It’s looking very likely that the Toronto Maple Leafs will make the playoffs this year, and may even finish with the sort of seed that makes you wonder if they’re a contender (fifth or sixth). While the Leafs display several indicators that they’re getting lucky (high shots against, low shots for, high shooting percentage), it should be noted that because the media doesn’t typically look at those numbers, they’d probably be excited about these results if it were any other team. Instead, only the CBC is excited.
Because some are convinced the Leafs are still not Stanley Cup contenders, they want to forego trade deadline movement, because apparently "we’re not good enough so we should stop trying to get better" is a thing. I on the other hand believe GM Dave Nonis should be aggressively pursuing upgrades wherever possible, for two reasons.
The first is that most players couldn’t tell you the difference between Fenwick and Hunwick. Players want to win, and will on occasion sign a lower priced deal for that opportunity, or at very least, you won’t be instantly ruled out of big name free agents because they don’t want to waste years of their careers not winning Stanley Cups. Last time the Leafs made the playoffs, it was on the backs of guys like Joe Nieuwendyk, Ed Belfour, Gary Roberts, Alexander Mogilny, Ron Francis and Brian Leetch, all of whom either chose to play here via the free agent market, or waived a No Trade Clause to come here. You have to walk before you sign low priced veteran Free Agents.
The other reason is that many players available at the deadline won’t be just expiring contracts. Last year, players like Cody Hodgson, Jeff Carter, Antoine Vermette, Steve Downie, Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad all were brought in during deadline season, and all remain with the team that acquired them. This year already Jay Bouwmeester has been moved, and should play for the Blues next season, and players on longer deals like Mark Giordano, Alex Tanguay, Stephane Robidas, Brian Campbell, Ryan Miller and Roberto Luongo remain available.
I’m sure there are other reasons with varying degrees of relevance. Playoff experience probably has a positive impact on the younger players, and there’s the issue of fun. These two issues are the only ones that can be reasonably measured, and so they’re what I plan on going with.
But you can’t go into a trade deadline just indiscriminately wanting players, and there should be some sort of idea of what’s being pursued, and nobody seems to really have much of an idea what may interest the Leafs, aside from Miikka Kiprusoff, though some are damn sure it’s a member of the Dallas Stars. Here’s a look at some of the things I would be looking at if I had the opportunity.
One of the more interesting aspects of this shortened season is the relative success of the Montreal Canadiens. While they probably weren’t as bad as their record last year, they had a relatively quiet off-season and managed to move from 27th in Fenwick close to 8th. In terms of Fenwick tied, they’ve gone from 27th to 2nd. The roster added Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong, Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, Francis Bouillon and the health of Andrei Markov. Since their success began, they’ve also traded Erik Cole for Michael Ryder, and picked up Jeff Halpern off waivers.
That’s hardly an overwhelming off-season. Two rookies, some bottom line players in Prust, Armstrong, and Bouillon, and the health of a 34 year old defenseman.
The Maple Leafs, who finished about the same place in the Fenwick close ratings last year brought in James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Jay McClement, Mark Fraser and Mike Kostka, which at first glance doesn’t seem like a particularly worse off-season the that of the Canadiens, and still manage to be last in Fenwick close.
Now I know a deadline piece turning into an assault on Randy Carlyle seems off-course, but I’m going somewhere with this.
One interesting thing about the Canadiens is that nobody seems to be particularly overplaying their usage. The top Corsi players on the Habs are the top line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Brendan Gallagher, who all play fairly soft minutes, and start over 60% of their shifts in the offensive zone. The bottom players, Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong, Ryan White, and Travis Moen, play relatively tougher minutes, and stat between 29% and 45% of their shifts in the offensive zone.
This makes pretty basic sense. There are two major usage types. One involves having your top line play against the toughest opponents of the other team, which is what the Red Wings, Bruins and Sharks tend to do. The other is along the lines of the top-six/bottom-six model. There are players who exist to play defensive roles, and the top scorers play against softer opponents giving them space to control play and maximize their offensive potential. The Vancouver Canucks, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs generally do something along these lines.
(Just a sidebar: It’s interesting that the Red Wings are a power on power team, since they had maybe the most famous defensive specialist line of my lifetime, with Kris Draper centring Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty.)
The biggest issue is that the Canadiens are doing this far better than the Maple Leafs. The Canadiens use players with limited offensive potential to grind it out. It’s easier to block shots, hit people, ice the puck, and disrupt the flow of play when you have no eyes on scoring goals, and you lose less offense when players who don’t have the puck skill to put up huge goal totals are playing this role. Canadiens fans have spent the entire year praising the acquisition of Brandon Prust, and they love the work done by Ryan White, Travis Moen and Colby Armstrong, but the person who deserves most of the praise would probably be Michel Therien, for the way he uses those players.
The Maple Leafs on the other hand have used some variation of the Mikhail Grabovski line has a checking line. Grabovski, who’s played with wingers Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin, Matt Frattin, Leo Komarov and Jay McClement at various points, has been absolutely buried all year, and whichever linemates he plays with see their play falter.
The ice time of Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr on the other hand, has been relatively sheltered. They average fourth from last and last respectively in Corsi QoC on the team. The sheltered minutes, the opportunity to play and be free on the ice, is being given to players who absolutely are not capable of taking advantage of it.
We kept hearing all off-season that the team had brought in Jay McClement to play the tough minutes and act as a defensive stopper. McClement is getting difficult minutes, starting 28.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone, but a lot of that is his ice time with Grabovski.
So what we have here is the offensive potential of Grabovski, MacArthur, Frattin, and sometimes Nikolai Kulemin being wasted on defensive minutes, while Colton Orr plays the soft minutes against bad opponents.
Roundabout, I know, but it leads me to my desire for a depth forward. If you sheltered the top nine scorers, Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin, Matt Frattin and Tyler Bozak (lol), you can give tough minutes (though preferably not as tough as McClement has played this year) to a fourth line that includes Leo Komarov, Jay McClement and a new fourth line winger, instead of the goons.
Two players I would have some interest in are Phoenix Coyotes forwards Boyd Gordon and Raffi Torres. Torres played relatively tough minutes with the Vancouver Canucks, with under 30% Offensive Zone starts and didn’t get murdered. He’s having a rough year, but he’s still played fewer than 30 games. Gordon on the other hand is actually playing very well in those minutes, with a slightly above even Corsi On and 32.5% offensive zone starts in relatively tough minutes.
A fourth line that consisted of Leo Komarov, Jay McClement, and one of Gordon or Torres would give the Leafs more freedom to use the scoring players in the way Vishnu intended. I wouldn’t count on this, though. The Leafs already dumped two relatively useful fourth liners in Dave Steckel and Mike Brown to make room for the face punchers.
Another option would be to go after a top line centre that would let Tyler Bozak play on the fourth line and play in that defensive role. That being said, the Capitals are now two points out of a playoff spot, meaning a Mike Ribeiro rental may be out of the question, and Derek Roy was already moved to the Vancouver Canucks yesterday. Other options may include Colorado’s Paul Stastny, Calgary’s Mike Cammalleri (though if you aren’t a bad person, you hate Cammalleri), Phoenix’s Antoine Vermette, or maybe even Nashville’s David Legwand.
That all being said, I think unless Stastny or Vermette are readily available, we should be out on the centre market.
Another storyline of the Maple Leafs’ season is the improved defence, which is of course a total load of tripe. The Leafs allow a shot per game more per game than they did last year, moving from 23rd in the NHL in fewest shots against to 27th. The defence looks better because they’re getting a .919 save percentage from James Reimer and Ben Scrivens when last year they got a .900 save percentage. The Leafs are getting elite goaltending and are still 17th in goals against.
A big part of this is because Mark Fraser, Mike Kostka, and Korbinian Holzer, who have all played significant roles for the Leafs this year, are minor league players. The Leafs have two top four defencemen in Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson, two guys who could make a decent sheltered bottom pairing in John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson, and then Jake Gardiner, who I really don’t quite no what to make of yet.
The Leafs seriously need a top four defenseman, and probably two. They totally missed the boat on Jay Bouwmeester, though it’s possible he limited his possible destinations with his No Trade Clause. That still leaves options like Mark Giordano from the Calgary Flames and Stephane Robidas from the Dallas Stars.
Robidas seems like the most reasonable option. He plays tough minutes with 42% offensive zone starts, and shoots right, something the Leafs lack in a big way. He’s just below even in terms of Corsi On, which is solid for his usage. He’s 36 years old, but he hasn’t declined in any noticeable way, and has another year on his contract for $3.5 million. His advanced age may also drag the price on him down a bit.
Other options may include Phoenix’s Rostislav Klesla, Calgary’s Cory Sarich, Tampa Bay’s Eric Brewer, or maybe even Buffalo’s Tyler Myers.
Don’t trade for a goalie, stupid.
Anyway, my ideal post-deadline Leafs would probably bring in Gordon and Robidas, and leave the Bozak removable until the off-season, giving the Leafs a look something like this:
James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
Joffrey Lupul - Nazem Kadri - Nikolai Kulemin
Clarke MacArthur - Mikhail Grabovski - Nikolai Kulemin
Leo Komarov - Jay McClement - Boyd Gordon
Carl Gunnarsson - Dion Phaneuf
John-Michael Liles - Stephane Robidas
Mark Fraser - Cody Franson