Toronto Maple Leafs' Biggest Takeaways from the Start of 2014 Free Agency
If discretion is truly the better part of valor, then the Toronto Maple Leafs may be on the right path during the 2014 free-agency period.
The Leafs have not overpaid for any free agents to date, although it is highly debatable whether or not the team is better than they were at the end of the 2013-14 season.
In a recent Toronto Sun article, Brendan Shanahan was quoted as saying:
We were strategic, we had a plan. We targeted certain individuals and got almost all of them...With all due respect to the players who signed for big dollars and big term, we looked at it and decided we didn’t want to be too involved. We said at the draft that it wasn’t our plan. Rosters don’t have to be set on July 1. It’s a bad habit year after year.
With the bulk of the impact signings finished, let's look at the biggest takeaways from the start of free agency.
The Leafs Are Not Deep at Centre
It is not particularly pretty at the centre-ice position. Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri seem to be set as the top two centres, but it's murky after that.
It would appear that the newly acquired Mike Santorelli and Petri Kontiola will battle with restricted free agent Peter Holland for the final two centre spots.
David Bolland is now a Florida Panther, and none of these three appear to be in Bolland's league—at least at this stage of their careers. Santorelli likely shows the most promise, as he posted 28 points in 49 games last season
The Leafs still lack a bona fide No. 1 centre, and matching up will be challenging with this group of centres against the top NHL teams.
James Reimer Is Returning to Toronto
As reported by TSN, James Reimer will be going to salary arbitration. Unless something changes, it looks like Reimer will be Toronto's backup in 2014-15.
That may change, but alternatives seem limited right now. Reimer is a professional and has always conducted himself well.
His best course of action is to play at his absolute best. He'll be easier to deal if he's at the top of his game. There is no question that teams will be disappointed with their goaltending as the season wears on and looking to upgrade.
The Winnipeg, Manitoba, native is just one year removed from posting a save percentage of .924. If he approaches that number in 2014-15, he's likely to get his wish of starting in another NHL city.
The Leafs Defence Has Question Marks
The Leafs defence corps remains somewhat of a mystery. Dion Phaneuf, Stephane Robidas, Roman Polak and Morgan Rielly are all under contract.
Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner remain as restricted free agents, and Paul Ranger has not been re-signed. Tim Gleason had his contract bought out by the club.
The group will be older than last year, but it is difficult to assess how improved they will be. If Franson and Gardiner return, it may be a wash with last year.
Robidas' health is a concern, and Polak, while not immobile, does not seem to be a significant upgrade over Carl Gunnarsson, who played low-event hockey while logging tough minutes against good competition.
Polak will be more physical than Gunnarsson, but the Leafs need puck movers who can help tilt the ice in their favour more than anything else. It's unclear if this group will be able to improve the team's propensity to play much of the game in its own end.
The Bottom Six May Be Improved
It will not take a lot for the Leafs' bottom six to be better than last year. Toronto did get some limited production out of its third line, but the fourth line was a non-factor on most nights.
In adding Mike Santorelli, Leo Komarov, Matt Frattin and Petri Kontiola, the Leafs might be able to ice a fourth line that can play more than four or five minutes per night.
The NHL's best teams can count on eight minutes or more from their fourth line. This eases pressure on their top two lines in particular.
There were too many nights when the Leafs leaned far too much on their top skaters.
With these players in the fold and at least two of them likely to play on the fourth line, the Leafs just may have the much-needed depth up front that eluded them in 2013-14.
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