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.

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