I’m pretty sure there isn’t a living, breathing Maple Leaf enthusiast who isn’t aware of the team’s much-discussed “needs” list: Here at VLM, we’ve talked, not quite ad nauseum, but a lot, certainly, about this very subject for quite some time. Depending on which one of us is asked, some combination of the following is likely to be part of the conversation:
- Goaltending support (either a bona fide "number-one" or an experienced back-up)
- A true front-line defenseman
- A first-line center (or at least a 1A, who would fight for time with current second-line center Mikhail Grabovski)
- An improvement in the area of overall grit and team toughness
- Veteran leadership
More important than what we think, the Leaf brass has pretty much acknowledged that the above areas are indeed on the organization’s “must improve upon” list.
I’d be shocked if the Leafs selected any player in the draft that could help this team appreciably over the next two seasons. This is not to minimize the importance of their picks this weekend, or who they have in the pipeline already (either with the Marlies or still in the junior ranks). It’s simply that they need to get a fair bit better, quickly, if they harbor any serious hopes of contending in the Eastern Conference within the next two seasons.
Some Leaf fans think the team is on the cusp of something really good, and that the only thing that is needed is a little patience so Burke can keep following the “plan”. Others are not quite so hopeful. I’m somewhere in between. There are nice pieces here, for sure, but we could name any team in the NHL (including the worst teams in hockey last season—Columbus, Edmonton and Montreal) and find some really nice pieces.
Sure, the Leafs can go from non-playoff team to playoff team fairly easily. Sometimes it’s simply a question of timing and attrition—others teams regressing or slipping temporarily, as opposed to the Leafs getting appreciably better. But to reach a level where they are really competitive with the Bruins, Flyers, Penguins and Rangers come playoff time, I just don’t think they are that close—last season’s early promise (the high-scoring, puck-moving, fast-skating Ron Wilson Maple Leafs) notwithstanding.
There are plenty of names on the trade market right now that are obviously of potential interest to the Leafs—if they didn’t cost much in return. In fact, it’s a pretty substantial list, including:
- Ryan Getzlaf (don’t think he’s going anywhere)
- Bobby Ryan (he will be moved)
- Roberto Luongo (he’s gone, either now or during the coming season
- Jordan Staal (now that he’s turned down a lucrative extension, his days must be numbered in Pittsburgh)
- Mikka Kiprusoff (he can help somebody a lot for the next two or three seasons)
- Jarome Iginla (he would provide leadership and while not the offensive player he once was, he can still help out offensively)
- Patrick Marleau (perennial under-achiever, but like Luongo, he could certainly help a team like the Leafs get to the playoffs…)
- Jaroslav Halak (do the Blues need two number-one goalies?)
- Rick Nash (I like him a lot more than some—I think he could be a difference-maker on a team that needs to get over the top)
- James Van Riemsdyk (pretty rugged guy and he can score, though injuries are an issue)
- Derek Roy (not my cup of tea, though he's a good player and could help some teams that need offense from their second line. Leafs have enough non-combative forwards...)
- Patrick Sharp (solid two-way player)
- David Bolland (Two years ago I might have run to grab Bolland: I still might)
- Patrick Kane (as gifted as anybody on this list, but, well, I just wonder if he is what the Leafs need…)
I’d be stunned if the Leafs had a legitimate shot at the premier free-agents, Suter or Parise, (or Alexander Semin, for that matter) but there are a host of lesser-names who will soon be available who could help the Leafs, though I fear primarily as modest upgrades on the third or fourth lines—and we already have a surplus of those players.
Again, if it was just like picking apples off trees, there are plenty of names on the above lists who would provide instant help to the blue and white (and just about every team in the league). But things are never that simple. They never were, but they are even less so now in a cap world.
So how do the Leafs address the priorities outlined at the top of today’s post, without giving up equally valuable assets in return?
Well, as I mentioned yesterday, GM’s have their own way of throwing us off the scent in terms of what they actually want or plan to do. They hand pick their favorite media contacts to get certain messages out, but even those that adopt this approach tend to be very tight-lipped at this time of year. There so much on the line.
I remember almost 20 years ago (I think it was in 1995), when Gord Ash was the GM of the baseball Blue Jays. He was meeting with reporters discussing various in-season issues, and suddenly, at the end of the conversation, he pretended he had forgotten why he had really called them together and basically said, “Oh by the way, we just made a trade involving David Cone…”. (At least I’m pretty sure it was Cone, the star pitcher who had two different stints with the Jays, including helping them win a World Series a couple of years earlier.) Ash was having fun with the beat reporters who covered the Jays. GM’s like to drop surprises, as Brian Burke did when he acquired Phaneuf a couple of years ago—a move that caught hockey observers by surprise. (And just as the Flyers did exactly as year ago when they suddenly moved Carter and Richards in separate deals…)
Hey, sometimes names are “out there” and do indeed get moved. Sometimes trades happen out of nowhere, like the ones I mentioned above. I don’t doubt the Leafs, like every other team in the NHL, are talking about some of names on the lists I pulled together earlier in this post, and lots of other names, too.
But back to my question: how can the Leafs, realistically, find the players that they (and their fans) need/want?
Here are some things I think will/won’t transpire in the days ahead:
- I think they’ll move Schenn for a power forward. (Van Riemsdyk?)
- I believe Gillis would rather eat tin than trade Luongo to the Leafs.
- Burke will draft the best defenseman available in the draft at number 5 (or maybe I just want him to).
- Burke will make a strong pitch for Bobby Ryan, a deal involving draft picks going to Anaheim and good but lesser prospects—not Gardiner going back the other way.
- He will sign some low-profile but useful free-agents, like any of Matt Carle, PA Parenteau, Jarret Stoll, Travis Moen, Kent Huskins, Jordin Tootoo, and Paul Gaustad—players of that ilk, guys with some grit and experience.
In any event, that’s what I’m projecting right now. The hours ahead will begin to bring the puzzle pieces a little closer together.
I know you have your own thoughts on how the Leafs will proceed…so send them along.