With the hockey world’s attention firmly fixed on the Olympics, it’s easy to forget that the NHL is quickly approaching a significant date: Trade Deadline Day on March 5th.
The Leafs play three more games before the deadline (at NYI and MTL, before a home game against CBJ), and they have some looming questions facing them. Perhaps the most important of which is this: Has Dave Bolland recovered?
It’s not necessarily a matter of whether he plays well or poorly – he hasn’t played since November 2nd, so he’s going to be rusty — it’s about how he feels. Does it hurt for him to skate? Is he having trouble turning? Is he even able to play every game?
If Bolland is good to go and feels fine, that makes these deadline decisions easier. If he’s clearly less than good to go and he can’t trust his tendon throughout the rest of the season and playoffs, they either have to decide if they are comfortable with Holland and McClement as their bottom two centers or start exploring the trade market for a center.
Secondly, the Leafs could move some pending UFAs and try to shuffle around their assets. As of right now, they possess their own first round pick, no second round pick, a third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh round picks for the upcoming draft. They aren’t exactly in need of picks although they don’t have a second rounder next year, either.
However, if the Leafs choose to trade off some pending UFAs they might be able to acquire some interesting piece(s) in return. For example, the Devils are shopping around for a scoring left winger. Mason Raymond’s 35 points would place him second on the Devils in scoring.
But, provided Bolland is ready to go, there isn’t much for this team to do at the deadline. Their forwards are fully stocked when everyone is healthy; they could easily justify running with JVR-Bozak-Kessel, Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson, Raymond-Bolland-Kulemin, and a fourth line made up of some combination of McClement, Holland, Bodie, Smith and Ashton without thinking twice.
None of the top available players would really make sense for the Leafs to acquire, either. Players such as Vanek, Moulson Hemsky and Gaborik are all on the market and are nice players, but the Leafs would have to give up significant assets to acquire any of them and they would seem to be forced rather than seamless fits on the existing roster.
It’s much of the same on defense. Mainstays Phaneuf and Gunnarsson aren’t going anywhere at the moment. The Leafs just acquired Gleason; he’s fit right in and he’s not leaving either unless something too good to be true presents itself. Morgan Rielly is obviously going nowhere. Moving Gardiner or Franson at this point would be hard to fathom as the Leafs are rolling and in a playoff spot; that kind of move makes more sense at the draft.
Last year, the Leafs kept their pending UFAs and made a small move for Ryan O’Byrne. That’s the kind of move I’d expect from them again, except to bolster their fourth line up front as the Leafs appear reasonably confident in Paul Ranger as their 7D. Last season, Chicago acquired Michal Handzus for a fourth round pick and he was a notable presence on their way to winning another Cup. The move that might make the most sense is if the team could acquire someone for the fourth line who can help their penalty kill.
Anything else would come as a bit of a shock. It would take a major move at this point to replace one of their current top 9 forwards or top 6 D, and there really isn’t anyone out there that the Leafs should be dying to add to their group.
That could change if Bolland can’t play. The Leafs will have three games to make a decision.
- I don’t usually start a Leafs Notebook like this, but I thought this was a neat van Riemsdyk video worth sharing. JVR looking up to Adam Graves stood out to me.
- I’ve been sitting on this story for a while, but I thought now would be a good time to share. This autumn, the team I help coach brought in a skill-developing coach to work with our team during training camp. Naturally I chatted the guy up before our sessions, and he began telling me how he worked with a few Leafs throughout the summer (most of this skill stuff revolves around using what basically look like pipes shaped in a “T” which lay across the ice. You toe drag through them and make little cuts between them). Anyway, he started naming some of the players he works with, a list which includes Clarkson, Kessel, and Bozak. Just to make conversation, I asked him about re-signing Bozak. He looked at me kind of funny and said Bozak is really skilled and a really good guy. I stopped him, asking if we were talking about the same Bozak, the one who plays with Kessel and does not exactly light it up. This skills coach went on to explain that Bozak is in fact a really skilled player who hasn’t been in the league that long, meaning he hadn’t fully adjusted to the league and gotten comfortable. He told me he thought Bozak was going to break out this year. It’s a story I’ve kept in mind throughout the season (and if you question my validity of it, ask Alec. I told him this exact story in autumn, but decided it wasn’t worth sharing because it was just somebody’s opinion based on practicing with the guy).
Kessel’s goal against Vancouver was a great example of that kind of growth; Bozak made an unbelievable play defensively to dive and knock away a would-be breakaway pass to Hansen, got the puck up ice, and tried a pass to his wingers that didn’t connect; he followed up on the puck, slid Franson a great pass, continued skating, got it back and sent it around the boards to Kessel, who proceeded to score. Bozak dominated that shift in both ends of the ice. That’s a new thing for Leafs fans to see from #42. What he truly is is still tough to judge in my opinion, but he has clearly improved as a player and is still only 27.
- Bozak had a three-point week and had a season high five shots on net in the game against Tampa Bay. The season before, only once did Bozak ever have five shots or more in a game.
- There was a subtle moment early in the Tampa game where the Leafs gave up a 2v1 due to a poor read from Franson, and Nate Thompson carried the puck in with Gardiner backing off and simply daring him to shoot. Thompson obliged and Bernier easily saved it and covered up. Bernier made the save look easy and it wasn’t really made to be a big deal, but it’s worth noting just to keep in perspective how far Leafs goaltending has come in the last few years.
- Carl Gunnarsson has 7 points and 11 shots on net In the last 15 games. In Gunnarsson’s previous 44 games he had four points and 26 shots on net. The Leafs have been encouraging their defensemen to step up more and hold the line, and it is paying off for Gunnarsson. Look how active he is here on Mason Raymond’s game tying goal, not only creating his own offense, but pinching in and actually screening Luongo on the goal itself.
- The 7 D experiment has been smooth so far, but what was really interesting was Morgan Rielly playing less than only Gleason and Phaneuf against Vancouver Saturday. He’s climbing up the depth chart quickly and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Gleason-Rielly is the Leafs’ second pairing right now. Rielly has 15 shots on net and four assists in his last eight games.
- Last week I noted Ottawa trying to get chippy with Kessel and how Kessel responded. This week there was of course another example, as Burrows went after Kessel and he proceeded to put up two points including the GWG. When Calgary made the Cup Final, it was well known pissing off Iginla was a bad idea because he was going to make you pay. “Let the sleeping giant lie,” so to speak. Kessel won’t make a team pay physically like Iginla used to, but it’s becoming pretty clear he’s going to hit where it hurts the most if an opponent goes after him: The scoreboard.
- When the Leafs played the Devils almost a month ago, New Jersey elected not to dress their superheavyweight Cam Janssen even though the Leafs were dressing theirs. Last week the Panthers elected not to dress their heavyweight, Krys Barch, against the Leafs. We keep saying this, but teams simply do not engage the Leafs anymore. They aren’t even dressing their heavyweights now. Now, note that Colton Orr has been healthy scratched two games in a row. It’s only two games, so it’s hard to get a true read on it, but it’s something to monitor moving forward. As the Leafs get healthy now, it will be interesting to see what they do with their lines.
- The Leafs didn’t need a heavyweight for them to take care of business against Tampa at the end of the game, either. Good for Gleason for getting in there and not accepting that kind of play. I don’t want to say it’s a team bonding thing – people were all over that when Vancouver got in the brawl and Tortorella stuck up for his team, resulting in nothing positive – but it was still nice to see.
- During on sequence with nine minutes left against Vancouver, Phaneuf looked up the wall and it was covered. He went back to Gleason, who looked up his side and saw it was also covered. Gleason went back to Phaneuf, who passed it back to Gleason again. Gleason then hit Kulemin up the middle for a clean breakout. It was great to see.
- The Leafs have shot themselves in the foot on the breakout at times. Although this isn’t the Leafs, this should look somewhat familiar:
It was nice to see Phaneuf and Gleason take their time and move it calmly. Alternatively, what makes Rielly and Gardiner so great is that they don’t even need to pass; they can just skate it out on their own.
“As good as Bolland is, can the Leafs afford another centre iceman that makes over $4 million? My answer is no.”
- Darren Dreger
This is the gist of what I wrote at the end of last week and received some flak for. The Leafs will paint themselves into a corner if they hand out a big deal to Bolland. Some people were throwing around the idea of gladly wanting to pay Bolland $4.5M/year, which would make him the highest paid center on the team. The team’s third line center would be their highest paid center.
“There has been kind of an unveiling of Kulemin at centre. It’s been a big surprise for everybody.”
- Randy Carlyle on the play of Nik Kulemin at centre.
At first I surprised too, but then I thought about all the times I’ve noted – and we’ve all discussed — how Kulemin essentially played center in the defensive zone for long spells of time, especially when on a line with Kadri. There really aren’t any positions in the offensive zone, so if a player knows how to play his position in the defensive zone everything else will sort of take care of itself. And it has. The biggest thing for me has been Kulemin’s passing. He made a great neutral zone pass to spring Raymond on a breakaway against Tampa Bay. Against Vancouver, he fed Raymond nicely down low before Raymond came out from behind the net for his second goal in as many games.
“No excuse for the way we played, we’ve had a few tough games this year but I don’t think anywhere as this bad. We were outplayed almost in all aspects of the game.”
- Mason Raymond after a terrible game against the Florida Panthers, of all teams.
The Leafs bounced back with two huge wins against Tampa and Vancouver, but what a stinker they laid in Florida. Coming off a huge HNIC win on the Saturday and with the Dads all coming down, I’m sure some extracurricular fun and relaxation took place. Boy, did it show.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- If Dave Bolland is going to be okay this year, I think I’d stand pat at the deadline. I don’t like the trade market in terms of what we know is available (so I guess there’s a small asterisk there), and I think if the Leafs really want to they can roll four solid lines and actually utilize some impressive depth. They are obviously set in net, and I’d say they are seven deep on defense. I don’t know if this team is ready to make a run in a bad Conference, but I just don’t see the point in giving up futures when they can easily put together a deep line-up with what they have when they are healthy.
- I think I’d offer Kulemin a slight raise to $3.25M over three years (he’s turning 28 this year) just to see if he’d bite. His versatility has been extremely valuable to the Leafs this year as he’s now played every forward position for the team. When a penalty needs to be killed, Kulemin is out there. When a lead needs protecting in the final minute, Kulemin is out there. When someone is out and a player needs to be pushed up the line-up and produce, it is Kulemin. He’s their best defensive forward, he’s great along the boards, and he’s a big guy. They need to explore if there’s a deal here to be made.
- I think I like what Ranger has done in limited minutes as the seventh D-man, but ultimately he’s still the odd guy out when they go back to the conventional 12 and 6. That said, I’d be a lot more willing to go 11 and 7 the odd time here or there down the stretch after seeing it work so smoothly last week. It was nice to have Ranger back on the PK because that’s where he has done his best work for this team.
- I think I’d try switching Raymond off the second PP unit for either of Clarkson or Kulemin. Raymond is a third skilled guy to go along with Kadri and Lupul, whereas Clarkson or Kulemin would do the dirty work in front of the net and retrieve the puck when it’s lost. Far too often this Raymond-Kadri-Lupul is just guilty of playing too cute with the man advantage, but adding a net and board presence really changes the dynamic of the unit.
- I think I’d keep Clarkson on the Kadri line. They were beginning to get rolling last week and I do think Clarkson can add something to that line. Raymond-Bolland-Kulemin flashed potential in their brief stint together and Bodie has probably claimed L4 RW for now, while McClement isn’t coming off if he’s healthy; that leaves Holland, Smith, Ashton and the enforcers fighting for the final roster spot if everyone’s available to play. This is a good problem to have.