During a season in which the Toronto Maple Leafs once again missed the playoffs, there was a lot of optimism surrounding this year's squad. The solid play of Luke Schenn, the revival of Dion Phaneuf, and the emergence of James Reimer were some of the top stories surrounding the Leafs this past season, but the biggest story of year (not just for the Leafs but for the NHL) was the Mac-Russian line.
Not only did Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nikolai Kulemin finish the season as two, three, and four respectively in Leafs scoring, but they were also one of the most productive units in the entire league. They had a combined 177 points on the season. While that may not seem too much when comparing them to lines like Perry-Getzlaf-Ryan in Anaheim, Heatley-Thornton-Marleau in San Jose and Daniel-Henrik-Burrows in Vancouver one must also keep in mind the lack of secondary scoring this team had.
The Leafs did not possess a plethora of secondary scoring like those possessed by the teams formally mentioned. Instead the Leafs only had Phil Kessel and Tomas Kaberle up until he was traded. Secondary scoring is key to any team that wants success in the NHL these days, something that the Leafs have lacked for the last six years. Since the lockout the Leafs have never possessed any sufficient scoring from their offense. The emergence of the Mac-Russian line not only showed sufficient offensive output but also chemistry that has not been seen since the glory days.
I may be too young to remember the days of Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk and Wendel Clark in Toronto but I have never seen a line play so well and complement each other the way Kully-Grabo-Mac did. It made me very proud to Leafs fan once again.
Not only were they great together offensively but they were three of the most responsible defensive players that the Leafs had. That got me thinking. What would happen if the Mac-Russian line became an elite third unit?
This year I noticed more and more Ron Wilson going to the trio to play against the opposition's top players. Of course it's not uncommon for a coach to play his best line against the other teams, but why not consider them more and more as an elite third unit than a great second line?
Of course Brian Burke loves his top six and his bottom six and everyone knows that he found something special in Kully-Grabo-Mac but why stop right there? Why doesn't he consider looking for another top six players and solidify his bottom three?
Armstrong-Brent-Brown would make a good bottom three in my opinion and having Jay Rosehill as the thirteenth forward would work as well. I think it's safe to say that Colton Orr's tenure in Toronto is coming to an end.
For the top six without including Kully-Grabo Mac the Leafs would have the following:
Lupul, Kessel, Kadri and three others.
If Kully-Grabo-Mac were to be a third unit Kadri would be able to move up and play center on the second line, the bare minimum that Burke wanted for the Leafs top prospect. Kadri had an up and down time with the Leafs this season but now with 30 NHL games under his belt Kadri knows what he needs to do this offseason to be an effective player come training camp.
There has been a lot of speculation in regard to the vacant top center spot on the Leafs. From Brad Richards to Jeff Carter and even mentions of Steven Stamkos. All of these players would be an incredible addition to the Leafs but at a hefty price as well. Stamkos coming to the Leafs is almost as likely to happen as acquiring Crosby, Malkin or Ovechkin. Sure he would love to be a Leaf and grew up cheering for the Leafs but so did so many others. That doesn't necessarily mean that he will be coming to Toronto now. Maybe sometime in the future when he's about to head into unrestricted free agency, but not anytime soon.
I don't see Carter coming to the Leafs at all. I just can't see Brian Burke trading for a humungous contract like his. With eleven more years left he'll be 37 by the end of the contract with an annual cap hit of $5.275 million a year. Doesn't really make sense at all. And for Richards that's all up for speculation. Sure he would be a great addition if the price is right (maybe $7 million a year for four to five years) but Burke has said over and over again that he will not be targeting Richards. But then again this IS the same Brian Burke who said he would never be the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs so you never know...
Other than those three I could see Burke making a solid run at Paul Stastny. Sure he may be coming off his worst offensive year in his young NHL career but this is a proven 70+ point player. I could see Burk offer Bozak, Gustavsson and Boston's first round pick for Stastny. Colorado is in desperate need for a goalie and Gustavsson still has the potential to be a solid netminder. Bozak would make a good second/third line center for them considering whether he or Ryan O'Reilly will be placed higher on the depth chart.
It's also been said that Burke has been looking very intently at two players in the upcoming draft: Ryan Strome and Mark McNeill. Strome is probably the player most coveted by Burke but being ranked in the top 10 by the ISS could make that a difficult process. Columbus GM Scott Howson has already stated that the team would be more than willing to move the pick for the right price.
They are a team in desperate need for a solid defenseman so I would not be surprised to see Burke offer a package like Gunnarsson Philly's first- and third-round pick for the eighth overall pick and then knowing Burke do some wheeling and dealing from there. If Strome gets drafted before that pick look for Burke to trade down pick by pick so he can draft his second choice in Mark McNeill. These deals would get the Leafs that top center they need so badly plus a top prospect to add to their already impressive repertoire.
All that remains now are two more wingers and potentially one or two more defensemen, all of whom can be acquired through free agency.
For wingers the top five I think Burke should target (from best to worst) would be Brooks Laich, Ville Leino, Tomas Fleischmann, Jussi Jokinen and Joel Ward. Laich and Leino would be my pick to fill the void but I would be happy with any two of those five. Laich is a solid two-way player capable of 20+ goals and 50+ points. Leino is probably one of the most skilled players in the league who has always played second fiddle. Fleischmann is another solid player capable of 20+ goals and 50+ points. Jussi Jokinen has found his stride again these last two years in Carolina and would be an asset to any team. Joel Ward has been a late bloomer and a recent playoff hero in Nashville. More playing may be enough to rekindle the playoff magic he brought to Nashville.
For defensemen the Leafs have four signed through next year with the inevitable re-signing of Luke Schenn. They should be able to afford another two defensemen this offseason. A players I wouldn't mind seeing in the blue and white would be Eric Brewer, Kevin Bieksa, Tomas Kaberle, James Wisniewski, and Brent Sopel. Brewer has been a solid defenseman his entire career and could bring a lot of experience to a young Leaf defense corps. Bieksa has proved all the nay-sayers wrong this year and gone on to have an amazing season and playoffs.
We already got the second round pick from Boston so why NOT consider getting Kaberle back? Wisniewski has been thrown around a lot but has developed into a solid puck moving defensman. Sopel was a key defender on the Blackhawks Stanley Cup winning team and should be a solid fifth or sixth defender.
Based on all the moves I have mentioned and the the signings I would love to see the Leafs make this is what I could see the lineup turning into:
Lupul - Stastny - Kessel
Laich - Kadri - Leino
Kulemin - Grabovski - Macarthur
Armstrong - Brent - Brown
Phaneuf - Aulie
Schenn - Bieksa
Komisarek - Wisniewski
I think that this is a lineup that could easily compete in the NHL and do a pretty damn good job at it. Hopefully Brian Burke doesn't get a little too crazy with trades when there are a lot of pieces that could be brought in via free agency and smaller trades.
GO LEAFS GO!!!!