While the Maple Leafs, given their modest roster, have over-achieved at times this season, I’m not sure there has been a period in recent years when the expectations bar has been quite so low. (It’s been low in recent years at times, but not this low.) That being the case, it’s difficult to assess what this season really means, other than it is a transition year leading, presumably, to something a fair bit better in the years to come.
Whereas we once (weeks ago) spoke about the playoffs as a possible unexpected surprise for Leaf fans this season, that is now not at all likely. With a record well below five hundred and only the occasional one-off upset of a better team to provide a glimpse of short-term cheer, fans have now fully turned the attention to the longer term future. We all knew going in that this year was intended, by management design, to be a season where effort would be the Leafs’ only consistent calling card. So now, we are left to think about the draft this summer, and next season and the year after that, when the Leafs will perhaps turn a corner of sorts.
In truth, I much more enjoyed the days when the Leafs were a contender at the deadline (in the early 2000s, for example) and were one of those teams looking to get better right now, so they could make a run at a championship. But the only thing to focus on these days is the upcoming trade deadline, specifically as it relates to the future.
Dion Phaneuf is already an ex-Leaf; he is yet another in a long line of solid NHL’ers who came to the Leafs with lofty (unfair?) expectations, and who, in the minds of many, did not quite meet them. This year’s trade deadline is not about the present but about assets—and accumulating yet more building blocks for the future. The current management team (led by Shanahan and Lamoriello) have a plan, it seems. And that is to be patient and build with youth. Management long ago set this year aside at the NHL level. It’s all about developing the kids on the current roster—and those on the way.
So recognizing that the current roster does not inspire us, beyond the aforementioned effort aspect (which, in truth, is the very least we should always be able to expect from this franchise), what can the Leafs do to get better for the future between now and the deadline?
The process continued in earnest with the Dion deal. But it’s almost a certainty that more moves are planned by the Leaf brain trust. The question, however, may be: do the Leafs have players who will really bring much value in return?
Maybe Komarov (now suspended) is at the top of that list. While he is absolutely the type of player that the Leafs will need when they are a playoff team—and he certainly wears the Leaf crest with pride—he may be at his peak right now. Is he worth more in terms of what he can bring in return for the future, than he is if he stays? He is an edgy, useful player, for sure. But will he be as effective in three years, when the Leafs believe they’ll be competitive?
Polak is another who fits that category. Hard working and tough. He will be 30 soon, plays more minutes than we thought he would at the beginning of the season and is a plus 8 on a roster that doesn’t have many (any?) guys at that level. It would seem some playoff-bound team, especially one with Stanley Cup aspirations, would have an eye on Polak. Cup hopeful teams know you have to be 8-10 deep on defense to get through four grueling playoff rounds. Polak would be a good fit somewhere.
What to do with Reimer? I’ve long been a Reimer guy. Yet I still don’t know if he is a bona fide number-one NHL goaltender. And if we do try to deal him, do we get much more than a mid-round pick, if that?
Is Gardiner a keeper? What about Holland, another young player with “potential”? Are these players that will get better and better, or is what we’re seeing now what they will ultimately be?
I’m assuming Kadri and van Riemsdyk stay, as two of the few ‘skill’ players on the current roster. I don’t know about Bozak.
The Leafs have a roster otherwise filled with useful but replaceable parts—Boyes, Parenteau, Matthias, Grabner, etc. Will they be moved?
One question for your consideration: we always talk about all the good young players in the Leaf organizational pipeline, either in the AHL, Europe or the junior/college ranks. I know there is much more analysis and focus on previously drafted players than ever before. More and more scouts, bloggers, and everyday fans see these prospects in action and develop strong opinions about their potential.
But how many of the kids in our pipeline are actually going to be elite players at the NHL level? How many will be legitimate difference-makers? How many will simply remain players with “potential”?
I honestly don’t know if we have a better group of young players than most other organizations. Hey, maybe we do.
Regardless, this trade deadline, as I mentioned above, that is all about what the Leafs can acquire (prospects and draft picks) for the future.
Who stays? Who goes?