With the lockout in full force, I thought I—d try to get you all thinking about this actual Leafs team again. Take my word for it: eventually, even if the season is completely wiped out, NHL hockey will again be played and a new Leafs season will begin. When that happens, as is our nature, we will all get back to arguing with each other about various Leaf-related topics. On a chilly Tuesday in the dead of the lockout (snow doesn’t have the same appeal without the Leafs on the TV at night, does it?), here’s ten things to fill your time thinking about:
1. If there—s one thing that generally got overlooked about the Leafs acquiring James Van Riemsdyk, it—s that he represents a safety net should the Leafs lose Joffrey Lupul to free agency. This is currently the last year of Lupul—s four year, $17M deal, making him a UFA next summer. According to the last lockout—s rules, he—s a free agent whether there is a season or not this year. We all know the story with Lupul from last year — stayed healthy for the first time in years, teamed up with Phil Kessel to light the league up, was top five in league scoring for most of the year – but if he wants to be paid upward of $5M per year over a long term, who thinks the Leafs are going to dish that out with JVR in the fold? Dave Nonis said that JVR and Phil Kessel are part of their main of core forwards moving forward, and when we were speaking with Dave Poulin for Lindy—s magazine, he all but implied that the whole JVR-to-center thing was mainly about getting he and Kessel to begin playing together. This isn—t to suggest the Leafs aren—t going to attempt to resign Lupul, but it is definitely saying that the Leafs don—t have to dish out the dough to keep a guy who is coming off a slightly over point per game season after numerous injury plagued and underachieving ones.
2. Further to that point, if the Leafs don—t resign Lupul or Clarke MacArthur, that leaves a ripe top six winger spot for Nazem Kadri to lock up alongside Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin on the second line. We could then finally get a real, extended look at Kadri in the NHL. I—d be remiss if I didn—t point out how unfortunate it would be if the Leafs lost MacArthur to free agency after declining to trade him for what was thought to be a conditional pick that could have turned into a second round pick at last year—s deadline. It—s not Burke—s fault there is a lockout, and he couldn—t have completely known at that point in time that a full year lockout was a legitimate possibly, but it would kind of hurt to lose a player like that for nothing.
3. A reasonable time to begin preparing for an impending lockout? The summer, when negotiations were sparse and time was ticking. The Leafs added some veterans to their organization in Mike Kostka, Keith Aucoin, Dylan Yeo while retaining older players like Mike Zigomanis and Ryan Hamilton. The Marlies have played nearly a quarter of their season at this point, and to date kids like Spencer Abbott and Brad Ross have only played five and four games respectively. Other young prospects such as Greg McKegg and Jesse Blacker have gotten into more action, but are being played in limited roles with limited ice time. Sure, everybody wants to see the Marlies win, but at the same time the main priority has to be getting prospects ready to graduate to the next level. The question at the end of the day is this: who has a better chance of being a productive Leaf, five to ten years from now, kids like Blacker, McKegg, Abbott and Ross, or Aucoin, Kostka, and the like? It—s not a knock against the veterans, most of who have played well, but it is discouraging to see kids not get ice time and develop in the AHL. And it needs to be emphasized that this is still the AHL.
4. Anyway, back to the Leafs. Should the lockout go the full year, Toronto will enter next season with a defense of Phaneuf, Komisarek, Liles, Gardiner, Holzer and Franson, which is what they have now. Assuming Komisarek gets bought out with a prospective amnesty clause (admittedly no guarantees there), that opens up the remaining spot for Morgan Rielly to come in and grab it. Regardless, that leaves the Leafs defense with their four best defencemen as Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gardiner and Liles, all of whom are lefties. Phaneuf already plays the right side, Gunnarsson has formed a strong pairing with Dion, while Liles is a veteran in the league who has generally played the left side during his career. Point being, are the Leafs or Marlies at this point going to start toying with Gardiner on the right side? He—s played mainly on the left with Mike Kostka, but it may benefit the Leafs to start getting him acclimated to playing on the right. Even if the Leafs do eventually come to terms with Franson, he hasn—t proven he can be a legitimate top four D-man, and it would take an even bigger leap of faith to expect Holzer to fill that role. Even if Ranger makes the Leafs, he too is a lefty. On top of that, Rielly can still only play in the WHL or NHL next year, and he looks ready for the next level, so it would be a shame to have a logjam of good left handed D in Gunnarsson, Liles and Gardiner blocking the way for him. At this point, it—s not too early to start thinking about next year.
5. I would be willing to bet that, had the NHL season started on time like it should have, the Leafs would have reasonably been comfortable going in with a healthy James Reimer and a Ben Scrivens who was coming off an excellent season in the AHL.This of course takes into account the Leafs not acquiring Luongo. Now, if you—re Brian Burke watching Scrivens— slow start, it might be making him think twice about what he—ll give up to get a goalie. It—s still early in the season and Scrivens has only played 11 games, but if he continues to be relatively average —I—m being nice – that—s going to have to force management to think twice. It—s funny how the lockout can affect situations like this.
6. Leo Komarov—s time in North America is done for now, but it—s safe to say he made a positive impression. With six goals and nine points in 14 games, he showed he can contribute on this side of the pond, albeit in the AHL, and he was also his pesky self (Komarov was suspended for one game and also had 22 PIMs). The most underrated part of his game, though, might have been his ability to be a net presence on the power play, screen the goalie, and bank in rebounds and tip pucks. At the end of the day he probably makes the Leafs as a fourth liner with Mike Brown and either Steckel or McClement centering him, but it—s nice to have a player that can bring you something dynamic like that in the bottom of your roster – that hasn’t been the case in recent seasons.
7. Matt Frattin is always a player that invites popular debate in terms of what his upside is, but the real question has to be this: what are the Leafs going to employ him as? Is there any doubt that he can be a 20+ goal scorer if he plays consistently on the second line with Mikhail Grabovski and gets steady power play time with his shot, skill, and physicality? There shouldn—t be. At the same time, he—s one of the Leafs’ better defensive wingers at the moment and Carlyle likes physical shutdown lines. Everyone can argue about Frattin all they want until their face turns blue, but it—s really in the Leafs— hands. Considering Carlyle had Frattin playing with Kessel for games at a time down the stretch, my bett is that he—ll see more offensive opportunities than not.
8. The most interesting possible UFA-to-be on the Leafs, to me, is Tyler Bozak. How much does a guy like that get to demand after playing between two wingers who were lights-out? Bozak has his detractors, but he has steadily improved since entering the NHL and is excellent in the faceoff circle. Considering Steckel is also a UFA, it—s not crazy to think that the Leafs let Steckel walk, retain Bozak, and drop McClement to the fourth line. Then again, who would Carlyle—s shutdown line be centered by if that were the case? With so many UFAs upcoming, a lot of young players on the Marlies, and a relatively deep free agent pool, this team may get a dramatic facelift from the last one we saw when the league starts up again.
9. For your perusal, here is the potential free agent class for next season as of this moment. Have fun with the possibilities.
10. Your say: At this point in time, from a Leafs perspective, would you rather watch half of a tainted season, or have a legitimate chance at getting Nathan MacKinnon? Be honest.