Photo: Toronto Star

At this point we are two weeks past the opening of NHL Free Agency, three weeks from the draft, and five weeks from when the Stanley Cup was won. In contrast we are about 12 weeks away from the start of the regular season, assuming it opens on time. For the record, I’m optimistic it will. There is still an awful lot of off-season to go.

With that in mind it begs the question, “How come we expect the Leafs to be fixed by now?” Recognizing that player movements start shortly after the Cup Finals end, we’ve given Brian Burke a month to fix a team that had the fifth worst record in the league. That’s a pretty tall order.

Granted, I’m as impatient as everyone else. The off season can be an incredibly painful few months if your team isn’t making trades or signing players. I would like to see more done for the Leafs than adding some size to the wing, and upgrade the bottom six forward group, arguably what should have been the lowest priorities on team that has obvious issues up the middle, in net, and on defense.

That’s not to say that van Riemsdyk, Komarov, and McClement do not upgrade the Leafs. Certainly in van Riemsdyk and McClement they do, and Komarov fills a role that has been vacant since Darcy Tucker (though his best Leafs comparable might be Bill Berg since offense will unlikely be a factor). The team has improved, but not to the point where expectations should be elevated beyond last season. And that’s fine at this point.

As the summer progresses and we get further and further from Leafs hockey, there is a tendency to start looking at this team as dramatically improved. It’s not. The last time we saw Ben Scrivens he was standing on his head in the Calder Cup, not fighting pucks in the NHL. As a result he’s now viewed as an NHL backup. Similarly, Jerry D’Amigo has been mentioned as a potential penalty killer for the Leafs, van Riemsdyk can be a top line center, Kadri has begun working out with Gary Roberts, and Reimer has announced he is symptom free.

We want to believe that all of this is true. Even a cynical prick like myself has been suckered in to believing that Kadri needs to have a spot in the top six on the Leafs, and I have chosen to believe that a completely recovered Reimer can make a difference for the Leafs next season. What’s worse is that all of these guys seem quite likeable and you want to root for them to be successful with the Leafs rather than see them shipped out.

This has happened every year. Last year, Franson and Liles were the missing pieces on the blueline, Connolly was going to add a few extra points that Bozak couldn’t provide, Lombardi was going to add some needed speed to the penalty kill, and a full season of Reimer was finally going to stabilize the goaltending situation. What happened was a catastrophic failure, coupled with regressions to Kulemin, MacArthur, and Grabovski. Of course, no one expected the out of nowhere success stories from Lupul and Gardiner, either. What was evident was that there were a lot of question marks on the team last summer and perhaps a few more ‘Plan B’ type players needed to be brought in.

‘Plan B’ is exactly my take on James van Riemsdyk at centre, making either Bozak or Connolly Plan C. I can’t imagine that Burke has given up on finding a true top six centre, but if they are looking for other options now is a great time to get JvR thinking about a new position.

In goal, I want to believe in Reimer. Not rookie-season-believe in Reimer, because I don’t think he’s a sustained 92% save percentage goaltender, but I believe in a healthy season he could be a 91-91.5% guy. I still believe Reimer makes sense and as such have drifted away from my previous stance that Luongo is the best option for Toronto. This could be because I’m three months removed from Leafs hockey, and making an error in judgment, but I want to still see Reimer as part of the future.

Unfortunately, as much as I want to believe in him, he can’t operate without a Plan B. That’s what happened with Gustavsson as a backup last season. Reimer has played over 55 games in a season only once in his career, back in junior, he’s essentially going to need someone who can be a reliable 30 game goaltender in relief with the potential for even more starts. That wasn’t Gustavsson, and at this point I can’t imagine that is Scrivens.

I still see Scrivens as a Plan C goaltender. He’s not a bad guy to have on the Marlies developing for another season proving that he belongs in the NHL. The problem is that he’d have to go through waivers. I’m not sure if this is really a problem if you give Scrivens a two-year deal at $1.5 million AAV. I can’t imagine many teams are willing to take that cap hit on an inexperienced goaltender, especially when it carries an extra year. That leaves Scrivens available for emergency call-ups, keeps him available to challenge for a NHL job next season.

So, who does that leave as the ‘Plan B’ guy? I wonder what Robert Esche is doing? Esche would be a disappointing solution of course, but still somewhat better than Cristobel Huet. The reality likely comes in the fallout of who adds a starter. Whoever acquires Luongo or Bernier will be spitting someone out onto the goaltending market. It’s worth looking at Theodore if it’s Florida. If it’s Chicago it’s worth looking at Crawford or Emery. Clearly I’m not looking for the greatest goaltending tandem of all-time, but I’d have to believe healthy Reimer/Theodore is an improvement over wonky-headed Reimer and the Swedish sieve.

Luongo, Bernier, or another NHL starter would not be a bad solution for Toronto. I would just promote the idea that Scrivens needs remain third in line on the depth chart, and Reimer deserves a shot at competing for the top job. I guess the key to the whole offseason is to use your 50 player contracts to bring in as many guys as possible that can challenge each other for jobs.

At this point in the summer we need to come back to patience for a few reasons. The first is the number of top six forwards who could potentially be displaced. At this point Grabovski, van Riemsdyk, and Kessel all have jobs. MacArthur, Lupul have certainly earned their jobs but are attractive trade bait. Kulemin and Frattin seem to be earmarked for the third line, and that leaves a mix of Kadri, Colborne, Connolly, and Bozak in the mix as well. Colborne returning to the AHL isn’t a difficult decision, but the numbers seem to support that at least two of these forwards are on the way out. Something has to give.

We still haven’t seen the signing of key free agents and the arbitration process is yet to begin. While it unfortunately looks like the Leafs aren’t interested in Semin and thankfully Doan hasn’t shown interest in Toronto, these two key signings will certainly spark some increased activity. Similarly, key resolutions need to be reached via arbitrations. Sam Gagner, T.J. Oshie, and Kyle Quincey will be interesting cases, and all three could be worth pursuing if teams were to walk away from a high award (unlikely). It’s also notable that at some point the lack of resolution to RFAs like Shea Weber, P.K. Subban, Jamie Benn, Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly should spark some slightly more aggressive interest from GMs who desperately need to turn their team around.

Of course, the likely hold up for most transactions can be tied to the CBA negotiations and this is why I am perfectly fine with Burke not doing anything until the 11th hour. After the ratification of the last CBA, the Leafs were caught in a new system they weren’t prepared to operate in. They agreement placed the Leafs right at the cap ceiling with little leverage.

Today the Leafs are sitting with around $12 million of wiggle room that shouldn’t handcuff them if it comes down. The Leafs are also still holding presently unattractive assets like Tim Connolly, Mike Komisarek, and Matthew Lombardi, all of who could warrant some interest if teams are once again allowed to trade cash.

The amnesty buyout clause is also a potentially interesting one. Not only because it would allow the Leafs to cut a player like Mike Komisarek loose, but because the market could be flooded with buyouts to players like Vinny Lecavalier and Ilya Bryzgalov, who may not be attractive options on their current deals, but are worth a call to an agent on a time line about.

Of course, even with the saved cap space the Leafs could get burned by not being able to bury a contract like Lombardi’s in the AHL or an amnesty buyout will not be available (though with the number of owners looking to rid themselves of awful contracts, I’d have to assume there will be).

Looking at the Leafs today, I can say that may patience is worn pretty thin and despite solid reasons to wait I’d prefer to see action. Despite my belief that players like Reimer and Kulemin will be better, I don’t believe that Lupul can sustain his success or that James van Reimsdyk will instantly be a 60-point player in Toronto. As much it is clear that Brian Burke has established an organization with an increasing number of Plan B’s, there is still a startling deficit of sound Plan A’s.

Ideology shifts have occurred as we continue to crawl through the summer. The concept of Reimer as the number one goaltender was appalling at one point, it’s less so now. In fact it’s pretty close to appealing at this point. At one point free agency needed to be avoided at all costs, now with Semin still looking for work cases can be made for rolling the dice on him. While I can’t say that I’m there yet, he’s a clear upgrade in the top six, less crippling on the organization than trading for players like Nash or Ryan, and as the market thins out (Semin, Doan, Ryan, and Nash are gone), it drives up the price for a player like Lupul. I can’t say I’m ready to accept van Riemsdyk at centre yet, or anything close to the current state of the Leafs roster, but fortunately we have two and a half months to believe things have to get better.



What Could Have Been
Hope in the Big Smoke takes a look back at where it went off the rails for the Leafs. Not only was trading for Raycroft a bad idea, and choosing Pogge over Rask a bad idea, but it has lead us to the Toskala trade, and many other poor attempts at fixing the goaltending problem.

Does Free Agency Build Championship Teams?
An interesting look at how the last few cup winning teams have been built and the infrequency that prior year free agents put them over the top. Not surprisingly a good group that sticks together eventually wins together.

The First NHL Proposal
Bobby Holik offers some thoughts on the NHL’s proposal to the players and reminds us that the sky is in fact not falling and instead points out that this is the worst case scenario of what the owners would put forward. He also isn’t prepared to concede that part of the season will be lost. Since Holik was part of the NHLPA during the last CBA I think his words should calm everyone down.

Blackhawks Quest for a Number 2 Center Continues
Tim Connolly says ‘sup?

What Would a Weighted Draft Look Like if There is a Lockout in 2012-13
Dirty Dangle looks at the silver lining for Leafs fans if the season is lost. This is really taking Tank Nation up a notch.