With the regular season only one week away and the Leafs needing to trim their roster to a maximum of 23 players, the debate rages on as to whether to play the youngster or to stick with the veterans assembled over the course of the last 2-3 years who actually produced a respectable offensive output last season. What makes this decision difficult is that the temptation to keep younger players like Bozak and Hanson would necessity a complex series of roster moves invloving the disposal of veteran players in order to make room on the active roster.
In order to serve the best long-term interests of the team, while also giving Burke and Wilson the flexibility they need to iron out this issue, the modest proposal below should be considered.
The Leafs brass is clearly excited by the prospects of letting some of the younger players have a shot. However, it is difficult to imagine that Brian Burke will be able to move enough veterans between now and October 1, 2009 in order to make room for multiple young player knocking on the door. Therefore, what the Leafs need is a way to buy some time. As of now, the Leafs have 16 forwards, 10 defencemen and 3 goaltenders listed on their roster at http://mapleleafs.nhl.com/club/roster.htm
What Burke and Wilson should do in order to cut the roster further is to leave veterans in place...FOR NOW.
Opening Night Roster:
Forward (12): Ponikarovsky, Stajan, Blake, Hagman, Grabovski, Stempniak, Orr, Mayers, Primeau, Mitchell, Kulemin, Wallin.
Defence (8): Kaberle, Komisarek, Beauchemin, Schenn, Exelby, Van Ryn, White, Finger.
Goal (3): Toskala, MacDonald, Gustavsson
Implications Going Forward:
This roster layout allows for carrying three goalies in case Gustavsson is not ready to assume backup duties. This situation likely won't last more than a week and if it does, he can be placed on IR. It also allows for the Leafs to carry their eight best defencemen while they continue to figure out their top 6 while judging the trade market for the one or two who are deemed expendable. Some other pre-season contributors will be cast off or sent to the minors for the foreseeable future (Allison, Gunnarson, Rosehill, Deveaux). Others will be sent to the Marlies while the next phase of the roster overhaul begins to take place.
The Next Phase
The interesting part will be what comes over the course of the next couple of months. The following players should be dealt with as detailed below.
Tlusty: Sent to Marlies to find his offence and be ready to be the first forward recalled in case of injury or a sudden trade. He has the experience and two-way game to fill this role.
Bozak, Hanson, Stalberg: They should form the Marlies first line and hone their skills while getting drilled further in playing a two way game, while getting special teams time and further familiarizing themselves with the physical aspects of the pro game.
Kadri: He should go back to London where he belongs for now.
Frogren: He should be the first D-Man called up when the injuries begin to mount.
Roster Forwards: Burke should showcase the likes of Stempniak, Stajan, Poni and perhaps Hagman with the eye towards trading at least two of them early in the season.
Kessel: He will replace whichever top six forward is performing the least when he is healthy and will remain another reason why 2-3 forwards need to be shed from the current top 12.
Whether through trades or sending veterans to the minors, Burke should make roster moves, that combined with inevitable injuries will allow all of Bozak, Hanson, Stalberg and Tlusty onto the roster within the first 40 games. These players need to be on the roster this season but they realistically cannot all fit by opening night and they would all benefit from some time in the AHL. While a player like Stalberg has theoretically "made" the team out of camp, he will be even more ready when recalled after a veteran forward has been cleared from the roster in a manner that also helps the club going forward.
The reinforcements will give the team the boost that it needs and will likely spur the likes of Grabovski and Blake to play their best going forward. The Leafs will likely need all eight defencemen and they will certainly need all of these forwards at some point due to injuries. With any luck, when the dust settles, they will have a healthly and effective group of young forwards including the likes of Stalberg and Bozak, a deep and effective defence and, with any luck, a couple of draft picks or prospects obtained in trades.
This plan is in the best interests of the development of the team.