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Should The Leafs Be Sellers?

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Photo: Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Editor’s Note: Matt drafted this piece before last night’s atrocity.

With a regulation Rangers win over the Capitals this afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs currently sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Despite the demoralizing no show from the Leafs last night, if the season ended today, they would do something the team hasn’t done in many, many years – make the playoffs.  With the trade deadline quickly approaching (February 27, 2012), the speculation as always is running rampant that the Leafs are poised to make a trade to improve the team’s current roster.

While making the playoffs is the goal of every team I have to ask the question – should the Leafs actually be sellers at the deadline?  Now, before you freak out or send me a nasty email, let me first say I am only asking the question, not necessarily recommending it.  But does this idea have merit and make sense for the betterment of the team going forward?

First, I have to say I want the Leafs to be in the postseason as much as the next guy, and the fan base has been patient enough waiting for the team to turn it around.  Second, what kind of message does this send to the current players (and fans) that the front office doesn’t believe in them?  Third, Brian Burke doesn’t strike me as a guy who would give up when they are this close to the goal.

But then I have to ask, is just making the playoffs really enough?  The team currently sits one point ahead of ninth place Washington/Florida (depending on what day it is), and although the team is more than capable of making the playoffs, it is certainly not guaranteed.  Brian Burke has said his goal isn’t to just make the playoffs and get swept in the first round, he wants a team that can make a deep run,

For a fan base that has grown impatient waiting for something to get excited about – even if we were to miss the playoffs – isn’t the progress they have shown already pretty remarkable?  Outside of the Leafs haters I do not know any sensible fan that can’t see this team is improving by leaps and bounds.  They are the second youngest team in the NHL and are more than holding their own against any team on most nights.

When they have received timely goaltending they have looked almost unbeatable and the young, exciting core of players they are building around looks like it will only improve.  In short, this is clearly a team on the rise.  But is it a team that is ready to make a serious playoff run with a likely first-round playoff opponent being either the New York Rangers or Boston Bruins?

I would love to see the team take their best shot, but realistically the Leafs would need some serious breaks to make those likely tough matchups competitive.  Given the way the team is currently constructed around a speed game without any real presence or size, could the team be extremely vulnerable to more “playoff” style hockey and officiating?  We haven’t even discussed the hot and cold goaltending the Leafs have played through most of this season.

Given the current landscape it appears the amount of teams looking to “sell” at the trade deadline are going to be limited.  Looking at what is being rumoured and written about in terms of possible trade returns for a guy like Tuomo Ruutu, it’s really starting to make me ask the question.  Would it be the best move for the franchise to focus on the future and make a conscience effort to maximize any of our tradable assets not apart of the long term core now?

Tuomo Ruutu is a fine player and would definitely offer a contending team a boost, but this is a guy who is turning 29 years old and is three years removed from a career high 26 goal season.  He has averaged 0.56 points per game over a 515 game career and has scored 17 goals and 28 points in 55 games this season – on pace for 41 pts over a full 82 games.

Sure, he is able to throw a hit or two (and take one), but I just don’t see why teams are that high on him.  The same goes for Ales Hemsky, Derek Roy, Ray Whitney, Travis Moen and other ‘valuable’ players who are rumoured to be commanding quite the price tag.

Again, this is not an indictment on Ruutu or the others but more a general point on supply and demand.  If Ruutu is a hot, sought after commodity wouldn’t that make a guy like Mikhail Grabovski proverbial gold?  Coming off a career high 29 goal, 58 point season, the hard working Leafs centre is again producing at a high level – 18 goals, 39 points in 50 games.

Whether or not you feel he is likely to re-sign with Toronto, you can’t deny his trade value has got to be substantially higher than Ruutu’s.  Seeing that teams are potentially pondering moving valuable draft picks and/or top prospects for Ruutu, you can imagine the market for players like Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur and Luke Schenn may never be higher.

At the same time, one only needs to glance at the current standings to see that even one hot streak could very well put the Leafs firmly into not only a playoff spot, but possibly fifth or sixth in the conference.  This is an important point – it’s also possible the Leafs could still contend down the stretch minus one of Grabovski, MacArthur, Schenn or Kulemin.

However if the prices start to get ridiculous and we could set ourselves up to get some big time, high impact ‘NHL’ ready youth (preferably with a bit of size) and a couple high picks, would it be worth focusing more on 2013?  What do you guys think, are there any of you who feel it might be appropriate to move some assets given the high demand for even moderately useful players?

Buy, sell or hold?

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