Monday, January 23, 2012

The Untouchables: Identifying The Leafs' Core Before The Deadline

They say that good things come to those who wait and Leaf fans have been waiting a long time.  After 6 seasons without playoff hockey, the Leafs find themselves a handful of points out of a playoff spot with a team talented enough to make up that ground.  The Toronto Maple Leafs' rebuild is well under way but that's not to be confused with 'finished'.

Since arriving in Toronto, Brian Burke has made the team younger, faster, and more talented than the version of the team he inherited.  He's added core pieces to the team and improved the pool of prospects.  With these factors in mind, I've had the utmost confidence in Burke since he took over the team but recently I've come to realize that this was the easy part and I've found myself wondering if I've given "him credit for too much cleverness.  My impression was that he's just another blundering American."

The quote above is from Michael Curtiz's 'Casablanca' and is in reference to Rick Blaine.  In the end, as it turns out, Rick was due all the 'credit' Captain Renault had heaped on him and that's certainly what I'm hoping for in Burke's case as well.

The real heavy lifting is about to start for Brian Burke.  He has some decent prospects, some depth at every position, and a couple of players who could easily be perennial All-Stars.  The challenge for Burke and his management team is deciding which of these players are worth keeping as core pieces moving forward.

At center, the Leafs have Connolly, Bozak, and Colborne all signed for next season and Grabovski poised to be a UFA at the end of the year.  It's fairly clear that one of these four will need to move on and while Grabovski seems the obvious 'odd man out' given his contract status, I would argue he's also our best center.

Grabovski is a player who can reliably be counted on for mid-50s points and strong two-way play.  He's been the Leafs most consistent player over the last year-and-a-half and he's a guy that I think we should fight hard to keep.

Colborne certainly has some upside but probably tops out as a second-line center.  He's big, he's a good passer, and he skates well for his size but he's still quite young and isn't, at this point, an NHL-calibre top-six center.  He's a guy that should stick around unless he's packaged for an impact, top-six forward.

Similarly, Nazem Kadri has the tools to be a top-six offensive player in the not-too-distant future.  He certainly doesn't seem to be a favourite of Wilson's however and one wonders if his days as a Leaf might be numbered.  I'm reluctant to give up on Kadri but again, if the payoff is an impact, top-six forward, then I think Burke would be remiss if he didn't consider moving the young winger.

On the wings, the Leafs have Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul both putting up better than a point per game.  Kessel is a guy who has consistently put up 30+ goals and at this stage of his career, one would think he'll be an All-Star for years to come.  Lupul is someone I'm much more skeptical about.  Having said that, there's no chance you get point-per-game value in a trade that sends Lupul packing so I think you hold on to him until he proves he isn't that kind of player.

Nikolai Kulemin is another guy that I think should be part of the core moving forward.  He scored 30 goals last season (granted, with an inflated shooting percentage) but he's a very good three-zone player and I believe he'll consistently hover around 25 goals if he's skating in a top-six role.  This clearly hasn't been Kulemin's year, but I believe in him.

On defense, I've been very impressed by the play of both Carl Gunnarsson and Jake Gardiner.  Gunnarsson has seen some praise recently as one of the league's most underrated defensemen.  While he's stylistically different than Francois Beauchemin, he's been similarly effective (and under appreciated) in the Leafs' lineup.  Gardiner is young and prone to the odd mistake in coverage but his skating and transition defense have both been very strong this year.  I love his upside.

Dion Phaneuf has returned to form and is back among the NHL's elite offensive defensemen.  Dion is on nearly a 50 point pace and seems poised to put up his best offensive numbers since his Norris trophy nomination.  Even his defensive game has improved this season and there's no doubt that he's going to be a Leaf for the longterm.

Luke Schenn is in a similar position to Joe Colborne.  I believe he'll be a top-4 defenseman in the longterm but his game clearly hasn't been there this year.  Physically, he's a beast but I would like to see him shed some muscle this offseason in an effort to gain a little extra speed.  He's a step slow right now and the extra weight he's carrying may be part of his problem.  If Schenn were a necessary piece in a package to land a star player, I wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger but I'm not about to give up on him for a quick fix or for futures either.

As far as I'm concerned, the Leafs' core breaks down like this:

The Core

Mikhail Grabovski
Phil Kessel
Joffrey Lupul
Nikolai Kulemin
Dion Phaneuf
Carl Gunnarsson
Jake Gardiner

The Pieces You'd Like To Keep

Joe Colborne
Nazem Kadri
Luke Schenn
Tim Connolly

The Bait

John-Michael Liles
Jonas Gustavsson
Tyler Bozak
Clarke MacArthur
Cody Franson
Keith Aulie
Matthew Lombardi

As I said last week, I think the Leafs should be strategic sellers at the trade deadline.  I'd like to see them add some futures, clear enough cap space for Grabovski to be re-signed, and for Burke to make a strong push for whatever premiere talent is available in an offseason trade.  If there are star-calibre players available at the deadline, then of course I'd like to see Burke make a push to land them, but these moves tend to happen in the offseason rather than the deadline.

How Brian Burke evaluates the talent that he has on his own roster and how he manages his cap space in order to keep his core together might be the most important tasks of his tenure up to this point.  As much as I like the job he's done thus far, these next 6 months will determine --perhaps as much as the Kessel trade-- whether his tenure is a success, or a failure.

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Duncan said...

My only question is why is Franson in your expendable list?

He has been solid lately and has proven he deserves a spot on the roster. Not only that but he has the potential to be a legitimate top 4 D in the very near future.

Curt S said...

I have to confess, I did struggle with placing Franson. I agree that he has top 4D potential and I would certainly rather keep him than say, Aulie.

Ultimately, if you want to get something, you've got to give something up.

Doctor Alex said...

this is the entry i've been waiting for! i think your evaluation is great... burke has made solid decisions/great-trades, and i think his only con was suggesting early-on that he would be able to flip this team quickly. i'm satisfied with the rebuild as it has developed... one area you don't touch is goalies... 'the monster' has been holding his own pretty well in 2012... reimer hasn't been quite the same since that concussion. hmmmm!

Curt S said...

While Gustavsson's play lately has been strong overall, the underlying numbers don't really seem to favour him over Reimer. Reimer's even strength save percentage, for example, is quite a bit better than Gustavsson's. Couple that with The Monster being a UFA at year's end and I would say he's probably not a Leaf next year. Just a guess.