The organization’s activity around the draft and in the early moments of free-agency provide some window into their thinking, I suppose, but I’m not sure we know a lot more than we did a few weeks ago in terms of a “plan”.
The acquisition of Polak and Robidas, useful but limited players, may change our defense pairings but we thought the same thing a year ago when Paul Ranger and later Tim Gleason took up their post on the Leaf blueline. Are we really better on the blueline, or will it depend on the much-maligned Carlyle “system” as we venture forward into the 2014-’15 NHL season?
I am certain James Reimer will be gone by September, if not before (though Calgary signing Hiller seems to eliminate the Flames as a possible destination). The Leafs clearly know Reimer wants and needs a change of scenery and they would be wise not to keep an unhappy camper on the roster, especially at such a crucial position. I think the moment they feel secure with the back-up situation behind Bernier, Reimer will be moved, almost regardless of the price. There is value—though not necessarily in terms of assets—in having a cohesive locker room.
Bolland leaving for Florida is no shock. Some Leaf fans will miss the leadership and the Stanley Cup-winning playoff experience he brought over from Chicago. That said, if he signed for 5 and ½ million a year for five years, I sense most Leaf fans would have been very annoyed if the Leafs gave an injured, possibly past his prime third-line center that kind of term and money.
What will be interesting for me is whether we can fill the center position with quality, because we are, in my view, lacking there right now. (The signing of Leo Komarov does inspire hope, however, as he provides some of the edgy, agitating game the Leafs seemed to lack most of last season.) I will also be looking to see if the new “mix” on the blueline, with Robidas and Polak providing veteran experience to go along with Phaneuf back there, will help Gardiner and Rielly take the next step in their development.
I have neither a sense of optimism or pessimism as we work our way through the NHL off-season. While the Leafs have a nice corps of talented players and promising youngsters in the pipeline, the reality is virtually every NHL team has the same. A lot of teams have very good goaltending and a sturdier defense than Toronto and many have more effective third and fourth lines. So while the Leafs have some players with solid experience, some with elite talent and also improving youngsters either on the roster or on the way, the hill ahead of this team is still pretty steep. This organization seems to want to keep their youngsters (which is a good thing), so developing those assets will be key.
This team will still need a much-discussed identity (most great teams have one), and must also find a way to play the game that players believe in and makes it difficult for the opposition to play against.
More changes are ahead, I’m sure. But whether the Leafs will be significantly improved come September, it’s too early to know. In light of recent history, some Leaf fans will need more than a good start to the season to make them believers.