Ladies and gentlemen, your Toronto Maple Leafs.
While the Montreal Canadiens landed Thomas Vanek and the New York Rangers grabbed Martin St. Louis, Leafs GM Dave Nonis elected, as expected, to keep things as is on trade deadline day.
Let’s look at this from a couple of vantage points.
At first blush, Nonis’ inactivity comes down to one question: are the Leafs as porous as the team that garnered just two of six points after the break or the gangbusters group that went 11-2-2 in the heady days before Sochi?
The answer, of course, is that it depends on the night. With a dominant first line and so far at least, excellent goaltending, this is a team that needs a limited number of things, -improved penalty killing, some secondary scoring- to fare well. That shouldn’t change if and when the Leafs enter the post season and the bench shortens.
When Dave Bolland returns, and Nonis insists he is close, day to day even, the Leafs are a more skilled but less rugged and defensively-oriented version of the team that lost in seven games to Boston last spring.
“I think anybody who gets in the post-season has a chance,” Nonis said. “Do we see ourselves as a favorite? No, but I think last year you saw we were pretty close to moving on.”
Okay, let’s take the view from a 10,000 feet.
Nonis’ situation was diabolical. The Leafs are midway into their rebuild. To be considered a championship contender, not a playoff candidate, but a championship level team, would mean a dramatic upgrade in the bottom six forwards, a much more experienced group of defencemen and plenty of maturation in net.
Jake Gardiner is 23, Morgan Rielly is 19 and Paul Ranger, while 29, wasn’t in the league for three years of his prime. That’s half the blue line. Dion Phaneuf is 28, Cody Franson is just 26. Tim Gleason is the greybeard at 31. Left intact, this is a unit that is a couple of years away.
Likewise, there remains plenty of upside in 25-year-old goalies Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer.
Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak figure to rule as one of the league’s dominant units.
Nazem Kadri will settle in at something close to 20 goals and fifty-something points in his first full NHL season. David Clarkson and Joffrey Lupul haven’t performed to expectations but they obviously would fit nicely in most anyone’s group of top nine forwards. Same with Bolland.
But the Leafs have an aching need for the grinding kind of third or fourth line presence who drive winning teams. Aside from St. Louis and Callaghan, deadline day was powered by rental players nicely represented by Vanek.
The Marlies, while winning, have not supplied a meaningful player so far this season. There are holes.
To get Vanek, the Habs surrendered a pretty good prospect in Sebastian Collberg, a second-rounder and a conditional fifth. If the Leafs were to offer a comparable player it might have required someone along the order of Swede Andreas Johnson, 115-point Erie Otter Connor Brown or Carter Verhaeghe (74 points in 59 games with Niagara). This for a player in Vanek who has made it very clear he will not sign a contract extension with anyone, Montreal included.
With the Leafs still out of the league’s top 10 (12th at this writing) the feeling, obviously not shared in Montreal, was a rental player wasn’t worth the assets.
“There are teams you put further up than us, no question, “ Nonis said. “That’s why you don’t trade some of the youth and picks you need to stock your team. If we are still trying to stock the shelves, like we are, moving away young players makes it more difficult.”
That said clearing out players who will be unrestricted free agents – Bolland, Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement and Mason Raymond, for prospects or draft picks would have sent an unpalatable message to the team. So Nonis stood pat.