6 Games Left To Set Up The Off-Season

The Leafs have signed their most recent NCAA free agent, Brayden Irwin, to a two year contract.  He will remain with the big club for the rest of this NHL season (all 6 games of it) and possibly continue with the AHL's Toronto Marlies if they should make the playoffs.

They also have a chance to raise themselves out of 29th in the NHL standings by leap-frogging past teams like Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and the Islanders.  That being said, the chances of such a leap are relatively slim since most of the teams ahead of them are treading water well enough that they are unlikely to sacrifice enough points for the Leafs to catch them.  Also, all 4 of the teams I just mentioned have a game or two in hand on the Leafs. 

Since the March 3rd trade deadline, the Leafs have posted a record of 9-3-2, for 20 out of a possible 28 points (0.714 points percentage).  Key to that surge have been the following:

Jonas Gustavsson (7-0-0 record, 1.93 GAA, .929 SV%);

Phil Kessel (0.64 GPG, 0.93 PPG);

Tyler Bozak (0.36 GPG, 0.93 PPG);

Nikolai Kulemin (0.36 GPG, 1.07 PPG);

Mikhail Grabovski (0.27 GPG, 0.727 PPG);

Carl Gunnarsson (2G, 3A, +7, 22:19 TOI/G);

Luke Schenn (0G, 4A, +5, 17:04 TOI/G);

Looks like Leafs have the makings of a foundation to build upon going forward into next season.  Viktor Stålberg and Luca Caputi are in the mix up front also.  Think of these as the building blocks upon which the future currently rests.  They'll be adding Nazem Kadri, Jerry D'Amigo, Chris DiDomenico, Jimmy Hayes, Dale Mitchell, Phillipe Paradis, James Reimer, and more to the line up in coming years in all likelihood and there's always the potential for Brian Burke to go out and get a name or two via trade or free agency.

The next major discussion points for the Leafs revolve around the re-signing of their RFAs most notably Nikolai Kulemin and Jonas Gustavsson.  These days Kulemin looks like a legitimate top line winger and I would anticipate something along the lines of a 3 year contract where he earns $2.8, $3.0, and $3.5 million consecutively, giving him a cap hit of $3.1 million per season. Meanwhile, Gustavsson probably warrants a look as a $2.5 million per year goalie for the next 2 or 3 years.  He might not be keen on a long term deal since he's a UFA after his next one but what he ends up with remains to be seen.

The bottom 6 is a discussion point with the re-signings of the likes of Christian Hanson, John Mitchell, Jamie Lundmark, Rickard Wallin, and Wayne Primeau being up for consideration.  Colton Orr and Fredrik Sjostrom will be back next year leaving the Leafs with 4 spots in the bottom 6 up for grabs.  If Hanson comes back, as is likely, and Brayden Irwin is a possible player in the next season or two, that reduces the number down to 2.  I'd bring back Wallin and Lundmark personally but Mitchell may get the nod due to his work ethic and the fact that somebody upstairs likes him.

Trading Tomas Kaberle looks like a better idea with every passing game.  The Leafs are set in regards to Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson.  Burke signings Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin are likely staying put.  Jeff Finger is too expensive to deal and Garnet Exelby is gone as a UFA.  That leaves Kaberle as the only asset that Burke likely wants to, and possibly can, move.

If the return is a couple of draft picks, I think Burke and his scouting staff are happy.  If the return is a top prospect and a draft pick, I think he's ecstatic.  I don't see anything like the rumoured Fleischmann, Alzner, and a draft pick trade coming up anytime soon but Pittsburgh definitely needs a replacement for the aging Gonchar and they may yet be a willing trading partner. They seem relatively pleased with Alexei Ponikarovsky so far.

I'll explore World Championship team prospects in my next posting. At this point it looks possible that 8 or 9 Leafs (or Leaf prospects) will be playing for a meaningful championship in the spring.  It just won't be the one most of us care about.

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