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.