After The Fall: Now What?

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.

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I’m a glass overflowing kind of guy.

I think we’re going to get this climate change thing sorted out. Don’t ask me why, it’s just a feeling.

I’ll give you even money that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin can still patch things up, if not for their sake then for the kids, Apple and Moses who, now that I think of it, might deserve new parents with better judgment.

And so I am happy to inform you that Leaf fans can now decide what’s worse, a sudden heartwrenching loss in Boston or the withering of a season over three monstrously bad weeks.

Don’t know whether you’ve heard.

They need to beat the Lightning, the Panthers and Senators and hope the Columbus Blue Jackets garner just three points in their  four remaining games.

What is striking, of course, is the depth, the speed, the totality of the fall. After defeating Los Angeles on March 14 the Leafs were third in the east with 80 points and  ninth in the NHL. Today, 24 days later, they have just four more points. They sit 10th in the east and 19th overall.

This is not, in the words of Brian Burke, the train going off the tracks. This feels like the train going off the tracks, plummeting through a sinkhole and stopping just short of Australia.

Management is the art of seeing through the daily lies that seem absolutely true at the time. Were the Leafs a top three Eastern Conference team? Nope. Are they as absolutely inept as they now appear? I don’t think so?

1.So what do the Leafs have?

Well, they have a killer first line, two young stud or soon to be stud defencemen in Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, a struggling captain in Dion Phaneuf who had an excellent first half, an-often hurt but productive top six forward in Joffrey Lupul, a still developing albeit talented centreman in Nazem Kadri who posted 20 goals and 50 points this season. Don’t overlook a character player having an-out-of character season in David Clarkson. They have a great starting goalie.

2. What can they do short term?

They need to sign Dave Bolland at between $4-5 million.

After that the assets are low key. Nikolai Kulemin is a terrific puck pursuer but not worth a whole lot more than $3 million. Carl Gunnarsson is a versatile defenceman whose worth is most dramatically showcased in the play of his partner. Mason Raymond effectively replaced the offence that went with Clarke MacArthur. Paul Ranger was ok but did not materialize into the top four-rearguard many thought he would become.

3. How much help can they expect from the Marlies?

Well, the Marlies have lent a winning culture. The team won its third consecutive North Division title and has racked up a 42-22-6 record. That said, they aren’t expected to provide a whole lot of front-line help immediately. Petter Granberg can step in on the blue line. He is exceptionally dependable and extraordinarily nasty. TJ Brennan has rolled up 22 goals and 66 points in 70 games but the Leafs don’t really need another offensively-oriented defenceman. Andrew MacWilliam brings size and toughness and Stuart Percy has matured nicely into a smart, economical rearguard but the prospect of adding so much youth to an already green and error-prone blueline is frightening.

At forward, 26-year-old centreman Spencer Abbott has averaged a point a game but he is not big or particularly fast so how he projects as an NHL prospect is muddy. The Leafs are thrilled with Josh Leivo’s hockey sense and his 20 goals as a 20-year-old but breaking into the top two lines isn’t really feasible right now. Right winger Connor Brown, who led all Canadian major junior players in scoring this season and talented Swede Andreas Johnsson, (15 goals in the Swedish Elite League this season) are a year away. David Broll has just 13 points in 59 games but is starting to look like a player whose size and skating will earn him a place on the bottom two lines.

4. What about free agency?

It’s not that the Leafs don’t have cap room next season. It’s that there really isn’t anyone in free agency worth wooing. If you feel like giving 33-year-old Brooks Orpik $5 million a year, when he comes free in the spring knock yourself out.  Are some of the one-dimensional free agent forwards, Thomas Vanek, Mike Cammalleri, Milan Michalek going to make a whole lot of difference to a team whose overriding weakness was the inability to keep the puck out of its own net? I’m betting no.

4. What about Dion Phaneuf? My take is that the rigors of playing big minutes against the opposition’s top lines have robbed him of the physical edge. No one will ever confuse Phaneuf with Drew Doughty but he was very successful when he could devote a considerable amount of energy to exacting a physical toll on opponents who dared venture into the Leafs zone while looking at their laces and unleashing a thunderous shot from the point.

To me, he should be a 12-goal, 22-minute key contributor but Randy Carlyle’s late season trimming of his minutes hasn’t resulted in better play. Phaneuf has averaged 21:40 over the last five games, way down from his 23:42 season average, which in turn is substantially lower than the 25:10 he played last year. Over the course of one season, Phaneuf’s ice time has fallen from 10th in the league to 31st.

5. So what are the options?

Standing still isn’t one of them, not with Tim Leiweke at the controls. Hampered by a paltry fee agent pool, the Leafs need to pull the trigger and move core pieces, use the money they would allot to free agents to take on bigger salary, hope for a return to form from Clarkson and fill in key depth positions from the Marlies.

Note:  Thanks to Evan Nohara for correcting my math on the Leafs playoff chances.

 

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About Mike Ulmer

Mike Ulmer has written 210 post in this blog.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.



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