I'd like to preface this post by saying that I think we all know what they will do but what I want to talk about is what they should do. The Leafs haven't made the playoffs since Brian Burke took over and started his rebuild-on-the-fly and they're only 3 points out heading into tonight's game. There's little doubt in my mind that the Leafs are looking to add and, truthfully, I like their chances of getting in if they do.
What kind of chances would we have if we did get in though? This post isn't intended to be a treatise on the Leafs' porous defense, their small-ish forwards, or its sub-standard goaltending but the truth is, this team is not built to succeed in the playoffs. And frankly, "I'm not interested in getting our [butts] kicked in the first round."
I'm not a negative guy by disposition. This blog is rife with effusive posts praising Burke for his craftiness and his cunning as he pulled together a group of respectable prospects and a middle-of-the-pack NHL roster. We're much further along than we were when Burke took over and the future looks brighter still; you'll get no argument from me on these points. Having said this, the future is still in the future.
Now I don't want to come off as excessively reactive. Danny Gray had a great post on LeafsNation where he warns us against losing perspective during short losing streaks. These streaks are the cross that a fan of a bubble team must bear. The objective truth is that there are key pieces missing on this team right now.
As I look at this roster, I don't feel that the team is that far off. Phaneuf is back to being an elite offensive defenseman and his defensive play is as good as it's been since the Leafs acquired him. Gunnarsson has really solidified himself as a top-4 calibre defenseman. Phil Kessel has made the leap from very good goal scorer to elite offensive performer and Joffrey Lupul has come along for the ride. In Grabovski and Kulemin, the Leafs have a pair of two-way players who can play a great support role to a strong top line. We're getting there.
What we really need is to set the team up for a strong offseason.
It looks increasingly likely that none of the big names on the rumour mill will be moved prior to the trade deadline -- these moves just seem to happen with more regularity in the offseason. So how do we get ourselves in position to make a play for one of these guys, should they become available?
It may not be a popular position to take but, in my opinion, the Leafs should be sellers this trade deadline.
As things sit today, the Leafs have $15M in cap space heading into next season and some key RFAs in Kulemin, Franson, Aulie, and Frattin who need to be re-signed. If we consider that Grabovski is headed to unrestricted free agency it's apparent that this team could use some financial flexibility.
Even aside from financial flexibility, it's incumbent on the Leafs to bring in as many longterm assets as they can in order to make a push for this offseason's Mike Richards or Jeff Carters.
John-Michael Liles and Jonas Gustavsson are both UFAs who would carry some value for a team looking to load up for the playoffs. Liles in particular is the kind of defenseman with an expiring contract that teams seem to love at the trade deadline.
The Leafs also have a glut of players in the $3 to 4.5M range with contracts that expire in 2013. Guys like Connolly, MacArthur, or Lombardi may also be movable and would provide the team with the cap flexibility that they need heading into the offseason.
If this team is going to take a step forward, these are the kinds of tough decisions that need to be made. Grabovski is a player that the Leafs can ill afford to lose and with their current cap situation, it would be a challenge to re-sign him. Getting out from under some of these contracts is important for the Leafs moving forward.
The hard truth is, for the Leafs to move forward, this season needs to be another year of asset acquisition.
Brian Burke has done a fantastic job of adding assets to a franchise that had very little team equity but that's the easy part. There are tough personnel decisions ahead and it may require not putting our best foot forward to close out this season. For the first time on the road to respectability, it seems like there is an even pull between 'push now' and 'build for later' and the fork that Burke chooses to take might be his toughest decision to date -- other than sending Colton Orr to the Marlies, of course.
I had some great input from @charlesbrosky , @mantonio09 , @leafschatter , and @Hedgery while putting this post together. Putting out content and coming up with ideas for blogposts can be a challenge without these conversations so I'm really greatful for the input I get.
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