We’ve touched here on the usual suspect areas in recent weeks, once the 2011-’12 Leafs regular-season officially faded into the April sunset—a fade that actually started a few months earlier. We’ve identified (not that we needed a magnifying glass) the need for more stability in goal, a big stud on defense, another elite forward and a lot more grit across the line-up.
Hey, other than those (gaping?) holes, the Leafs are on the path to improvement, we can all acknowledge.
But as rumours begin to swirl again (why not, the draft is only a week away), we’re getting down to crunch time. Not that anything big has to happen right away. But my sense is the Leaf brass has been discussing—and debating—for some time just how “close” they are to two different levels of play: a) being a playoff team in the weak Eastern Conference (weak at the low end of the division, certainly, with only four really elite teams in my view…) and b) being a team that can actually be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup.
To achieve the former requires some adjustments, for sure. But given the status of the Conference, one would think that it would not take that much to earn a spot in the playoffs next spring. Better and more consistent goaltending, coupled with an improved overall defensive mindset, would likely be enough to do the trick.
So if the Leafs are looking only at the playoffs as a measure of acceptable achievement, that should be easily do-able. (Well, after the last decade, I shouldn’t use the term “easily” quite so liberally…)
Now, if Burke and colleagues are truly after bigger game, and more quickly at that, then that will indeed require more than superficial bandaging. It will necessitate acquiring or signing more players with the skill and toughness to match up with the best in the game. (It’s not unlike what we’re seeing in soccer’s Euro Cup right now: there’s really good—and there are plenty of teams in that boat—and then there is the best in the world. The Leafs surely are aiming, ultimately, to be the best…)
Here’s the thing: finding those elite players, those difference-makers, is generally not an easy task. Game-changers like Crosby, Lindros, Ovechkin, Thornton and Yzerman aren’t available in the draft every year and even if they are, when have the Leafs had a shot at players like that in recent times? And interestingly, even those remarkable players were or have been criticized early and often (Crosby less so) in their careers, never quite measuring up to expectations, it seemed.
Finding people with the other traits we need - including leadership, work ethic and character - is not easy, either. Gary Roberts may be the last guy that the Leafs acquired who truly fit that mold.
This brings me to the question that Leaf fans are pondering, as they put themselves in the shoes of the Leaf inner sanctum and try to determine what moves the organization won’t only contemplate, but may actually act on in the days ahead.
To stimulate the conversation, let me frame it this way: let’s assume (and I may be wrong in assuming this) that the Leafs will only conclude one major transaction in the next three weeks. That timeline encompasses the upcoming entry draft, the trade scenarios under evaluation and of course the first week of post-July 1 free agency. I’ll even grant that there could be another (semi?) “major” trade apart from any draft-day action (i.e. moving up or down from the #5 slot in the first round, which would entail moving out or bringing up key roster players…).
So here it is: what do you, realistically, believe the Leafs will accomplish? What will they actually do?
Are we indeed looking at a move to acquire Luongo? What about Nash, as speculation around him naturally explodes with the draft around the corner. (I’m a Nash ‘liker’…I don’t necessarily love, but I like the guy. Now, if the debate is about Kessel going the other way, I’ll let you make that determination, but I sure would look at Nash for a reasonable return. I’m not of the school of thought that there’s no point having Nash and Kessel on the same team. In fact, there would be a very good point. Both are rare talents, though Nash has not, admittedly, been statistically imposing…)
Names like Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlef are surely still out there. If they were in play before the deadline, I have to believe the Ducks—mired in mediocrity now like Leafs—are going to shake up that roster somewhat.
We also keep hearing Jordan Staal’s name, and that may be, if there was only one guy the Leafs could grab, the name I’d (personally) be most interested in. Again, the "return" makes or breaks any deal, but he is young, a winner, a player who can do so many things for your team (including kill penalties…please…).
But none of these players come inexpensively. Even Luongo, with the albatross-like contract, is not, in my view, going anywhere in return for simply a bad contract and a fourth-round draft choice. Gillis has to live in Vancouver year-round. He’s not making that kind of a deal.
So again, put on your “reality” shoes—not your fantasy shoes today. What’s going to happen? Is it a big trade? Moving up in the draft to get Yakupov? Is it sticking with what we have but then making some stellar, under-the-radar, lower-profile signings on July 1 (or even later in the summer) that will make the roster better?
Will we be talking a week from now about a blockbuster move that will live in Maple Leaf lore for years to come?
The questions are many, but we’ll have to wait and see what the actual answers are in the days ahead. For now, what say you?