When the 2012 offseason began Brian Burke promised the Maple Leafs’ real offseason would begin on July 1st. Free Agent frenzy did bring a few new names to the club but none of those names happen to be pinned to a top six slot let alone a first line center role. There is still time for a move but as it stands now, are the Leafs improved enough to snap the seven year absence from post-season play? Let’s discuss…
The June Draft saw the usual posturing, read-between-the-lines answers and eventually, possible mistruths to save face. Burke was unable to move up in the draft, something that was needed in order for him to select a “difference-maker” with the first pick. Obviously the Oilers 1st overall would have been ideal but it seems even a package including yet-to-be-traded Luke Schenn and the 5th pick, wasn’t enough to pry the lucky lottery spot from Oil brass.
The Canadiens would eventually select who I would consider to be the guy the Leafs should have been targeting, Alex Galchenyuk, at #3 overall. There was some question around the young center after a knee injury forced him to miss his entire draft year minus two games. He did return for playoffs and posted 4 pts in 6 games for Sarnia before they were ousted from the OHL Playoffs. One thing that had me hooked on this guy is the fact that he was able to put up 83pts in 68 games in his CHL rookie season. That is saying something and I’m banking that had he been healthy for his sophmore year, those numbers would have grown, with or without Yakupov on his wing. Although it didn’t surprise me that he wasn’t available for Burke’s 5th pick it was disappointing. BB ended up selecting Moose Jaw Warriors defenseman Morgan Rielly. Rielly also found injury trouble in his draft year and was limited to just 18 games. He did impress however, posting 18pts in the shortened outing to follow up a 28pt rookie campaign. Although the young defender may not have been the Leafs “first choice” as Burke had eluded, Rielly has still drawn some comparisons to Leafs rookie standout from a year ago, Jake Gardiner. That has to give Leafs fans some optimism.
With the draft making little waves in Leafs Nation, fans turned to trades and free-agent signings for ways their favorite club may turn the team into a playoff contender. With only minor additions to this point the improvements have been unseen but not for lack of trying. It has been reported that Burke has had offers in on Roberto Luongo, Jonathan Bernier and even Steve Mason, to try to bolster a shallow Goalie corps. Nothing has come to fruition at this point. It is very likely that James Reimer will be the Leafs starting tender when the first puck drops and I’m of the mind-frame that perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing. Luongo has too long left on his contract and I kind of feel like he needs the isolation of Florida to excel. Mason, I’m indifferent about and to me Bernier is the best option depending on what you need to give up in order to get him. I wouldn’t just hand him the keys though as he is fairly unproven as well. I did see him play in his junior days and there is no doubt he has above average talent but I would go with a tandem of him and Reims and share the workload until one of them takes the front end spot.
Assuming that Getzlaf or one of the other rumoured top centers don’t arrive, I would expect James van Reimsdyk to get a long look at centering Kessel and Lupul on the top line. JVR was proficient at the pivot spot while in college and if the move works out it would free up a line such as MacArthur - Grabo – Frattin. Grabo has been dominant at times and keeping him away from the top defensive pairing can only help. I’m expecting Frattin to have a breakout year. I assume Burke is expecting the same as he saddled the young winger with a two year, 1 way contract this summer. Frattin is scheduled to make 900k and 950k respectively and to me those numbers suggest the Leafs are looking to bank on him having a breakthrough but at the same time have etched him to a reasonable contract should he have to be demoted to the Marlies for further seasoning following a season ending knee injury.
I would also look for Colborne, Kadri and Ashton to take serious swings at an NHL job this season. With MacArthur (at least in my mind) expendable, it could mean for some exciting young guns filling the 2nd and 3rd lines this season.
The defense is largely unchanged with the obvious subtraction of former 1st rounder Luke Schenn. Phaneuf and Liles are likely to lead the top 6 into the season with Gunnarsson and Gardiner locks for 3 and 4. I would actually consider the four D interchangeable as they could all play top 2 minutes. Franson and Komisarek would fill out the D if it weren’t for this nagging voice in the back of my mind that keeps telling me Komo will find himself either traded or playing for the Marlies by Burke’s Christmas roster freeze. Also figure in the expected promotion of Korbinian Holzer and the fact that Morgan Reilly will likely get a long look just as Schenn did, and you have a real log jam on the back end. I expect to see a move made for either a goaltender or a center (maybe both) and such moves would likely include at least one defenseman but nothing is for sure.
If I was a betting man, I would say the Leafs (with the current roster) will push for a playoff spot but will struggle to be consistent. As we saw last season this club has the flash to play with the best of them but they also have the crash to burn in the cellar. I doubt we see a 10-11th finish here. It will either be, the young guns take the step expected after a great Calder Cup showing and the team manages to improve on what it has already put on display, thus ending its postseason drought…. Or, they crash and burn without a veteran presence and a top pivot. If that happens (again) at least there may be a shot at uber-prospect Nathan Mackinnon in next June’s Draft.
***What Willie Would Do:
I would move Bozak to the wing opening up room for Colborne on the 3rd line (Grabo #2/JVR #1) of course assuming no legit #1 center is acquired.
I would give Frattin a legit shot at the second line assuming he is able to get in a full camp (a lockout could help here)
I would make Komisarek earn his spot in camp. He did show improvement under Carlyle and does have the skills to be a defensive hard hitter but too much inconsistency on the back-end will hurt a team with very inexperienced net-minders. If he falters in camp I’d cut him loose, he’s had plenty of opportunities. I’m hoping he can have a good year because with offensive D such as Liles, Gardiner and Phaneuf a solid defensive minded anchor is needed to add to Gunnar and Franson (who was shaky at times himself). Holzer has yet to prove himself able to compete at the NHL level although predictions are promising.
I’d send Biggs and Rielly back to Junior for one more year.
*Hey if all this doesn’t work, I hear there may be some top players available for coaxing in the Alumni game! Gilmore/Sundin/Sittler? One more time around??? Aren’t they still paying for Tucker? I hear he’s available and only up the road! Haha Hell, Tie Domi HAS to have a few swings left in him? No?
You heard it here!