Toronto Maple Leafs: 6 Moves That Put Them into the 2012 Playoffs
I'm even getting tired of this, but it's still fun right?
Here, at the Bleacher Report, Toronto Maple Leafs columnists have posted endless amounts of predictive articles on who the Leafs could acquire.
Paul Stastny, Steven Stamkos, Zach Parise, the list goes on—and to be honest, even I've gotten caught up in all the madness.
However, like I said, it's still fun, no? I mean, fans haven't seen the NHL's most profitable organization in the playoffs for nearly seven years, so I'm sure it's justified we look at all possible angles to how to get back into the group of 16. And right now, the topic of acquiring a No. 1 center has been dominating the discussion.
In fact, it's been too dominating.
What fans tend to forget is that the a top-line center isn't the only dire need the Leafs have. Actually, they have a few more key vacancies that have received absolutely no attention, and undeservedly.
So, what do the buds need besides a No. 1 center? A No. 3/4 pivot, a No. 3 winger, a veteran backup and a top-four defenseman.
This article, however, isn't only filling those needs and calling the Leafs a playoff team—it's much more than that.
There's ice time to be won, most notably with the goaltenders and the entire bottom six (exception of Colby Armstrong, third-line RW). Who's battling for it?
That is also what I am looking at—who to add and who makes most sense in each position from what we already have. Something that is also important is not splitting up the chemistry that already resides in the Leafs' dressing room; a complete overhaul again is not needed.
So, without further ado, here they are.
Re-Signing the Pending Free Agents
This is obviously a key part of Brian Burke's offseason, but people haven't put enough stress on these four players' free-agent status.
Clarke MacArthur, Luke Schenn, Tim Brent and Carl Gunnarsson are all seeking new contracts and must be resigned.
Losing them severely hampers the Leafs' chances from the large amount of loss of chemistry that they were pioneers of in the current lineup.
Actually, the only one that I believe is interchangeable is Gunnarsson, who's been used as trade bait in a lot of fictional trade proposals on the internet.
However, that doesn't mean he doesn't play a key role. All four of these players play significant roles that will be hard to replace compared to the prices they will most likely come at.
We'll start with MacArthur, who signed for $1.1 million last year, and proceeded to set career highs in everything, with 21 goals and 62 points, while helping form one of the more adequate second lines in the league in the "Mac-Russian" with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.
His presence was more than on the score sheet though, as he played a vital role in the dressing room as a positive voice and unrewarded leadership.
What's that worth? Well, if you were to pay a consistent 60-point forward with natural leadership skills, you'd probably pay close to $3.5-4 million. However, this has been the first season Clarke has shown these skills, so it's been a very difficult process for the Leafs' brass to determine how much they're willing to pay the winger.
MacArthur's been asking for close to $3 million, while Leafs are clinging to a rumored offer of $2.5 million. I can see the Leafs heightening their offer when it comes close to the draft, but either way it's absolutely vital that he gets re-signed. He's the completing piece to the second line, a respected figure in the dressing room and a difference-maker on the ice. He scores, passes, hits and can play defense, and does it very well too.
For Luke Schenn's case, well, there isn't any reason why the Leafs don't re-sign him. He was top five in blocked shots and hits, and played over 20 minutes a game. He already is a very good shutdown defender with the potential to be the league's best. I think the drawing line for Burke and Co. in re-signing Schenn is $4 million.
However, I don't even expect Luke and his agent to ask for higher, so a deal is imminent in my opinion. My guess is three years, $10.8 million ($3.6 million per).
Gunnarsson is another piece that should be re-signed, simply because a defenseman who can run a power play and contribute to it consistently usually doesn't come cheaper than $3-4 million. Gunnarsson's asking price at most might be $2.5 million, and my guess is a $2 million settling point will be found.
Brent is an interchangeable name; he's an energy third/fourth-liner that can kill penalties, win faceoffs and even bury it once in awhile. However, what makes Brent's case different is that he's a very big fan favorite, with moments like his shorthanded goal in Carolina, and what's called the Leafs version of "The Shift" being remembered clearly. And for under a million, it's completely worth it.
Acquire a Veteran Goaltender
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As much as I still have faith in Jonas Gustavsson, he just hasn't shown enough. Yes, he has gone through three heart procedures in a very small frame of time, but even in his healthy days, he's been too inconsistent and his durability is a very big concern.
With Gustavsson out of the picture, and Giguere most likely left to test the market, James Reimer will need someone of Giguere's ilk to push him next season.
Reimer and the Leafs will need a reputable, solid backup goaltender that can see the crease 30-35 times and become a starting goaltender should Reimer fall, either to injury or just in his level of play.
The most suitable names to match their needs would be either Johan Hedberg or Dwayne Roloson.
They both are coming off stellar campaigns with their respective teams, and would provide the Leafs with a very solid tandem going into the 2011-12 season.
However, their seasons last year may have been too stellar, as their play last season could justify contracts upwards of $3 million if a bidding gets going.
I can see Burke being in on the bidding up until the three mark, but that's where I believe he would draw the line in his pursuit of a backup goaltender.
If those two names fail, Burke would still have options like Jose Theodore, Ray Emery and Brian Boucher left to look at.
Nonetheless, whether it's group A (Hedberg, Roloson) or group B (Theodore, etc.), it'll surely be an upgrade over the instability either Giguere or Gustavsson would provide in the backup role.
Acquire a No. 1 Center
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Another topic that has been beaten to death has been the Leafs pursuit of their coveted No. 1 center.
Since Mats Sundin darted for the Vancouver Canucks, a gaping hole has been left atop the lineup that a carousel of players could not fill.
Burke's ideal No. 1 pivot probably falls under the following guidelines: playmaker capable of reaching 50-60 assists, and can account for Phil Kessel's defensive inability.
We've learned over the past two seasons that Phil Kessel scores and passes, and not much more. The winger has underrated playmaking skills, but is more relied on to put the puck in the net. Without a legitimate top-line center, Kessel has still managed to score 62 goals in two seasons. The real intrigue here is what he could be able to do with a consistent threat alongside him, feeding him pucks.
Forty goals, maybe 50? We will never know until we actually give "The Thrill" an actual No. 1 center.
Brad Richards is the only viable name on the free market, but as we've seen with recent roster moves, the New York Rangers are gearing up for a mega-offer for Richards, and Burke might be hesitant to go over five years or $7 million a year for the Dallas Stars' pivot.
If he turns away from Richards, Paul Stastny and Jeff Carter are the next best things. They still might be too expensive too Burke's liking, as they will likely require a bundle of the Leafs' top prospects and first-round picks.
In my opinion, the Leafs will have to turn away from the dartboard names. Names like Brandon Dubinsky, Tavis Zajac or Joe Pavelski might be the most logical route for Burke, who won't be looking to deplete his system.
However, the point here is, whether it's Travis Zajac or Brad Richards, a No. 1 center is an absolute necessity for the Leafs this season.
Free-Agent Signing: 3rd-Line Winger
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The Leafs need a versatile, multi-role capable winger in this slot.
To elaborate, they need a winger that, to the simplest of terms, plays in all positions and all types of roles in their lineup.
They need someone who can provide stability throughout the lineup in times of inconsistency and injuries.
There are numerous options on the free market, so Burke should have no excuses to missing out on addressing this need.
Brooks Laich, Scottie Upshall, Pascal Dupuis, Ville Leino and Chard LaRose are all fitting players.
In specific situations, they can man the third line while adjusting to a defensive, hard-checking game, while also having the ability to jump onto the second line, and can be counted on to pot a timely goal or two. They also are very capable of contributing to both the power-play and penalty-kill units. They could be called the "five-tool" players of hockey.
The signing is a necessity because there is a hole across from Colby Armstrong on the third line, as Mike Brown is better suited for the fourth line while Nazem Kadri is obviously more offensively rounded.
Having any of the mentioned players play alongside Armstrong would form one of the best all-around lines in the league, and would play a huge role in getting Toronto back into the group of 16.
Free-Agent Signing: Bottom-Six Center
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Along with a third-line, versatile winger, the Leafs need a center than can lead the bottom six and the defensive responsibilities that come with it.
Tim Brent is better suited for the fourth line, and Tyler Bozak would most likely be the starting point for any No. 1 center not named Brad Richards. So, a hole would be left on the third line that would need to be addressed.
The Leafs could allow Nazem Kadri or Joe Colborne to take over the position, but they are better suited for offensive roles.
What would the Leafs need in this spot then?
A center that can win faceoffs consistently, be counted on to lead the penalty kill and shut down the opposing team's No. 1 center.
I do understand that those are obviously lofty expectations, but we shouldn't be expecting the center to pot 25 goals and 50 points as well. Any point output would just fine, as long as he is defensively responsible.
Manny Maholtra in Vancouver, Dave Bolland in Chicago and Paul Gaustad in Buffalo. A trend here is that they aren't super cheap as a usual bottom-six forward is. It would most likely cost the Leafs around $2-3 million, but would be money well spent.
There aren't many options on the free market, and teams are usually reluctant to part with their shutdown centers, so the Leafs may have to settle this year for one of the few names in free agency.
Vernon Fiddler, Cody McCormick, Tomas Kopecky, John Madden and Rob Niedermayer are the best options right now.
Tyler Bozak has been starting to take form of a shutdown center, but would most likely be a demand in any deal for another center.
Either way, I feel this spot on the lineup is just as important as the No. 1 lineup, so it's necessary that they address it.
Free-Agent Signing: Power-Play Quarterback
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The Maple Leafs' power play was extremely lacking after Tomas Kaberle was traded. It lacked stability, smooth transitioning with the puck and was extremely inconsistent.
No disregard to Dion Phaneuf and his late-season surge, but he's more a complementary player than a quarterback. He can rush the puck effectively and has a blast from the point, but being fed pucks would make him more effective.
They need a defenseman that runs the power play's offense, contribute to the five-on-five offense consistently and not be too big of a liability on the defensive end.
Kevin Bieksa, James Wisniewski and Christian Ehrhoff all fit the description to a tee, but would likely cost over $4 million in salary, something Burke may be hesitant to hand out when considering all the other holes he has to fill.
More likely targets would be Joni Pitkanen, Ian White or Trevor Daley. They all fit the description just as well, but just aren't as well rounded as the other three names.
Nonetheless, to be a contender, the Leafs need a power-play quarterback and any of the names above would provide a real upgrade over our current options.
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All the types of acquisitions I mentioned are necessities. The Leafs lacked a presence down the middle last year, had inconsistency throughout the entire lineup and had a horrendous power play.
In essence, if Burke attains all he needs to, he would have a group of players similar to the first one replacing the incumbents in the second group:
Brandon Dubinsky, Pascal Dupuis, Vernon Fiddler, Joni Pitkanen and Johan Hedberg.
Tyler Bozak, Colton Orr, Darryl Boyce, Brett Lebda and Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Of course, the names in the first group are interchangeable with other free-agent names, but the example is there and proven—a drastic improvement would have been made, and the Leafs would surely be a team destined for the group of 16.
Now, of course, nothing can be predicted and set in stone until next season, as injuries and inconsistency are common factors than can play large roles in determining a team's success or failure. But it's safe to say that a Leafs team with all its needs filled will be in a very good position to end a six-year playoff drought.