It really is no longer a question of if but a question of when. The Toronto Maple Leafs should, by now, be steeling themselves for an uncomfortable and complete ground up rebuild if Brendan Shanahan wants to make his mark and bypass the failures of his predecessors with the patch job mentality they applied to the team. Coaching changes only ended up further exposing that this particular team was poorly constructed; if your best offensive threats are putting in 100+ goals a year BUT are on the ice for 300+ against, that is a serious problem; regardless if a weak d-core was partly to blame. Combined with the wrong mix of offensively minded defensemen who were unable to turn the tide when facing other teams top lines, it really was only a matter of time before the final straw broke this camels back…in two…bits of camel flying everywhere.
A number of traditional media points (newspapers, radio, tv) are now throwing out odds of players being traded either before the trade deadline or over the summer and it appears that most are in agreement that a number of players are going to be traded away before the start of next season and I am sure most of us are all for it at this point given how the team has been playing. There has to be a parting of ways with the bromance we have with this particular collection of players; they haven’t been able to get it done and it’s time to break up with them. If the Leafs attempt to retain any players at this point in time they are kidding themselves. Any player over the age of 25 will be on the downturn of their career by the time this club is truly competitive again and more signings will only signal that Shanahan is taking the same route as his predecessors. The team should be Shanna-banning themselves from signing any player over the age of 25 for the next year or two (keeping the likes of Van Riemsdyke, Kadri and Reilly) unless there are UFA projects available on short team deals a la Mike Santorelli, David Booth and Mason Raymond; players the team may be able to turn into draft picks later on down the road.
Hard to say at this point who will actually be traded in the next couple of weeks but outside of the almost certain Cody Franson transaction (who they guestimate might be worth a late first round pick and a prospect, umm yes please) and Tyler Bozak who I still liked as a Leaf, just never in the first line roll he was pushed into (which was not his fault) the rumours the possible departures of Daniel Winnik, Korbinian Holzer, Mike Santorelli and Joffrey Lupul. Now if the Leafs are truly and I mean truly going to start from the ground up and stock pile both picks and prospects they should really also consider trading the following.
Listen to trade offers for Jonathan Bernier. The romantic notion held with Bernier needs to be ditched and one needs to look no further than the facts surrounding his tenure with the team. Bernier is 26 years old and by the time the Leafs are contending again he will be in his 30’s. He has shown signs of being a stellar goaltender but has also been derailed by nagging injury. Has put up decent numbers but perhaps we are at a crossroads, could his current trade value be enough to warrant parting with him? The Leafs have some young prospects in the pipeline and we really didn’t give up all that much to acquire him in the first place.
Roman Polak has proven to be everything we could have hoped for since the Leafs acquired him in the Carl Gunnarsson trade with the St.Louis Blues last year. A solid 5-6 defenseman with speed, heart and a daily axe to grind. For a team making a deep run into the playoffs he could be an asset that could draw some attention while being relatively affordable.
Jake Gardiner is sporting a pretty awful -21 this year. He is truly aggravating to watch while playing defense but sucks you right back in with a talented play in the offensive zone to the point where you are actually left wondering if he should just take a page out of the Brent Burns playbook and play forward for awhile. Unfortunately for him Morgan Reilly is a player of very similar style, younger with a higher upside and less expensive which may make Gardiner expendable. It might take some salary absorption to get a trade done but it may still be worth it if you land a high value, lower cap hit prospect in return.
Dion Phanuef was retroactively added to the IR but was slated for return before the March 2nd trade deadline and there is almost a palpable buzz surrounding him these days; it sounds like a couple teams are going to make serious inquiries about the Leafs captain to bolster their roster for a playoff run and it is rumored that the LA Kings, Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars have all expressed interest in the 29 year old. In true Maple Leafs fashion, if anything, they have overvalued Phaneuf in terms of playing him as a number one defenseman and realistically he is more of a 2-4 and was never really comfortable as captain HOWEVER he is a solid asset and fans should not be surprised there is interest and a possible deal struck before the deadline. If a deal could be consummated that finds the Leafs saving cap space, any deal for Phaneuf could be the solid start to a rebuild the Leafs so desperately need.
If the Leafs are able to move a significant number of players before the end of the season for draft picks, one could expect that this could potentially work out in their favour. Firstly, it gives them a much better shot at drafting future core players for the franchise. For example, in the first round of the upocoming draft (at least at this time given the Leafs have the 6th worst record) this could very translate into the Leafs being able to draft a future core defensive defenseman they so desperately need like Ivan Provorov, who I believe Craig Button mentioned on TSN radio the other day may actually be the best defender available in the 2015 draft.
One of the other positives about stockpiling mid and low range draft picks right now for expiring UFA’s is that Mark Hunter now works for the Maple Leafs. This is the same Hunter who was successful in bringing players to the London Knights organization and building an incredibly dominant OHL club. Paired with Thommie Bergman in Sweden who has found high potential in a number of late round picks (Viktor Loov, Tom Nilsson, Andreas Johnson), it will be very interesting to see how these two men will make their mark on the Maple Leafs and potentially turn the teams draft fortunes around moving forward.
So with all the potential bodies moving out of the organization either by March 2nd or over the summer, the Maple Leafs will most likely start playing their prospects; if you are going to find a positive in this mess, that could very well be it.
In terms of forwards, the Leafs should bring up Matt Frattin immediately and play him for the rest of the year, no question. He appears to have rekindled his game again with the Marlies and the Leafs need to get him into the roster promptly to determine where he actually sits; he does currently lead the Marlies in goals. Josh Leivo has the size and speed to play at the NHL level and combined with a lethally accurate wrist shot should also be brought up and given a lengthy look. Brandon Kozun essentially made the Leafs out of training camp and brings a ridiculous amount of speed to his game and is another threat on the PK; injury derailed his season but adding him to the team could fill the void left by any potential departures and brings some additional bite to the PK. Troy Bodie and Jamie Devane should also be considered for the added grit they would bring that Don Cherry seems so desperate to add to their roster and both have upside if you compare them to Orr and McLaren, adding some bulk to the fourth line.
If the Leafs do indeed end up parting ways with Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson and even Jake Gardiner then the team should considering promoting both Stuart Percy and Petter Granberg, there is no better time for these two to get NHL experience without it having an overly negative impact on the club. They are already at the cusp of breaking into the NHL and the extended look may actually bolster their development. One other player that Leafs management should consider for promotion for the remainder of the season if a roster spot becomes available is Andrew MacWilliam, a solid stay at home defenseman plying his trade with the Toronto Marlies. Hockey’s Future has MacWilliam’s peg as a mobile defensive defenseman who has the innate ability to anticipate plays quite well, given that he is currently a +13 with the Marlies and logs large minutes is no coincidence. At minimum the 24 year old 6’2″, 220lbs could be returned to the Marlies and Viktor Loov could take his place.
For all the doom and gloom surrounding the team these last 12+ games, there are some honest to goodness positives to take away from this rather disgraceful season. At minimum, the team is going to stock their cupboards with some new prospects, add some valuable draft picks for this and next years draft and call-up some of their prospects for the remainder of the season (long overdue in my opinion). At best the team will be able to find homes for some under-performing and lengthy contracts giving the team more cap flexibility for the future and rid the team of core players who have been as a group at least a disappointment.