AP’s Mailbag: Defensive question marks, playoffs, Kulemin, Franson and expiring deals

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 16: Jake Gardiner #51, Nikolai Kulemin #41 and Mason Raymond #12 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate a second period goal during NHL game action against the Buffalo Sabres November 16, 2013 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

Thanks for all the questions. Part 2 will follow a little later on in the day.

@BrianHuddle: “Where does management need to advance this roster to push it from middling playoff team to contender?”

The positions of defense and center still need improvement, but in terms of advancing the roster I think there are two ways to approach this question.

The first is having patience with this roster and developing the pieces in-house. They can improve in theory by staying the course with the Gardiners, Riellys and Hollands of the organization if they really have their hearts set on growing this young talent together in a potentially long but fruitful process.

Conversely, they could look to expedite the process by trying to trade or sign players to fill those gaps. Last season, Nonis looked back at the deadline and said:

[quote_box_center] “Were there deals out there looking back now that maybe we could have considered? Yeah. I’ll be honest with you. I’m not going to name the player now because I can’t because he’s under contract, but there’s simple things that possibly players on waivers that if you’re looking back now that probably could have helped us. That’s the same every year.” [/quote_box_center]

I personally think that player on waivers was Jussi Jokinen, but beyond that I look at the ‘deals to be made’ part and think of Jay Bouwmeester. I suspect Kadri and Gardiner have been in the rumour mill because the Leafs have been dangling them in an attempt to pry a Ryan O’Reilly, or someone of that ilk, from another team. You don’t dangle those players for anything less.

They have good goaltending, their wingers have some depth and there are a few kids that should be ready to contribute next season and beyond, but their center and defense still needs work. Which leads me to the next question… 

Beats73: “Anthony, what do you see as more of a priority this off season, a first line center or help on defense? Also do you think there is any chance management makes an effort to pry Ryan O’Reilly out of Colorado?”

Defense. The top line has an elite player on it, and a legitimate all-star on it. While people might not like Bozak, I think it’s a good line regardless in the big picture. Kadri is a good second line center in the NHL –- and if you look around the league, arguably a top-10 2C — while Bolland is a legitimate 3C provided they retain him. They also have Holland, who looks primed and ready to contribute. I don’t love their center position, but all things considered I don’t hate it.

On defense, I’d only really consider Phaneuf and Gunnarsson to be true, everyday top-four defensemen. Gardiner is a top-four when he’s on his game (which I admittedly think is more often than not), but he’s up and down still and even he knows it. Franson has been a high-end PP guy, but not great at 5v5. Gleason has been good, but it’s going to take more than 17 games as a Leaf to say he’s a top four after struggling so mightily at the end of his time in Carolina. Rielly will be going into his second season and who exactly knows how that will go (see Schenn, Luke; Gardiner, Jake).

If they were able to bring in another horse defensively who pushes Gunnarsson down to the second pairing, or even keeps the present top pairing together while the new addition tags along with a Gardiner or Gleason, I think that’s the most ideal scenario. This team does not have trouble scoring, but they have a tonne of issues keeping the puck out of their net and their zone, and I think bringing in another horse on D could have a domino effect of helping put the defense into much more logical order and roles.

We’ve seen how Gleason’s presence has freed up Gunnarsson and Phaneuf quite a bit, so imagine bringing in a guy who is good for 22-23 minutes a night making everyone’s life a little easier defensively while also helping Gardiner and Rielly develop simultaneously? The Leafs can roll four good lines up front if they really wanted to. Give me the defenseman.

@CashKardashian: “On Kulemin, would you try to get him more time at C to see if he could fill 3rd line role next year?”

I would if Bolland isn’t good to go, but otherwise it’s a no. The Leafs are in the stretch drive here and need to start gearing up for the playoff run, and I think that their best chance at success lies in creating three strong lines that are versatile and can come at teams in waves of pressure. Bolland is a good center, and I don’t think his skillset is suited to play the wing, so they need to basically decide if Clarkson is playing with Kadri and Lupul or if Kulemin is. From there, create the third line with the odd man out alongside Bolland and Raymond. If one of their centers gets hurt, though, I would give him another look at center for sure.

In terms of the 3C hole next season as it pertains to signing Kulemin, I’d note that their entire third line is wide open with Raymond and Bolland both being UFAs as well. Considering we already know Kulemin can play LW and RW, it’s really up to the Leafs to decide whether they want him or not, plus there’s the factor of whether or not Kulemin wants to stay. If the feeling is mutual, it will just be about agreeing on the numbers to make it work.

happy_gilmour: “Given the emergence of Reilly and Gardiner when looking at Franson who is still great on the PP but seems to have regressed a bit at 5-on-5, would it be worth trading him outside of our conference to a team trying to make noise like a Phoenix (e.g. Henrik Samuelsson) or Dallas (e.g. Radek Faksa)? And if we trade Franson, who do we bring up to round out the D Corps? I assume Gardiner/Reilly can fill in on the PP but we would need another (not Ranger) D to fill the space… maybe time to try out MacWilliam?”

Along the same lines, but worded more curtly:

Bon Scott was a Leaf fan: “WTF is up with Franson?”

I’ve been hard on Franson like everyone else, but in fairness to him he hasn’t exactly been given the steady partner he needs to succeed. He’s played primarily with Gardiner and Rielly this season, and been asked to be a steadying presence for those two which isn’t his game. That said, he’s looking like a third-pairing powerplay specialist, and he’s going to want to be paid this summer considering he’s in the top 30 for scoring at his position and a part of one of the best PPs in the league.

I don’t think it’s a forgone conclusion that Franson will be traded, but if he wants big money and term I suspect the Leafs will explore the market and move him to the highest bidder in the summer. At this point in the season, however, they won’t make that kind of splash. The team is rolling and a big reason for their success is their PP, which he is a staple of.

BigTO: “Can this team win a round in the playoffs? What’s the biggest thing holding them back if not?”

I think they can, but it depends on who they play. There isn’t one team in the East that scares me like a St. Louis or San Jose would in the West, but I don’t think Boston or the Rangers (for some reason they always seem to have the Leafs’ number) would be good match-ups for Toronto. If they were to play the Habs or Sens, on the other hand? I’d like their chances.

I think the biggest thing holding them back is their defense. If Gardiner and Franson show up in the playoffs like they did last season it won’t be a problem, but right now that is anyone’s guess. Last year in the playoffs, Phaneuf looked like he could barely push off by the end of game 7 because he was just so exhausted; that will happen again if the Leafs can’t get quality minutes from not only their second pairing but their third pairing, too. The team does have depth up front and can easily roll four legitimate lines, but their defense is still a guessing game. When they don’t play well that puts all the pressure on Phaneuf to carry the load and do it all when he’s more at his best playing 22-23 minutes versus 25+.

Black_Hawk: “Can we bring back Komarov and keep Kulemin or is it one or the other (in your opinion)? And if you could only have one which would it be?”

Well, if I had to choose one, I’d pick Kulemin. All things being equal defensively, Kulemin is better offensively.

To the larger point, the Leafs have over $21M in cap space and need to sign five-to-six forwards, three defensemen, and a backup goalie. With all their top guys locked up long term, they really only need to fill out their roster for next season. They easily have enough space to sign both Komarov and Kulemin, but if they want to sign Bolland as well they will have to fill out their roster with the Ashton’s and D’Amigo’s of the world while playing Holland as the 4C (all three of these players are RFAs. If they can get them to sign the type of 600K contract they got Colborne to last summer, it would make things relatively easy).

If Nonis really wants to have both Komarov and Kulemin here they can make it work, but it will probably come at the expense of losing a McClement or even Franson elsewhere. It’s really just a matter of how Nonis wants to play it with all the pieces he has at his disposal. Last summer it was tight, but he managed to make it all work. This is a little different because Kulemin and Komarov are both pending UFAs; we won’t see these negotiations drag out into the dog days of summer.

BingoDabber: “Who among the Leafs’ expiring contracts won’t be back next season and why?”

The Leafs’ pending UFAs are Bolland, Kulemin, Raymond, Bodie, McClement, Smith, and Ranger.

My first guess as to who is leaving is Mason Raymond. He’s served his role as a depth scorer, but after his great season and small salary this year I expect him to want to cash in. I don’t think the Leafs are the team that will want to lock him into a long term deal. I wouldn’t be shocked if McClement priced himself out of Toronto as a 4C especially considering Holland appears ready, contingent on Bolland returning (if not, McClement would probably stay). I’m not sure I see Ranger willing to come back as a seventh defenceman either nor do I blame him for that.

Otherwise, my gut tells me they love Bolland, while Bodie and Smith have grown on them quite a bit. Kulemin is the X-factor, but Carlyle trusts him with huge responsibilities nightly. As long as Kulemin wants to return (I think he does), I think there’s a deal to be had there. Then again, maybe that’s just my heart speaking because it wants Kulemin back.

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Anthony Petrielli has been at MLHS since 2011. He is known for his weekly "Leafs Notebook" feature, and also writes specific analysis pieces. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli.
  • rustynail

    Thanks for the morning read.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    rustynail  Rusty I got to your question but it’s in part 2 I guess.

  • rustynail

    Anthony Petrielli rustynail  cool Thanks

  • phaneufoundlander

    If the Leafs did pry ROR out of Colorado, does that end all the first / top line center talk for the buds? Its been an irritating question since Sundin left…

  • http://www.unclejakescards.ca/ unclejakescards

    nice read , i like the idea of shoot big or run what we got ….
    kulemin , franson, gardiner , even mayray for now .if there isnt a serious upgrade comin in , let the team keep developing , were still young …

  • wendelsway1

    Thanks Anthony…..nothing better than morning coffee and one of your write ups to start the day off right  :)

  • rustynail

    phaneufoundlander  I hope ROR stays right where he is

  • Anthony Petrielli

    phaneufoundlander  Well I mean, the MSM still questions if Kessel is a franchise player so who knows…

  • Burtonboy

    Like these Q&A’s. Thanks Anthony . Good reading

  • vinoa

    Anthony Petrielli phaneufoundlander  So do most TO “fans”. I think Habs fans fear the Phil more than some TO fans respect him.

  • Mind Bomb

    Thanks Anthony,  GO Defense ! go get a good one Nonis :)

  • Great Dane

    Anthony PetrielliAP – we are on the same page regarding the defense.  We need a Top 2 d-man now.

    It is with the defense as with the centers: Too much of the same. 

    At center we have 3 centers that are good in 2dn-3rd. In a year or two maybe Holland as well.

    On the defense we had Liles, Gardiner and Franson to quarterback the PP. Liles is gone for Gleason and that helped a lot.  I would trade Franson + for a all-round top 2 d-man.
    How should Nonis target on the defense?  and how should be target at center

  • Mind Bomb

    Edit, Not Subban ! OEL please

  • Burtonboy

    Mind Bomb  I doubt that will happen till the off season MB . Trades are so dammed difficult because no one has much cap space

  • sniperstar

    vinoa Anthony Petrielli phaneufoundlander  You’d have to be dumb not to fear him.

  • Mind Bomb

    Burtonboy Mind Bomb  Aye Bro, its just my dream and I am staying consistant. In all Honeslty though. IF he spent the money on this 3rd line over the summer I would get over the no defense upgrade


    I just feel that line could do anything a coach asked

  • vinoa

    sniperstar vinoa Anthony Petrielli phaneufoundlander  Yeah I was pretty worried about Price vs. Phil and JVR but our D was up to the challenge. Now it’s back to the NHL hatred of all things Scab related.

  • Burtonboy

    The site is still glitchey this morning I see

  • Burtonboy

    Here’s the full interview Nonis did with the Sun yesterday 

    Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis: Don’t expect major moves


  • Leafs rule

    Interesting writeup Anthony ,Looks like we wait to see how the year ends

  • vinoa

    Burtonboy  Ha! I was just on that article. God the Sun hurts my head.

  • 4evrblue

    Burtonboy honestly I wouldn’t expect NoNo to make a big trade ever………. EVER

  • MaxwellHowe

    Thanks Anthony

  • wendelsway1

    CanuckUKinToronto Great Dane Anthony Petrielli  I think Nonis will part ways with Franson……me thinks he’ll price himself right off the team.

  • Snots

    Burtonboy  unreadable …been coming here for years, now unless someone comments and I click it to move the screen, I might as well forget it

  • MaxwellHowe

    So who would be the ideal #2 Dman to play with Phaneuf?  Who is reasonably attainable?

  • Burtonboy

    4evrblue Burtonboy  I think Nonis has no problem pulling the trigger when and if the right trade comes along . Thankfully he not like Fletcher who was trigger happy and made stupid mistakes

  • MaxwellHowe

    CanuckUKinToronto if it comes down to needing a right shooiting dman, much may depend on the readiness of Granberg

  • Burtonboy

    MaxwellHowe  We already have him lol. Morgan Rielly

  • MaxwellHowe

    Burtonboy MaxwellHowe You may be right.

  • 4evrblue

    Burtonboy 4evrblue He’s far from Burke too who would seek out the big deals and take risks. NoNo isn’t a big risk taker. Small calculated risks like trading for a backup (Bernier) is about as big as I see him going.

  • Burtonboy

    4evrblue Burtonboy  Nonis worked with Burke for many yrs . He’s very familiar with big deals and we really don’t know how big a part he played in many of those deals that Burkie made. I suspect its much more then people think

  • 4evrblue

    Burtonboy 4evrblue I suspect it was as a sounding board, a voice of reason always telling him to ask for more but never much more than that. He doesn’t strike me as the type to have to guts to pull off a big deal unless it’s a sure thing

  • MaxwellHowe

    4evrblue Burtonboy The Bernier deal was pretty gutsy.  The Flyers and Isles, dying for goalies, wouldn’t go that far.  Holmgren wouldn’t go that far.  Think about it.

  • BBirde

    MaxwellHowe BurtonboyI’d like to grab Girardi. But I’m not sure if the money or term is going to be in our favour to get him.

  • Rthiffault

    MaxwellHowe Burtonboyhow much would it cost for a Zach Bogosian? he doesn’t seem happy with Losepeg. I haven’t seen him all too much though to know if he’s totally worth it.

  • wendelsway1

    Burtonboy 4evrblue  I agree, Bboy.  I think a big reason why he is perceived as having more patience, less of a risk taker, is directly linked to his personality, in comparison to Burke’s.  Personally, I don’t think Nonis is afraid to pull the trigger, if the right deal presents itself…..now for finding that right deal.

  • 4evrblue

    MaxwellHowe 4evrblueBurtonboy The Bernier deal was a backup, a bottom 6 player running out of potential and a pick for a backup with potential. No different than Ben Bishop or Lindback. It only seems like a big deal now because 1) it happened in toronto and 2) it’s worked out well so far. 
    In the grand scheme of things this is a small deal.

  • Burtonboy

    BBirde MaxwellHowe Burtonboy  Really tough deal to make right now with no cap space

  • zakimak

    There’s going to be lots of turnover I’d think in the summer. We are locked to many expiring contracts and with some prized RFA a year after, NoNo would be foolish to sign anyone mentioned long term. The Marlies guys will have to step up to elevated the cap crunch. You simply cannot afford Kulemen at 3+, Bolland 3.5 to 4+, McClement 2-2.5, Reimer @2-2.5, Franson at 3-3.5, Gardner  1.5 -2…plus others..I think these are realistic yet low numbers and doubt the guys would sign for less. Franson would likely be gone at Arbitration if he gets there and the arbitrator give him 4.5+…NoNo surprised me last year but it was easier than this summer. I have faith in him provided everyone play ball.

  • Burtonboy

    Rthiffault MaxwellHowe Burtonboy  Things seem to have changed in the Peg since Maurice arrived

  • 4evrblue

    wendelsway1 Burtonboy4evrblue he’ll search for that deal forever and watch great things pass him by if you ask me. Just my opinion though.
    With all of this said he very well could be the guy we need right now because of all this patience. We have all the right pieces in the system and he’ll most likely refuse to deal them for quick fixes and instead allow them to develop into what we need.

  • MaxwellHowe

    4evrblue MaxwellHowe Burtonboy I said I thought it was gutsy.

  • 4evrblue

    off to work again folks. be back soon :)

  • zakimak

    MaxwellHowe 4evrblueBurtonboyI’d target the Islander to hoodwink…Snow can be had for sure

  • Burtonboy

    https://twitter.com/CurtisGRush https://twitter.com/CurtisGRush/status/438327248786325504
    Morgan Rielly and goalies hit the ice. https://twitter.com/search?q=%23Leafs&src=hash https://twitter.com/search?q=%23tmltalk&src=hash

  • 4evrblue

    MaxwellHowe 4evrblueBurtonboy fine, gutsy, not a big deal but gutsy. easy to be gutsy when you’re dealing with mostly insignificant pieces…….. think about it

  • http://www.unclejakescards.ca/ unclejakescards

    just curious to see what people think about glencross and giordano ??
    the burkie connection is there , re-TOOLing……
    not interested in cammalari.

  • wendelsway1

    Burtonboy  I love this kid….such a pleasure watching him develop…..he’s gonna be special….in a good way  :)

  • zakimak

    CanuckUKinToronto zakimakI think so too and I wish that package would be worth something after the season…unfortunately, they are worth far more now yet we need them for the run.