Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Toronto Maple Leafs Offseason Expectations

There isn't much that's easier than being indignant on the internet.  A cursory glance through your Twitter feed will back this up, as will a look through the comments section on basically any online TSN article about the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Perhaps the only thing that's easier is to explain away mistakes your team has made after the fact.  Fandom, in many cases, can breed an unwavering idolatry that can convince us to accept things that we probably shouldn't.

In an effort to keep myself honest, I try to enter every major period on the hockey calendar with a set of 'dream' and 'nightmare' scenarios pre-established.  What outcome would I see as a success?  What constitutes a failure?  These are questions I ask, and generally document, before the fact so that I can evaluate management decisions as dispassionately as possible.

With the NHL offseason halfway to its conclusion,  I thought I'd look at what my expectations were heading into the offseason and how close the Leafs are to achieving what I would define as a successful result.

The Draft

I published my dream and nightmare scenarios for the draft in mid-April and while the Leafs never had the opportunity to draft the player I had my eyes on, Alex Galchenyuk, they did land one of my three consolation prizes in Morgan Rielly.  The player the Leafs took in the second round, defenseman Matt Finn, is a guy I certainly did not expect them to even have a shot at with the 35th overall selection.

While it would have been great to land a high-ceiling forward who could slot into the lineup sooner rather than later, it's tough to have much of a problem with how things went down at the draft.  Short of having traded up, or possibly drafting Grigorenko, things couldn't have gone too much better.

Team Needs

Outside of the draft, I felt that the Leafs needed to add, in order of importance;
  • a reliable goaltender
  • a top-4 defenseman
  • some size to their forward group
  • a strong penalty killer
With roughly half of the offseason in the books, the Leafs have managed to address the two low priority items but haven't done anything to assuage my two primary concerns with the lineup.

Size: The trade of Luke Schenn to Philadelphia for James Van Riemsdyk added some size to our top-6 forward group and also provided a more balanced salary distribution between our forwards and our defense.  I'm not really the type who believes strongly that you need a team of hard-hitting forwards to win hockey games - though I concede that it is one way to do so, when it's coupled with skill - but the addition of Van Riemsdyk will allow the team to play a more diverse brand of hockey.  He can play in front of the goal and can add to a cycle game that was nearly non-existent in the Leafs lineup for large swaths of the 2011-12 campaign.

Penalty Killer: Jay McClement was the only significant (using the word 'significant' loosely) July 1st free agent signing.  He's inexpensive, he wins faceoffs, and he kills penalties.  If he can provide a boost to a team penalty kill that was an abysmal 77.3% then it was money well-spent, in my opinion.

Goalie: Burke neglected to pull the trigger on Tomas Vokoun prior to July 1st and Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero swept in, acquired his rights, and signed him to a modest 2-year, $2M per year contract.  Vokoun's inexpensive ticket and short term deal, coupled with a solid track record of better-than-league-average goaltending would have been precisely what the doctor ordered for the Leafs.

Roberto Luongo remains on the market and could certainly provide the Leafs with the reliable goaltender they'll need though his contract will see him make over $5.3M from now until 2022.  Depending on the asset cost to acquire Luongo, I still feel this could be a deal worth making for a team sorely in need of a reliable backstop. 

4th Defenseman: Unless Burke is playing coy about his offseason plans, it doesn't look like he'll be pursuing a defenseman.  He's been quoted as saying that this is the area of the team he's most comfortable with which leads me to believe that he hasn't been opening my emails or at the very least isn't convinced by them.  While I'm happy with our first pairing of Gunnarsson and Phaneuf, and I'm content to let Gardiner test his mettle with better linemates against tougher competition, I'm a little bit uneasy with the prospect of gambling on Liles' health when our other top-4 options are Mike Komisarek, Cody Franson, and Korbinian Holzer.  I'd really like to see a more reliable defensive defenseman added to the roster but I think I'm going to have to just wait for the 'I told you so' on this one.

Where We Stand

If the regular season started today and I were forced to predict whether or not the Leafs as currently constructed would make the playoffs, I would have to say 'no'.  Reimer or Scrivens may provide us with the league average goaltending which, at minimum, we would need to compete for a playoff spot but that isn't a bet I'd make with my own money.  I have some concerns about the strength of our defense when it comes to... well, defending, and I'm not so sure that our penalty kill will be dramatically improved (though I'm a little more hopeful on this front).

As things stand now, everything would have to fall nicely into place and that simply never seems to happen to anyone other than the 2011-12 Florida Panthers.

With that said, we're still a week away from August and Burke has promised (some would say ominously) that he's "not done" which is good to hear, because there's plenty of heavy lifting left to do.  

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