The Toronto media and fans have taken another season out of the playoffs badly (to say the least). The amount of finger pointing and accusations of negligence has been truly astounding.
Exasperated by the Leafs apparent lack of progress in the standings and having seen the Flyers turn it around a couple of years ago and Ottawa turn it around this year, Leaf fans are understandably at wits end to understand why Toronto consistently misses the playoffs.
I, for one, think the Leafs need to reintroduce pyramid power next year to deflect some of the caustic comments in the Toronto media, which seem to really have shaken some of the younger players—particularly this year's young goalie tandem of James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson. Both goalies were noticeably shaken after receiving criticism from the Toronto media.
With everyone screaming for a change, GM Brian Burke finally bowed to the pressure and fired Ron Wilson.
In Goal, it would be a mistake to let the Monster walk and I would sign him to a cheap one year, two way contract and let Reimer, the Monster and Ben Scrivens fight it out in spring training next year.
On defense, the Liles signing was a mistake, with Burke overvaluing his off-ice contributions and signing him to a four-year contract. I really think he should have been moved at the trade deadline, but I guess that ship has sailed.
I believe Leafs fans might have to get used to Mike Komisarek in the Leafs line up for another year as Carlyle is a coach who plays veterans, and it wouldn't surprise me if the Dion Phaneuf /Komisarek tandem gets a long look for Leafs next year to add some toughness against top opponents.
But Komisarek could be traded in the offseason if the Leafs are feeling he is expendable and need to move salary as his salary cap hit is higher than his actual salary in the last year of his contract. If Jake Gardiner continues his strong play and doesn't have a sophomore slump, he may end up as Phaneuf's partner next year on the Leafs top defensive pairing.
I expect a rebound season for Schenn next year, and continued improvement for Franson.
Leafs might just have the inside track on defensive prospect UFA Justin Schultz as Burke and Jake Gardiner are very familiar with this top defensive prospect, but don't expect any major moves on defense, barring any major trades or free agent signings, e.g. Webber, Sutter (which is highly unlikely).
Even when the Leafs were in a playoff position before this seasons' historic collapse, they consistently didn't match up well against teams higher in the standings. What the Leafs lack is top end talent with size which is extremely apparent every time the Leafs play Boston.
Will the Leafs make the playoffs next year
In this salary cap era, it has become increasing difficult to acquire top line players. Teams have been locking up their best players to long-term contracts. This has resulted in meager pickings at free agency.Thus, the Leafs have been unable to replace Mat Sundin on the first line since his departure.
This is what Leaf fans should appreciate when considering the Kessel trade—that to acquire top line players you must over-pay or play a long shot like Lupul and Lombardi.
Also bearing in mind last seasons' free agent crop in which Tim Connelly really was the best center available to the Leafs at the time that the choices to acquire a center was slim to none.
Thank God Burke is a patient man and didn't take a run at Jeff Carter with his injury problems and massive contract. The LA Kings in my opinion have been mismanaged and trading Brayden Schenn for a win now strategy has been a serious mistake. (Leafs fans take note).
But don't despair Leaf fans—there is hope.
Remember the Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the league. The Leafs younger players will be a year better, and if the Leafs finish with a lottery pick, it could be just the ticket to finally acquire a top center with size for the future.
If the Leafs hadn't collapsed and made the playoffs, Ron Wilson would have been coach another year and we wouldn't have such a high draft pick. I seem to be one of the few who think that Burke will stay the course searching for that elusive top line center but refusing to massively overpay—like Buffalo did last year. He will try to put a package together to trade for Nash, but will refuse to mortgage the Leafs future to acquire him.
The Leafs have several very good pieces in place and Burke has assembled many more prospects in the pipeline, as well the Marlies have a real chance at a long run in the playoffs this year. The Leafs collapse occurred the moment the team became healthy. Being a team stuck with several under performing/overpaid veterans.
I believe Carlyle has been auditioning his veterans to try to ascertain if they fit into Leafs plans next year. Connelly and Komisarek have been given expanded roles since he has arrived, though Armstrong has often been a healthy scratch since he has come back from concussion which would seem to me to be a strong indication of things to come, the same with Lombardi if they don't have strong camps next year.
On Forward, the biggest mystery is what happened to Kuliemin's scoring touch? But the good news is that Kuliemin will sign for much less than he would have if he had scored 30 goals this year. And I could easily see him having a bounce back year next season.
I would like to see Grabowski on Toronto first line as he is Toronto's best center. Now everyone says Grabbo and Kessel are not a match, but I think it's more a case of the coach trying to balance the scoring on the team. How about trying Grabbo and Lupul together. Bozak has really had a good year and I predict he will score 25 goals next year if he remains as Kessel's center.
The Leafs have an over abundance of second line players and I expect the leafs to trade some of them to acquire Nash or if this fails to acquire a checking winger with size to replace Armstrong. My preferred lines for next year without any major trades.
Lupul, Grabbo, Kessel
Frattin, Bozak, Kadri
Ashton, Colborne, Kulemin
Brown, Steckel, Crabb
My thinking is that Grabbo gives a little more toughness on the first line, Frattin is a little more physical than MacArthur who is a tradeable comodity. Ashton Colburne and Kulemin enable Carlyle to have a real checking line with size, and Kadri and Bozak I think would work.
What package would I offer for Rick Nash?
Grabbo, MacArthur Liles and our second round pick. If Columbus insists on a first round pick we could package a player and our second round pick and still keep our lottery pick. This is a reasonable package and if accepted would make our lines
Lupul, Kessel, Nash
Frattin, Bozak, Kadi
Ashton, Colburne, Kulemin
Brown, Steckel, Crabb
The Kessel at center idea was borrowed from Ulmers blog, and Lupul and Nash would give Kessel the room he needs to compete against the better teams in the NHL. Connelly could be moved in and out of the lineup filling any whole that emerges throughout the year.
Lombardi has a chance he may finally rebound from his concussion next year, but I give this about a 25 percent chance of happening. Anyway, he isn't tradeable at the moment and all he can do is improve his value to the team, but if he has a bad spring (and the same with Armstrong), they may end up being sent to the minors or bought out after training camp to free up salary and to free up roster spots for prospect from the Marlies.
Hindsight is 20/20 and seeing Ottawa seemingly without effort pick up Kyle Turris when they needed scoring and pick up Bishop when they needed a goalie is frustrating. Seeing Pittsburgh acquire James Neal with no word that Toronto was even interested is frustrating.
When considering Burke's tenure with the Leafs, even though it has yet to show in the standings, Toronto has many more assets now than when he has taken over. Burke main mistakes have been in free agent signings, overpaying for mediocre talent.
But on the other hand, Bozak is poised for a break out season next year, Stalberg has been exchanged for essentially more than a first round pick. The Monster in my opinion still could be a serviceable NHL goalie in the future.
When you consider the Kessel trade included the Kaberle trade for Colborne and it is difficult to say the Leafs have lost in it's dealings with Boston. MacArthur has had a couple of good years with the Leafs and this offseason with several of the Marlies ready to to be promoted to the Leafs, Burke has several tradeable assets to try to acquire another foundational player to go along with Phaneuf, Kessel, Lupul and Gardener .
Colborne, Ashton, and Steckle add some size to the Leafs, and by the end of next season we may start to see Brad Ross and Tyler Biggs seeing some time up with the Leafs to finally get a glimpse of what truculence looks like in a Leafs uniform.
So take heart there will be better times ahead for the Blue and White.