While the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs are in full swing and continue to provide us with some fantastic moments of triumph, the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are now forced to once again shift their focus to off ice activities.
And so too has Leafs brass.
Despite his team sitting on the sidelines, Leafs GM Brian Burke made quick work of two signing he was keying in on, signing goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson and newcomer Jussi Rynnas to contracts. Â Continuing with the in-house theme, Burke will now certainly turn his attention to Nikolai Kulemin, if he hasn’t done so already.
And while we are seemingly quite far away this point, it won’t be long before the draft and subsequent free agency period rolls around.
With no picks in the first two rounds, it is in the free agency window where Burke will likely make his biggest mark of the off-season.
The Leafs were a team that had more bad moments than good this season, but it wasn’t a completely lost season after all.
Young players up front proved that they can be key contributors to the team. Â The defense, though much maligned through much of the year, seems to be shaping up to be a solid unit for years to come.
And with Jonas Gustavsson and J.S. Giguere locked up, the Leafs should have quality goaltending efforts on more nights than not in the 2010-2011 season.
Echoed earlier by my fellow MLHS writers, It is a free agency period where I feel the Leafs can be quietly efficient. Â Below I have taken a look at a few players I think the Leafs should focus on come July 1st. Â Now, certainly I don’t expect all of these players to come to Toronto. Â In fact, perhaps none of them do when all is said and done.
With that in mind, here are a few players I think would improve the Toronto Maple Leafs next season, in no particular order. It’s easy to see there is a theme developing with my fellow MLHS writers.
As pointed out by Down Goes Brown in a prior thread, whether or not Kariya, a player with a history in a series of obscure hockey markets, would have interest in jumping into the hockey hotbed that is Toronto is a major question mark.
Nonetheless, with a lack of NHL experience on their roster, bringing in Kariya would take some of the pressure of the younger scorers, and also off of Phil Kessel. Â He has had injury troubles in the past few years, but Kariya still scored 18 goals in 75 games last season, and is still a player that can give a full effort in a nightly basis, while mentoring the younger forwards on the team.
There’s no reason to believe Kariya, likely nearing the end of his career, would want to come to Toronto, but his presence here could serve beneficial in a similar vein toÂ the influence a player like Bill Guerin has had in Pittsburgh.
While it may be hard for Leafs fans to praise someone who wore the uniform of the enemy, Matt Cullen brings a plethora of intangibles that could make him a good Maple Leaf within the Burke mold.
First and foremost, he is a real good penalty killer, has the ability to be a forward on any line, and also has the versatility to be a winger or a centre. Â Those who have had the opportunity to be around him will tell you that Cullen has a high hockey IQ and a strong dedication to the team game.
Cullen could be a big boost to the Leafs special teams, while being versatile enough to fill a variety of different holes up and down the lineup.
There may be no other player on this list that I would like to see more in blue and white than the man teammates refer to as “Army,” which is not simply a creative nickname but also an accurate description of the way Armstrong plays on the ice.
A scrappy forward, Armstrong is capable of putting up secondary scoring while also being a responsible player in his own end of the ice. Â Armstrong is a vocal player who is widely looked at as a favourite inside the locker room due to his fearless efforts as it relates to winning hockey games. Â He has a knack for killing penalties, blocking shots, laying the body, and scoring goals.
Armstrong is loved by teammates and management in Atlanta by all accounts, but is cut from the mold of the typical Brian Burke player, at least as far as attitude and heart goes.
While I am not completely sold on this for a few reasons. Â Number one is the loyalty factor to Detroit. Â We rarely see people who are long serving members of the Wings organization move on. Â Number two would be the age of Holmstrom, who turned 37 in January.
Still, there are points to be made that Holmstrom could certainly help Toronto.
The positive that comes with age is experience, clearly something the Leafs don’t have a lot of, being the youngest team in the NHL. Â He also has rings on his fingers, something only J.S. Giguere and Francois Beauchemin have on the current Leafs roster.
Holmstrom’s bread and butter is cutting to the dirty areas of the ice, going hard to the net, and using his big frame to create traffic in the goalmouth. A strong net presence is something the Leafs powerplay (and five-on-five play) has lacked the past few years, and Holmstrom, who scored 20 goals this year, could provide that much-needed service.
Like Kariya with the forwards, Holmstrom could be a great teacher for a player like Christian Hanson, who has the potential to be a front of the net type of guy with a few years of development.
Okay, I may be cheating on this one, if you believe all the trade deadline chatter.
Torres seems to be the type of player Brian Burke will covet this offseason. Â With a good mix of jam and truculence, Torres would make a great addition to the Leafs bottom six forwards, while helping to improve the penalty kill. Â Torres is coming off a 19 goal season this year with Columbus and Buffalo, and has routinely been a player teams can count on to be a 12-15 goal guy.
He’s also a playersthat knows what it takes to pay the price for the greater good of the team. Â Torres is a Toronto born player, and would be coming to Toronto at 28 with presumably plenty left to give for the Leafs.
Another player who is in the final years of his career, his performance as of late gives you the impression that Grier certainly has lots of jam left in his game.
A speedy winger who likes to crash and bang opponents, Grier is a player who could bring secondary scoring while also setting a tone with his physical play. Â Grier, once again, would be one of those players whose foot speed and physicality could improve the Leafs penalty kill, and overall five-on-five play.
Like Kariya, and Holmstrom as well, there is no reason to think that a veteran like Grier would like to come to a young team, but his influences could have a big impact on the Leafs roster.
I said earlier that Armstrong was probably the top guy on this list I wanted. Â Well Ryan Johnson may be a close second.
If you’re looking for points, look elsewhere. Â If you’re looking for heart, you have more than enough with Johnson in your lineup. Â The gritty bottom six winger has become a fan favourite in Vancouver with the Canucks where he routinely goes above and beyond the call of duty in order to win hockey games.
A hard nosed player with leadership capabilities, Johnson is a responsible player in his own end, and it is not uncommon to see him grimacing in pain on the bench after a hard shift of body checks and shot blocks.
This is a player, like Johnson and Grier, who’s attitude alone can make your team better and more confident on the ice.
Burish has never had a season where he had ten points, but that isn’t his job. Â Burish is a 3rd or 4th line player who hit’s hard, and talks loud. Â A scrappy player, Burish could bring physicality to the Leafs lineup, and a bit of an attitude change in terms of on ice swagger.
Malhotra was a training camp invite of the San Jose Sharks last season, and certainly made the most of his opportunity. Â Malhotra brought a good energy the Sharks bottom six forwards, and is a strong two-way player, who thrives on killing penalties and shutting down opposition’s top lines, all the while adding a scoring element to the team.
Malhotra was born near Toronto, and a return home to the big smoke could benefit him, and the team as well. Â A 1o year veteran, Malhotra could really help the younger players not just on the ice, but off of it as well.
Pyatt is the exact type of player who could step in immediately and make an impact on the roster now. Â A strong, physical player with a big frame, Pyatt is an excellent two-way player who can skate well, and does what needs to be done to ensure his line isn’t scored on when they’re on the ice.
Pyatt, an Ontario born player, may not mind coming back to play in Canada, but after the tragic events of last year, it’s clear that the Coyotes have made him very comfortable in Phoenix, and that loyalty may keep him in the desert.
A full circle movement if you will after being drafted by Toronto, Brian Burke can add toughness and grit to his team with a simple phone call, one he has made before.
Burke brought Thornton into Anaheim during their Stanley Cup year, and knows exactly what Thornton brings to the table. Â A tough guy who can hit and fight, he may seem unnecessary given the fact that the Leafs have committed to Colton Orr for three more years (a good deal if you ask me by the way) but Thornton is a little better when it comes to killing penalties and cleaning up the play in his own end of the ice.
So there you have it – a list of players I think could help the Leafs in one way or another with an emphasis on toughness and improving the penalty kill. Speculate away.
*Free Agent list courtesy of NHLNumbers.com*