Heading into 2013 training camp, Dave Nonis had two massive clouds hanging over his head as his best forward and best defenseman were both scheduled to become UFAs after the season. That’s no longer a problem as both have been signed to long-term contracts locking them in until 2021 and 2022 respectively.
The question is: Now what?
The Leafs are a playoff bubble team in a terrible Conference, and they now have six players locked into big deals (Kessel, Phaneuf, Lupul, Bozak, Clarkson and JVR). They still seem to have some cap flexibility with roughly $21M in cap space this summer (projected $71M cap), but that’s a little deceiving when you consider the team only has six forwards, four defensemen and one goalie under contract. In other words, $50M is tied up in 11 players.
Five of the top six forwards are presumably set unless the team is comfortable paying Clarkson that kind of money to play on the third line. Kadri is also under contract and he’s not playing in the bottom six. They have the promising Peter Holland (pending RFA), and have been rumoured to be in contract talks with Bolland for a while now. Is this their plan? Surely they aren’t going into next season with Holland penciled in as their 4C. Something has to give. Maybe it’s as simple as not resigning Bolland (unlikely), maybe it’s moving one of Kadri or Holland to the wing (no indications that’s in play yet), or maybe it’s moving Kadri (has been rumoured).
Frankly, the Leafs are well setup to make a move as Los Angeles did for Richards by packaging two young pieces for an established star. Years ago Leafs fans dreamed of being in trade sweepstakes to land a guy like Peter Forsberg, but the team never even came close to having the pieces necessary to pull off such a move. Now, if they really wanted to, they have a center (Kadri), defenseman (Gardiner) and goalie (Reimer) they’re willing to move (rightly or wrongly) for the right price. Maybe that’s the next step here, because what they have clearly isn’t good enough to come anywhere near a championship.
Beyond that, it’s tough to see where their improvements come from within. Morgan Rielly is a great young player and an unbelievably promising piece, but that’s where it starts and ends. There are a few other nice pieces on defense in the pipeline, but as we’re seeing with Jake Gardiner, it’s hard to ask these kids to just step in and play well in quality minutes. It takes time for defensemen.
Up front the Leafs have some nice pieces, but how it all fits is anyone’s guess at this point. As stated above, there are two good young centers in Peter Holland and Nazem Kadri, but the Leafs are framing this to be a “one or the other thing” thing right now versus developing both simultaneously. Bozak is locked in but does have a reasonable enough contract to play him on the second line should someone ever displace him (frankly, he’s been fine this season). On the wings, JVR and Kessel are the present and future (nothing wrong with that) while Lupul is getting paid over $5M and playing like a ~50 point guy on the second line with first unit power play time. Clarkson is what he is right now. At this point, there’s not much to say that hasn’t been said when it comes to Clarkson.
Jerry D’Amigo is an RFA and will probably be back as a full-timer. Carter Ashton is an RFA as well but has yet to score a goal in 33 NHL games and is being kept down in the AHL despite ripping it up (15 points in 14 games). We don’t know what the plan is there. Chances are he’ll be resigned, but will he be a regular? Both enforcers are also signed through next season.
Essentially, the Leafs are locked into a core that is a playoff bubble team at best. They have one young stud defenseman who is getting better with every game, and two young centers who have both shown promise in the NHL (big difference between only showing it elsewhere), yet appear to only want one to emerge for the time being, and they have good goaltending.
Nonis admitted after the Phaneuf signing that, “It’s now going to be up to us to add players around them. We feel we have some pieces coming, but we’re not where we need to be yet. We still need to add some pieces around players like Dion and Phil and [Lupul], JVR. Those are players that will help any team in this league win, but we need to continue to add to that group.”
(Also a curious omission of Clarkson’s name in there as he makes the same amount of money as Lupul; Bozak is signed to a long-term deal, but I don’t consider under $4.5M “core” money).
Rielly’s the great unknown and the great hope, but he can’t elevate this team to championship contention by himself. Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and JVR are legitimate all-stars, but they are showing they can’t carry the load by themselves, either. The goaltending is excellent, but we saw the dangers last night when they’re getting bombarded game after game.
The truth is, when putting all the cards on the table, Phil Kessel is one of the best scoring right wingers in the league, but he’s making market value now and is no longer on a deal. Dion Phaneuf is getting a superstar salary (Doughty, Weber, Suter, Letang and Campbell are the only other $7M+ defensemen next season) when he’s really more of an all-star calibre defenseman at best. They do have one guy on a great deal in JVR, another that’s overpaid based on his play this season but has the ability to earn his money in Lupul, and another guy that is simply overpaid in Clarkson. That’s their locked in core, right now and for the foreseeable future.
If the goal is to win the Cup, there’s still a ton of work to do to say the least. They still need a top line center. They have six forwards under contract next year not including the enforcers, meaning their whole bottom six needs to be revamped (D’Amigo-Holland-Ashton are all RFAs and could make up half of that easily). Their defense is a mess but does have Phaneuf and Rielly in tow, so that’s a positive. Their other defensemen under contract are Carl Gunnarsson (on a great deal) and Tim Gleason (on a bad deal as it stands right now). Gardiner and Franson are RFAs and if I was a betting man one would be gone by the time next season starts.
The Leafs do have some nice pieces, but at the end of the day they are locking in a core to big money that at best will be just good enough to make the playoffs. There will be some patience required to get this team to the next level (not giving up on Gardiner and Kadri would probably be a good start), but they also need to make a few major moves to upgrade the defense and center position in order to compete with the best consistently. If the goal is to win a championship, this team is still multiple moves away from getting anywhere close. The only thing that’s changed is they haven’t taken a step back by losing Phaneuf or Kessel in the process. They have, however, lost cap space.
- This was pointed out to me on Twitter, but checkout the difference in cap hits when it comes to buying out Gleason and Liles:
Gleason is an established guy who has played on Carolina’s top pairing, fits a better “role” with the team because he has played a physical game before and can play the PK, and would not have the huge cap hit in the second year of his buyout should it come to that. Seems like a low risk/high reward to me.
- Funny how our idea of whether the Leafs did a good job “protecting the lead” is really just a matter of whether they blew it or not. The Canes got a breakaway the shift after the Leafs went up 4-2. A little later on the Canes had a 3 on 2 and Semin walked right in from the top of the circle and ripped a clapper over the net. A few minutes later, Lupul tried to skate the puck out and got stripped, leading to a mini 2 on 1. If the Canes were any good they would have scored at least one to make it a game.
- Franson gave up that breakaway against the Canes the next shift. In the Leafs’ next game Franson made an ill-timed pinch that led to Detroit opening the scoring, and a few shifts later gave up another breakaway right through the middle. On the power play and with the puck on his stick in general, Franson is great. That being said, one of the quieter developments of the season thus far is Franson struggling to play top four minutes well on a consistent basis. A lot of people wanted the Leafs to lock in Franson to a 4 year $16M deal or so this summer, but it’s looking like that would have been a mistake. He’s turning 27 this year and is up for a contract this summer.
- Quietly, Paul Ranger has been eliminating one of his biggest issues which is bad pinches leading to easy odd man breaks for the opposition. In the Winter Classic he received the ire from some fans for ringing it around the boards to JVR on the Wings’ tying goal, but the only reason he was softer on the puck there is because 20 seconds earlier he rung it around hard, JVR wasn’t there, and it went for icing. After the icing, Ranger put it around more lightly and JVR waited for it instead of going to get it. Brendan Smith pinched in, beat JVR to the puck, and the game was tied. When you put out your top guys you expect them to make plays in a tight game. Brendan Smith pinching down isn’t exactly the same as a Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara, yet Smith simply went through JVR. That can’t happen and there’s nothing the coaching staff can really do about that. That’s simply a case of your best players needing to be better there.
- Holland has 10 points in 26 games averaging 11:33 a night while Jay McClement has 5 points in 43 games averaging 16:45. Down two goals against the Islanders, though, it was McClement out there instead of Holland trying to score. In fact, Holland played 4:30 on the night, the lowest of any Leaf on the team (including both enforcers). Can’t sugar coat this. In no world does that make sense. None.
- One thing pointed out to me about a difference in Kadri’s game this year from last is that he’s not affecting games positively if he’s not scoring. Last year he played with Frattin quite a bit and when they weren’t scoring, they were definitely hitting. Anyone could easily have made a highlight reel of just Kadri hits from last season, but this year that physicality simply hasn’t happened. He still draws penalties, so that’s a positive, but the nasty in his game hasn’t been present this season. Maybe it felt like he was always affecting games because he was nearly a PPG player, but it does seem like last season he simply brought it more even if he wasn’t on the score sheet.
- At the same time, Lupul is basically a PP and shootout specialist right now. He does have two points in his last two games so maybe he is heating up, but he has 4 points in his last 10 games (including the last two played). Yeah, the McClement line has been playing second line minutes more often than not throughout that time, but the Kadri unit isn’t giving Carlyle any reason to play them more. At least Kulemin and Clarkson (and now D’Amigo) break out of their zone cleanly and will cycle teams down low.
- For example, the Bozak goal off the faceoff against Detroit started with the Clarkson line getting it in deep, working it to the point, Gardiner getting a shot on net, and Howard covering it resulting in an offensive zone faceoff. Those are the little contributions you look for from that line. That’s the grind line that creates those type of draws and/or easier match-up situations by matching up against the other team’s top line. In that Detroit game, the Wings had the last change and were really trying (and succeeding) at getting the Adam Glendening line on against the McClement line in order to keep his unit away from their top two scoring lines. When teams succeed at doing that, that line with Clarkson and Kulemin has to produce offense. They can’t simply draw even with third lines and call it a successful night.
- Phaneuf is turning 29 next year, so his contract will end when he’s 36. There are currently six defensemen in the league who are 36 and they are Marek Zidlicky, Stephane Robidas, Zdeno Chara, Willie Mitchell, Joe Corvo and Mark Streit.
- Sort of touched on this in the preamble, but not sure what else Carter Ashton has to do to get called up. He’s over a PPG in the AHL (albeit limited games) and he’s not even a scorer. He’s big, he’s a decent skater, he can cycle, he’s physical and he has the pedigree of being a first round pick. What’s going on here? Surely McLaren and Orr aren’t both better options.
- The moment I knew Bernier was the guy for good was the Buffalo win in the shootout after Christmas break. Why’s that? Because Bernier let in two awful goals, including a terrible rebound goal off a floating backhander with a minute left to tie the game, and all Carlyle pointed to after the game was a pad save he made in the second to stop Buffalo from going up 3-0. The Leafs never should have been in that situation in the first place. Like it or not, the reality is that the Leafs have annointed Bernier as the guy. There’s no chance if Reimer let in 5 goals on the way to a 7-1 loss that he’d start the next game. Now that the Leafs lost again (and Bernier was again bad), now they’ll probably go back to Reimer and what will he be thinking? Reimer is way too classy and team-oriented to throw anyone under the bus, but if he and Carlyle don’t say another word to each other I wouldn’t be shocked.
- The most interesting thing to me in 24/7: When I watched the Winter Classic, my eyes were telling me the Leafs were trying to lob pucks up in the air and down the ice hoping for a bounce and a breakaway on bad ice. In the behind the scenes look in the 24/7 episode, Carlyle was pleading with the team to shoot pucks. They ended up with 26 shots total after 65 minutes. Is the team stubborn? Are they tuning out the coach? I don’t know. But they surely aren’t listening. We’ve heard Carlyle talk time and time again about throwing pucks on net, getting rebounds, working it down low, and so on. They are tied for 25th in shots for with 27.3 shots per game. You can assign whatever narrative you want to that, but they aren’t executing what’s being asked of them, clearly.
“It’s the whole win-lose thing. Nobody likes to lose and when you lose, the captain is kind of the focal point of the team. If the captain is taking a lot of heat, it usually means the team is taking heat, but he’s taking the brunt of it because he’s got the C on the front of his jersey. That’s part of playing in Toronto. You can’t take that personally. It’s part of being the front man for the team.”
- Wendel Clark on the captaincy.
Phaneuf’s no superstar like a Doughty, Keith or Weber, but he is an all-star player who is far from the problem here.
“Leafs aren’t shopping Kadri but when teams call and bring up his name the Leafs don’t shut that down.”
- Nick Kypreos
If a team is calling about a player, a GM is not doing his job if he’s not at least listening. Kadri is far from the kind of player you refuse to listen to offers on.
“Obviously I had some issues prior at the beginning of the year, kind of a setback. But all good and ready to go and ready to get my game back here… Ultimately it was our decision as a family. You’ve been (in) a place for eight years; you kind of have friendships outside the hockey, things like that. It plays a big part in life itself. But I knew as a hockey decision I had to move on, and what a better place to be than Toronto.”
- Tim Gleason on his rough start to the year and waiving his no trade clause.
If Gleason is actually healthy and doesn’t have the problems I’ve seen nag him this year, I think he can actually be a positive contributor. This season he’s missed time due to a concussion, an upper body injury, and a lower body injury.
It’s also nice that he actually wanted to come to Toronto. I guess Clarkson hasn’t really panned out so far and we’ve yet to see what Gleason will do, but it was only a few years ago that a guy like Ryan Malone was exercising his no-trade clause not to come to Toronto.
“I felt we played passive and afraid to make a mistake instead of going for it.”
- Randy Carlyle, after the loss against an Islanders coming off a back-to-back and having to travel to Toronto to play a rested Leafs team.
I highlight this quote due to it’s strangeness. For months now we have seen Jay McClement and Nik Kulemin start overtime sessions. I have highlighted how the Leafs have used defensive players to close out tied games in regulation in offensive situations (like the Detroit game in Toronto). They are passive because it’s been instilled into them. Maybe the players don’t “play for the shootout,” but the personnel decisions in crunch time sure do.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1- I think I’d like to see Gardiner-Phaneuf, Gleason-Franson, Ranger-Rielly on defense if Gunnarsson is out. I’ve yet to check if this is the norm around the league, but it seems weird that Phaneuf and Gardiner are 1-2 in average TOI on the team, yet they rarely play together. They have different partners for 5v5, and don’t play PP or PK together. Logic dictates that these two should at least get a look together and the perfect time to do it is with Gunnarsson out.
2 – I obviously think Carter Ashton needs to be up with the Leafs. Playing enforcers with Peter Holland is insane. It’s one thing if it’s Jay McClement because at least he’s a grinding fourth line center, but Holland is a potential top six center being wasted. Against the Rangers he flipped a puck up to Orr that would have sent pretty well any other Leaf on a breakaway, but instead Orr didn’t realize the puck was coming (when he got a hold of it he pretty well 360′d and shot it, actually a decent recovery play). As much as Ashton deserves to be up based on his AHL play, more than anything they simply can’t bury Holland like this. He’s not a future superstar who “deserves” to be fed ice time, but he’s shown he can score when getting some ice time and playing with competent players. Right now they are wasting two promising young guys in two different ways.
3 – I think they should just move on from Reimer and get it over with if this is how the rest of the season is going to go. Bernier didn’t deserve to start against the Islanders. Period. This will turn into an absolute gongshow if it continues and players are definitely taking note of how Reimer is being treated. Did we all forget he dragged the Leafs into the playoffs last year?
4 – I think we’re all starting to see the real Mason Raymond and anyone who thinks signing him over Kulemin is the right move is insane. I’d be far more willing to try Lupul-Holland-Kadri together as a line and ship off Raymond for anything they can garner rather than ride him out until the end of the year (or resign him). Raymond was a nice signing because he was cheap and won them so games early on, but he shouldn’t be in the long-term plans here. Get something for him.
5 – I think the five games in seven days coming up starting Thursday will tell us everything we need to know about this team. A lot of people have said to stay patient throughout this stretch of five regulation wins in 30 games (30!), but if these next five go poorly something will have to give.