The distance between the Maple Leafs and genuine contenders is clear enough.
They are in the bottom half dozen or so in the league. I get that.
What is harder to articulate is a plan to make things better.
Not to worry. Nobody asked but here is a recipe to get the team into the playoffs next year and set them up, in the words of the estimable Brian Burke, to bloody someone’s nose the following season.
Consider this a position paper. As such all the suggestions are debatable. No idea was considered too radical.
There will be no mention of Nazem Kadri and a first rounder for Rick Nash here. For fun I omitted certain players from next year’s lineup not because they have no value or won’t necessarily be here but because keeping everyone makes for a damn lousy plan.
How to make the playoffs in 2012-2013.
Step 1. Fix the goaltending.
This is by far the toughest challenge facing the team.
There doesn’t seem to be a goalie available through free agency who is substantially better than who the Leafs have now. Jonas Gustavsson, whose struggles have been well-documented, is probably the best goalie heading to free agency. There seems little chance he will be back. One proviso: the Leafs might take a chance on Minnesota back-up Josh Harding. Harding will be 27 when he enters unrestricted free agency. He has played 119 games and amassed 2.65 goals against average and 9.16 save percentage.
The Kings’ Jonathan Quick and Dallas netminder Kari Lehtonen are expected to re-sign before they enter their unrestricted free agent seasons in 2013-2014. Long or short term help in net via free-agency seems unlikely.
That just leaves backups such as Cory Schneider of the Canucks, Buffalo’s Jhonas Enroth or Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles. Those netminders, while competent, are by definition the second-best goalies on their team. Enroth and Bernier are undersized but skilled with Bernier probably a better bet. That means he will cost more.
There seem to be only two possibilities for fixing the club’s netminding.
One: cover your eyes and throw a dart at the board. Start with Harding. Anders Lindback is a 23-year-old Swede who will be an unrestricted free agent and is expected to leave Nashville where he is stuck behind Pekke Rinne. Steve Mason has been a disappointment in Columbus since winning the Calder Trophy in 2009 and is no doubt available. Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo could be supplanted by Schneider but his monstrous contract won’t fit anywhere.
Two: Hello, Ben Scrivens and welcome back James Reimer. The 25-year-old Scrivens has a .927 save percentage and a 2.02 goals against average with the Marlies. He has earned his chance and while the idea of two young goalies is exactly what got the Leafs into trouble this year someone in house needs to step up. While there are scattered successes, think Craig Anderson in Ottawa, trading for a goalie seems unlikely.
Reimer’s head injury sent his season off the rails but a team-wide commitment to defence demanded by coach Randy Carlyle could pave the way to a bounce-back campaign. Is Reimer’s comeback any harder to imagine than the notion Joffrey Lupul would be a top-10 scorer going into the last month of the season?
Step two: Go for solid doubles instead of home runs in the free-agent derby.
The Leafs should take a pass on soon to be unrestricted free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Parise is nearly ungettable; he is by far the best -free agent forward available and it’s believed he will re-sign with the Devils or return to his home state to play for the Minnesota Wild. The Leafs already have a 25-minute a night defenceman in Dion Phaneuf.
Instead the Leafs should turn their attention to three players.
Twenty-two –year-old Justin Schultz is a gloriously talented defenceman whose rights are now held by the Anaheim Ducks. Schultz is believed to be the player the Leafs originally sought in the deal that sent Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim. If he does not sign with the Ducks, and there has been no indication that he will, Schultz would find his former Wisconsin defencemate in Jake Gardiner. Not quite as offensively gifted as Gardiner, Schultz is considered a terrific two-way defenceman who could step in and play right away. Because he is so good and his salary is limited by the cap to $925,000 there will be an incredible rush to sign him.
Leafs GM Brian Burke should sign Travis Moen out of Montreal.
The 29-year-old winger played for Burke and Randy Carlyle in Anaheim. He is an excellent third-liner long on try and dripping with leadership skills.
Moen has a lot of hard miles on him. Still, the Canadiens would no doubt want him back but the presence of a younger player who does much the same thing in Ryan White could make Moen available.
The Leafs can get bigger up front by signing Los Angeles unrestricted free agent Jarrett Stoll. Stoll has been a steady 20-goal type but he has forgotten how to score in Los Angeles. He plays a solid two-way game and at 29 would give the Leafs another durable, hard-working centre. He is also solid in the face-off circle.
3. Draft a center. Should the Leafs finish in the bottom four and win the lottery, they should go ahead and draft explosive winger Nail Yakupov. Barring that, they could be in line for either Mikhail Grigorenko, a gifted two-way centreman playing in Quebec or the Sarnia Sting’s Alex Galchenyuk, an American born player who lost almost all his regular season to a knee injury. With 22-year-old Joe Colborne still apprenticing in the minors, the team is desperate for size and skill at centre and should draft accordingly. I’m guessing they didn’t need me to tell them that.
4. Re-examine the internal leadership. The freefall that wiped out the club’s promising early-season should and will prompt a re-examination of the dynamic inside the dressing room. It’s essential to infuse the lineup with more experienced and exemplary players who could serve as lieutenants for Phaneuf. Moen, for example, would fill just that role. Phaneuf has endured criticism for the team’s poor play. He must take the experience of this season and refine or revamp what he does to make his teammates better but it’s not fair to judge him based exclusively on the failings of one of the youngest teams in the NHL.
5. Move Phil Kessel to centre. People don’t trade big, powerful centres for the same reason they don’t give out their PIN numbers. You either draft big-time centres or sign them as free agents. Phil Kessel is the Leafs’ best forward. He played centre as a younger player. He has excellent puck distribution skills. Is he any less of the prototypical centre than Steve Stamkos?
Why not use the club’s fastest and best passing-forward in the middle? Kessel has obvious chemistry with Joffrey Lupul. Re-sign Nikolai Kulemin and move him to the first line. Kulemin is a 20-25 goal scorer, a peerless defensive player and a tireless worker whose play in the corners would free up his linemates. Use Kulemin in the face-off circle instead of Kessel. Randy Carlyle’s habitual line-matching means Kessel’s unit wouldn’t always be doing the heavy lifting defensively.
Projected 2012-2013 Roster (no wild idea refused)
Goal: James Reimer, Ben Scrivens.
Defence: Jake Gardiner- Justin Schultz; John-Michael Liles-Dion Phaneuf; Korbinian Holzer-Cody Franson.
Forwards: Joffrey Lupul-Phil Kessel-Nikolai Kulemin; Matt Lombardi-Mikhail Grabovski-Nazem Kadri; Matt Frattin- Jarret Stoll -Travis Moen; Tim Connolly-David Steckel-Mike Brown.
And for an encore…
By the 2013-2014 season, the Leafs’ prospect pool should be in high gear. The team will know if Colborne can be a top six player. Brad Ross will have a year of professional seasoning and should be ready to inject the lineup with much-needed snarl. Kadri and Matt Frattin will be entering their second and third full seasons in the league and defenceman Jesse Blacker should be nearly ready. Likewise for Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy, Leaf-first rounders from the 2011 draft and whoever the Leafs draft this summer.
Not all these players will earn a significant role but they give the Leafs ample material with which to trade.
Most significantly, the Leafs could be gifted with a chance to address their biggest need, a big centre if Colborne is found lacking. The Ducks will be hard-pressed to keep Ryan Getzlaf if his high-scoring winger, Corey Perry opts for free agency. Similarly, there seems little chance Pittsburgh can pony up a significant raise to keep Jordan Staal while keeping Sidney Crosby.