Even though the Toronto Maple Leafs are the most under-appreciated and undervalued team in the league, they do have a lot of good players who will go on to become great NHLers in the future.
I have heard time and time again what a terrible team the Leafs are and how they will always be the worst team in the NHL. I have heard people bashing on current Leafs calling them "at best third/fourth liners who would never be valued as much on any other team."
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but the fact of the matter is that the Maple Leafs do have a lot of players who other teams would be lucky enough to get their hands on.
This list will focus on the six players I believe the Leafs should try holding onto heading forward, outside the obvious nucleus of players like Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Mikhail Grabovski and Jake Gadiner.
Luke Schenn's name has been appearing in trade rumors ever since he became a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I, myself, have even entertained the thought of what the Leafs could get in return for him, but I don't think I would ever want to see the Leafs go through with anything.
Defensemen like Schenn are not common in the NHL and trading him would be a terrible move for the future of the Leafs.
Even though Schenn has over 300 games in the NHL over his four year career, it has been rocky at best. That can be attributed to his premature debut in the NHL as an 18 year old and spending almost the entirety of his career under Ron Wilson's shaky (at best) coaching style.
These are the two primary reasons why his development has been slower than most fans anticipated. Schenn has shown us how good he can be in stretches of his career which makes me think he's too valuable to trade right now.
This past season was probably Schenn's worst in the NHL to date. He made a lot of bad plays in his own zone with the puck and saw his ice-time decrease to the worst of his career at just over 16 minutes per game.
I'd like to think this is because of an offseason riddled with contract negotiations and uncertainty. Schenn didn't know he'd be returning to the Leafs until the preseason was about to start.
This probably had an effect on his training, and he couldn't properly prepare. I'm hoping that a focused offseason and proper training with the Leafs' new skating coach Barb Underhill will make him a more impactful player next season.
There are plenty of other players among Schenn who could benefit from lessons with Underhill as well.
For any of you who have questions about how good Barb Underhill actually is I recommend you watch this video. It shows how Brian Boyle went from the player he was during the 2009-2010 season (71GP, 4G, 2A) to the player he was during the 2010-2011 season (82GP, 21G, 14A) and how much Barb Underhill was a part of that.
When Joffrey Lupul came over in the trade that also brought Jake Gardiner to the Leafs, he was expected to be no more than a salary dump on behalf of the Anaheim Ducks. Little did the Ducks know that Lupul would go on to have a career year that also saw him named as an Alternate Captain in the NHL All-Star game.
Even though he ended up missing the final 16 games of the regular season, he still managed to score 25 goals and 67 points for the Leafs in 66 games.
Lupul brings his experience and leadership to the table as well as his gritty play and tenacity on the ice. He is a great leader and has valuable playoff experience gained from two playoff runs to conference finals with Anaheim and Philadelphia.
He knows how the young Marlies squad probably feels right now and would be a good role model for players like Kadri, Colborne, Frattin and Gardiner looking ahead into the future.
Lupul plays a very gritty style of hockey that the Leafs need and has a big body that he uses effectively when driving to the net and working the boards. He was able to adapt his game to better suit Kessel's which is why their chemistry together was so good, and Lupul's new style was where he found the most success.
Next season will be Lupul's real test to show whether or not this was just a fluke season. How will he be able to improve upon what he did?
First off, Lupul is another player who would benefit from skating lessons with Barb Underhill. While his skating isn't bad, he could stand to be a little quicker, especially if he wants to solidify himself on Phil Kessel's opposite wing.
Right now Leafs' management could consider trading him when his trade value is highest, but I say keep him.
Not only does he have great chemistry with the Leaf's star, Phil Kessel, but he is also a great leader on and off the ice and would be a great leader on and off the ice as further explained in Jason Hamm's article here.
There are plenty of things you can teach a player to make him better. You can teach him how to skate better; you can teach him how to puck handle better; you can teach him how to play better defensively...
You can't teach them how to score.
Sure you can show them how to shoot more accurately, but there is a certain combination of skill, concentration, calm, quickness and hockey sense to score a great goal during a fast paced game. Matt Frattin, I believe, is one of those players.
Heading into training camp it was expected that Frattin would start the season with the Marlies and Nazem Kadri would finally crack the Leaf's roster. But Matt Frattin shocked everyone by making the Leaf's team out of training camp and going on to show management and fans just what he was capable of.
He would pull off brilliant plays to create space and great scoring opportunities out of nothing. While he was shaky at times, he was still impressive. This NHL experience, along with the playoff experience he gained with Marlies during their playoff run, will show him what he needs to do in the offseason in order to prepare for training camp.
If you combine all of Frattin's stats from this past season, he scored 32 goals to go along with 14 assists in 92 games in the NHL and AHL. I'm really excited to see what he will be capable of in the future and believe he has the potential to be a top six forward one day.
He will benefit greatly learning from Randy Carlyle which should help him adapt his complete game to the NHL.
Matt Frattin is another one of those hidden gems given to the Leafs by JFJ along with James Reimer, Carl Gunnarsson and Nikolai Kulemin who have the potential to be part of the future core of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Tyler Bozak may not have lived up to the unrealistic expectations set upon him by Leafs' fans when Brian Burke signed him back in the spring of 2009, but he has shown what he is capable of.
Bozak was dubbed the future top line center for the Leafs the moment he signed his entry-level contract (worth approximately as much as a first overall pick).
While he didn't make the Leafs' roster out of training camp during the 2009-2010 season due to cap reasons, he found instant chemistry with Phil Kessel when he was called up scoring 8 goals and 27 points in 37 NHL games.
However he did not perform as well during his first full NHL season, scoring 15 goals and 32 points in 82 games. With such high and unrealistic expectations from Leafs' fans he struggled at times, and his defensive game suffered playing with a liability like Kessel on his wing.
This past season Bozak was expected to be the teams third line center which is the role I think he would fill in perfectly for the Leafs in the future. While he did center the Leafs' top line for a big portion of the season, that is not likely his future position with the Leafs.
Under Randy Carlyle's guidance I think Bozak can thrive as a third line center. He is a very responsible defensive player and is solid when it comes to faceoffs. He really only saw his plus-minus suffer because he had Phil Kessel on his wing.
He also has a lot of offensive upside. I think if the Leafs put him on a line with Matt Frattin and Nikolai Kulemin they could form a defensively solid third line scoring unit for the Leafs.
Frattin is a solid two-way player with a lot of offensive upside which he showcased this past season just like Kulemin.
Kulemin showed he is capable of scoring 30+ goals in the NHL, but if he can average between 20 and 25 as a third line winger that would be superb.
These three could form a very menacing third unit that would be as good as a second line in my opinion.
It's really hard to find centers as good as Dave Steckel when it comes to taking faceoffs, and it's even harder is to find another one as big as he is.
Steckel comes in at 6'5", 215 pounds, and this past season was sixth best when it came to taking faceoffs with a 58% winning percentage.
Steckel uses his imposing frame to make big hits and get into the dirty areas. He is a responsible player defensively and an avid penalty killer. He is a player who is perfectly suited for the Leafs' fourth line and one who I believe they should focus on keeping around for years to come.
Dave Steckel reminds me of Brian Boyle, and I think he is very capable of an offensive turnaround season as Boyle did back during the 2010-2011 season. Both are great fourth line centers when it comes to faceoffs—both were first-round draft picks, both have shown they are capable of producing offensively at other levels and both are expected to finish checks and play that energy role for their team.
Again like Boyle, Steckel's main concern is skating, but I believe some lessons with Leafs' new skating coach Barb Underhill can do wonders for his overall game.
I think given the right direction and coaching under Randy Carlyle and the new training staff can make Dave Steckel a future leader for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Next to Mikhail Grabovski I don't think there was another player who played as hard as Joey Crabb.
Night in and night out he was working his hardest while playing a very physical and gritty style of hockey. Not only did Crabb show he can shut down players and play well defensively, but he also showed that he can come through in the clutch scoring big goals for the Leafs.
I think Crabb is suited for the Leafs' fourth line as an energy winger. He likes to play a gritty style of hockey and knows how to be physical. He knows how to get into those dirty areas and has some good playmaking skills for an energy winger.
I would be very sad to see Crabb go and think that he would be perfect on the Leafs' fourth line with Dave Steckel and Mike Brown. All know how to play a gritty style of play; all know how to finish their checks; all are responsible defensively; all know how to kill penalties.
I see a lot of potential for this line not just defensively but offensively as well. If Steckel can improve his skating I don't see any reason why the Leafs' fourth line can't look like the 2010-2011 Rangers with Boyle (35 points), Prust (29 points) and Avery (24 points).
I'm not saying that this is what I expect from them but rather that they have the potential of producing like that based on their past and if they prepare properly this offseason.
I believe that Joey Crabb should be one of those players Leafs' management decides to bring back next season.
Sure the Leafs could sign somebody similar for cheaper but Crabb brings his hard work ethic, which could be a motivator to other players because he always strives to be better.
Nobody's spot is guaranteed, and a player is only as good as his last game. If somebody is not performing Crabb has the ability to fill in and produce. He does whatever is necessary to help the team.