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Do the Leafs need a new coach or new Philosophy?
First of all, I do not think that simply bringing in a new coach and continuing with the same exact roster for the most part will pay instant dividends.
First, the team needs to decide what it will do with its goaltending situation. Everyone thinks that Jonathan Bernier was a "savior" for the Leafs and helped bail them out all season. Bernier was average at best. James Reimer's confidence and overall game was destroyed by Dave Nonis and Randy Carlyle from the beginning after taking this team to within seconds of knocking off the mighty Boston Bruins coming back from down 3-1 and winning twice in Boston. Who knows how far the Leafs could have gone if the team had not imploded in the final minutes and seconds of that game seven.
The team needs to decide to keep Reimer or trade him. The same thing cannot happen again next year, and that is a real shame because Reimer should have been the #1 goalie coming into this season. Say what you want to about Reimer, but he took the Leafs further than anyone expected them after years of frustration. To me, he deserved a chance to pick up where he left off, instead the organization goes out and brings in another budding young goaltender who had not even started a single playoff game. Now the team is in a quandary in goal and there should not be. There are a number of other glaring needs and holes to fill, and Nonis has added another one. I still have very little faith in Bernier going forward, but hopefully things can still yet work out for him. This season was not a good one for him by any means. Trading Reimer to a team in need of a young goaltender, one with some playoff experience as well could help bring in a depth forward or another defenseman at least.
Next issue is solidifying the blue line. The team has decided to place faith into Dion Phaneuf, faith they think is deserving of a seven year contract extension, another potential big mistake made by Nonis. But the most fatal side of retaining Phaneuf is pairing him with the softest, most ineffective defenseman in the league in Carl Gunnarsson which makes Phaneuf even more of an easy target and teams know that they can take advantage of the Leafs end every time those two are on the ice. Phaneuf needs someone much tougher and with more experience with him on the ice, perhaps Tim Gleason is the best answer to pair with at this point. Cody Franson is not the answer for the Leafs, as has been even more evident with such an atrocious season of such defensive irresponsibility and overall performance that screamed "I want out!". Seeing that Franson is an RFA, the team should pursue a trading of his rights for someone who could be useful. If Toronto were to hire Barry Trotz, perhaps he will have some motivation for a change and get his game back together for this former coach in Nashville. Otherwise, good riddance. Morgan Reilly was the best Maple Leaf on the ice this season and will continue to get better and gain experience. Bringing in a veteran, battle-tested defenseman to play alongside Reilly could be very beneficial. Carl Gunnarsson is definitely not a top pairing defenseman, but still could be useful as a #5-7 defenseman. Jake Gardiner should be tried out as a forward and with his playmaking skills and skating ability, could turn into a solid top six forward even, and one who could also be a reliable two-way forward with defensive intuition. This leaves the team with four defensmen going into next season and I am not sure about TJ Brennan, Korbinian Holzer or Petter Granberg are the answer, but should at least be given the opportunity.
So, if the Leafs try Gardiner at one of the wings offensively, Toronto still has to decide what to do to make the four lines more effective. At center, the Leafs have Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri under contract. Jay McClement and Dave Bolland are both on the market, but retaining McClement is a priority as he is a perfect fit as a 3rd or 4th line center and a solid penalty killer. Dave Bolland should be let go if he is asking for a pretty big contract. I cannot justify signing a guy who is constantly an injury liability, which is too bad because he is a guy who makes the Leafs a better team, but it really doesn't matter when he plays in just 23 games. Therefore, the Bolland acquisition did not work and won't work again if Nonis decides to keep him at all costs. Peter Holland fits in nicely at the third line center, which still makes the second line center a priority. Does the team hang onto Nazem Kadri, or decide to move him in a trade? Kadri could also be placed in a much larger deal, a deal that could help fill some bigger needs...this summer depends on some bolder moves to be made and Kadri could be made a part of that which is fine with me.
Even bolder could be a trade involving Phil Kessel. I would hate to see him go, seeing that Kessel has turned into a world class forward and pure goal scorer which is hard to come by. Kessel must start devoting more of his game to defense, and perhaps a coach like Barry Trotz can finally get that message through to him. He is still young enough to become a solid two-way forward, so let's not give up hope. Still, if there is a deal out there that just blows Nonis and company away involving the likes of Kessel, then why not go that way.
I truly believe that James van Riemsdyk is one of those players that really cannot be replaced. He too must become a reliable defensive player as well as scoring threat. Players like him do not come around often, and I think that Brian Burke struck gold in that trade with Philadelphia. I am not sure if he should be a top line or second line winger, but it would be tough to break him and Kessel up. Problem is that with both of them on the same line creates more defensive issues if the two still refuse to play hard in their own end of the ice. Kessel is such a gifted goal scorer, it should not matter much who he is paired on a line with. The team needs one more "big" center and someone better or more experienced that Nazem Kadri, which makes the young center even more of an intriguing trading piece.
Joffrey Lupul had a fairly quiet season, but still managed to chip in with 22 goals and 22 assists. The 30 year old winger is still a capable play maker, but is another forward who is not a very strong defensive player. Still, Lupul is an experienced player who helps the Leafs and I do not mind his contract situation, although 5 million plus for perhaps a second line or third line forward is a bit much. He is still a top six forward, at least for now.
The team also needs to decide what to do with Nikolai Kulemin, who is a UFA this summer. I still think he is a good option on the third line and is a pretty solid penalty killer. It would be great if he could provide more offense like he did when he was younger, but he is not a bad defensive forward. The team also has options with the Marlies if Kulemin chooses to leave or the team decides to move on.
Signing Mason Raymond for basically the minimum paid off well for the Leafs. I am sure Raymond will be asking for a bit more this summer, and perhaps the Leafs can fill in his position with a Marlie. If not, bringing him back for another year or two would be better than looking elsewhere.
David Clarkson had a nightmare season, his first with the Maple Leafs. Many people are suggesting buying out his contract, but the Leafs should give him at least another season to improve. The 2014-15 season could not be much worse for Clarkson, Bernier and the Leafs.
With the Marlies pounding lumps on teams in the AHL and look to be a serious Calder Cup contenders at this very moment, perhaps it would not be such a bad idea for the Leafs to look into what they have to help fill some holes. Guys like Jerry D'Amigo, David Broll, Trevor Smith, Josh Leivo, Tyler Biggs, Spencer Abbott and Frederick Gauthier also should be given a shot to fill in some of those holes. Colton Orr is still under contract, which is fine if he can provide more of a gritty edge and drop the gloves a bit more. I do not see much more of a need for Frazer McLaren who was totally ineffective for the Leafs in 2014. He could serve as a depth forward in the AHL, or perhaps be a part of a deal although his trade value is next to nothing.
Whatever happens this summer should be interesting and fun to follow. Changes definitely need to be made, but some of the moves made last summer will continue to haunt the Leafs in the near future. This could mean the departure of James Reimer, Nazem Kadri among other promising young players that Toronto has mismanaged. Trades need to be made and the team should avoid the free agent market outside of perhaps finding some role players to bolster the third and fourth line or perhaps finding a decent veteran defenseman.
My Maple Leafs heading into 2014-15:
Center...perhaps through a big trade?
Wingers...van Riemsdyk and perhaps Gardiner?
Center...Bozak (if not on top line) through a trade?
Wingers...Kessel and Lupul/Gardiner?
Wingers...Clarkson and Raymond? AHL Marlies?
Center...McClement (should be retained)
Wingers...Orr, AHL Marlies or free agency
Top Defense Pair: Phaneuf and Gleason
Second Defense Pair: Reilly and trade/free agent with experience
Third Defense Pair: Gunnarsson and AHL Marlies or trade
Goaltenders: Bernier and free agent/trade (I do not see Reimer returning sadly)
Some Notes on the LA Kings prior to game 6:
The pressure is all on the Sharks in game six and game seven. Todd McClellan's decision of who to start in goal in game six could ultimately lead to the fate of the Sharks and/or Kings.
I do not think that Niemi is good enough to lead the Sharks to the Finals, and may not even be the answer to help the Sharks put away the Kings. If I am the Sharks, I would start Alex Stalock in game six without a doubt. The only way the Sharks will beat the Kings is if the game turns into another high scoring affair, since Niemi needs more than 3 goals to win it seems and it was the same exact way back in 2010 with the Blackhawks against the Flyers. Every game was high scoring except game two, and Niemi was just good enough to help the Hawks win the series in six but needed all the offensive help he could get. I believe that Jonathan Quick has had his worst games of the playoffs behind him and therefore the Sharks could be toying with danger if they continue to start Niemi.
If the Kings were to win game six, beating Niemi, it would be an even tougher decision to throw a young goalie like Stalock into a winner take all game seven. In that respect, I have to give the Kings the edge in completing a miraculous comeback after being down 3-0 in the series.
Tomorrow also depends on the Kings role players stepping up as they did in game four and five. Those role players, more specifically being Dustin Brown (yes a role player at this point and being the captain) and Justin Williams, who need to be the playmakers like they were in 2012. So far, the Sharks bottom six have completely outplayed the Kings bottom six (Dwight King who has been invincible for the most part after a breakout 15 goal 15 assist season and Trevor Lewis to name a couple guys). Everyone, including Mike Richards, who has been playing like a bottom six forward (more on that after the series) need to step it up. It is obvious that the Kings play their best in the postseason when the team is with their backs up against the wall.
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