Around the trade deadline, eyes always gravitate towards pending UFAs and the Leafs currently have five. It’s safe to say UFA to be – Colton Orr, Mike Kostka and Ryan Hamilton – aren’t going to bring Toronto anything via trade so we can cut them off the list of names to discuss. The other two UFAs to be are Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur.
For good measure, John Michael Liles has also heard his name bandied about due to being a healthy scratch for stretches of the season, and being a left defenseman on a team that also has Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, and Mark Fraser patrolling the left side; to say nothing of Morgan Rielly for next year. When you consider all that, plus the fact that he still has three years remaining on his deal, Liles is another name worth mentioning.
We’ll start by looking at Bozak, who to the chagrin of many fans is still the Leafs first line center. There is no forward on the team who averages more ice time per game than Bozak. Now, that’s not necessarily indicative of his importance and ability considering Grabovski, I think, could easily slide into his role of centering JVR and Kessel, but it does speak to all the situations he plays in. Bozak, along with McClement, is the first guy off the bench when the Leafs take a penalty. At the end of one goal games the Leafs are trying to close out, Carlyle has begun to run with McClement-Bozak-Kulemin to protect the lead in the final minute. On the power play, Bozak is fifth on the team in PP points.
So Bozak does contribute to this roster and brings quite a few things to the line-up. Most important, to me, is his play on the PK. The Leafs have given up 100 goals so far this year, which is the second most of any team currently in the playoffs. Conversely, their PK is tied for fourth best in the league.
Even if Grabovski jumps up the roster and makes the Leafs a better team five-on-five, there’s no guarantee likely center call-up Joe Colborne steps into the roster and is an immediate impact player. Then you have to factor in how the PK gets affected here, too.
The Leafs haven’t cemented a playoff spot yet, so that’s a lot of real change to factor in. To say nothing of the message it sends your team to sell at the first deadline in years where you’re actually sitting in a playoff spot.
Whether you agree or not, Bozak plays a lot of minutes for the Leafs, so if he’s moved there is a very real adjustment period that would take place for the entire roster. Even if there is only a five-game adjustment period, that might be too much considering the biggest hurdle remaining in the Leafs season is coming up with their back-to-back series against the Rangers on April 8th and 10th.
If a team offers the Leafs a deal that blows them away, that’s one thing. But how likely is that to happen? The Leafs received Luca Caputi for Alex Ponikarovsky when he was coming off a 61-point season and had 41 in 61 before the Pens pulled the trigger. He’s a big winger who was turning 30 at the time. Caputi became nothing. Antropov netted the Leafs a second round pick that became Kenny Ryan.
Is that type of return worth it for a guy playing a key role on a team that’s in a playoff position? It’s one thing if they’re getting an amazing offer for Bozak; in fact, that’s basically a no-brainer. But a second round pick from a team likely to make the playoffs? A second tier prospect? Why bother?
Then there’s Clarke MacArthur. Some will look at this past week and think the Leafs can survive without him. Personally, I’m not going to put a ton of stock into beating Florida, Carolina without Cam Ward – blowing a two goal lead in the process – and Ottawa without four of their five best players.
In the Leafs seven games against Boston and Pittsburgh, do you know how many points MacArthur has? Six. He’s become a proven scorer in the NHL, and a MacArthur-Grabovski-Frattin third line is a heck of a lot better than the alternatives of playing Hamilton or McClement there.
The Leafs still have to qualify for the playoffs, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. Mainly, MacArthur will help them get there and might even make sense to lock him up considering the Leafs don’t have much in the way of scoring wingers in the system knocking at the door, ready to make the team.
But let’s assume the Leafs do qualify for the playoffs for a second. I don’t think anybody is expecting much, nor should they. However, what if the Leafs play a Ward-less Carolina? Or the Jets? All of a sudden it’s pretty reasonable to think they could advance to the second round. So, are the Leafs going to trade MacArthur for rental packages with that possibility lingering in their minds?
Again, if Nonis is sitting in his office getting blown away with offers of legitimate prospects and first round picks, that’s one thing. If they aren’t though, it makes more sense to just keep these guys for the rest of the season. At worst, they trade their rights at the draft for low picks. Since Nonis has already voiced that he has no problem keeping pending UFAs. My guess is he’s not getting any real offers worth considering.
If it boils down to the Leafs deciding between keeping these players, potentially doing a little damage in the playoffs and then trading away their rights around the draft, or trading these players outright for rental package deals, give me the former.
John Michael Liles, on the other hand, is a different animal. Liles is signed for the next three years, so they have a lot of time to trade him if they decide to.
The question when it comes to Liles, should a team offer something for him, is if he could garner a better return come summer time. If they can, wait. If they can’t, it will be hard to not pull the trigger.
When the Leafs got Liles in the summer of 2011, it was said that they finally coughed up the second round pick the Avalanche wanted. It was rumoured that the Leafs coveted him at the deadline, but they were only offering a third. Essentially, it’s the same situation once again.
How good is Nonis’ poker face? I guess we’ll find out. We also have to consider teams in the league banking on the Leafs using a compliance buyout on Liles and thus playing the waiting game with the Leafs. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, Liles is playing good hockey for the Leafs right now, too.
My gut says none of these guys get moved in part because of the reasons listed above. I’ve been wrong before though.
– It makes sense to get the Gardiner talk out of the way immediately, so that’s where I’ll begin. Other than Gardiner’s first game with the Leafs this year, in which he played 17:29, he’s played more than 19:20 in all six of his other games. In fact, those two times mentioned are the only games he’s played under 20 minutes. So, he’s been getting top four minutes basically every time he has played for the Leafs. Gardiner adds an obvious element of speed and skill to the Leafs defense, and he set up a really nice Lupul goal in Boston that sticks out in most people’s minds. The thing to think about here is that, while Gardiner does do more good than bad, he has made critical defensive gaffes thus far. Frankly, if he wasn’t so fast and able to recover from his errors, he’d look a lot worse. He has been walked around by Matthias, Leino and Marchand, plus was muscled off the puck by Hamilton leading to the Bruins tying a game in the third period against the Leafs.
– What it boils down to is this: he makes a lot of mistakes defensively but offers you something special offensively. Carlyle probably heard these same things about Cam Fowler after his 40-point rookie season in which he was horrid defensively. The following year, Fowler put up 29 points, and this season he has 5 which would prorate to a 16-point pace over an 82 game season. He’s become better defensively but is no stud in that department, while regressing offensively. Compare that to the Rangers’ Michael Del Zotto, who had a 37 point rookie season and was sent down to the AHL for half of the next season. The following year he responded with 41 points. These offensive D need to be scaled back and taught how to play defense. That’s a product of two things: in their younger careers, they dominated so much offensively that they barely even had to be in the D-zone, and when they were in defensive situations their overriding talent made up for any/most defensive shortcomings. It’s okay to take Gardiner down a notch and work on some aspects of his game, but they will also have to get him in the line-up, too. How they balance teaching Gardiner and playing him will be interesting. It’s obvious they were trying to do that in the AHL, but he’s just too good for that league.
– The Leafs ice time allocation of their defense was pretty interesting against Ottawa: Liles 18:02, Gunnarsson 19:36, Franson 19:46, Fraser 20:07, Phaneuf 20:56 and Kostka 21:36. Some of that is due to having a big lead in the third period, but it’s nice that the Leafs can play games in which Phaneuf doesn’t have to play 25+.
– After pointing out Gardiner getting beat and needing to work on defense, it’s worth noting that Kostka got burned by Latendresse in the first period leading to a breakaway that Reimer stopped. Gardiner would have had the speed to close the gap there.
– That said, Kostka had a great shift leading to Kadri’s second goal in Ottawa where he turned back with the puck with a delayed penalty coming and set up the rush. Kadri got a shot off the rush but missed the net, and Kostka was the guy who beat two Sens for the puck and took a hit, which resulted in a wide open shot for Liles and goal from Kadri.
– Also worth noting: Fraser-Franson has also basically stepped into the second pairing role for the Leafs. The sum is probably better than the parts, but they are getting the job done more or less.
– There has been a lot of attention given to Kadri and Lupul this past week, which is deserved. Who else deserves attention, though? Phil Kessel. Against Carolina he was stopped on a breakaway, beat Peters with a shot that was cleared on the goal line by Pitkanen, hit a crossbar, and setup Bozak and Franson for their goals.
– Also against Carolina: It’s just unacceptable to take a too many men penalty right after a team scores on you to make it a one goal game. Carolina of course scored on that penalty to tie the game.
– I was confused as to why people were blaming Franson for the Staal breakaway goal. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge a great play from a great player and move on. Franson hit the post and Staal released the zone like a bullet. The puck bounced to Semin and that was that. Even if Franson knew Staal was going to jump the zone early like that, he would have had to pivot and turn around to skate with Staal after Staal was already steaming forward. In other words, he wouldn’t have caught him regardless. Carolina got a bounce and an elite player made an elite play.
– I’ve been watching Bozak closely on the power play because he has really assumed the role of being a rover in the high slot. Bozak floating in the slot and attracting defensive attention has led to backdoor goals such as this and this. Plus, Bozak has shown he can score from there, too. I wonder how effective a left hander would be in that role. On one hand, a lefty would be able to setup for a one timer nicely. However, a righty is able to deflect hard cross-ice Kessel passes on net, where Lupul or JVR are residing. I don’t think people realize how hard Kessel riffles his passes cross ice, but he puts some serious heat on the puck and I’m not sure just anyone could actually one time his passes.
– I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that with a contract extension firmly in place, Lupul could have easily sat back and waited to heal. Instead, he worked on his skating and it has paid off. Good for him; that’s the kind of story you love to hear about.
– The biggest defensive play in the game against Ottawa received almost no attention. Ryan Hamilton blocked an Alfredsson shot with his stick as the Sens captain had a wide open net with about 15 seconds left in the second. That would have made it 2-1 going into the third period and who knows what would have happened from there.
– In two of Kulemin’s last three games, he hasn’t recorded a shot on net. This is the main reason his goal totals aren’t what they could be.
– That said, I have no idea why CBC is talking about when they say Kulemin is “just along for the ride” on the Kadri-Lupul line. On Kadri’s hat trick goal, when the comment was made, Kulemin gained the zone with the puck and drove play to the corner. When they lost possession, Kulemin hustled back and kept the play in the zone. When Kadri played a puck that bounced in the air, Kulemin kept the play alive and batted it to Lupul, who then setup Kadri for the goal. So all he did was keep three pucks alive and win battles all shift.
– I reasonably subscribe to the theory that Grabovski is a victim of circumstance when it comes to his lack of production; in other words, his role and linemates have coincided to produce a weak season offensively thus far. That said, I think it’s a complete copout to solely blame it on that and Carlyle. When you’re watching Grabovski fall on a breakaway, that’s his fault. Against Carolina he put the puck through Skinner’s legs, and then tried to pass in the slot? Grabovski is now essentially in the same role Kadri was in earlier this year, centering a third line that has Frattin and a revolving cast of MacArthur, McClement and Hamilton on the other wing. Kadri had Komarov. Plus, Grabovski is getting PP2 time with Lupul and Kadri. In all likelihood, Grabovski would be playing better if he was moved up, but he also has to earn it, too. When MacArthur returns and is put on his wing, he’s going to have a really good chance to succeed.
– I was kind of confused by all the praise Kessel received for back-checking his own giveaway that led to a Marcel Goc breakaway. Kessel is fast enough to catch him, and he made the mistake on the play. In other words, he should be catching him. Three years ago Kessel would have done the same thing if he made that mistake. Now, if someone else made the error leading to a breakaway and Kessel skated his tail off to break it off, that’s a different story…
– It was disappointing to see JVR get caught on a breakaway by Erik Gundbranson. It seems almost once a game there is a shift where JVR has a step on a defender and settles for an outside shot. It’s one thing if you’re Phil Kessel, it’s another if you’re 6’3 and can do this. It’s no coincidence that play was JVR’s last shift on that line for the night. Lupul was put there from that point forward and the difference with him is that he has the ability to beat opponents one-on-one. For example, on Lupul’s first goal later on that night, he toe-dragged Kopecky before gaining the zone and that helped create space for the 3 on 2 breakdown Florida went through.
– I will say this about the Leafs, because I don’t think it’s getting nearly enough attention: If teams get a lead against Toronto and think they can sit back and trap, they are in for a rude awakening. The Leafs have three strong scoring lines considering Kessel and JVR lead one, Kadri-Lupul lead another and Grabovski with most likely MacArthur soon are on the third. The Leafs have three lines that can come at you in waves, and there are just so many legitimate scoring options throughout their top nine that it’s tough to stop if you trap. Recent examples include their game against Carolina in which they just kept pounding at the door until it came down once they were losing, against the Jets they mounted a big comeback, and against Pittsburgh they tied the game late. The Leafs have firepower offensively, nobody can dispute that.
“I’m not trying to mentor him. He’s got to pave his own way and make his own mistakes and do things his own way. I can try and be a leader a little bit, but I’m not going to interfere with his development. He’s got to learn on his own and as you’ve seen he’s doing a pretty good job of that.”
– Joffrey Lupul on his role with Nazem Kadri
Lupul’s right, Kadri has to pave his own path. That said, it doesn’t hurt to have a line mate playing as good as he currently is on his wing.
“First there were the hats on the ice. Then Don Cherry and Mr. MacLean having me on. Don even giving me a little kiss … just surreal.”
– Nazem Kadri after his four point night against Ottawa that included a hat trick.
The crazy thing is that Leafs Nation was just as excited as you were, Nazem.
“I think Randy wants me to hit guys more. Not necessarily hit them I guess, just finish my check, rub [the opposing player] out at least. I did it last year, but I didn’t really think about doing it as much as I probably should now.” …. “Guys are a lot more skilled,” he said of the difference between the two leagues, “and it’s harder to close on guys. It’s definitely something I need to work on.”
– Jake Gardiner speaking after being a healthy scratch.
That’s the unfortunate by-product of playing in the AHL after you’ve clearly established you can play in the NHL. You can develop bad habits and get complacent in some parts of your game, like being physical.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think with Ryan Hamilton showing that he can play at the NHL level in a grinding role, my main focus at the deadline would be adding on defense. Reimer has been strong, and Scrivens has shown he can carry the load when he has to. The forwards aren’t perfect, but they are getting the job done and we haven’t really seen them completely healthy this season. Conversely, the defense has had four regulars all year in Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Fraser and Franson, and then a revolving door for the other two spots between Kostka, Liles, Gardiner and Holzer. It would be nice to add a solid veteran in there to bring a little more stability and consistency to the unit. As with everything though, it all depends on the cost.
2 – I think Nonis’ biggest challenge at the deadline will be resisting the temptation to respond to other team’s making moves. Nonis has said all the right things thus far in terms of keeping the long-term vision in mind and not making short term only moves/not trading the future away to make short term moves. However, it’s one thing to say it, and another to do it. If teams around them like the Rangers, Islanders, Canes and Jets make some moves, there will be some pressure on the Leafs to respond. Stay the course, Dave.
3 – I think, and this will be elaborated on in a longer post eventually, it makes the most sense to give Nazem Kadri a ‘bridge contract’ for two or three years to properly establish his value. He’s had a great year, but it would be nuts to give him a long-term deal worth big money because of a very good shortened season. What’s the worst that could happen? He plays amazing and you give him what he’s worth afterward?
4 – I think, provided a trade isn’t made that changes the roster number crunch, I’d keep Ryan Hamilton with the big club for the rest of the season. He’s showing he can contribute to the PK, he’s been playing with an edge to his game, he brings size to the roster on the fourth line and you can trust him out there to give you energy and a solid shift.
5 – I think I’d keep Lupul-Kadri together and away from Kessel. Teams are still deploying their top checkers against Kessel more or less and that is allowing Kadri and Lupul to run over teams. Since Kessel has been in Toronto he has shown he can produce all by himself at a high level. If teams all of a sudden want to deploy their top shutdown/two-way guys against Lupul-Kadri, I’d be glad to watch that stalemate as Kessel rips up secondary units. It’s not like JVR is Joey Crabb, either.