Expectations had pretty much been driven down to zero by the time July 1 rolled around, so I don’t sense that, broadly speaking, Maple Leaf supporters were terribly surprised by the organization’s relatively quiet day on Sunday. (Obvious caveat: things may have changed by the team your read this…) Fans always hope, and want to think the team will surprise us with a big-name signing, or catch a wave and somehow steal a high-end ‘plugger’ that slipped under the radar—and at a modest cap cost. But deep down, our expectations were no doubt quite modest.
In terms of what the Leafs did do, I was happy to see the team re-sign Ryan Hamilton. I was thrilled for Hamilton that he got into his first NHL game at long last this past season. He is a fine captain with the Marlies, and a good example for young players coming into the Leaf system. He works extremely hard and it’s important that our draft choices see what it takes to earn a spot here.
Rynnas re-signing is seemingly not big news, but it provides ongoing goaltending insurance. We have an abundance of young goalies in the system and you can never have enough netminders. (We all understand that one or two ultimately have to emerge as either Leaf mainstays or as useful trade fodder, but goalie development doesn’t happen overnight, of course. Someone may soon step up…)
The McClement signing is interesting. I acknowledge I do not have a strong view of the move, or of what the veteran forward will bring, other than what most observers who don’t see him play regularly know about him. He seems to be one of those “reliable” defensive players, though I’d prefer he came to town as a guy who has been a ‘plus’ player throughout his career, which doesn’t seem to be the case, given a cursory look at his “numbers”. My only concern is that, as I have opined here on more than one occasion, we had about ten or more players last season who I thought were essentially (at best) third or fourth-liners. (We don’t have a fifth line, do we?) McClement fits as another role guy, and I don’t know how many more of those we need, unless they are difference-making “bottom-six” types. Some teams seem to have those guys. We don’t.
Those who check out VLM somewhat regularly know I like Frattin’s potential as a long-term Leaf. Whether he becomes a classic power-forward or not, he can skate, goes to the net (and as I’ve also mentioned in the past, I love the fact that he can make plays from his off-wing) pretty hard and just seems to be a guy who will improve bit by bit to become a fairly complete NHL’er. So signing him for two years, while not a surprise, works for me.
I’m assuming the Leafs are in on a number of guys, and we’ll see how things unfold in the days ahead. There may be trades, of course, and some interesting free-agent signings could still be in front of us. But one of the more fascinating elements of Day One of the UFA circus was how some ex-Leafs fared. Popular Colby Armstrong landed with the Habs (that should be fun next season- wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the ice when the talkative winger lines up against his old blue and white teammates?). He had an uneven two-year stint here, and leaves with, probably, a touch of frustration that his role was reduced to next-to-nothing under Carlyle. (He played less than five minutes some nights…) Whether it will matter or not I don‘t know, but he will no doubt be particularly amped up when he plays the Maple Leafs next season.
I was pleased to see Jonas Gustavsson jump to the Red Wings. When I heard the Leafs had traded him to the Jets, I just didn’t see it as a fit for him. He must have felt the same way. The Wings clearly saw something when they scouted him. There are other low-cost goalies out there they could have signed instead. Now, whether he will win the back-up job in Detroit or end up in Grand Rapids, I have no idea. (Don’t know what his waiver eligibility status is, either.) But the Wings do use their back-up goalies, and I’ll be interested to see if he is as capable as I have thought he could be, in the right environment. I’ve written here often (maybe too often, for some readers) that I felt Gus was messed around by the coaching staff and management in Toronto, their public “words” of support aside. When an athlete, especially a goaltender, can’t find his confidence—and correctly senses that he does not have the confidence of those around him—it’s a disaster. And in the end, Gustavsson should have been a better goalie (and worth a lot more than what the Leafs now end up with, which is nothing) than he was after three years in a good organization that knows how to develop talent. Anyway, I won’t try to debate the issue. Some think he just played poorly here and has no future, while others agree with my perspective. He’s an ex-Leaf now, and I wish him well. He had a dignity about him, and I appreciate that quality in athletes, especially when it seems so easy for them to behave otherwise nowadays.
Keith Aulie—who I maintain will be a capable NHL defenseman and moving him will prove to be a bad trade for the Leafs, just my opinion—also re-signed with the Lightning. I’ll be watching to see if he can stay with the big club this coming season, or will spend time in the minors working his way up the depth chart. He’s still very young for a defenseman with height and size.
John Mitchell, who surprised a lot of Leaf observers by being a useful fourth-liner for a very good Rangers team this past season, is now with the Avalanche. Ponikarovsky has moved again, signing to play with his old Leaf pal, Antropov, in Winnipeg. And late in the day, energetic Joey Crabb accepted a deal with the Capitals.
(I know he never played for the Leafs, but it’s always a bit of a dagger to read that Rask is signing a new contract…he’ll be with Boston next season, and for probably a lot longer than that.)
Some players who may have been a nice short-term fit for the Leafs signed elsewhere. Ryan Smith stayed with the Oilers. Paul Gaustad re-signed in Nashville. Travis Moen re-signed with the Habs. Brandon Prust moved from the Rangers to Montreal. (While they might have been nice additions, the cost would likely have been prohibitive, and as I mentioned above, the Leafs already have tons of fourth-line guys, though probably not any like Prust or Gaustad…)
One thing I couldn’t help but notice on “opening day” was that teams signing ‘tough-guys’ was the order of the day. The list was pretty long, as players—and teams—acted like they were playing musical chairs, as I mentioned on Twitter, and no one wanted to be left standing without a contract…or an enforcer. The names I noticed (some can do more than fight, of course…) included: Prust, Konopka, Brookbank, MacIntyre, Asham, Carkner, Parros, Boulton and Rome.
Gauging how teams did on Day One of free-agency is akin to making proclamations on the day of the entry draft, or when a big trade is completed. We never really know how things will play out over time. But if I had to guess who did well when the gun went off on Sunday, I’d say the Red Wings did. I like that they brought in Tootoo, who, if he can keep his game together, should prove to be a useful asset for a team that has kind of lacked old-school toughness in recent years. They’ve done OK without an enforcer, but he should be helpful during the regular season and can certainly play a driving, physical game that would help most teams. And Samuelsson may have something left. If so, he will add some finesse to a team that already has a fair bit of that in Detroit. If Gustavsson becomes a capable back-up, then the Wings may have invested prudently—and well—regardless of whether Suter joins the fold.
Again, I’m loathe to jump to conclusions this early in the summer, and this early in the free-agency process. The Leafs filled one hole (potentially) with Komarov and another with van Riemsdyk, but my enthusiasm is on hold until I’ve seen him play well and stay healthy for an extended period of time. I thought Versteeg would be solid here—and he had a Cup on his resume before we quickly sent him out of town.
Otherwise, there is, as we’ve noted here already, plenty of work still to do. Burke told the media late Sunday that goaltending, getting bigger and upgrades at the center position are the team’s needs/priorities. Sadly, the priorities are not much (if at all) different from when he took over almost four years ago. Whether Burke’s newfound patience (versus his “I have no patience for a five-year rebuild” bluster—which by the way, will prove to be longer than five years before the Leafs are a really competitive team…) will become his hallmark from now on, I don’t know. But that patience will only be rewarded—and applauded by the Leaf faithful—if his asset management approach grows real fruit before too much more time passes.
It’s great to have lots of prospects. But if you can’t convince free-agent superstars to come here, and won’t part with your assets to bring in established stars in a trade, at some point, those young “assets” that you've built up have to become actual big-time contributors at the NHL level. Otherwise, this has all been just another “blueprint” gone wanting….