Rosters are not set in stone yet, but the dust is starting to clear on the summer moves and we are starting to get a picture of what next season’s NHL landscape will look like. For the Toronto Maple Leafs specifically, we still need to find out the fates of James Reimer and Cody Franson — beyond that, here are some thoughts on what has transpired thus far:
1 – One quietly interesting note and a bit of a strange trend this summer has been depth NHLers getting long-term deals. A few questionable players who got three year deals include: Joe Vitale, Deryk Engelland, Tanner Glass, Derek MacKenzie, Cody McCormick and Nick Holden. To say nothing of more questionable players getting at least two year deals. By that token, the Leafs did well to get similar-to-better players under contract on one year deals. The Leafs signed four players to one-year deals: Mike Santorelli, Troy Bodie, Trevor Smith and Petri Kontiola, as well as a two year deal to Matt Frattin which they can demote without cap penalty. The really big, bad deals get a lot of attention — and rightfully so (Orpik, Bolland, etc.) — but a lot of teams strangely locked in with term players who are borderline NHLers. The Leafs, generally speaking, did not.
3 – When Brian Burke acquired Phil Kessel and promptly gave him a 5-year, $27M contract, he paid up quickly and ultimately was ahead of the curve as the production Kessel provided the Leafs was above the value he signed for (30+ goals every year). There was some doubt when it came time to re-up Kessel’s deal and Nonis signed Phil to the 8 year $64M contract, but there shouldn’t be anymore. With Patrick Kane’s and Jonathon Toews’ ground breaking 8 year, $84M contracts, there is a benchmark set and the Leafs will once again have Kessel on a bargain. Kane is an unbelievable talent and fantastic player who has only hit the 30 goal mark once (and was on pace to in the shortened season). Including Kessel’s shortened-season pace, he has hit the 30 goal mark six years running. He hasn’t missed a game in four seasons now, either. Kessel is turning 27 this year, and while guessing how he will do throughout the entirety of that contract is a fruitless endeavour, in the immediate future it is a bargain.
4 – David Clarkson was an unmitigated disaster last season, and I harped on it throughout most of the season, but it is unlikely that he remains that unproductive of a player moving forward. Clarkson has a career 8.9% shooting percentage, yet shot only 4.9% last season. His 102 total shots on goal was the worst raw shot total of his career since becoming a full-time NHLer, and that includes the shortened season where he played 48 games and 2009-10 when he played 46 games and had 106 shots on net (he played 60 games with the Leafs). Even just slight upticks in those categories –- which is a more than reasonable expectation -— would make a huge difference. Production wise, he will never live up to that dollar amount and the contract is only going to get worse with time considering he is 30, but a season where he contributes 15-20 goals and even 30 points would be a huge boost to the team compared to the 5-goal, 11-point disaster that started with a ten-game suspension.
5 – The other player not getting a tonne of attention is Nazem Kadri. Expectations were unfairly high for him last season due to his success in the shortened season, where he came in hot from playing in the AHL (like a lot of Leafs that season) and ripped up the league. But, he still had a pretty productive 2013-14 campaign with 20 goals and 50 points. He’s only played 177 games, which is barely over two full seasons worth of hockey, yet it is tough for many to separate how new he is to the league because his name has been around the market since he was drafted. Last season was actually his first real full season in the NHL. Players usually take off in their fourth year (which we have talked about before, and like last year with Bozak, to a degree). Kadri is in a contract year and if he wants a big, long-term, deal he is going to need to show the goods, take his play up a level, and demonstrate that he is worth a big contract. The young players and the new additions will get our hopes up because of the unknown/upside potential and shiny new toy syndrome, but Kadri and Clarkson are the guys I would be looking to improve and have a bigger impact overall.
6 – My original reaction to the delay in announcing new assistant coaches was that nobody wanted to coach under Randy Carlyle since he will be on the hot seat as soon as training camp opens. Connecting some dots, though, that does not appear to be the case. On May 19th, Vishal Hussain, the Oshawa Generals broadcaster, tweeted that DJ Smith interviewed for the Marlies head coaching job and subsequently responded to someone saying “Spott to the Leafs as a Carlyle assistant. Shanny doing work I suppose.” It appears that Spott was in place for a while, and Nonis did note they did not want to discuss this with him while the Marlies made their playoff run. The Marlies were eliminated from the playoffs June 3rd, roughly two weeks after the initial report came out. Peter Horachek was in the mix for head coaching jobs (he was interviewed by Vancouver, for one), and while that does not mean he was the Leafs’ first choice, they certainly didn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel here when they hired him. Spott is clearly being groomed right now. He could easily have stayed in charge of the surprisingly good Marlies and taken another run at the Calder Cup in order to drum up some interest for head coach openings sure to open up, but he moved up in the Leafs system instead. Things change over time, but the writing on the wall appears to say Spott will eventually be the guy in charge here. Let’s not forget:
[quote_box_center]“When the club was looking for a coach to replace Ron Wilson in the grim days when last season transformed itself into a lost season, NHL sources say Nonis went to bat for Dallas Eakins, then and now the coach of the AHL Marlies. Nonis and other front-office executives were of the belief that Eakins is everything a modern-era coach should be; progressive but hard-nosed, communicative with players but never friends with them.”
– Toronto Star
Spott fits the bill there.
7 – The focal point that leaps out with these hires is each of their work in developing players. Horachek coached the defense in Nashville, and that was the bread and butter of that team and their success. As a small market team, they were not exactly bringing in big money defensemen, either; they developed from within. That list includes Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis, Marek Zidlicky, Greg Zanon, Kevin Klein, and even Cody Franson. Nonis did not impart what each of their roles would be, but needless to say the Leafs have a host of young defensemen they are trying to grow in the NHL currently. Spott, of course, integrated numerous rookies into the AHL this year and got results out of them. Players like Sam Carrick, Greg McKegg, Petter Granberg, Stuart Percy and Josh Leivo had very promising seasons under him, to say nothing of all his Kitchener alumni in the NHL. Players such as Kadri, Rielly and even Gardiner have taken strides under Carlyle, but there was a big problem transitioning in players like Ashton, D’Amigo and Holland, despite the Leafs’ bottom six needing all the help it could get. These hires appear geared towards integrating the kids and developing.
8 – On that note, the outlook on the season appears to be that of a development year. Gardiner and Rielly are pushing up the line-up, the team has talked about Petter Granberg so much that it would seem he’d need to have a terrible camp not to make it, and — if they trade Franson without bringing in another defenseman — players like Stuart Percy and Andrew MacWilliam would figure to be in the mix to make the defense out of camp, too. At forward, Holland and Ashton could be playing their first full NHL seasons, Petri Kontiola is a veteran of pro hockey but has never played a full year NHL season, Frattin is trying to get his career back on track, and Santorelli is still trying to establish himself in the league. These are safe, good-value deals with more upside than downside, but they aren’t exactly, “we’re going hard for the playoffs and want to win a round” moves. They aren’t trying to tank because they would have traded away good players to do that, but they want to grow their system and that has a larger risk factor to it compared to signing a number of established veterans to fill the holes.
9 – Further, Brendan Shanahan sort of implied as much in an interview with the Star when he said:
[pull_quote_center] “One common theme that I’ve heard from a lot of people is to avoid the temptation to make knee-jerk decisions that provide the impression of a quick solution and satisfying people’s hunger for IT’S GOTTA HAPPEN NOW, IT’S GOTTA HAPPEN NOW, IT’S GOTTA HAPPEN NOW. And here we are 90 days later: I haven’t lost a game, I haven’t won a game. And everyone’s saying, come on, change everybody! I knew this was coming. And I know there will be stormy days ahead. If I want to have success, I have to stay determined through those stormy days and trust what I know.”[/pull_quote_center]
10 – With that, I think this team as is (and remember, there are still a few things we need to find out) could finish anywhere between a wildcard position and a lottery spot. Neither would surprise me. There are a lot of moving parts and question marks that could swing it either way, specifically when it comes to all the new additions and young players being integrated into the line-up. On one hand, we can look back and think they were a playoff team until a monumental collapse, so a few improvements should be able to push them in. But we also have to ask ourselves if it is reasonable to expect a team to make the playoffs after a year in which they gave up the most shots against in an 82 game season, ever. With no major moves (yet), we are asking for a big leap forward from the same core.