Home Analysis Moving Forwards

Moving Forwards

2012

Photo: Toronto Star

The Toronto Maple Leafs have – even by their standards – had a very quiet offseason.  Since late May, GM Brian Burke has focused almost entirely on improving the forward corps for the 2012-2013 season with the signings of both Leo Komarov and Jay McClement; and trading for potential sell-low steal of the year, James van Riemsdyk.  The acquisitions have mostly been lauded as beneficial to the club, in particular for infusing some snarl, defense and skill into the beleaguered club’s front ranks.

But it takes only the most cursory of sifting through tea leaves to discover that these moves, while improving the team, are a precursor to even more change in the appearance of the forward ranks heading into next season.

Even without the additions of Komarov, van Riemsdyk and McClement, the Maple Leafs already have 13 forwards under contract for next season who played at least 10 games for the club in the 2011-2012 season.

At present, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski will join newcomer van Riemsdyk in the top six.  Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, Mike Brown, Matt Frattin (when healthy) and David Steckel are set to compete with Komarov and McClement in the bottom six.  And then there’s Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Carter Ashton who – despite showing promise – haven’t yet proved capable of cracking a top-tier offensive corps.

This was as much the reason for both Colby Armstrong and Joey Crabb being let go.  Both would have challenged – at best – for an already full-to-bursting bottom six, regardless of their unappealing salary or salary demands.

Of course, Nikolai Kulemin is as yet unsigned, and while his drop in production could most diplomatically be described as precipitous, his two-way play and skillset suggest that his re-signing is a given.  The benefit of Kulemin’s 200-foot ability is that he can hypothetically be slotted seamlessly onto any line.  Putting on my GM hat, a one-year, 2.5-3-million dollar ‘show me’ contract should be appealing to both sides.

However, Kulemin would bring the total number of potential Leaf forwards to a nonsensical 17, without factoring in potential standouts or walk-ons in training camp.  Job competition is a terrific motivator for professional sports franchises, but something’s got to give.  As Burke has stated during a recent interview with Bob McCown (around the 5:25 mark of Declan’s clip), the current roster is unlikely to remain intact by the beginning of the season, whenever that may be.

In terms of internal movement, the Leafs American League affiliate should benefit most from this glut of forwards.  There are large segments of Leafs Nation, even prior to the Maple Leafs elimination from contention last season, who believe that either of Connolly or Lombardi are best suited to the Ricoh this fall.  While neither player particularly impressed amidst injury-plagued campaigns, the hazard of waivers is at best risky asset management and at worst pure idiocy.  Neither player is in possession of a No Movement Clause, so the potential is there, but other avenues should be well travelled before either veteran is waived.

The Marlies will almost certainly be the destination for Joe Colborne and Carter Ashton. Both proved to need further seasoning due to middling play in their call-ups.  They also suffered substantive, deleterious injuries last season that have impeded their matriculation into the NHL ranks.  Both are waiver exempt and should form the core of the taxi squad should the injury bug or trades occur.

A more contentious roster move would be keeping Kadri in the minors.  While his total game remains incomplete at the NHL level, his offensive prowess, speed, puck skills and tenacity should warrant an opportunity.  His time in the AHL has been fruitful, but appears tethered to a defense-minded standard unfairly.  Kadri received top minutes and line-mates in the ‘A and produced, yet received third-line minutes and mates and performed (understandably) less than admirably.  One must wonder how content he’ll be to remain a whipping boy for fan sentiment without being given a fair shake by the parent club.

Even if most of those players were to head west along the Lakeshore, it still wouldn’t fully assess and solve the numbers problems up front.  Burke has iterated on countless occasions that he desires more size and physicality, and no amount of internal shuffling can make that happen and improve the team’s results.

This, of course, means trades.

Maple Leafs VP of Hockey Ops, Dave Poulin, offered some very clear evidence that this club and the league in general is more conducive to the summer swap meet than in the past (from the 1:09 mark of this interview, thanks again Declan ):

So I think this will be a fairly active summer of trading…it seems to be there’s more of a temperature amongst teams to make changes through trade, because maybe they didn’t get what they wanted in free agency.  And then when you watched where some of the players went, you wonder how that’s gonna free somebody up in the organization that you might like that now could be available. For financial reasons or other.

With so many forwards signed (of which six are UFA next July), an impressive array of prospects and just under $12-million in cap space (per capgeek.com), Burke has steered the Maple Leafs into a position with at least some leverage.  While the most pressing needs are clear (reliable/established goaltending, immediate help on the back end, a top flight playmaking center), Burke should have enough quarters to exchange for a dollar.

Any glance into trade proposals online (be they from venerable places like HFboards or other, worse …’bergs) can be laughable, confusing, or certifiably ridiculous. While I won’t touch on specific potential deals, I believe the most desirable and accessible assets in the forward ranks to be Lupul, MacArthur, Bozak and Steckel.

All four are pending UFAs in 2013 and could be useful cogs on contending teams.  Lupul and Bozak, in particular, may never have as high a trade value after how well they acquitted themselves in 2011-2012.

(Note: I am not advocating any specific player’s inclusion in a trade package, but they could have more value externally than they do internally, especially in light of the club’s recent acquisitions.  It’s not a great leap of logic following Poulin’s quote regarding the push/pull effect that free agency has had on the trade market.)

So while all is quiet in Leafland tonight, it won’t be in the near future.  This offseason, the market doesn’t appear to be a game of dominoes (perhaps the worst cliché regarding the period of free agency), and while the dearth of transactions suggest otherwise, the NHL’s silly season is far from over.

Michael Stephens has been writing for Maple Leafs Hotstove since 2010, and has featured in the 2010 and 2012 Maple Leaf Annuals. Former Editiorial Intern at The Hockey News. Undergraduate degree from the University of Windsor. Chat me up about all things hockey on twitter @MLHS_Mike
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