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

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

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

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@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:

“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.”

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… 

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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.

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@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.

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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.

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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+.

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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.

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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.

Anthony Petrielli has been writing Leafs Notebooks, also known as short stories, on MLHS since the beginning of the 2011 season. He'd rather let his work do the talking but Alec and Declan have been bugging him about writing a bio, so here it is. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli