Where Do You Go From Here?

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    Five games in, no wins, and few positives within the play to indicate a turnaround is coming soon.

    Something has to be done to shake up this roster.   Some sort of move needs to be made, that much is clear.

    The question is, what?

    Option A:  Marlies

    While sending veterans to the Marlies in exchange for young players seems like the obvious way to go, if for no other reason than to inject some energy into the lineup, such a move is, in effect, a double-edged sword.

    First and foremost, who do you send down to make room for another player, and would it send the appropriate message or serve to further alienate an already-struggling group?   Some have suggested sending down Jason Blake, but the reality is that no one will take that contract on re-entry waivers (the team claiming him would be stuck with the full amount in each of the remaining two years of the deal), so the team is stuck with either keeping him on the NHL roster or having a malcontent in the minors with the kids for another two seasons after this one.   Which is simply not a good situation for anybody.

    So who else?    Hagman and Poni have managed to put up points thus far.   Stempniak hasn’t produced, but has played well.   Wallin is one of the few players with an even +/- rating, and his defensive effort has been solid.   Mayers could be a candidate as many have suggested; of course in doing so you put into play the politics of sending a thirteen-year veteran to the minors,  but that point may perhaps be moot after an 0-4-1 start riddled with a level of effort that can only be described as an embarrassment.

    Cap considerations have to come into play, also, when considering such a move.   Not necessarily in terms of sending any particular player down, but in terms of what happens when Phil Kessel returns, and the team is no longer able to exceed the upper limit.    What if you call up Tyler Bozak, as so many have suggested the team do, and he actually does play well?    He carries a heavy cap hit, and with him the Leafs would be pushing the upper limit.   Which is all well and good until Kessel and his $5.4m contract come off LTIR next month.   Then what do you do?  Continue to field a roster that is barely below the cap (which could be disasterous in the case of short term injuries — read: Calgary at the end of last season)?  Send Bozak back down because his contract exempts him from waivers?  Along with another expensive player to even out the money?  Or hope like heck you can find a trading partner to take a significant amount of salary off your hands to fit Kessel into the lineup?

    Update: Bozak called up today, will play versus Avalanche tonight.  Via Leaf Man, per The Star.

    And even if you do manage to send some veterans to the Marlies, there is the re-entry waiver issue.    If a player who is not waiver-exempt is called back up to the NHL, he will have to pass through waivers before joining the NHL team.   Forget for a moment the notion of losing a player for nothing; the greater concern here is that if a player is claimed, half his salary will be counted against his former team’s cap.     Which could be disasterous:   imagine Toskala is sent to the Marlies.  What happens if Gustavsson or MacDonald gets injured, or goes into an extended slump?   Toskala is called back up, but since he would cost only $2m as a waiver claim, it is reasonable to think some teams may be interested in taking that risk.   He gets claimed, the Leafs lose $2m on their cap to a player who is no longer with the organization, and have to scramble to find a goaltender to fill in for the original injury.

    The point is, it is not as easy as many suggest to simply move players between the minors and the NHL as many people think.   There are several considerations — politics, cap space, players returning from LTIR, re-entry waivers — that go into the planning of these moves as is briefly illustrated above.

    Option B:  Cap availability via LTIR exemption

    Some might be tempted to suggest the team simply make a move now (callup, etc) using the exemption salary allowed for Kessel being on LTIR.   Which would be tantamount to making a panic move.   The problem is, Kessel may be ready to go as early as next month.    The team can’t keep him on LTIR; the league monitors the status of all players on long-term injury reserve and will mandate that he come off when he is ready to go — the league makes that determination to prevent teams from taking advantage of the LTIR exemption to get around salary concerns.

    In essence, this means that there needs to be a plan in place for what to do when Kessel comes off injury reserve.    Sure, they could send him down for a conditioning stint, but that doesn’t buy much time.    A plan needs to be in place for how to handle the financial ramifications of Kessel’s return, and the formation of that plan is made somewhat difficult given (a) the slow start and (b) the relatively short timeframe (one month, as opposed to say, four months) in which Kessel is expected to be ready to play.

    Option C:  Trade

    The concerns mentioned above are mainly cap-based concerns; such is life for an NHL club under the current CBA.   Perhaps the best approach, to accomplish a shake-up and free up some cap to get kids like Bozak and Hanson into the lineup would be a trade.    Of course, the obvious question is, who is tradeable right now given the slow start?

    Toskala’s trade value is next to nil at the moment … will anyone take on his $4m contract given the poor showing he has had to start the year?    Jason Blake would be moveable if he were in the last year of his deal, but he has two more years left at $4m and that won’t be easy to move either, even as a salary dump.   Ditto for the anchor that is Jeff Finger’s $3.5m contract.    Poni and Stempniak are in the final years of their deal and as such might attract some interest;  Poni has had a good start (4 points in 5 games) and Stempniak, while not producing much (1 goal) has played quite well.    However, because neither is considered an impact player, and because both, while reasonably priced are in the last years of their deals, it will be difficult for the Leafs to get any return for them which might help the team this season.   Same goes for Ian White.

    Which brings us to Tomas Kaberle (as all things ‘trade’ in Toronto tend to do).   He may be the team’s only bargaining chip that could bring about the sort of return that would help the team this season.    Of course, he has the dreaded NMC tied to his name, but given the team’s poor start would he be more willing to waive to go to an approved team that stands a better chance of contending?    It’s a question worth asking — Kaberle has had a good start this season and could certainly return a package (young skill player, picks) that could help this team now and moving forward.

    Of course, moving Kaberle would create a giant hole on defense and rob the team of its top puck-mover and one of its only smooth-skating blueliners.    And therein lies the dilemma:   do you move him to fix the problem of a lack of punch up front (and recoup draft picks), only to create a potentially worse problem on the back end?    Or, do you make smaller moves (free up cap for later picks or mid-level prospects) and hope the kids from the Marlies, none of whom have any NHL experience, can somehow carry the team forward?

    Or do you sit tight, do nothing at all and hope for the collective light bulb to suddenly switch on?

    Difficult decisions are facing this team, no matter which way you cut it.

    My question to you is,  which way would you go?   What moves would you make, and why would you make them?

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