would be willing to acquire a young, physical defender who can still mature into a solid blueliner. Therein lies the issue for Burke: Liles could rebound, Schenn still has room to mature, Bozak has improved. What happens if the player traded turns into the type of player the team requires? Sure Schenn is an attractive trade option, but defencemen often take until their mid-20s to fully grow into the position, what if he does become the shutdown guy they are looking for?
At his season-ending press conference, coach Carlyle made it clear he will require his players to better in better condition, and he will demand an elevated compete level from everyone. That may address some of the issues, but won’t solve everything. Burke has vowed to add size and skill to the roster. That will be a more difficult thing to accomplish, because the players Burke should move are the most difficult to trade, while his most attractive assets are players who should be considered part of the core group. With few contracts expiring in the 2012 off season, it also leaves little room for free agent acquisitions, and means maturing prospects could be in tough for playing time. Given the dire situation in Toronto, and what seems like few options, this may turn out to be Brian Burke’s most challenging season as a general manager.
A graphic designer and production artist by trade, Mark is a long-time hockey fan. He was a Maple Leafs contributor to TheHockeyWriters.com for over 2 years, and has written for other websites. You can follow him on Twitter @MarkAscione