Thursday, April 11, 2013

On the Playoffs and John Michael Liles Future in Toronto

We seem to be stuck in a sort of Leafs fan limbo these days. Ever so close to mathematically clinching a playoff spot, butt wary of making any official proclamations given the 10-year hiatus. The team currently sits 5th in the East with 49 points through 40 games; staring down a likely first round matchup with either Boston or Montreal.

Well, I’m going to say it – the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to the playoffs and there is no such thing as jinxes.

Ok, ok! To make sure I’m not struck down by some wayward bolt of lightning in the coming days I’ll hedge it a bit – there is a reasonable if not probable expectation that the Leafs will make the playoffs this season.  Better?

These playoffs will have significant ramifications for the Leafs not only this year, but on their actions or lack thereof in the summer. For fans, there is no doubt that a playoff run of any length will be a moment of pure ecstasy, allowing us to collectively unleash 10 years of pent up Leaf fandom. For the team however, the playoffs will represent a final opportunity for Nonis and the front office to evaluate the roster and decide what changes, if any, will be made in the offseason.
This summer the Leafs have the following players as either a UFA or RFA.

UFAs: Clarke McArthur, Tyler Bozak, Colton Orr, Ryan O’Byrne, Mike Kostka

RFAs: Cody Franson, Mark Fraser, Carl Gunnarsson, Leo Komarov, Joe Colborne, Frazer McLaren, Nazem Kadri

Reviewing the names above it’s clear that this offseason could bring about a number of changes to the roster. Interestingly, the player that most intrigues me is one not listed above, that being John Michael Liles. His play could be the catalyst for a number of changes this offseason and directly impact some of the players listed above.

JML played hockey at Michigan State University for 4 years before signing on with the Colorado Avalanche AHL affiliate Hershey Bears in 2002. He played the 2003-04 season in the NHL with Avalanche amassing 34 points in 79 games as a rookie. Over his first 5 seasons in the league he scored over 10 goals 4 times and registered north of 39 points on three occasions.  Expectations were high when arrived when Toronto traded a 2nd round pick to acquire Liles in June of 2011, as he was coming off o 46 point campaign and carried a reputation as one of the games better offensive blueliners.  

Liles' time with the Maple Leafs has been somewhat turbulent, marred by both inconsistent play and time spent in the infirmary. Last year, he registered 7 goals and 20 assists in an injury shortened 66 game season. Brian Burke rewarded him for his strong play midway through the 2011-12 season with a new 4 year, 15.5 million dollar contract. The contract received mixed reviews, while the cap hit of 3.875 is manageable, the term of 4 years for a player 32 years of age raised questions. Since signing the contract, Liles suffered through a concussion at the end of the last season and spent a string of games alongside Mike Komisarek as a healthy scratch this year.

Since re-entering the lineup Liles has shown signs of life, displaying the offensive creativity and puck moving acumen that he was known for in Colorado. Over the past 6 games he has registered a goal and 3 assists, despite seeing somewhat limited ice time in the team's 3rd defensive pairing. At many times during games he is jumping into the offensive zone and helping to create odd man rushes. In the playoffs, when goal scoring typically sees a decline due to tighter checking, having your defence generate offensive chances will be critical. Additionally, he has made a number of sublime passes while on the attack, making the backhand spin-o-rama pass a regular part of his repertoire.

The questions surrounding Liles seem to center less on his physical ability, which appears to still be intact, and more around how Randy Carlyle intends to use him. If Randy is using Liles as the 4th or 5th defenseman, seeing some time on the 2nd power play unit, then his $3.8 million dollar cap hit can be managed. However, if Carlyle sees Liles as more of 6th defenseman who spends some time in the press box as a healthy scratch then the contract could be detrimental over the next 3 years.

Adding to the complexity of the Liles situation is the future of Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. There is the potential that one, or both, could be skating in the NHL next season, rendering a number of the skills possessed by Liles redundant. While you can never have too many offensive puck moving defenseman on your roster, Carlyle and Nonis have proven to favour having an injection of size and truculence on the back end.  

Which brings us back to this year’s probable playoff run and what it means to JML. Should Liles continue his strong play and assert himself as an integral piece of defence it will provide Nonis with a number of options. He can decide to keep Liles, perhaps allowing Cody Franson to leave as a RFA and exploring trade options for the highly regarded Gardiner for a potential centerman or upgrade elsewhere. Now I’m not recommending the team trade Gardiner, merely pointing out it would be an option. However, should Liles falter, or fall further out of favor with the coaching staff; Nonis may work to ship Liles out in the offseason. JML’s contract isn’t necessary ideal, but it’s not onerous to the point of being unmoveable. Teams like Detroit and even the Avalanche have been rumored to need a solid puck moving defenseman and Liles may be a player they could use.

As the team closes in on the playoffs I don’t expect fans to be thinking about next season and beyond, as the thrill of a post season push will certainly be riveting. However, for the MLSE front office the playoffs look to be a blend of emotion and strategic planning as players like Liles audition for future roles.


Cole said...

good post. I agree, its not Liles fault necessarily that hes not producing being used in a third line role, or worse, but some changes have to be made if it continues. I had high hopes for Liles originally, but now...

Anonymous said...

Stranger things have happened but I have trouble seeing the Avs trading for Liles after trying to move him for a year.

Darren K said...

I haven’t read anything specifically linking Liles to the Avalanche. One of the Colorado beat reporters had mentioned their lack of top 4 D-man outside of Erik Johnson. Hard to say whether or not they would ever welcome him back, in the piece I wanted to indicate that there are teams in need of defenseman, and that there is at least the possibility Liles is a fit.