Morning Mashup: A Contender’s Core?

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No, winning the first two games of the season does not make the Leafs contenders for the Stanley Cup.  You would think that goes without saying.  Yet apparently the ever-astute media is under the impression that Leafs fans have been overcome with cup delusions, as they have already felt the need to trot out journalistic diarrhea to talk us down from our delirium. But, we crazy Toronto fans are fairly certain that we have a young, developing team with many high-end pieces that suggest the franchise will continue on their upward trajectory in the near future.

The Core

With the recent signing of Phil Kessel, the Toronto Maple Leafs have solidified their core group of forwards for the next half-decade.  Kessel joins Lupul, Van Riemsdyk, Clarkson and Bozak (sigh) as under contract to the collective tune of $27 million in annual cap space through the 2017-2018 season. Barring an unexpected turn in development or managerial opinion, Nazem Kadri will remain with this group when he is up for a new contract as a restricted free agent in two years.

This gives the Leafs four bona fide top six players in Kessel, Lupul, JVR and Kadri.  Kessel and Lupul have proven (to various degrees and with the caveat of good health) that they are elite scoring wingers.  Van Riemsdyk, at 24, is a legitimate threat for 30 goals this season with still-untapped potential as a power forward.  Kadri is another young, skilled player that has also not finished his development.  While his upside is still unclear, he is most certainly a top six center in this league.  Toronto’s core up front also includes two players that will feature in the top six this season in Bozak and Clarkson.  With respect to their role in upcoming years, both players bring versatility in that they could lineup on what would be a very strong third line.

Can they do it?

With the commitment to these six forwards, Leafs management is clearly of the opinion that this is a core you can build around.  Certainly, with the inevitable money that will be handed out to the Toronto blueline (namely Phaneuf and Franson), there will not be an abundance of cap space to add many more, if any, high-value contracts up front.  Objectively, it seems that they have made (mostly) good decisions in this area.  Kessel, Lupul, and JVR are certainly among the league’s very best in terms of top three wingers.  The franchise’s patience with Kadri has also payed off thus far, with room still left to grow.  Clarkson is a fantastic addition to this team for many reasons other than his goal scoring, with a somewhat unfortunate contract dictated by the realities of free agency.

Tyler Bozak?  He may have been worth the money just to ensure that Kessel stuck around.  Otherwise, his presence in the top six is one of the few notable deficiencies of this group. That’s not to say he necessarily needs to be replaced on Kessel’s line with an ideal “first line center”.  The current NHL landscape makes that situation very unlikely. More realistically, his presence in the top six (and apparently at Kessel’s hip for as long as Carlyle is behind the bench) dictates that Toronto’s other centers will have to be excellent to contend as a group.

The Future

Thus, Toronto’s true path to contention will largely rest on the shoulders of these players up front.  The weight of this momentous task (because you know it will be an extremely begrudging public that ever acknowledges this club as a true contender) will also be shared by the youth making their way into the ranks.  It will also be carried in no small part by defensive specialists and grinders such as Jay McClement and possibly Dave Bolland.

Interestingly, for the first time in years, the biggest uncertainty with respect to this club’s future is not between the pipes.  That title belongs to a blue line that currently features five defenders up for new contracts, including possible cornerstones in Phaneuf, Franson and Gardiner.  With Phaneuf being the only truly established entity among this group, it will be a critical season for players such as Franson and Gardiner to prove their mettle.  A full season of standout play within their own capabilities for both these blueliners will go a long way to making the Maple Leafs a true-blue contender.

Friday morning links…

The atrocious article I referenced earlier – in case you missed it

Relax. Nobody was thinking about a cup after two wins other than you guys.

Everyone agrees: the Toronto Maple Leafs have made some mistakes

Everyone agrees: your content sucks (seriously – read the comments).

Bolland and Bernier have changed the complexion of the Leafs

Enter the voice of reason in these crazy times…Steve Simmons.

Phaneuf negotiations different than Kessel’s

Damien Cox explores the possibility of Franson as this team’s #1 blueliner.

 

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Nikhil has been writing for MLHS since the site launched in 2008. He misses talking about Mats Sundin and is currently entrenched in enemy territory (Boston) pursuing a doctoral degree. Contact Nikhil here: [email protected]
  • Jordan29

    Thats for the read. I did not think the leafs were even a playoff team the last 4-5 years, and I was right until last year. But this year is something different. I feel our window is opening and just like pittsburgh did, they made it one year, then went further, then won the next year. I feel this is our make it further year

  • newkb

    Good morning all. Nice blog Nik, but did you have to include that link to the avowed Leaf hating bloggers? When not one picks the Leafs to make the playoffs, and basically trashes every move the club made….you know that the sole intent of this piece of garbage was yet another thinly veiled ‘objective’ article to give a bunch of nobodies a soap box to crap on the Leafs while worshipping their own teams. Strange that no Leaf blogger was asked……hmmmm.

  • WendelGilmour

    Nice job, Nikhail. I agree with the core you stated, but would also add Rielly. With the showing of some of the kids at this year’s camp it looks like we may be able to upgrade internally in a few areas also.

  • blueandwhite

    If a player like Bobby Ryan or Rick Nash becomes available I can see us moving a D man like Gardiner and a Kuleman to add another significant piece to our top 6. It may seem like the current top 6 are etched in stone but half a decade is too long to speculate that our top 6 will remain the core players you mentioned. Eventually It will depend on our playoff success. Danny Heatly, Horton and Tyler Sugien, Carter and Richards, all who were thought to be cornerstones were moved a result of lack of playoff performances meeting management expectations. I still think we will find the need of a horse to play the playoff grind at center but hope I am wrong or better yet develop that need within the organization. Gauthier or the likes of someone else.
    Excellent article and interesting perspective Nikhail

  • newkb

    Edit…that should read no ‘relevant’ Leaf blogger was asked.

  • Uncle Otis

    newkb 
    Haha…relevant indeed…the name says it all
    Sanchez comes off like the snively, miserable prick he’s sure to be in real life
    Nothing but pure tripe…. served in a dirty ashtray

  • newkb

    Julian Sanchez = a greasy ‘Rico Suave’?

  • Uncle Otis

    newkb 
    Haha…REEEEco….SwaaaavÉ

  • newkb

    Is it remembering, or trying your hardest to forget? Yikes…..hahaha

  • mORRganRielly

    @blueandwhite I think the next step is a legit top six centre.  Kadri is one.  Bozak is questionable.  In more favourable circumstances, Bozak would be on the third line or moved to the wing with a spot on the first unit PK and as a shutdown winger.  
    I think that’s the team’s next step: To find that legitimate top six centre with top line upside.