With the bulk of the storm over, where do the Leafs stand?

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Some will argue the Leafs have gotten better over the last few weeks, others will say they’ve gotten worse; the only thing we know for sure is that they’re noticeably different.

Out go Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Leo Komarov, Matt Frattin, Ryan O’Byrne, Mike Kostka, and Ben Scrivens. In come Dave Bolland, David Clarkson, TJ Brennan and Jonathon Bernier (along with a few new Marlies – Colborne? D’Amigo? Blacker? Ashton?) .

So what do we make of all this? The best way to look at it is to break it down piece by piece.

Forwards: Bozak over Grabovski, Clarkson over MacArthur

The most controversial move of course was buying out Mikhail Grabovski and the remaining four years of his contract that counted for 5.5M against the cap each season. Since Bozak resigned, the Leafs effectively replaced Grabovski with Bolland and deemed Bozak to be a better fit in their top six forward group than Grabovski.

While Bolland probably isn’t a better overall center than Grabovski, it’s pretty reasonable to say that Bolland is a better shutdown center than Grabovski. With the Hawks, Bolland played that role regularly and was particularly effective in the shutdown role when they won the Cup in 2010. It’s a role that the affectionately nicknamed “rat” enjoys and has excelled at, whereas Grabovski put up with the role but made it pretty [expletive] clear he didn’t like that assignment once he was bought out. It might not be a massive upgrade, and Bolland has been hampered by injuries in recent years and will need to regain his old form to make this justifiable, but it should be an upgrade.

The second part to buying out Grabovski was that they deemed him to be a worse fit in their top six than Bozak. Now, Bozak is two years younger and 6’1 to Grabovski’s 5’11, but Grabovski has 125 points in the last three years to Bozak’s 107. Of course, Bozak also played with the Leafs only elite player throughout that time in Phil Kessel, while Grabovski played with good players too in MacArthur and Kulemin but neither are nearly as good as Kessel offensively.

Unfortunately Grabovski never had a real opportunity to center Kessel over an extended period of time so we don’t have a good gauge of how they would have played together. Frankly though, it’s curious that neither Wilson nor Carlyle ever seriously tried them out together.

Bozak’s point totals aren’t very impressive when you consider that Kessel has 198 in the same last three seasons, but the Leafs must think that Kessel is going to produce regardless and he is still playing with a high-end talent and legitimate 30-goal threat in JVR. To Bozak’s credit, he has been trending upward in points the last few years going from 32 points to 47 and he was on pace for a prorated 50 points in 2013, but that might be the upper limit of his ceiling.

Of interest is the fact that Bozak has only played 238 games, which is roughly three full regular season’s worth of hockey. I bring this up because the fourth season is usually a player’s big breakout season; according to this 2012 article, “In the fourth year, 24 percent of players see an increase in the offensive numbers by 25 percent.” (More on that here should you be interested).

I don’t think I would consider Bozak’s next season truly he’s fourth since he’s seen enough time in the last four seasons, but that doesn’t mean the Leafs brass doesn’t. He also has a good shot which he doesn’t use nearly enough, two basic factors in his consistently high shooting percentage and why he’s good in the shootout with his hesitate and shoot move. That’s worth noting. More than anything, he’s 27 so the Leafs must think there’s still room for him to improve.

At any rate, Bolland is in, Grabovski is out, and Bozak stays.

The next thing the Leafs have done is bet on Clarkson as an improvement over MacArthur. Clarkson has 45 goals in the last two years compared to MacArthur’s 28, but MacArthur has a career high 62 point season while Clarkson has maxed out at 46 points thus far in his career. MacArthur’s also a year younger and signed a relatively modest 2-year, $6.5M deal in comparison to Clarkson’s 7 year, $35.75M deal.

There’s really no doubt that Clarkson’s deal is outrageous, but I also don’t doubt that he’s a better player than MacArthur right now. Clarkson is excellent at cycling the puck and winning battles – two things the Leafs seriously lacked last year — he’s a good goal scorer who charges the net well, and he adds a noted physical element to the top six group. (I don’t know why some people think he kills penalties though, he’s played less than five minutes total shorthanded over the last three years combined).

This leaves the Leafs with a top six of JVR-Bozak-Kessel and Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson, which are two legitimate scoring lines. The opposition will have to pick which line to focus on and the other one should be able to thrive in the easier match-up.

However, the Leafs are also going to run Bozak and Kadri as their top two centers, which really pales in comparison to the three top teams in their division who run Datsyuk-Weiss, Bergeron-Krejci and Spezza-Turris. If Bolland doesn’t do a phenomenal job of shutting down each top line, the Leafs will be in trouble.

We also have to remember that the Leafs made the playoffs last season with the equivalent of a 75-point center in Kadri (that’s what his numbers would have prorated to), and I don’t think he’s doing that again, at least not this season. Yes, Lupul playing the full season should even that out a little, but Lupul has to prove he can stay healthy.

The Leafs do have an excellent group of top four wingers – maybe the best overall group of top four wingers in their division — and that will help mitigate the difference in calibre of centers, but good teams are built down the middle and the off-season moves still don’t put the Leafs in the upper echelon of the league there.

New depth options

Finally, the Leafs have to replace Matt Frattin and Leo Komarov on forward and since they haven’t brought in anyone and are tight against the cap with RFAs left to resign, I’ll just assume they will be replaced by Marlies.

Komarov had a penalty killing and physical energy role for the Leafs which Jerry D’Amigo should be able to fill at least adequately. D’Amigo has played in a shutdown role for the Marlies for a few years now and has been one of their main penalty killers on a unit that’s been among the best annually, so he deserves an opportunity with the big club. Based on everything we know he should be able to slide in almost seamlessly, although the Leafs do lose some physicality here. While Komarov was a really effective player, nobody was about to confuse him with a 40-point forward in the making; yes, the Leafs lose out on him, but they haven’t really hurt their scoring depth and D’Amigo should be able to penalty kill just as well and even chip in on offense here and there.

Replacing Frattin is a little trickier, though. Frattin has 15 goals and 28 points in 82 games so far in his career, and even though he’s already 25 he has a great shot, is fast, and is built like a truck. Losing him isn’t the be all and end all, but he was a guy you could feel reasonably comfortable putting in the top six once injuries hit, he didn’t hurt the Leafs defensively, plus he was physical at times.

The logical replacement in the Leafs system is Joe Colborne. Depending on what the Leafs do, he could play wing with Bolland and Kulemin or he could center the fourth line while McClement plays wing on the shutdown line. For those of you who don’t know, Colborne did start off in college on the wing so the position isn’t exactly foreign to him, although he has primarily been a center with the Marlies. Colborne came on strong with the Marlies once the lockout lifted and didn’t look out of place with the Leafs even though he didn’t record a point. At some point they have to throw him in the fire and see if he can handle the heat, and this opening provides that opportunity. Maybe Colborne won’t be as good as Frattin this year or ever, but he has all the tools and is 6’5. He needs to get that opportunity to work his way up the line-up eventually, and at 23 years old this should be his time.

Defense and Goaltending

On defense the Leafs haven’t really changed, but there is room for improvement internally. Carl Gunnarsson played hurt all year with a hip injury and could be at least marginally better if he’s fully healthy (there are a few goals I can think of that might have occurred due to playing hurt). Jake Gardiner played only 12 regular season games for the Leafs last season, but if he plays anywhere near the level he was at in the playoffs he’s a legitimate top four defenseman. Cody Franson should also be bumped up to the top four and that helps as well; replacing Kostka in the top four with Franson should be a big upgrade.

The final pairing is completely up in the air right now because we don’t know even know who will be in the mix for that spot other than T.J Brennan (Liles is still a trade candidate in my eyes). Last year the Leafs ran Fraser-Franson there before eventually promoting them, and they were effective in the third pairing role. Frankly, if the Leafs create a pairing just as good as or better than they were last season I’ll be surprised, but having Gardiner and Franson in the top four full-time should make a helpful difference.

The truth is the Leafs will have a lot of young players vying for those final spots on the Leafs defense in Rielly, Granberg, Blacker and even Percy, then you factor in that all of Liles, Fraser, Brennan and Holzer could be in the mix and it might just make more sense to let them battle it out and see who emerges.

Nonis did say during his press conference that, “This is going to be an ongoing process over the next 12 to 24 months to try to put together a team that hopefully has the chance to try to do something special.” This would seem like a logical time to tryout some of these defensemen; there will be rough patches, but the Leafs will come out ahead long-term this way and it seems to be the likely course of action at this point.

In net, Bernier represents an upgrade over Scrivens as the back-up, but the bigger question is – will the Leafs get the same calibre of goaltending next season as last? Reimer was a legitimate top 10 goalie last year and it doesn’t really matter if he does it again or Bernier steps up to do it, but the Leafs will need that kind of goaltending once again to be successful.

At the end of the day, the main players responsible for the Leafs making the playoffs last season are all returning. They’ve lost some depth and will need some young Marlies to step up, but they have upgraded their shutdown center and Clarkson should form as good of a second line as any alongside Kadri and Lupul even though he is overpaid over too long of a term.

They’ve essentially found players that better fit their system and jettisoned some good hockey players to do it, which I think will be an interesting case study into whether a GM should acquire the best players overall or the players that best fit the system. The Leafs obviously must view themselves as a better team than they were before, but I understand both sides of these arguments and think there’s a rather large grey area.

The Leafs are in a really top heavy division next season as Detroit, Boston, and Ottawa all look excellent on paper. I think that leaves the Leafs battling it out with the Habs for that final spot as of right now, but there’s still time for things to change.

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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.
  • Loric76

    Thanks Anthony, another great article

  • MaxwellHowe

    That was an excellent read for a dreary Monday monring. 
    IMO, shoulda kept Grabo, let Bozak walk and bought out Liles.  Leafs would have an extra $2.5 million below the cap right now.  I’m not sure Liles is tradable – you would think it would have been done by now.
    On Gunnarson, I wonder if the Leafs are concerned that his hip problem will be a permanent issue.  Not going to sign a guy to a $2-3 million dollar contract if it is.  Right?

    • Burtonboy

      MaxwellHowe Well we should be concerned about JVR who has had the same issues with his hip I guess 
      http://www.sportingnews.com/nhl/story/2012-06-14/james-van-riemsdyk-philadelphia-flyers-no-torn-labrum-surgery

      • Komas Taberle

        Burtonboy MaxwellHowe Almost 60%of all professional hockey players have hip concerns at one point in their career it is a very common injury. As long as the injury is not degenerative there are no worries.

        • Burtonboy

          Komas Taberle Burtonboy MaxwellHowe It even has a name “hockey hip”

        • Loric76

          Komas Taberle Burtonboy MaxwellHowe do the symptoms include excessive partying and douchebaggery?

        • ProfessorRance

          Loric76 Komas Taberle Burtonboy MaxwellHowe Lol Seguins.

  • Komas Taberle

    Good morning all, great article Anthony.
    I believe the Leafs have significantly improved, Bernier will be a top 5 goalie in 2 years, he is that good. Bozak is a good player, not a #1 centre but he works on the #1 line and that line was a great goalscoring line. The real change is what Clarkson brings, with him and Lupul and Kadri forming a potent 2nd line it allows the Leafs to drop Kulemin to a 3rd line where he will form an absolutely killer line with Bolland and McClement. This has all the right peole in all the right places and I would put our top 3 lines against anyone. Now we have to work on the defence and we will be a playoff team again this year.

    • Burtonboy

      Komas Taberle Morning folks . Anthony makes a good point about our defense . We have a group of defensive prospects who are dammed close to making the jump to the NHL. From the sounds of what Nonis is saying they have a 1- 2 yr window before they expect the team to be really competitive . Might be the best time to rotate some of these kids into the line upand let them grow at the NHL evel.  I’m thinking Blacker and maybe Granberg with Rielly knocking on the door not long after . I’m actually very excited about our defense and what it could become in a year or two

      • Komas Taberle

        Burtonboy Komas Taberle We will see soon BB, if Granberg can play on the small ice like he did at the worlds he will be an automatic in the line up, the guy was one of the reasons Sweden won that tourney.

        • Burtonboy

          Komas Taberle Burtonboy My feeling is Granberg and Blacker could make the jump thsi year with Reilly and Percy not all that far behind. Even if he does make the team its going to be hard getting Reilly into the line up.His cap hit is 1.7 mil

        • Komas Taberle

          Burtonboy Komas Taberle Yeah, Liles has to be moved, this year for Rielly to even get a sniff at the line up, I think next year is when he breaks through, not because of lack of talent but the year missed by the knee injury, he will be that much better next year.

        • Burtonboy

          Komas Taberle Burtonboy I still keep hearing management were extremely pleased and surprised at how quickly he adapted to the AHL. He’s at the prospect camp so we will see how he does with that .

        • Dink

          Burtonboy Komas Taberle lot of rookies…I think Carlyle will shun that

        • Burtonboy

          @Dink Burtonboy Komas Taberle Never said he would make it and its probably not very likely . BTW Carlyle has no issue putting rooks in the lineup as long as they earn it .

        • Dink

          Burtonboy Komas Taberle that’s good
          Granberg gets a lot of nods here but does anyone really know if he is any good?

        • Burtonboy

          @Dink Burtonboy Komas Taberle Boy if the WC were any indication he’s going to be very good

        • Dink

          Burtonboy Komas Taberle I don’t get those on TV here so I never saw him, but that is great to know

      • Loric76

        Burtonboy Komas Taberle Wonder what our D will look like two years from now?
        Phaneuf – Gardiner
        Reilly – Franson
        Percy – Granberg
        Blacker

        • Loric76

          Burtonboy Komas Taberle one old fart and a bunch of rookies lol.  RC would shit.

        • Burtonboy

          Loric76 Burtonboy Komas Taberle Could very easily be . Fuck we have Nellson ,Finn ,MacWilliam and Loov as well . Lots of trade chips me thinks lol

        • HHT

          Burtonboy Loric76 Komas Taberle The Loov machine lol great name

    • KenBreadner

      Komas Taberle I really, really want to believe Bernier is that good. But I have been burned so many times by the promise of goaltending saviours and I don’t want to be Bernier’d again. We’ve been through this and through this, but if I’m James Reimer I’m demanding a trade to anywhere that people actually pay attention. Because Nonis acted very much as if the goaltending sucked last year…  
      I look at Clarkson and aside from money that’s going to rub some of his team-mates the wrong way and term which rubs EVERYBODY the wrong way, I like the pick-up. I haven’t paid overmuch attention to Clarkson in the past; reviewing videos I see an exciting player there who should click with Kadri. If, of course, he doesn’t get hurt. His stye of play does seem to produce injuries.  
      On D–yeah, to me and many here it was obvious this was our top area of concern and T.J. Brennan ain’t gonna cut it. We need a minute muncher. And being as we’re going to be scraping the cap right quick, he’s going to have to come cheap.

      • Komas Taberle

        KenBreadner Komas Taberle Holser and Smith will go to Marlies for sure that wives us 12. 75M in cap space to sign our UFAs
        950k one way to Fraser, 3.5M to Franson. 3M to kadri and Gunnarson and 1M to Colborne… done! and we still have 1.25M left over.

      • MaxwellHowe

        KenBreadner Komas Taberle You seem to grant the players quite the entitlements.  Reimer can demand to be traded because another goalie was obtained?  Clarkson’s money may rub the other players the wrong way?  The TML are not babysitting children here.  Those players are paid plenty and are expected to deliver – end of story.

        • Komas Taberle

          MaxwellHowe KenBreadner Komas Taberle Team mates don’t care how much another team mate makes, the more money he gets the more money you get, Bernier is a better goalie and always will be, you will see when he suits up, he is world class, and like I said we will have 1.25M and Liles 3.8 = 5.2M give or take 1 0r 2 hundred thousand to get a nice D,am if and when we trade Liles, Nonis and Loiselle know what they are doing.
          Ciao guys off to Montreal!

        • KenBreadner

          Komas Taberle MaxwellHowe KenBreadner Players do care what other players get, why else do you think Bozak demanded so much $? Bernier makes more than Reimer, ergo Bernier’s the starter. He has less NHL experience than Reimer does and stats that are at least comparable, and you are far from the only person suggesting he’s worlds better. I’m skeptical.

        • KenBreadner

          MaxwellHowe KenBreadner Komas Taberle What does Reimer have to do to be a #1 goalie? Score goals? He was quite miffed and surprised when Bernier was acquired and he has every right to be. Forget about the money. Suppose you excel at whatever it is you do and in response, your manager says “we’ve brought in somebody with less experience than you, and we’re paying him more.” The assumption you would make is that (a) this person is taking your job and (b) the job you did was totally unappreciated.  Isn’t it? Wouldn’t you want to work some place where people actually noticed the good job you do?

        • Komas Taberle

          KenBreadner MaxwellHowe Komas Taberle Sports is competetive if you can’t compete you will lose, I dont’ care about Reimers feelings all i care about is having the best goalie possible in net for the Leafs.

  • Optimustic

    Thanks Anthony,  I always enjoy your articles.   I agree with MaxwellHowe  ,  but I don’t think we’re a lot better or worse than last year.    I was hoping to upgrade our 1C and top 2 or 4D to make the difference from being a playoff team to being a cup contending team.  Guess I’ll have to wait till next year eh?

  • Burtonboy

    Good article Anthony . Cap management played a huge part in the decision to go with Bozak over Grabo imo.

    • MaxwellHowe

      Burtonboy How does cap managament have anything to do with it though?  The Leafs didn’t need to waste a compliance buyout on Bozak – Nonis could just have chosen not to sign him.  Then buy out Liles.  Take out Liles and Bozak and the Leafs save 8 million.  Grabo is a saving of 5.5 million.

      • Burtonboy

        MaxwellHowe Burtonboy Thing is they wanted Bozak not Grabo. They got Bozie for 4.2 whereas Grabo was 5.5 . That a 1.3 mil saving at that position . The need every freakin dollar they can find to get the rest of the roster filled out and the RFA’s signed

  • phaneufoundlander

    I most definitely think we are better. Bernier in place of Scrivens? no brainer there…Clarkson over MacAthur? In a heartbeat….Bolland for Grabo, not so much , but Bolland plays a different style and will shut the down oppositions top lines, so its a win as well. Bolland and Clarkson will inject a level of intensity and grit that we haven’t had since Roberts and Tucker….and I still think Nonis has another trade up his sleeve for the center position. Leafs are better….

    • Komas Taberle

      phaneufoundlander Also the fact that supposedly Grabo told Carlyle not to play him in certain situations, lends itself to thinking he wasn’t right for this team.

      • rustynail

        Komas Taberle phaneufoundlander supposedly being the operative word

    • Dink

      phaneufoundlander Definitely better, just need that one defenceman…but it will take some horse trading

  • Mind Bomb

    Good morning Folks, mondays ROCK!

    • phaneufoundlander

      Mind Bomb Damn right, any day you wake up is a good day bro…cuz if not you’d be dead ! :)

      • Mind Bomb

        phaneufoundlander Mind Bomb  100 percent, its just I prefer waking up in the afternoon :)

  • Dink

    Isn’t this the same topic, only different?

    • Burtonboy

      @Dink Have a better idea lol

      • Dink

        Burtonboy Maybe rating the teams in the northeast now or eastern conference …but I digress

        • Mind Bomb

          @Dink Burtonboy  Thats not a bad idea DK, it seams the our division went on an Arms Race. With all our main competition making moves
          Detroit, boston, Ottawa, Mtl. 
          Where do we stand ? 
          1st place bro, I will leave it to the writers to explain how :)

        • Burtonboy

          Mind Bomb Burtonboy Good Idea but there’s along way to go before the lineups are settled. Would make for some good reading and discussion around training camp time though

        • Dink

          Burtonboy Mind Bomb Well let’s “steer” away from it until then (Seguin Segue) 
          lol

        • Burtonboy

          @Dink Burtonboy Mind Bomb Haha good one

        • Mind Bomb

          @Dink Burtonboy Mind Bomb Hahha

        • Mind Bomb

          Burtonboy Mind Bomb Aye, cant wait bro, I am really excited for this year, Just get our RFA’s signed and drop the dam puck lol

  • borjesundin

    Anthony – great article. Totally balanced approach. A lot better than Alec’s buzz kill article criticizing the Leaf moves.

    • Loric76

      borjesundin be nice to Alec, he’s had a rough few days lol

    • Bobsyouruncle

      borjesundin After reading comments complaining about Alec’s article I went back and read it. (having gone straight to the comments first). I was surprised to find that it wasn’t the hatchet job or “buzz kill” that some seemed to see. I’m not going live a fantasy view over the summer as to how this team will do. We’ll see what happens in the fall. I don’t have a problem with the players brought in but mostly with Carlyle’s penchant for rendering useful players useless and weakening our depth with no return.

  • Burtonboy

    https://twitter.com/aaronward_nhl
    Expect the New York Rangers to announce Ryan McDonagh’s 6 year extension today. https://twitter.com/search?q=%23TSN&src=hashhttps://twitter.com/search?q=%23TSN&src=hash