Jan 232006
 

For those of you who are Leaf fans, or just observers of the Leafs, I don’t need to tell you that the Leafs have struggled in recent weeks and have been somewhat inconsistent for much of the year. The question is why, and what can be done about it.

The first thing to do is not to over react like some media members seem so quick to do. Today everyone seems to be writing about how Pat Quinn has lost the dressing room and should/might be fired and Erin Nicks of the Ottawa Sun can’t find anything interesting to write about the Senators so came to the conclusion that the Leafs should trade Mats Sundin. Now I am not necessarily saying that either of those things should not happen but we have to put some things in perspective.

First off, Mats Sundin probably can’t be traded. There just aren’t many teams that can, or would want to, take on his big contract. And Pat Quinn, sometimes I think people in the media regurgitate stories they have written in the past. There has probably been a fire Pat Quinn because he has lost the dressing room articles been written in each of the past 5 seasons. Maybe that means his time is due, but maybe it just means that members of the media have a hard time coming up with new thoughts. Maybe more of a systems coach would be more suitable for the younger players but generally it hasn’t been the young players that have been the problem. It’s the veterans that haven’t played up to the level they should.

So, what is the story with the Leafs. The first thing we need to do is understand what this Leaf team is. When healthy, or even mostly healthy, (which has rarely happened this year), this Leaf team is a good team. Not an elite team, but a good team. Some might argue with the premise that the Leafs are a good team but the facts show otherwise. They are four games above .500 despite dealing with a lot of injuries and despite having one of the tougher schedules in the eastern conference. So the healthy Leafs are a good team. There are three things that I think the Leafs lack from being an elite team.

1. That dominant offensive star forward. The Leafs have pretty good depth up front with the emergence of rookies Steen and Wellwood and the progress that Stajan and Ponikarovsky have made as well as the veterans that are on this team. What they lack is that forward that you can build an offence around. You know, the 40-50 goal winger or 100 point centerman. To some extent they have lacked this for quite a while but with Sundin not being as good as he has in past years this is more evident.

2. A good #3/4 defence pairing. Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle have shown themselves to be more than capable #1/ 2 defence pair. In Klee, Berg, Khavanov I feel they have some good #5/6 guys. What they lack is that solid #3/4 pair. For the most part I like what Colaiacovo has shown this year. He has been more physical than I expected and overall has been pretty good. I just don’t think he is capable of anchoring the second defence tandem yet.

3. Top tier goaltending. The biggest problem in my mind is goaltending. Ed Belfour has shown flashed of brilliance but that brilliance only seems to last a game or even a period long. On Saturday he looked amazing stopping something like 8 shots on an Ottawa first period 5 on 3 power play but then looked ordinary on some of the 7 goals he let in. Belfour’s goals against average is 3.35 and his save percentage is just .891. That just isn’t good enough for any contending team. Just take a look at the New York Rangers and you’ll see what good goaltending can do for you. Or the Calgary Flames.

So the question becomes, what needs to be done to address those issues. When addressing these issues we need to keep in mind that the Leafs have always been better positioned for next season than this season and have seemingly deliberately left themselves with a very open budget and lots of cap flexibility for this off season. This means not trading the farm for short term fixes. But that doesn’t mean things can’t be done that will help both this season and beyond. I am going to address the issues listed above in reverse order because that is also the order from easiest to most difficult.

Goaltending. The first thing this team needs to realize is that Ed Belfour seemingly can’t provide the goaltending that a contending team needs. He just hasn’t been good enough. The second thing we need to consider is that the future of the Leafs is in either Justin Pogge or Tuukka Rask but neither of them will be ready for at least a couple years. That brings us to Tellqvist. The Leafs need to figure out if Tellqvist is capable of being a #1 guy or whether they will need to find another #1 guy now or in the off season to hold the fort until Pogge or Rask are ready. With these considerations in mind, the first thing I do is make Tellqvist the starting goalie (hopefully starting tonight with a good test against the Senators) and if at all possible trade Belfour. That may not be possible considering his contract but there are several teams looking for goaltending. Tellqvist has been the better goalie this year and the Leafs need to know if he can be their guy in the future so this move seems to be a no brainer.

Defence. The first thing the Leafs need to do is get McCabe and Kaberle signed long term. It might cost you a combined $9-10 million to do that but it will be worth it. Get it done ASAP. You will only pay more in the off season. The next thing I would do is trade for Adrian Aucoin. He’s having a horrible, injury riddled year in Chicago but because of that Chicago will be desperate to get rid of his contract and he might not cost much to acquire. He still has 3 years and $12 million on his contract after this season but with the salary cap seemingly set to rise by several million that amount of money might not seem unreasonably for a player like him if he can return to the form he was with the Islanders. And he is capable of playing 25 minutes a game and that is exactly what the Leafs need. McCabe, Kaberle, and Aucoin would be the anchor of a pretty solid defence if you ask me. Plug in Coliacovo in the #4 spot and I think you have the makings for a pretty good top 4 for many years. I would then consider trading two (if not all three) of Klee, Berg and Khavanov for whatever draft picks you can get for them and use some combination of youngsters Kronvall, Jay Harrison, Ian White, and Brendan Bell as your #5/6 defensemen. At some point the Leafs have to see if these guys are capable of playing a role for them in future years. All of them have the potential to be every bit as useful as someone like Khavanov.

The most difficult issue to resolve is what to do up front and finding an elite level forward to anchor the offence. This I think is going to take a bit longer to resolve. According to my numbers the Leafs only have four players signed for next season. Sundin, O’Neill, Domi and Belak for a total of just over $10 million. I guess Steen is also signed as might be Wellwood. So lets say you can have all six of those guys for a total of $12 million. If we factor in McCabe, Kaberle, Aucoin, Colaiacovo and either some cheap rookies (see above) or veterans the total cost of the defence would be around $17 million. If we assume Tellqvist can carry the load in goal (and I think he can) and you add a relatively inexpensive, but experienced, backup your defence and goaltending will cost around $19-20 million. So we have around $32 million allocated to goaltending, defence and six forwards for next season. That means somewhere around 8 forwards will need to be signed for about a total of around $8 million, maybe a tad more depending on where the cap is set. That doesn’t leave a lot of room to play with. Stajan and Ponikarovsky can probably be signed for $1 million each and you can probably go with 3 fourth liners like Wilm and Kilger for $500,000 each but that still leaves you needing to fill 3 spots, likely on the top 2 lines, for just $4.5 million. Signing Tucker might take $2 million of that. Unfortunately at almost $7 million per season Sundin is taking up the money that should go to the elite forward. This may mean having to wait for the following offseason when Sundin’s contract expires to add that elite level forward. They also need to focus almost exclusively on drafting forwards this summer.

(As an aside, does anyone know how signing contract extensions work? If the Leaf sign Sundin to a 2 year extension at $2 million per year, is the hit to next years cap still $6.9 million or is it the average of the 3 years – in this case $3.6 million: ($6.9 + $2 + $2)/3. If this is the case then maybe they can work something out to spread the cost of Sundin’s high contract next year over several years).

Update: Eklund, who I am no big fan of but on a rare occasion he posts some viable rumours, say the Leafs are interested in trading Allison (nothing new here) and ther are possibly looking at Arnason of the Blackhawks. I like Arnason but he isn’t going to be the elite forward the Leafs need. But he is fairly young, skates well and is better defensively than Allison so would be a bit of an upgrade.

  14 Responses to “Thoughts on Leafs”

  1.  

    Very good and interesting analysis.

    First off, Mats Sundin probably can’t be traded.

    Nor should he be either. He’s been struggling badly, but he’s also had some pretty piss poor linemates. Jeff O’Neill has been a disaster, though with the death of his brother it’s understandable. Alex Steen is a terrific young player and might be a top line player some day, but that day isn’t here yet. And Darcy Tucker, as good and consistent as he’s been, is better suited for a second line role. When you look at who Sundin has played with in previous years (Mogilny, Roberts, etc.), it’s quite a drop off, and he doesn’t look to be the same player he was years ago when he was able to carry guys like Hoglund and Renberg.

    At the end of the season, I’d approach him about restructing his deal. He’s simply not worth what they’re paying him. He’s a good character guy, a leader, and would set a good precedence by doing it. Whether or not he will remains to be seen.

    As for firing Quinn, I think he’s a terrific coach, and he would probably be coaching someplace else by October if he wanted, but there might just be something to the school of thought that he’s lost the room.

    Yeah, the Toronto media has been saying this for as long as we can all remember, but this team just looks different now. Perhaps a change is needed for the sake of one, as crazy as that sounds.

    So the healthy Leafs are a good team.

    I think they can be, but even when healthy they were horribly inconsistent. They’re a middle of the pack, borderline average team who, when you remove a few key pieces, become understandibly awful.

    In Klee, Berg, Khavanov I feel they have some good #5/6 guys.

    I’m glad you’re finally admitting this, because I recall back in September, on your other blog, when comparing Ottawa’s D to Toronto’s, you insisted both guys were top four d-men. Klee looks like a completely different player than the one who last played in the NHL, and Khavanov I barely notice most of the time. In some ways, I suppose that’s good, because he’s not making mistakes, but he’s also not making plays either.

    Defence. The first thing the Leafs need to do is get McCabe and Kaberle signed long term. It might cost you a combined $9-10 million to do that but it will be worth it. Get it done ASAP. You will only pay more in the off season. The next thing I would do is trade for Adrian Aucoin.

    So $13 million wrapped up in three guys? That’s quite a committment. I love Aucoin, don’t get me wrong. The guy is a horse, and can anchor a blueline, so I’d say, if you’re bringing him in, then he should be on your top pair.

    You mentioned Brendan Bell when going over their young blueliners. Why has he fallen out of favor so much? He didn’t even get to play in a pre-season game. I’m biased because I saw a lot of him when he was captain of the 67′s, but I think he’s terrific, and should at least get a shot.

    I’m not as sold on Colliacovo as you are, but he’s fine in the bottom two pair.

    Signing Tucker might take $2 million of that.

    Is he a UFA at the end of the year? If so, I think he’s in line for a bigger raise than that. He’s having a career year. He’s going to command more than a $400,000 raise on the open market.

    Fortunately, he loves playing in Toronto it seems, so they might get a discount, but it will be close.

  2.  

    I’m glad you’re finally admitting this, because I recall back in September, on your other blog, when comparing Ottawa’s D to Toronto’s, you insisted both guys were top four d-men.

    Actually, I said the Leafs had better (experienced) depth than the Senators and that made up for some of Ottawa’s better talent up front. Meszaros has obviously been better than anyone expected, at least this quickly, so that makes a huge difference. I do think that Klee is about as good as Phillips. Both defensive minded players and both probably good #4 type guys. And I am not saying that Berg and Khavanov are not useful 5/6 defensemen (I’d still take any of those 3, especially Klee, over Schubert and maybe even Pothier) but the Leafs need to look to next year more than this year and they need to see if some of the young guys can step up. And trading them of course is contingent on acquiring Aucoin. Without Aucoin you’d certainly need to keep one or two of them.

    So $13 million wrapped up in three guys? That’s quite a committment.

    I guess that means you don’t want to sign both Redden and Chara then. Combined those two will probably command $11+ million and Philips is already signed for just under $2 million. Those three guys will also combine for $13 million. And Volchenkov is at $1.3 million. And the Senators payroll is likely to be below that of the Leafs.

    That is a lot to commit but if they could get all three signed for $13 million and have them all signed for the next 3 or more years that is the kind of stability that I think the Leafs would be good to have. And it isn’t too much if you can fill them out with some cheaper youngsters. And with all three guys capable of playing 25+ minutes those young players won’t need to be depended on to play a ton.

    You mentioned Brendan Bell when going over their young blueliners.

    He does seem to be completely forgotten about but his numbers in the AHL haven’t quite match those of some of the other Leaf defensemen. He has 2 goals, 19 points and an even +/-. Jay Harrison is 7, 23 and +11 while Ian White is 4, 24 and +6. Colaiacovo had 5 goals, 11 points in just 14 games and Kronvall 10 points in 11 games before both got called up. Speaking of Kronvall, I didn’t mention him much but I really like his size and while he has made some rookie mistakes generally plays a smart defensive game. He certainly looks like someone capable of filling bottom half of the defense role.

  3.  

    Make up your mind.

    In Klee, Berg, Khavanov I feel they have some good #5/6 guys.

    I do think that Klee is about as good as Phillips. Both defensive minded players and both probably good #4 type guys.

    You spend all that time saying they need legitimate #3/4 defencemen because Klee and Khavanov aren’t cutting it, yet when I say, I’m glad you’ve realized this, you say, no no, Klee is a #3.

    Are you just being contrarian?

    If you really think Klee is on par with Phillips, who’s a top 2 defenceman a lot of teams in the NHL, then we’ll just have to agree to disagree because I don’t think the two are, overall, even comparable.

    Phillips is a much more effective player in both ends of the ice to me. Plays the body better, way better defensively (not even in the same league to me), and I think slightly better offensively.

    He just doesn’t get powerplay time so his stats aren’t as padded.

  4.  

    You spend all that time saying they need legitimate #3/4 defencemen because Klee and Khavanov aren’t cutting it, yet when I say, I’m glad you’ve realized this, you say, no no, Klee is a #3.

    When did I ever say Klee was a #3? He might be a #4 but now that McCabe is injured he is being asked to be a #2. This is not good and partly why the Leafs have struggled without McCabe.

    Philips is not, and would not be, a top 2 defensemen on any contending team. On Philadelphia he would be behind Pitkanen, Johnsson, Desjardins, Rathje and maybe Hatcher. He’s not a #2 guy on a contending team despite what you and many Senators fans think. On Detroit he is being Lidstrom and Schneider. On Calgary he is behind Phaneuf, Regehr, Hamrlik. Vancouver he is behind Ohlund, Jovanovski and maybe even Salo. Need I continue?

    He just doesn’t get powerplay time so his stats aren’t as padded.

    No, he just plays on the best offensive team in the NHL to get his stats padded.

  5.  

    In my opinion, Ken Klee isn’t that much of a defensive defenseman, though I think he has more offensive ability or PP ability than Phillips. However, Phillips to me has Marek Malik-ish defensive presence (or at least more than Klee), which I think is underrated. If you think of the way Ottawa’s defensive core is built — with Chara, Redden, and Meszaros, who present offensive, defensive instinct, skating, and size issues/threats to the other team, Phillips, Volchenkov, and Pothier, who are all approx. #3-4 defensemen, can add obvious skills without worrying about too much pressure, maximizing thier contributions. This team is just better overall that most every other team, and their D core has 6 guys who can play anywhere (except MAYBE Philadephia).

  6.  

    Philips is not, and would not be, a top 2 defensemen on any contending team.

    Carolina? The Rangers, Atlanta, and San Jose are all teams that will be in the playoffs, and I think he would be there. I don’t think you can say the same about Klee.

    The fact Phillips was on Team Canada’s shortlist, as well as being part of their training camp in the summer, and Klee wasn’t, is indicative or something as well, isn’t it?

  7.  

    Maybe Klee didn’t make team Canada’s list because Ken Klee isn’t Canadian. He hasn’t made the American roster but he has been considered in the past.

    Phillips is a defensive defenseman and while good in that role is not among the best (Regehr, Hannan are two considered much more highly) and barring a whole bunch of injuries will never make the Canadian team.

    I don’t think the Rangers can be considered a cup contender until they acquire a top defenseman. They rely very heavily on the stellar play of Lundqvist and while teams can overcome the lack of an elite defenseman with stellar goaltending it is very rare. So, I wouldn’t consider the Rangers top contending team until they get that guy. There is talk of the acquiring Leetch and if they do (and become a true contender in the process) I would slot Phillips behind Leetch, Malik (a better defensive defenseman), and on par with guys like Kasparitis.

    Atlanta’s defense is somewhat underrated but they too lack that star defenseman to be considered top contenders for the cup. But even on Atlanta I’d probably rank Phillips behind Modry and on par with guys like DeVries, Havelid, and Sutton.

    San Jose isn’t even a playoff team at the moment so I can’t consider them as a cup contender.

    Carolina might be your best, and only, argument. Frantisek Kaberle is better than Phillips. Phillips would be comparable to Tverdovsky and Hedican although he plays a completely different style and provides different benefits. Carolina’s success is due to the defensive abilities of their forwards and the team game they play.

    Phillips is a good defenseman. There is no disputing that. But he isn’t a #1 or #2 defenseman on many, if any, serious contending teams. He just doesn’t have the offensive ability for that.

    Let’s look at Phillips numbers a bit deeper. Phillips is a +16 which is kind of middle of the road to slightly below average for full time Senator players. Meszaros, Redden, Pothier, Chara and Volchenkov all have better +/- stats. Phillips also kills penalties and short handed goals count as a positive to your +/-. Only Chara has played more even strength ice time for the Senators this year and only Chara has played more short handed ice time for the Senators this year. That means Phillips should have the second greatest chance gain +/- points due to the league high 14 short handed goals and outstanding team goal differential. But he hasn’t to near the extent that the rest of the defense has. Why is that? Why is his +/- the worst of all defense regulars?

    And it isn’t just this season.

    2001-02 he ranked behind Chara, Redden, and Rachunek
    2002-03 he ranked behind Chara, Rachunek, Redden, and Leschyshyn.
    2003-04 he ranked behind Chara, Redden and Rachunek

    Phillips is a good #3/#4 defenseman but not a good #1/#2 guy.

  8.  

    I don’t think the Rangers can be considered a cup contender until they acquire a top defenseman.

    You mention them as a contender in your “don’t trade Mats Sundin” post.

    But even on Atlanta I’d probably rank Phillips behind Modry and on par with guys like DeVries, Havelid, and Sutton.

    Wow, you really think little of Phillips.

    San Jose isn’t even a playoff team at the moment so I can’t consider them as a cup contender.

    I didn’t say they were a contender, I said they will be a playoff team, which I believe they will be.

    Let’s look at Phillips numbers a bit deeper.

    I realize this is an “analysis” blog, and you like to use numbers to support this and disprove that, and that’s cool, but using statistics to evaluate a defenceman is mostly a pretty useless exercise for anything other than deciding what kind of contract they will command, because so much of being a great blueliner doesn’t show up on a stats sheet.

    But if we’re gonna use stats, let’s look at the stats when it matters most: the playoffs. Because that’s when Phillips excels and elevates his game

    Last year, he was +2 in the series versus Toronto, behind only Chara. As a Leafs fan, Im sure you saw every game of that series. Did he not play terrific? Its what got him on the World Championship team the next spring.

    In the 02-03 playoffs, he was tied with Chara at +3, and had six points in 18 games.

    Again though, I don’t think stats are a fair measuring stick of what Phillips brings to the table. He logs a ton of minutes yet doesn’t tire, makes very few mistakes as far as giveaways, is rarely beat one-on-one, wins most battles for loose pucks. Those are the strengths of his game.

  9.  

    Yes, the Rangers are a contender but not a top one until they acquire a true #1 or #2 type defenseman in my mind.

    Wow, you really think little of Phillips.

    Or maybe you think a bit too much of him and too little of those other guys.

    I didn’t say they were a contender, I said they will be a playoff team, which I believe they will be.

    Ahhh, yes, but I said Phillips wouldn’t be a #2 guy on a Stanley Cup contending team. He wouldn’t be on Calgary, Vancouver, Colorado, Dallas, Nashville, Edmonton, Philadelphia, Tampa, and probably 75% of the teams in the NHL.

    using statistics to evaluate a defenceman is mostly a pretty useless exercise for anything other than deciding what kind of contract they will command, because so much of being a great blueliner doesn’t show up on a stats sheet.

    This is a wonderful arguement for anyone who can’t use stats to back up their point. Of course I don’t believe it to be at all true. I think stats can quantify at least 80-90% of what a player can contribute to a team.

    I am not denying that Phillips is not a good defenseman. He is just a #3/4 guy, not a #2 guy and nothing you have said has shown otherwise.

    Oh, and maybe Phillips looks good in the playoffs because the rest of the team doesn’t show up.

  10.  

    probably 75% of the teams in the NHL.

    Again, purely subjective, but:
    Atlanta
    Carolina
    Montreal
    NY Islanders
    NY Rangers
    Pittsburgh
    Washington
    Chicago
    Phoenix
    San Jose
    St. Louis
    Columbus
    Minnesota

    Now, a lot of those teams aren’t very good, but he’d be on their top two defence.

    This is a wonderful arguement for anyone who can’t use stats to back up their point.

    Stats don’t measure puck battles won. Stats don’t measure leadership. Stats don’t measure one-on-one battles, which are all the strengths of his game, so my point is, Chris Phillips isn’t a player whose value can be judged based solely on numbers.

    Oh, and maybe Phillips looks good in the playoffs because the rest of the team doesn’t show up.

    What does that have to do with anything? If we’re using these oh-so-wonderful stats, they speak for themselves, don’t they, regardless of everyone around him?

    The fact he’s got such good playoff numbers when you say everyone else sucks says a lot about him, doesn’t it?

  11.  

    Columbus: Foote and Berard are both better.

    St. Louis: Barret Jackman is better and Christian Backman will be soon if he isn’t already. And I’d probably take Brewer over Phillips too.

    Phoenix: I’d definitely take Mara over Phillips and probably Morris as well. Ballard and Michalek are both looking great in his rookie season and might soon be better.

    Chicago: Aucoin (though he is having a subpar year) and Spacek are both better and rookie Seabrook probably already is too.

    NY Islanders: I’d definitely take Zhitnik over Phillips and probably Sopel too since he has more offensive ability. Vancouver is really missing Sopel this year.

    San Jose: Scott Hannan is better and McLaren is probably on par with Phillips and so far rookie Tom Priessing is looking to be better.

    Montreal: Markov, Rivet and Souray are all about the same or slightly better than Phillips.

    I could probably go on but why bother. Most of those names I mentioned aren’t that much better than Phillips but except for a couple (i.e. Mara, Aucoin, possibly Brewer, Morris and maybe in a year or two Seabrook) I wouldn’t consider any of them #1/#2 guys.

    Stats don’t measure puck battles won. Stats don’t measure leadership. Stats don’t measure one-on-one battles, which are all the strengths of his game

    Ummm, yes you do. If you win those one-on-one battles your team will score more goals and give up fewer and that will be reflected in your stats.

    If we’re using these oh-so-wonderful stats, they speak for themselves, don’t they, regardless of everyone around him?

    You compared him to his teammates: “Last year, he was +2 in the series versus Toronto, behind only Chara.” The more his teammates suck, the easier it is to lead his team.

    The fact he’s got such good playoff numbers when you say everyone else sucks says a lot about him, doesn’t it?

    Yes, it is always a good thing to play well in the playoffs but that doesn’t all of a sudden make him a #1/#2 defenseman.

    The real reason why Phillips isn’t a #1/#2 defenseman is because he is a one-dimensional player. He is a defensive defenseman. He’s a specialist. The #1/#2 guys are more well rounded and they play in all situations, PP, PK, even strength, last minute of a game with the lead, last minute of a game without a lead. All situations. Phillips doesn’t, and wouldn’t, on most teams.

  12.  

    This conversation can go on and on, but I guess we just see Chris Phillips differently. To me, his game is one of the more underrated in the league. You obviously disagree, but the fact NHL people seem to be on my side as far as the Team Canada stuff says a lot I think.

  13.  

    And Phillips has made the Canadian team how many times? Kris Draper is not one of the top 13 Canadian forwards and yet he made the team. Just because a player is considered does not mean he is the best everall, just that he can play a certain role so don’t put too much stock in that. If that is the only thing you are going by your argument is pretty thin.

    TSN lists his career potential as top four defenseman. That’s top 4, not top 2. That’s the reality of Chris Phillips. Deal with it.

  14.  

    I agree. Phillips isn’t a bad player, but if given the chance to blossom, at best I see Marek Malik on a NY Rangersish team, which I think everyone is under-rating. They are top 10 easily, will contend against any team in 7 games, and get routine stellar goaltending (which is 50% of playoff hockey).

    The reason you guys are arguing about this, is Phillips is on a stacked team, and obviously benefits from +/- and opportunities because of this. Who knows exactly how his stats would turn out. Hopefully not -25 like Adam Foote?

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