Monday, April 11, 2011
What the Maple Leafs need to be a contender
As you listen to the minions that follow the Toronto Maple Leafs you hear both optimism and pessimism. The optimists look at the finish to the season and believe that the Leafs can build from their recent play and actually finish with a playoff spot next season. The pessimists will point out that the Leafs finish strongly every year after their out of contention for a playoff spot only to start the following season at the bottom of the standings. I totally understand where the pessimists are coming from. I've been fooled before too.
In the past the Leafs have been a soft team loaded with veterans who frankly underachieved. When the pressure was on they melted away. Yet they were capable of putting together a string of good games when it didn't matter. This pattern was repeated each season. So why might this season be different? Well the 2010-11 Maple Leafs competed hard for much of the season but had little to show for it in the first half. Despite the work ethic, their offense was anemic, the defense prone to turnovers and the goaltending was inadequate. Then in the new year along came James Reimer. His stellar goaltending compensated for his turnover prone defense. Suddenly a bad pass didn't automatically end up in the back of the Leaf net. The improved goaltending turned one-goal losses into gone-goal wins and also compensated for the weak offense. A few other good things happened. Some of the younger Leafs developed into useful NHLers, Dion Phaneuf finally found his stride, and picking up Joffrey Lupul finally kick started Phil Kessel.
So will the Leafs be good to make the playoffs next season? Well not without some changes. Reimer alone is not enough. The four teams directly ahead of the Leafs in the standings also have very good goalies: Carolina with Cam Ward, New York Rangers with Henrik Lundqvist, Buffalo with Ryan Miller and Montreal with Carey Price. Most people will agree that these are the Leaf priorities for the offseason.
The Leafs now have two 30-goal scorers (Kessel and Kulemin) with Grabovski just falling short. Lupul playing an entire season with Kessel would likely also come close to scoring 30. But this is not nearly enough. Without a scoring centre with size, the Leafs lack a true number one line. Grabovski who played hard this season is a second line centre. A number one centre would also elevate Kessel to the 40-goal range. The only free agent centre that could fill this role is Brad Richards. Richards is looking at for a long-term deal at about $8 million per season which is likely more than Burke is willing to pay. As well, Toronto does not appear to be one of his preferred destinations. It will also not be Joe Colborne or Nazem Kadri who both require seasoning before stepping into such a significant role.
As for Tyler Bozak, well Maple Leaf loyalists will point to his improved play. I don't think he advanced nearly enough and Brian Burke likely agrees. He must have led the league in missed scoring chances. I would be surprised to see him back with the Leafs next season. Most fans believe Burke has to re-sign MacAuthur and keep the Grabovski line intact. I think there is a good chance that the threesome will not return. Burke has shown that when players who overprice themselves he does not hesitate to move them. In addition, Grabovski's breakout year has improved his chances of being traded. Last summer Burke tried to move him and found no takers. This summer he will find willing trade partners and could move him if the return is to his liking. The emergence of Mike Brown, Darryl Boyce and Tim Brent as competent role players could spell the end for veterans like Colton Orr, Fredrik Sjostrom and Colby Armstrong. Armstrong comes with a $3 million salary which is expensive for a 3rd liner.
The defense still needs a lot work before the Leafs are competitive. It is prone to cough up pucks, dominated by big bodies that do not carry the puck and produces very little offense. But the defense like the offense is young and improving. The Leafs have to find a puck carrying defense much like the one they moved to Boston. Many people are relieved by the impressive play of Dion Phaneuf in the second half. However, the big surprise is the advancement of his partner Keith Aulie. Aulie is 6'5" with an incredible reach with those long arms. I see his emergence as opening up a possible trade involving Luke Schenn for that number one centre. Many fans would be shocked to see such a trade but if you are deep in young defensemen and thin at centre well it becomes a no-brainer. Burke has struck out with free agent defensemen the past two summers and needs to find teams willing to pick up the contracts of Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda.
The starter role is filled thanks to Reimer. The Leaf system also has young developing goalies in Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens. The tough decision is what to do with Jonas Gustavsson. As well, the Leafs would be wise to bring in one veteran goalie considering the collective NHL experience of the returning staff is less than 1oo games.
The Leafs played pretty well five on five. But games are won and lost on special teams which partly explains why the Leafs have another early summer vacation. I'm not sure if it is a manpower issue or a coaching issue. Maybe a little of both. Perhaps Ron Wilson needs some help in this area. As well more competent players on the point might reduce the number of breakaways while on the man advantage.