The NHL draft is inevitably an exciting and hopeful time for fans. (It was even better in the “old days” when it was a draft involving 20 year-old players, because they were that much closer to being ready to contribute right away at the NHL level.) I sense that most Leaf fans had tempered their expectations going into the draft this past weekend, recognizing that General Manager Dave Nonis did not want to part with any of his young players (e.g. Kadri and Gardiner) to move up and make a splash.
The selection of William Nylander in the 8th slot assures the Leafs of an opportunity to develop a highly skilled player who, by all accounts, oozes confidence and loves to score goals. Acquiring skill is always a good thing—at the end of the day, teams don’t win without it.
But looking ahead to the 2014-’15 NHL season from a Leaf perspective, while I see a number of players who should provide us with some excitement (Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Kadri, Rielly, Lupul, if he is still here, Gardiner, etc.) it’s hard not to see some of the gaps in the lineup that remain troubling.
What area concerns me most? Well, we have goaltending, though yes, it would be nice to see Jonathan Bernier as the undisputed number-one guy over a full season—and a playoff run—to better know exactly what we have. Most observers see the defense as needing an upgrade, though when you look at the Leaf defenseman on an individual basis, the picture seems better than when we look at the actual group dynamic. Phaneuf is certainly a rugged, dependable player who can log lots of ice time. The now departed Gunnarsson generally did no harm. Incoming Roman Polak (from the Blues) should provide some much needed sandpaper on the blueline. Franson has shown on his best days that he can be a very effective NHL defenseman, and the aforementioned Rielly and Gardiner already provide the skating and puck moving skills that are not easy to find in young defensemen.
We also know that Toronto has a number of other young defensemen who are very near to being Leaf-ready, including Granberg and Percy. Now, just listing all those names does not mean it is a high-end NHL defense corps, but for me, this is not the biggest roster challenge right now.
Maybe my assessment of the what the Maple Leafs need is skewed by looking at the Western Conference and seeing how important strength up the middle is. There, really good teams need centers with skill, size, heart and grit. On the weekend, we saw the Flames and the Oilers draft centers with those attributes early in the first round. They know what’s needed to compete in the West.
So when I look at the Leaf roster, I see a team that has some nice players at the pivot position, but I’m not sure we have the ammunition to challenge the best NHL teams in terms of strength up the middle.
When I look at our center ice lineup, I see Bozak, Kadri—and question marks.
Jay McClement had a solid first season with the Leafs but he was not that noticeable this past season as the penalty-killing units struggled mightily. Dave Bolland brought leadership ability and a history of winning experience but it’s tough to see the Leafs paying him what he wants on a long-term contract this summer. A serious injury also creates doubt as to whether he can be the same player he was before.
Peter Holland is only 23, and may well be a fit as a third-line center because he brings some size and skill to the table. But even if Bolland returns, which seems doubtful, the Leafs are still not an imposing presence up the middle. Bozak is better than what his critics suggest, and he is a nice fit with Kessel. Kadri is still developing and has vision and an edge to his game that certainly makes him valuable.
But the question needs to be asked: while free agency may change the picture, is this group of centers good enough to make the Leafs contenders for more than simply a possible playoff berth?
Of course there is more to a team’s success than who plays center. We still lack the elite, shutdown defenseman that most teams need to be successful. The Leafs clearly need a lot more from their third and fourth lines next season, and their overall approach to team defense has to be better—which in turn should help their defensemen be better. Penalty killing has to get back to where it was two seasons ago, and the right players have to be utilized by the coach.
I said most of last season that I believed the Leafs could compete in the Eastern Conference, and I still tend to feel that way. I can’t make the argument that they are an elite team, but in the East, there are a lot of teams that could advance or fall back in any given year. There is still a lot of parity in the Conference.
The Leafs are a speed team but one that, last season, was not hard to play against. If Clarkson begins to deliver on what management was looking for, that will help. If Bernier continues to play well that’s key, obviously. If some of the youngsters we keep hearing about make an impact at training camp, maybe that will push the veterans to be better, too. And if Gardiner and Rielly continue to improve that can make a difference, too.
That said, that’s a lot of “ifs”.
Shanahan strikes me as a realist. He’s looked at this roster, sees the talent that is there, and believes the Leaf coaching staff can get more out of the players who will be on the roster come September. He has said leadership can be developed from within. And in the selection of Nylander, management has made a statement about the importance of skill.
But a lot of us remember Shanahan as a player. He had skill as well as heart and toughness. He knows the Leafs will need plenty of all that—including at the center position—to be a serious contender in the years ahead. Yes, the draft brings hope, but there is clearly a lot more work to do.