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.
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.
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…
Relax. Nobody was thinking about a cup after two wins other than you guys.
Everyone agrees: your content sucks (seriously – read the comments).
Enter the voice of reason in these crazy times…Steve Simmons.
Damien Cox explores the possibility of Franson as this team’s #1 blueliner.