Leafs Have Some Bright Spots Too

Leafs Have Some Bright Spots Too

by -

Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

During the doom and gloom of a lengthy losing streak it can be easy to focus only on the negative aspects of a hockey team and I have noticed my last few pieces have done just that.  Today I thought I would take a look at some of the positive and promising assets the Toronto Maple Leafs currently possess as opposed to what they ultimately lack.

Although they are much maligned and even despised by some the ownership of the Toronto Maple Leafs has never been a serious impediment to the success of the team, contrary to popular belief.  Sure MLSE values a profit as most corporations do and yes they charge an arm and a leg for even a lousy ticket, but the fact is the market for all things Leafs is extremely strong.  With the current supply and demand the way it is the pricing issue will not go away or change, ever.

But besides a little price gouging they [MLSE] have always been willing to spend money to produce a quality product on the ice and to improve the in-game experience for the fans.  I am absolutely dumbfounded when I hear people complain that ownership doesn’t care about a winner, or aren’t willing to spend.  Last time I checked the NHL had a hard salary cap and Brian Burke has gone on record numerous times that the team will always spend to the maximum and money is not an issue.

Brian Burke also took the job on the condition of total hockey autonomy and no meddling or second guessing from ownership in any form.  The team has sunk Jeff Finger and his atrocious $3.5 million dollar annual payday in the minors and outside a few other clubs (Edmonton and Sheldon Souray, New York Rangers and Wade Redden) not a lot of teams have shown the willingness to eat much in the way of salary.

Burke has stated in the past he has no qualms burying a guy in the minors if it makes sense for the club and will take another teams financial ‘wart’ and do the same if compensated appropriately.  Ownership also spent in the top five NHL salary bracket in the pre-cap world as well and didn’t say much to Pat Quinn when he wanted to take on additional salary to help the team win (Brian Leetch, Owen Nolan, Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour etc).  In short, ownership is a strength, deal with it.

The front office is being led by the boisterous but heady Brian Burke who has the pedigree and past successes to give every indication he is fully capable of leading the Maple Leafs onward and upward.  Like any GM looking to make an early splash there have been a few questionable moves at times, but Brian Burke did not want a 5-6 year rebuild and for better or worse he has made moves according to this logic.

Brian Burke turned the Vancouver Canucks into a perennial Cup contender and prior to his arrival the point total for the team he inherited was 58 – yikes.  The very next season the team improved dramatically to 83 points (1999/00) and reached the playoffs in 2000/01 with 90 points.  Over the next three seasons the Canucks were 130-77-30-9, an impressive and massive 53 games over .500 so don’t tell me he wasn’t a complete and total success.

He joined the Anaheim Ducks after the lockout that wiped out the 2004/05 season and again inherited a team that produced a 76 point season and helped turn them into a 98 point team in 2005/06 and made it to the Western Conference semi-final.  The Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2006/07 with a 110 point season and followed that with a 102 and 91 point season so again Burkie has shown he is fully capable of building winners.  The Leafs front office is well stocked, well led and well respected – they also clearly inherited a mess.

The past exploits and resume of our head coach Ron Wilson has already been discussed and I think it is safe to say that coaching (depending on your taste) is not a huge weakness and in fact based the current talent of the roster is quite possibly a huge strength.  Not exactly the talent laden Detroit Red Wings taking the ice night in and night out.

Let’s look at the actual talent on the ice and who will help contribute to the hopeful turnaround of the franchise.  Who are our keepers going forward, what do they bring and what should we expect?  There aren’t many sure fire keepers on this roster and guys we can absolutely expect to remain with the club when the tides start to turn.  Don’t act surprised, if there were more the team wouldn’t be mired in a four season slump and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

However, there are a few pieces we can legitimately be excited about.

FORWARD:

1. Phil Kessel – 23 years old.  In 309 career NHL games he has sniped 104 goals and has 193 total points.  Brought in via trade (we won’t go there) Kessel is one of the most talented players offensively the team has had since Mats Sundin left.

A pure goal scorer with a lethal wrist shot and honed scoring instincts I think we can count of Kessel providing a great deal of goal scoring to the team for the next 10-12 seasons.  In 87 total games as a Leaf Kessel has scored 38 goals and tallied 67 points averaging approximately 20 minutes a game.

With an improved team around him and a better power play (only 11 of 38 goals scored on the PP) Kessel could take his game to even greater heights.  If he continues his scoring pace for the next 10-12 seasons he could eventually become the greatest goal scorer in the history of the franchise.

Is it reasonable to assume 13 more Leafs seasons at 30 goals a pop (390) plus the 38 goals already (428) to pass Sundin (420)?  Either way you look at it, the kid can play and he is a legitimate scoring threat each time he touches the puck –a true keeper.  Could he possibly score 500 as a Leaf?

It’s going to take a truly sick career for any three of the players added by the Boston Bruins to make up the potentially ridiculous amount of goals scored by Phil “the Thrill”.  In the end it might be pretty hard to argue against a trade that possibly netted you the all-time franchise leader in goals.

2. Nik Kulemin – 24 years old.  In 168 career NHL games he has scored 36 goals, added 41 assists in approximately 16.5 minutes per game.  Drafted in the second round (44 overall) by Toronto in the 2006 NHL Entry draft “Koolie” has shown drastic improvement year over year and has become a reliable, steady and invaluable forward.

Kulemin is almost the anti-Kessel as he stands a solid 6’1” and 225 pounds of pure Soviet muscle (ooh, scary) and is starting to use every inch of that frame.  In a recent game versus Nashville a shocked Shea Webber was basically rag-dolled as the two battled for the puck, Kulemin won it.

Showcasing an improved shot and quick release to go with an already sound hockey sense I think most of the NHL is high on Koolie and he has the potential to develop into a perennial 30-goal, 30 assist guy in the league while providing a solid all-around game.  Kulemin will be here when the dust settles and the roster is solidified, a definite keeper with strong upside.

3. Nazem Kadri – 20 years old.  Maybe a controversial add to a very short list but the fact remains Kadri possesses rare skills and talents that are not found throughout the Leafs current roster.  Kadri scored 258 points in 242 games in the OHL and his final season was exceptional after a slow start he netted 35 goals, 58 assists, 93 points and 105 penalty minutes.

A lot has already been said about the kid and in almost any other market in the NHL he could develop at a reasonable pace without the scrutiny that comes with being anointed as a Toronto Maple Leafs saviour.  The fact is the kid can play and brings an element of skill that is not readily available and patience is a virtue when it comes to Kadri.

He reminds me a bit of a Scott Gomez type, a playmaking sparkplug centre – in time he could become scary good.

That is it for the list of definite keeper forwards, a short one I know.  Missing the cut was Kris Versteeg, Tyler Bozak, Mikael Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur for various reasons – age, overall questions marks, projections and past history.  I also didn’t include any of our less NHL-ready prospects (Jerry D’Amigo, Greg McKegg etc) as it is way too early to tell if they are worthy of being considered a keeper.

Here is our projected forward lines and who will likely still be here and where we need replacements/upgrades.

X X P. Kessel
N. Kulemin N. Kadri X
K. Versteeg X C. Armstrong
M. Brown T. Brent C. Orr

The shell of our line-up and potential depth/talent of our bottom six is exciting and if we can add the necessary top six talent (specifically top line centre and forward) we could have a very competitive group in the mould of Brian Burke’s top six/bottom six philosophy.  How we go about replacing those ‘X’s with the talent needed is another, much harder task.

DEFENSE:

1. Luke Schenn – 21 years old.  There is some thought the Leafs might have rushed Schenn to the NHL as a 19-year old rookie and it is hard to believe Schenn is only 21 years old but it appears he has started to really develop into the lock down stud defenseman we all envisioned when the Leafs made him the #5 pick in the 2008 NHL Entry draft.

Schenn should probably be our captain but to place that type of unfair pressure on a kid so young who was coming off a supposed sophomore slump season likely wasn’t the best approach.  He is off to a great start in 2010/11 and Schenn has been our best defender thus far.  Logging massive ice-time (nearly 23 minutes/night) while leading in most statistical categories among fellow defensemen.

Dion Phaneuf is too expensive for what he brings at $6.5 million a season and until he finds his game again is going to take a ton of heat from Leafs nation.  He isn’t going anywhere so in that sense he is a keeper but I do not find his play so far to be at the level where he is a must have talent.  Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and Tomas Kaberle bring a solid element to any blue-line but they each have their own faults or weaknesses (or are too expensive) to be considered keepers at this stage.

We have way too much valuable cap space being thrown away on the backend and not getting the appropriate production from that asset allocation.  We need a major overhaul in this department and it starts with moving Mike Komisarek and his massive $4.5 million dollar salary.  We need to get cheaper and more productive, never an easy scenario and something that will have to be a priority for Burke – if it isn’t already.

X L. Schenn
D. Phaneuf X
K. Aullie C. Gunnarsson

The two open spots need to be filled by either one of our many internal candidates on the Toronto Marlies or via free agency.  We will have to live with Phaneuf as he is Brian Burke’s guy and nobody will take his salary on but we need to fill the ‘X’s with one legitimate top two stud (Shea Weber anyone?) and the second with a smart, solid puck mover at a very reasonable price (like under 3 million).

We currently spend 43% of our cap number on our back end and it has underperformed thus far.  In this scenario Phaneuf makes $6.5, Schenn will get a multi-year deal at $3.9 or so, Aullie and Gunnarsson or whomever they decide to fill the third pairing with will have to be cheap but effective for cost certainty (around $1 million or less).

In a perfect (and maybe unrealistic) world I would love to see the Leafs add Shea Weber at around $7-8 million and a smart stay at home guy for around $2-2.5 (Brad Stuart type).  Easier said than done but that would cost the Leafs around $21 million (or 35% of total cap) so Burke could still maintain his “building from the net out” philosophy and really ride our top 4 defenseman while getting A1 production from all four.

I do not see a keeper on the goaltending side although I do feel we should be playing Jonas Gustavsson more to get a sense if he is a potential keeper or not.  JS Giguere has been decent, but a sub .900 save % in today’s NHL is almost a disgrace and it’s not as if he has been winning games by himself.  He has obviously been better than Vesa Toskala but even Peter Ing could have likely outperformed 09/10 Toskala.

So there is some hope and we do have talent that would play a meaningful role on almost any other NHL team.  While a rather short list to recap our definite keepers are Phil Kessel, Nik Kulemin, Nazem Kadri and Luke Schenn.  We also have a few names that nearly made the list including Dion Phaneuf (too expensive, on the decline?), Keith Aullie (great potential), Kris Versteeg (only a third line talent?) and Jonas Gustavsson (can he be great or just good?).

Add that to some intriguing prospects (Bradley Ross, Greg McKegg, Jerry D’Amigo, Sondre Olden, Brayden Irwin, Jesse Blacker and Jussi Rynnas) and the Maple Leafs aren’t completely desolate in terms of talent at or near the NHL level.  The next 12-18 months are a key stretch in terms of roster overhaul and hopefully the man in charge Brian Burke can fill the top centre void and restructure the defense with astute trades or free agent splashes.

Other Interesting Stories:

Bosh Has Nightmare Start in Miami

Blue Jays Offseason Plans