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.