Mirtle Mailbag No. 1

Editor's Note: Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Mirtle Mailbag here at Pension Plan Puppets. Thanks to everyone that sent in questions. If you don't see yours answered it's because there were so many to choose from. Definitely keep trying when the call for questions goes out again. You can read James' writing at the Globe and Mail as well as on the Globe on Hockey blog where you can find the features that you loved like the Playoff Push. The easiest way to track his writing is through his eponymous blog which has been resurrected. Without further ado:

1. Given the Leafs/Sharks game on Monday, Bobby Orr being in town (Kaberle/Setoguchi), SJ reputedly wanting to move Ryan Clowe and us having Alexei Ponikarovsky ready to go, can you envision a huge multi-player deal here, and if so, what would you do/like to see?
- Kidkawartha

What, you want more?

I do think we're going to see more deals made by the Leafs, but I doubt they'll be "huge" ones unless something shifts with Kaberle. (Then again, who saw the Phaneuf deal coming?) Alexei Ponikarovsky and Lee Stempniak either need new contracts or to be moved out, and I think the organization's leaning toward letting them go.

I think they should move Kaberle, but it doesn't have to necessarily be by the deadline. Maybe he fetches more in the off-season when there are more teams in the mix?

The Leafs appear to pretty much have their top five on the blueline figured out at this point (Phaneuf, Beauchemin, Schenn, Komisarek, Gunnarsson) and with Kaberle's minutes down into the 17, 18 minute range lately, I don't see him as an integral piece going forward. Yes, he's produced points, but I can't help but look at his QCMP and GA/60 at even strength and think it's time to move his salary for some help up front.

2. By trading away so many regular players, Burke has gone to the kids and Marlies to fill out the roster, and with some pretty impressive results thus far.  This then brings up a big questions about free agency and Burke's plan for it.  Do you feel that Burke plans to keep the kids up for next year and therefore will won't be as active as he was last offseason? Or do you believe that he'll ship them back down and fill out the roster with free agents in their place?

- SkinnyFish

It's going to be somewhere in between. The thing is, there aren't that many great UFAs available this summer, and even if there were, Burke doesn't have a ton of dough to spend. I think they'll make a big push for at least one veteran forward who can make an impact and then keep the youngsters around in more of a support role than they've been forced to play lately.

Players like Tyler Bozak and Carl Gunnarsson have shown they belong in the big leagues, two of the good news stories out of this season. I bet Nazem Kadri comes in to play, too, so there'll be plenty of youth.

3. Since the lockout the Leafs' goaltenders have posted uniformly terrible save percentages--usually well below expectations coming in.  To what extent is this attributable to goalies being on the downside of their careers (which would certainly seem to apply to Eddie Belfour, Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala), and to what extent has the Leafs defence corps given up higher than average shot quality?  In other words, is the addition of a league-average or better goalie all we need to really solve our defensive woes, given that the Leafs are smack in the middle of the pack in shots allowed?

- The '67 Sound

That's a great question, one I wish I had a better answer for. This is something I've chatted with Gabe Desjardins about a few times, and he says the stats show that the Leafs haven't been doing their goaltenders many favours the past few seasons.

It's interesting with Toskala though because I think he's the perfect example of a goaltender dramatically affecting the way the team in front of him plays. He lacked confidence, his teammates and coaches lacked confidence in him, and it was just a complete disaster.

Enter Giguere, and after three games, it's a different story. Toronto hasn't been a strong defensive team in, well, it seems like a long, long time, often relying on strong goaltending from guys like Cujo and Belfour and being one of the top scoring teams in the league to get it done.

All that said, I blame the goaltending a little more than defensive play. Raycroft and Toskala are just not NHL starters -- and especially not in a market this demanding on a No. 1. It makes you realize just how special the guys who did it well were because this has to be the toughest city in the league to carry that load.

4. Based on what you have seen thus far, do you believe that Viktor Stalberg and Tyler Bozak can be top-six forwards on a playoff team?

- The '67 Sound

Bozak more so than Stalberg, although both have shown that they're going to play in this league for a while. What I really like from Bozak is his work ethic and hockey sense -- he's not a very big guy, but he can overcome that with the skills he's got.

Right now, he looks like he'll be a 60-point second-line centre. I'm not sure on Stalberg yet, but the guy's got some real physical gifts that could make him a solid third-liner. He's just not generating enough offensively to merit much acclaim right now.

5. What is the single biggest missing piece of the puzzle for the Leafs moving forward (looking at their organization as a whole, including junior, college and AHL players in the system)?  I think it's a big, top 6 centre -- both Kadri and Bozak project more as the shifty playmaker type.

- The '67 Sound

Exactly, which immediately makes me think Patrick Marleau would look nice as a Leaf.

Problem being, his history with Wilson isn't exactly great.

They really need a first-line centre who can go up against the other big dogs around the league, but those are really tough to come by and a lot of teams have to get by without one. The other option is to find a 1A or 1B who can take some of the load off the smaller, speedy pivots they've got a lot of. (Grabovski is in that group, too.)

6. What is Mikhail Grabovski's future in the organization?  For 2011-12 I project Bozak and Kadri, in some order, as the top 2 centres.  Grabovski doesn't strike me as a 3rd line type, but he's under contract for that season.  What do you think Burke has in mind?

- The '67 Sound

Another good question. Grabovski's play here after the Olympics is going to be really important I think for his future with the Leafs, as he has not been all that impressive to date. Is he going to peak as a speedy, 50-point centre or is there more there?

And, as a sidebar, does he have trade value given his contract? Because I could see him being moved if there's a buyer.

7. What is Burke's plan for Jeff Finger?  Does he really plan to have him on the NHL roster next year?  Are the Leafs trying to set a record for "highest cap hit for a defence corp"?

- The '67 Sound

Hard not to feel bad for Finger. Yes, he's overpaid, but he should be able to be a depth guy somewhere in the league.

That said, he's been brutal this year -- worse, somehow, than Exelby -- and needs a change in scenery. Burke tried to send him to Anaheim with Toskala instead of Blake, but the Ducks didn't want him.

It's quite likely the Leafs need that cap space for next season, so if there's not a taker for Finger, I think we'll see them try and either eat half his deal by dumping him on re-entry waivers or a buyout ($1.17-million on the cap for four years if they go that route, joining the $1-million a year Tucker is taking up).

My guess is that Burke would like to avoid putting him in the minors and allow him to continue his career somewhere, but it might come to that.

What's crystal clear is that he's very unhappy with the current circumstances.

8. The issue of the Maple Leafs' captaincy seems to perennially be on the minds of the fans.  There's been a lot of discussion about who 'should' be the Leafs Captain and some silly names have been thrown around, including several players who are no longer with the club as a result of the recent trades.

My question is this:  what specifically is the process that the Leafs use to assign the honour?  My understanding is that at least in the old days, the team Captain was selected by his team-mates, rather than management.  The idea was that the players identified and supported the leader among them. 

Is that idea - that the Captain is chosen by his peers - an outdated concept now, something like a vestige from the pre-PA days when there was a lot more "us vs. them" division between the players and management?  How is the issue currently handled by the Leafs (could the players designate a captain if they wanted, or does MLSE purport to reserve some sort of domain over the assignment of that honour?), and are those practices just understood through tradition or are they formalized somewhere?

Also, how does the Leafs' practice in relation to the captaincy relate to the way the issue is handled in other organizations?  Does anybody let the players choose the captain anymore?

I promise my next quesiton will be more about x's and o's, but the Captaincy of the Leafs is such a great honour, and there's been so much discussion about who the next Captain ought to be, and I feel like we don't really know a whole lot about how it all works.

- jrwendelman

I'm afraid I'm going to have to take a bit of a pass here. I've been around the team a lot the past four months and this is one of those topics no one will offer anything on other than "we have plenty of leadership in the room, etc." The media is just as curious as the fans over how this will be handled, but Wilson isn't interested in talking about it at all.

What I think the concern is is that they're worried the 'C' is just going to put way too much unnecessary pressure on one player. It has to be someone who can deal with the press well given the interview requests (and scrutiny) will shoot up considerably once they add that letter, and the organization just doesn't seem to think anyone's ready for that.

I'd give it to Beauchemin -- although that might change if they add a more suitable someone this summer.

9. What would your best shutdown line look like for the Leafs if you could choose any five players? Also, if you had the reins, what would you do to improve the overall team defence, esp. on PK and GA?

- kidkawartha

Tough call given current personnel. They obviously need more of their top players to be better defensively overall, and I think that'll be one need up front addressed in free agency.

If we're talking even strength, I'd go with Nikolai Kulemin and Fredrik Sjostrom out there on the wings and probably Wayne Primeau at centre. Gunnarsson and Francois Beauchemin have been fine in their own end, although Schenn's come on in that department lately.

Hard to say if Primeau's going to be back given he's a UFA, but they could definitely use an upgrade in the big, checking centre department.

Thanks a ton to everyone that sent in questions. Unfortunately the tragedy on Friday held me up from getting to these a bit quicker but looking forward to weighing in as the season goes along.

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