NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs — Updated 2011 Offseason Game Plan
In April, coach Ron Wilson suggested the team was only two or three moves away from being a contender. This is, of course, based on the assumption that the strong second-half performance by the Leafs was not an aberration.
But the Leafs have had strong finishes in previous years, only to flounder out of the gates the following season. Leafs fans have seen this routine before.
Most believe the current Leafs are different. Toronto GM Brian Burke has put together a promising young team that can improve significantly on last year’s performance.
However, many things went right last year. Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur each had career years. James Reimer was spectacular in the 35 games he started for Toronto. Keith Aulie handled huge minutes playing against the best players on opposing teams.
Despite all these positives, the Leafs still missed the playoffs.
Brian Burke expects the Leafs to make the playoffs in 2012 and has already suggested that a contract extension for Ron Wilson depends on a strong start to the season.
While the pressure will shift to Wilson in September, all eyes are on Burke to see if he can bolster Toronto’s playoff chances. Burke is in an especially tough situation because many other teams have money to spend, and several must spend just to reach the salary cap floor.
As we approach the onset of free agency, let's look at how well Brian Burke has executed Toronto's offseason game plan.
Re-Sign Key Players: James Reimer, Luke Schenn, and Clarke MacArthur
Brian Burke is known for building from the net out, and it was therefore not surprising that James Reimer was re-signed first. Reimer’s well-grounded personality has many convinced that he will not suffer the same type of slump that commonly plagues sophomore goaltenders (Andrew Raycroft and Steve Mason come to mind).
Carl Gunnarsson was re-signed for a reasonable contract ($1.3 million per season), and should continue to improve on Toronto’s third defensive pairing.
Luke Schenn has not re-signed yet, but there is no doubt that Brian Burke will keep the young defenseman. Expect a contract similar to what Marc Staal is getting in New York, somewhere around $4 million per season for at least three years.
The real question is Clarke MacArthur. It seems that Burke is going to play hardball here. Rumors suggest that MacArthur is looking for something around $3 million per season for three years.
Burke maintains that MacArthur would be foolish to look elsewhere, because he would not have the opportunity to play with linemates as good as Kulemin and Grabovski. However, with the lack of top six talent available in this year’s free agent crop, Burke would be foolish to let MacArthur go.
MacArthur was Toronto’s best player last season. Arguments can be made for either of his linemates. However, in addition to putting up numbers, MacArthur showed leadership both on the ice and off.
Based on MacArthur’s character, and chemistry with his linemates, he must be re-signed.
The Leafs have additional RFAs (most notably, Tyler Bozak), but they are all replaceable.
2. Add a Puck-Moving Defenseman
With Kevin Bieksa and Joni Pitkanen already off the market, this deal looks even better.
In Liles, the Leafs get a puck-moving defenseman capable of quarterbacking the power play. Liles can pass, but unlike Kaberle, he is also a threat to shoot the puck. For that reason, he should be a major help to a Toronto power play that has been awful over the past few seasons.
Liles is a perfect short-term solution, especially with prospects like Jake Gardiner in the pipeline.
3. Move Up at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
At the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Brian Burke did exactly what he wanted to do. He traded two of his picks to move up in the first round. Toronto traded away picks 30 and 39 to draft the physical American Tyler Biggs 22nd overall.
Many are criticizing the decision, suggesting that two assets are better than one, or that Burke should have drafted Matt Peumpel.
With a management team that includes Dave Nonis, Dave Poulin, Cliff Fletcher, and the recently-added Rick Dudley, Brian Burke has plenty of excellent hockey minds to discuss his decisions with. Clearly, the Leafs wanted Biggs and they should be credited for getting the player they wanted.
Character is much easier to predict than abilities. If the rumors about Biggs are correct, the Leafs made a great decision. It should also be noted that Biggs was rated 15th overall in TSN's Draft Rankings, ahead of both Puempel and Mark McNeill, another popular pre-draft selection among Toronto enthusiasts.
With the 25th pick, Burke drafted defenseman Stuart Percy. Unlike Biggs, Percy was picked well before his pre-draft ranking (34th overall). Toronto management certainly had ample opportunity to scout Percy, who played for Mississauga of the OHL. They clearly saw more potential in him than most scouts.
Like most other draft picks, it will be a few years before we know if Biggs or Percy will become quality NHL players. Until then, I have no reason to question Brian Burke's draft decisions.
4. Add Depth to Toronto's Bottom Six
Most of Leafs Nation (myself included) was hoping for Brooks Laich, but he is no longer available. There are several other players the Leafs could target. Burke wants to add more truculance, but could also use players who can contribute offensively.
There have been several conflicting reports about Toronto acquiring the rights to Maxime Talbot. Rumors suggest that he will command $2 million per season, but will likely be offered more if not signed before July 1.
Look for the Leafs to target two depth forwards. Max Talbot, Joel Ward, Scottie Upshall, and Sean Bergenheim would all be good additions to Toronto's bottom six.
5A. Acquire a Top Line Forward: Plan A (Free Agency)
Easier said than done.
Everything starts with Brad Richards. If he was a few years younger, he'd be an absolute perfect fit. He is still a top line center with playmaking ability who could maximize Phil Kessel's scoring ability. Richards is also the only free agent who is a definite top line forward.
If Richards wants to play in Toronto, Burke would certainly pay him market value. There should be no doubt about that.
However, I wouldn't expect Richards to sign with Toronto.
Perhaps the Leafs just aren’t good enough, or perhaps he won't want to play for Ron Wilson. Maybe he won’t want the pressure and media scrutiny associated with being labeled "Toronto's Savior."
Some teams will surely offer more money, or a longer term. Richards could be reunited with former teammates in Tampa Bay, or play for John Tortorella in New York.
Whatever it is, don’t bet on Richards being a Toronto Maple Leaf next year.
After Richards, there are few UFA options. The Leafs might be interested in Ville Leino or Jussi Jokinen. However, if they don't stay with their respective teams, expect them to go to the highest bidder.
With the heightened salary cap minimum, several teams (including the Islanders, Panthers, Stars, and Avalanche) are going to be throwing money at free agents. This will hurt Burke's chances of signing top—level UFAs.
5B. Acquire a Top Line Forward: Plan B (Trade)
Toronto fans should prepare for this. It likely involves some waiting.
If Brad Richards doesn't sign with Toronto, Brian Burke will have to give up something (LOTS) to get the top line forward Toronto desperately covets.
Many rumors link the Leafs to RFAs like Steven Stamkos or Zach Parise. Other rumors have the Leafs making a deal for Paul Stastny. Even Evgeni Malkin and Eric Staal have been linked (foolishly) to Toronto. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think the Leafs have any chance of acquiring Stamkos, Parise, Malkin, or Staal.
What would it take? How much is too much to give up for a franchise player?
The Leafs were reportedly willing to part with Nikolai Kulemin and Nazem Kadri to obtain Mike Richards, but the offer from the Kings blew that one away.
Many are going to disagree with me here, but I don't think Kulemin is a player the Leafs can afford to trade. I realize that Mike Richards brings a lot more than just scoring, but his numbers last year were not much better than Kulemin's. Although Kulemin had a career year, Richards had better players around him. Morever, trading Kulemin would jeopardize the chemistry of Toronto's only reliable scoring line.
The Leafs will certainly have to give up something to get a star forward, but I think they should focus on giving draft picks in return. Essentially, Brian Burke should make a trade similar to the one he made for Kessel...picks for a player.
Unlike in 2009, when Burke had virtually no assets, the Leafs have many young prospects in the pipeline. The Leafs are hoping to be legitimate contenders in two or three years, and expect to make the playoffs this season. It is unlikely that any of Toronto's 2012 or 2013 draft picks will be capable of immediately cracking their top six.
Now is the time to sacrifice some picks for a player. I suggest either of the following:
Stastny's youth and playmaking abilities would make him a great fit in Toronto. Given some of the bad trades Colorado GM Greg Sherman has made over the past year, perhaps Burke can get a good deal.
What would it take? Perhaps Jonas Gustavsson, Carl Gunnarsson, and Toronto's first-round picks in 2012 and 2013.
This kid is for real, and is only a year or two away from being an impact player in the NHL. Would Toronto's first-round picks in 2012 and 2013 be enough?
Summary: Leafs on Track, Will Likely Be One Trade Away
Entering the July 1 free agent frenzy, Brian Burke's offseason gameplan has been executed perfectly.
The Leafs have locked up James Reimer, and will undoubtedly re-sign Luke Schenn and Clarke MacArthur. With John-Michael Liles, Toronto acquired a puck-moving defenseman who can help improve Toronto's power play.
Burke added to an already strong management team by adding Rick Dudley, and without firing Ron Wilson, has made significant changes to the coaching staff.
In Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy, Toronto was able to draft two first-rounders who they clearly have high expectations for.
Burke has promised to aggressively pursue free agents on July 1. Although the heightened salary cap will increase the cost of most free agents, expect Burke to add some depth and experience to Toronto's forwards.
Burke is expected to make a strong play for Brad Richards. If successful, the Leafs will finally have the star center they've been lacking since Mats Sundin's departure, and will be in a strong position to reach the postseason for the first time since 2004.
It is more likely that Richards doesn't sign with Toronto, and Burke will be forced to do things the hard way. Expect the Leafs to sign additional UFAs who could be used as bargaining chips in a future deal for a star forward.
Burke is known for making blockbuster moves, and has made several great trades for the Leafs. However, as long as Phil Kessel lacks a playmaker to play with, the Kessel trade will always be viewed as Burke's biggest mistake as the Leafs' GM.
Brian Burke knows that he needs a star center, and that he'll probably have to trade to get one. Success or failure in this pursuit will likely define his legacy in Toronto.