5 years, $21 million dollars hardly sounds like a good deal for a center that many have called a ‘third-liner’. Calls from media sources and bloggers alike went on throughout the ensuing summer questioning the thinking of Dave Nonis in making the decision to use a compliance buyout on Mikhail Grabovski while re-signing Tyler Bozak to a contract which would overpay him as well. But that wasn’t my first reaction, and I still think Nonis’s likely justification for doing this is solid. With the return of Mikhail Grabovski just behind us and the imminent return of Tyler Bozak from injury to come, I figure it’s time to look back at what happened, why it happened and what plans Nonis likely has in store for Tyler Bozak for his future in Toronto.
Rewinding now to late June of 2013, the situation the Leafs had been in was that they had just been one of the surprise teams of the NHL in 2013 in making the playoffs and giving the Bruins a real run for their money in the first round. They made a big step forward as an organization, but by no means were considered among the serious cup contenders for the upcoming 2013-2014 season. Nazem Kadri had just had a break-out season, but likely wasn’t ready to take on the role of a #1 center just yet. The Leafs had to consider how to fill that position right then and now. There seemed to be four viable options to cover the #1 center option at the time: sign Vincent Lecavalier, sign Stephen Weiss, keep Mikhail Grabovski or re-sign Tyler Bozak. Let’s take a look at each one of these:
1) Sign Vincent Lecavalier
Vincent Lecavalier had of course been a former 1st overall draft pick (in 1998), with a 2004 cup ring, and five 30+ goal seasons to his name (including a 40 goal and a 52 goal season). However, his offensive output in recent years wasn’t quite as impressive. He hadn’t had a 30+ goal season in six seasons (on pace for about 20 in the lockout-shortened 2013 season) despite having played a significant portion of his time with the likes of Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. Worse yet, the drop-off in his ability to put the puck in the net was particularly steep in the 2013 season, with just 10 goals in 39 games. He had also been a combined -37 through the previous five seasons. That being said, with a bit of a bounce-back season, he could conceivably be a legitimate #1 center for the Leafs, but given the asking price (he signed a $4.5 million/year, 5-year deal with the Flyers), a long-term, big cap hit commitment would be required to sign him. Given in particular that the risk of Lecavalier’s performance further deteriorating was significant as that was the direction it was trending and he was already 33 years of age, if the Leafs had given him this contract, the last 2-3 years of it would likely end with him becoming a huge burden on the organization. He would likely fall behind Kadri and others over time in the depth chart, making it nearly impossible to find a trading partner willing to take on the last few years of his contract. Not a good option for an organization that didn’t’ appear likely to challenge seriously for the cup in 2013-2014.
2) Sign Stephen Weiss
Similar to Vincent Lecavalier, the native Torontonian Stephen Weiss also had a significant drop-off in performance in the previous season with just 1 goal and 3 assists in 17 games in the 2013 lockout-shortened season. On top of that, he missed the majority of the season with a serious wrist injury, and now was already 30 years old. Looking back further than that, Weiss had four 20+-goal seasons, but no 30+ goal seasons. That’s okay, and it’s important to note he had always been on an offensively-challenged Florida Panthers team, but that’s still marginal top-line performance at best in his good years. Despite assurances of the player and his agents that the previous season’s injury wouldn’t slow him down going forward, it often doesn’t turn out that way in practice, especially given that injuries to the arms can really throw off a player’s game. Don’t forget about what happened to Joe Colborne’s numbers after he returned from his wrist injury a couple years prior to that. Weiss ultimately signed a $4.9 million/year, 5 year contract with the Red Wings. Again, offering this contract to Weiss wouldn’t make sense and was far too risky given how his previous season went. He, like Lecavalier, had a significant chance of turning into a far-too-expensive depth player who couldn’t be moved to other teams and would tie the hands of Leafs management to sign better players down the road. The Red Wings took an enormous gamble in signing Weiss, and thus far they likely regret it, as his offensive performance has been nothing to write home about (2 goals, 1 assist and a -3 in 19 games).
3) Keep Mikhail Grabovski
We all know well of what the advanced stats said about Grabovski vs Bozak. Supposedly Grabovski was among the best Leaf forwards last year, but let’s get real here. Regardless of what you think of advanced stats, I don’t see how anyone who actually watched a significant portion of the Leafs’ season last year could tell you that Grabovski is a guy they should have kept around. By no means at all did Grabovski seem to be ‘unlucky’. He was just plain horrible almost all season long. He didn’t look at all like he should have scored more than he did. And despite giving the appearance of ‘trying’ really hard in the playoffs, he was a -10 in 7 playoff games. Completely unacceptable. That’s bad enough to virtually guarantee losing a playoff series. These are NHL players; points for effort don’t count for anything if the results on the ice are clearly not following. With another 4 years at $5.5 million per season left on his contract, Grabovski had already become an untradeable asset who didn’t have a place in the organization. He had to go. He had lost his spot in the top 6 to Kadri and Bozak with his performance throughout the season, and it would send a loud and deleterious message to the remaining players if he were rewarded by being kept in favour of Bozak as the team’s top center.
4) Re-Sign Tyler Bozak
I’ll admit just as I should that Bozak was overpaid and his term was longer than was justified, but this was clearly the best option the Leafs had, and it was a very manageable one at that. Tyler Bozak, again in despite of what advanced stats people will tell you, had proven he could at least be serviceable in the position of the team’s #1 center. If you really need proof of that, compare what Kessel and JVR were able to do with him in the lineup this season against how they’ve performed in the time Bozak has been injured. Given the arguments I’ve made above, I know what questions to expect: what about Bozak’s contract? It’s $4.2 million/year for 5 seasons, similar to the contracts for Lecavalier and Weiss. Isn’t he just as much of a risk? But the situation with Bozak is completely different. Consider both the short- and long-term:
In the short-term, Bozak has already proven that he can be a serviceable option who’s ready to play on the top line of this team right now for the next few years. No matter what you think of Bozak, the chances of his performance dropping much from where it has been given that he’d be playing between the same two guys under the same system as before would be very low for the next few seasons. He had no history of significant injuries, his performance had been improving (rather than falling dramatically a la Lecavalier and Weiss) the last few seasons and he was still relatively young at 27 years of age.
Regarding the long-term, I thought then and still believe now that it is the hope of the Leafs’ management that Kadri would be ready to play in the #1 center role after about two more seasons. Until then, he could learn and play with a little less pressure between two other excellent wingers in Joffrey Lupul and David Clarkson (who was signed the same day as Bozak). So what happens when Kadri finally becomes ready to move up into a #1 center role? If Bozak does a reasonable job and at least performs equally as well as he did in the previous season until Kadri is ready to replace him, there’s every reason to believe that the last 2-3 years of his 5 year contract could be traded at good value to another team without the Leafs having to retain any of his salary. If this happens, for all intents and purposes, the Leafs get 2-3 good years out of Bozak until Kadri is fully developed and then trade him for value. Another player such as Peter Holland could then fill the #2 center role. That’s why the Leafs only permitted a partial no-trade clause for Bozak. The ability to trade him is integral to their willingness to sign him. And yes, there will be a market for a player who can play in a team’s top-6 whose cap hit and term aren’t completely unreasonable. Taking the last 2-3 years of Bozak’s contract will be greatly preferable to other teams over taking on a high-risk player like Lecavalier or Weiss for 5 years in free agency. The Leafs win in both the short- and long-term on this low-risk deal.
Admittedly, Nonis’s plan hasn’t gone completely the way he would have liked. I imagine he believed he could still trade JM Liles (who he would otherwise have bought out with Grabovski’s compliance buyout) without retaining too much salary by the beginning of the season as well. I had my doubts. Personally, I would have bought Liles out and just eaten Komisarek’s contract. The Leafs’ cap crunch last season turned out to be highly overrated after all, and Komisarek would only have costed the Leafs another $625,000 in cap space to keep over Liles. The big benefit was that Komisarek’s contract would be done and over with after this season, and the Leafs are facing a much more serious cap squeeze this coming offseason. The $625,000 could likely have been found by squeezing players like Kadri and Bernier a little harder on their contracts or by trading away a replaceable part like Nik Kulemin.
Regardless, Nonis made the right decision in buying out Grabovski and re-signing Bozak because it was a low-risk strategy that works well in conjunction with the hopes of Leafs management that Kadri would develop into a top-line center in 2-3 years. As long as Bozak performs adequately over the next couple of seasons, we have nothing to complain about on this deal.