Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Hello Nonis"......Trying to Find the Positives During a Difficult Leafs Off-season

My feelings towards the Maple Leafs this off-season are mixed, to say the least. On the one hand, the team finally broke through what had been 9 seasons of futility and provided a new generation of fans with playoff memories. On the other, the off-season, one that should have marked the continued build towards being a contender, has been marred by disappointment.

Heading into the summer break I felt like the roster had a number of areas requiring upgrades, but possessed the flexibility to address most, if not all, of those areas. My list of priorities went something like this:
  • A top 4 defenseman
  • A 1st or 2nd line centerman
  • Checking line winger
  • Improve forward prospects
  • Maintain cap flexibility

While I didn’t see adding a goaltender as a priority, I have not taken umbrage with the Bernier deal the way some fans have. Scrivens, while a serviceable backup, did not appear destined to challenge Reimer for the starting job. Frattin showed signs of great improvement last year and looked like a nice fit on the 3rd line. The 2nd round pick is certainly a valuable commodity, but not something the Leafs absolutely needed to protect. Bernier has long been considered the best backup goalie in the league and at times was rumored to usurp Jonathan Quick as the Kings starter. Regardless of how may feel about Reimer's talent, he has played in 45, 42 and 69 percent of leaf games over the last 3 years. Health has been an issue, all but forcing management to consider bringing in a quality goalie to work in tandem.

Where I started to scratch my head was while watching Dave Nonis’ around the beginning of free agency. Buying out your most talented centerman so that you can use the money to resign a player that is deemed by both advanced stat gurus and Joe six pack hockey fans to be a below average centerman is almost inexpiable.

Compounding the issue is that Nonis kyboshed his much beloved cap flexibility by signing a near 30 year old power forward to a contract possessing both significant term and dollars. I am extremely excited for what Clarkson can bring to the lineup in years one and two of the deal, but very few forwards of his ilk have been productive through their mid 30s.

Nonis left himself with limited dollars to sign a number of pivotal RFAs, along with the contract of John Michael Liles which should have been a formality as the team’s second and final compliance buyout after Mike Komisarek

This year’s entry draft was considered by many to be the deepest in nearly a decade. Fantastic value could be found throughout the first 15 picks, with a number of high end offensive prospects. I have to give the team a lot of credit for their stockpiling of young defenseman. In Rielly, Gardiner, Percy, Finn, and Blacker the team has a strong future. Conversely, the Leafs system is running on empty when it comes to top 6 forwards. With players like Nichushkin being taken at 10 and Max Domi at 12, I wish the Leafs had been able to move up – trading in some of their existing prospects to leverage a better pick than 21.

A look around league at other free agency signings does little to curb my disappointment. This year saw the following contracts signed; Derek Roy 1 year at $4million; Dustin Penner 1 year for $2million, and Viktor Stalberg 4 years, $3 million per season. I don’t know if I would prefer to have Derek Roy and Dustin Penner to Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson. I know for certain I would rather have Roy, Penner, close to $3 million in cap space, and 9 less years of term in lieu of the Leafs players. It is perplexing to see other franchises making financially prudent moves while Nonis felt compelled to shell out such lucrative deals.

Reviewing my original off-season wish list we can see that team didn't successfully address any of the stated needs. Now, despite the fact I have spent nearly an entire post bemoaning the missteps of our fearless leader Mr. Nonis there is still a silver lining, some reasons to believe in this roster. Amidst all of the negative feelings that have arisen this past month I had forgotten a number of the positives surrounding this roster.

Below are list of happy thoughts as we trudge through the remainder of the offseason.
  • Phil Kessel is kind of good at hockey. Back to back seasons in the top 10 of league scoring and still only 25. There aren’t many players worth $8 million per season for 8 years but he is one of them.
  • The winger core is one of the best in the league. Did we need David Clarkson? Not really. Does he make our wingers one of the better groupings in the league? Yea, probably. A corps that contains Lupul, JVR, Clarkson, and Kessel in the top six will no doubt be productive.
  • Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner will provide offence from the backend. It has been a while since the team had young, exciting, puck moving defensemen. You probably have to look back to Tomas Kaberle in his prime years to find the most recent example. Gardiner was dominant at times in the Boston series and all reports from prospects camp indicate Rielly may arrive at the pro level this season. Few teams in the league have two prospects of this caliber.
  • Nikolai Kulemin didn’t leave! It is unlikely I could have withstood the departure of both Grabovski and Kulemin in the same offseason; the sheer pain it would have inflicted is too much to imagine. Kulemin is an effective player who drives possession and rarely receives the attention her deserves. He should slot in nicely on a shutdown third line with Bolland and McClement.
  • We are not New Jersey Devil fans. It is hard not to feel for a franchise that in just over one year witnessed the loss of Zach Parise, David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk. With Elias entering his final years and Broduer likely retiring at season’s end it is a time of transition for the team. The Leafs certainly have made blunders, but the errors seem to pale in comparison to what the Devils will be facing in the coming years. At least they have Michael Ryder…
There is little enjoyment to be taken from watching a 36 year old David Clarkson try to keep up on your second line, or listening to radio call in show champion Tyler Bozak’s 52 percent face-off percentage, but alas there is hope. So the next time an image of Dave Nonis’ face has you feeling down about the Leafs, and life, just remember, there are still some exciting pieces on this team.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

For a Few Dollars More - A Look at David Clarkson's Contract

The general consensus regarding David Clarkson’s new deal seems to be something along the lines of – we are happy to have him in Toronto, we just wish it wasn't for seven years. The yearly cap hit of $5.25 million feels reasonable, if only it were for 4 or 5 years.

On the ice Clarkson is almost certainly an upgrade to the team’s forward group and affords Carlyle significant flexibility in how he decides to set up the lines. He showed in New Jersey his ability to play in a variety of capacities, either as a top six scoring winger, or in a checking role. His special teams impact has been made largely on the power play, as he has only played 6 minutes, in his entire career, shorthanded.

In trying to wrap my head around the contract and whether it will represent a good investment for the team I think it is useful to break up the deal into two parts – the first 4 years and the final 3.

The back portion of this deal, between 2017 to 2020 will likely not be friendly to the Maple Leafs. Today’s NHL salary cap sits at $64,300,000, meaning he represents 8.2 percent of the space. If we assume, for the purpose of discussion, that the cap rises by 5 percent per year we can surmise that by 2017 the cap would sit at approximately $75,000,000. At that number Clarkson's salary would account for 7% of the cap. A lesser number of course, but still a substantial amount of the available dollars.

I wanted to look at the two parts of the deal in comparison to other players who make in and around what Clarkson does annually. Using these players as comparables we can begin to understand if David’s deal is in line with others. Of course his contract was inked as an unrestricted free agent, which often results in more considerable cap hits. To me this fact is somewhat erroneous, since signing too many lucrative UFA contracts is a surefire way to cap mismanagement. For the sake of this comparison we will not consider whether the player signed a RFA or UFA deal, focusing only on how the deal’s cap hit effects the team – essentially in a vacuum.

Some comparables, courtesy of cap geek are:

With the exception of David Krejci all of the contracts are at least 5 years in length. The Evander Kane and Jamie Benn contracts have been handed out as long term deals where there is a real possibility that both players will outperform their cap hit at some point. Kane and Benn will be eligible for unrestricted free agency at the age of 28 and no doubt will be in search of a long term, big money deal.

Objectively, comparing dollar to dollar, I would prefer to have either Benn or Kane in comparison to Clarkson. This is somewhat unfair, since they were signed by their teams at the end of ELCs, however, for this post we are looking at pure dollar value, irrespective of when the deal was signed.

Joffrey Lupul is an interesting comparable - his annual cap hit felt warranted on the heels of a 66 game 2011-12 season where he recorded 25 goals and 42 assistants, blossoming into one of the more offensively gifted players in the league. However, the deal will carry Lupul into his mid 30s, that for a player that has struggled with injuries and consistency. I would have preferred a 3 or 4 year deal if possible. It is difficult to say who I would rather have of these two at the same cap figure, let’s call it a tie.

The two mammoth contracts on this list are that of Jeff Carter and Marian Hossa. I am bit of a Hossa fanboy, considering him one of the most underrated superstars of the 2000s and beyond. Having said that, this contract represents significant risk for Chicago as Hossa moves into his mid to late 30s. With two Stanley cup wins, due in no small part to the presence of Hossa, it’s is unlikely the Blackhawks are overly concerned with the long term ramifications. Over the next year or so I would lean towards Hossa, seeing him as top end player. However, Clarkson may represent the better value in years 2,3,4. For now I’ll have to call it wash, again.  

In the case of Carter we again have a team that was successful in winning a cup with him playing a large role. At 28 he still has, at least in theory, many productive years ahead of him. I don’t think he was the type of player that should have commanded this type of term and dollars. Saying that, he is significant talent that can do things on the ice Clarkson likely can’t. Carter’s goal scoring over the past 5 seasons has been elite, registering 46, 33, 36, 31 (pro-rated) and 44 (pro-rated). That level of production to me makes him the better choice over Clarkson.

Lastly, we have the newly signed contract of Nathan Horton. The seven year length of this contract feels head scratchingly (if thats a word) long for a player who has struggled with serious concussion symptoms. Over the past 5 seasons Nathan has only played over 67 games once. When at his best Horton can be an extremely effective player, but to commit this kind of dollars and term felt overzealous on the part of the Blue Jackets. I suppose they are a smaller market team, and attracting free agents may be difficult, but I would have overpaid elsewhere. My preference is David Clarkson, based in large part on the long term health concerns surrounding Horton.

To sum up, of the 6 contracts I looked at Benn, Kane, and Carter all appear to be more value than Clarkson. Lupul and Hossa's deals moving forward are close to a tie in value, while I would take Clarkson’s contract outright over the one signed by fellow UFA Horton. 

This comparison, while admittedly not all encompassing (one mans opinion), seems to be somewhat in line with the prevailing belief that the Leafs overpaid to get what was the biggest fish in the pond that is free agency. If the salary cap increases substantially there is a chance that Clarkson’s deal can shift to a considerably lower percentage of the cap as his skills diminish and he takes on a lesser role with the team.

Conversely, should the salary cap rise slowly, at or below 5% per year, this contract could become increasingly painful for the Maple Leafs. Only time will tell, perhaps we should all take a lesson from Dave Nonis and worry about the future some other time... like in the future.

“I’m not worried about six or seven right now….I’m worried about one. And Year 1, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.” – Dave Nonis

Here’s hoping Dave.

Monday, July 8, 2013

My Take On The Leafs' Offseason So Far

When you're a fan of a sports team, it seems like every offseason is more important than the last but this offseason really was a different animal than your usual summer for the Maple Leafs.

The new CBA brought with it a pair of amnesty buyouts and there were no shortage of candidates on the Leafs' roster.  Add to this a number of key RFAs, gaping holes on the blueline, and the team's best two players one year removed from Unrestricted Free Agency, and it's safe to say that this is an offseason like few others.

With most of the dust of the offseason settled, here are my impressions of the Leafs' summer thus far.

Leafs Trade Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens, and a 2nd Round Pick for Jonathan Bernier

If you're wondering why the Leafs moved assets to acquire a goalie then you're probably not alone.  James Reimer was the team's MVP last year and the primary reason why the team was able to break its playoff drought.  That said, while a goalie upgrade wasn't a high priority, I do think that the Leafs got the better end of the trade.

My concern with the deal is what it may mean as it pertains to management's belief in James Reimer.  If I were a betting man, I'd put money on Reimer being the better goalie but it doesn't bother me at all to have two viable options.  What would bother me is if Reimer weren't the leading candidate for the starting role heading into the 2013-'14 season.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Underrated and Unappreciated - Saying Farewell to Grabbo

We here at BCP are deeply saddened by the departure of Mikhail Grabovski, on two fronts. Firstly, he was a heck of a player who when on his game was a dynamic second line center capable of playing in all situations. Secondly, neither one of us understand how to properly use Photoshop which means changing our blog header is going be a headache.

James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail has summed up the view of Leaf Nation:

The Leafs bought out Grabovski’s contract on Thursday afternoon, spending a little more than $14-million to punt a player who had become incredibly divisive in Leafs Nation, primarily for his lack of offensive production.

It was disappointing to watch Grabovski fall out of favor with many Leaf fans this season, while the majority of those in the blogging community, more attune with advanced stats the deeper metrics continued to support him. It is even more disappointing to believe the Dave Nonis would have actually bought out Grabovksi because of pressure from fans who decided that Mikhail 9 goals in the lockout shortened season made him expendable.

Listening to morning radio shows this year fans lambasted Grabbo daily, calling him for to be more productive on the offensive end, to help provide the ever valuable secondary scoring. Few analysts took the time to explain properly to the public that Grabovski spent the majority of his time on the ice with Jay McClement, Leo Komarov, and Nikolai Kulemin (courtesy FrozenPool). While I like Jay and Nikolai as players they do not possess the offensive talent of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, or James van Riemsdyk. Yet, almost inexplicably, Grabovski regularly had his goal and assist totals compared directly to that of players skating in the top six.

In 2011-12 Grabovski averaged just over 2 minutes each night on the power play. In 2010-11, a season in which he recorded 58 points, including 29 goals, he averaged over 3 minutes a game with the man advantage. This year his power play time continued to dwindle, finishing with an average of only 1:42 per game, being deployed primarily on the second unit or not at all.

Compounding the issue for Mikhail was where he started most shifts. According to Behind the Net Grabovski started 36.7% of his shifts in the other team’s zone, the third lowest percentage of any player on the Leafs roster. Compare that to Phil Kessel (49.0%) and Joffrey Lupul (47.7%) and it is clear Grabbo was not being put in a position to contribute goals and assists.

All of this would have been fine had the team and Randy Carlyle simply explained that Mikhail's role had shifted to that of a defensive centerman. Grabovski being utilized as a shut down 3rd line center, playing important minutes against the oppositions best players. Helping to shield the less experienced Nazem Kadri from opposition he likely couldn’t manage in the defensive end.  But they never did, choosing instead to let the growing negatively fester all season until it finally reached an end yesterday.

What is most troublesome is the common theory that Grabovski wasn’t living up to his 5 year, $27.5 million dollar contract. I’m willing to admit that Grabovski was slightly overpaid. In an ideal setting his deal would have carried a cap hit in the 4.5 to 4.75 range. Was it worth losing a player with the diverse skill set of Grabovski over an $800,000 discrepancy in pay? My initial reaction has been no, especially if the dollars saved are earmarked for Tyler Bozak.

This post no doubt reads like an angry Leafs blogger venting his frustration over losing a favourite player, and that is to a degree factual. However, there are a number of circumstances under which I’m willing to forgive Nonis for this buyout, or at least understand his view.

Phil Kessel is due a contract extension sometime this coming season, a deal which will be 8 years in length and close to if not exceeding $8 million dollars a year. Additionally, Dion Phaneuf will be looking for a new contract, albeit not as lucrative, but at least $6 million and substantial term. If buying out Grabovski was a necessary move to make the contracts of these two core players work than I can least understand what lead to the decision, even if I cannot wholeheartedly support it.

Right now the Leafs center ice depth chart reads Kadri – Bolland – McClement – "some guy". That would be one of the lesser groupings in the league, at least on paper. It is unlikely that Nonis has completed his offseason makeover; we can only hope that there is still at least one move to come that will help round out the center ice position.

Whatever free agency and the trade market bring the Leafs lost a significant player yesterday. We wish you the best Grabbo, you will be missed. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

"$40 million in this bag right now and nobody gets hurt, I mean it!" - Tyler Bozak

When the NHL fought to keep player contracts to fewer than 8 years (7 for UFAs leaving for a different team) I don’t imagine they expected Tyler Bozak to be one of the players discussing such a deal. 

A friend asked how I felt about the contract demands and whether the Leafs should consider acquiescing to Mr. Bozak. My response is probably best summed up by Michael Scott:

It has been hard not to laugh a bit the last couple days at the expense of the Leafs soon-to-be former number one centerman. Asking for 5 million dollars a season for 8 years is almost inconceivable for a player who is considered among most hockey pundits to be best served as a third liner.

The proposed contract really only makes sense when we break it down into sub parts. Had he asked for 8 years at 1.75 million we could have understood his wanting long term financial security in lieu of a big pay day. Had Bozak requested 10 million a year over 2 seasons we could see his wanting to cash in on a short term deal - thereby forcing him to earn his next contract.

Neither seems to be the case. And with the recent acquisition of Dave Bolland is seems rather unlikely that Tyler Bozak has any leverage in this negotiation. The Leafs are capable of starting next season with Kadri – Grabovski – Bolland – McClement as the 4 players down the middle. There isn't a place for Bozak on this team anymore, and his absurd contract demands seem to be the explanation point on what was already going to be an unworkable situation.

It’s interesting to reflect on the Bolland trade now in the context of Tyler Bozak. Yes, it’s nice to no longer be handcuffed by our lack of center depth, allowing the team to dismiss Bozak's demands and finally cease the never-ending quest to anoint him a first line center. Conversely, the acquisition of Bolland has created a log jam of 2nd and 3rd line centers on a team that desperately needed someone to play in the top six.

Rumors have circulated this week that the signing of Toronto native David Clarkson is all but complete once the free agency period opens later this week. It’s difficult to argue with Clarkson’s production over the past 2 seasons, amassing 30 goals in 2012-13 and 15 in this ears truncated campaign. He has managed to morph his game from that of a prototypical 3rd line grinder into a useful player that can play across an entire lineup.

The potential issue lies in committing significant money and term to a player that is approaching 30 and plays a style of game that hasn't historically been conducive with aging. It is possible that Nonis turned over every stone in search of a centerman this off season and simply failed to land anyone of significance. As a substitute he addressed the need via trade with a Chicago team desperate to stay under the cap and through drafting the hulking six foot five Frederik Gauthier 21st in the draft.

Part of me wanted  Nonis to bring in a Vincent Lecavalier or one of the pending 2014-15 free agents in Patrick Marleau or Joe Thornton. However, I can only imagine the price either Shark would have commanded, and the contract signed by Lecavalier is two years too long for a player in his mid 30s.

If Nonis is successful in adding Clarkson and perhaps a 2nd or 3rd pairing defensemen (Scuderi, Ference…etc) than he will have addressed many of the teams needs, at least in earnest. Goaltending depth was an issue – he brought in Bernier. Bolland, to a degree, addresses the need down the middle. Clarkson, despite some concerns around his age and wear, would be a significant improvement to the team’s top 9 forwards. An additional top 4 defenseman would help alleviate some of the onerous minutes Dion Phaneuf has been forced to consume the past two seasons. Of course neither Clarkson nor a defenseman has transpired yet, but if you believe any of the news circulating this week it’s hard to think Nonis will stand pat in free agency, especially given the cap flexibility the team still possesses.

The old cliché says that a rising tide raises all boats. With some tinkering in a number of places Dave Nonis is working diligently to improve multiple facets of the roster, bit by bit. One of the outcomes of these improvements may be the departure of Tyler Bozak and his faceoff wizardry (or slightly above average-dry). And I’m quite alright with that.