May 242011
 

This is the first of several posts I will dedicate to what I expect the Leafs will do this upcoming off season.  In this post I outline where the Leafs are at now and what holes need to be addressed over the summer months.

The Leafs ended the 2010-11 season on a high note being backstopped by solid goaltending from James Reimer and an improved offense including significant offensive contributions from Dion Phaneuf for the first time in a Leaf uniform and Nazem Kadri among others.  This late season surge has given Leaf fans renewed optimism entering the 2011-12 season but before we get to the 2011-12 season we need to take a look at what the Leafs might do during the summer and before we get to that lets take a look at the team that finished the season.  After all the trades made at the trade deadline, this is the lineup that finished the 2010-11 season.

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Joffrey Lupul Nazem Kadri Phil Kessel
Clarke MacArthur* Mikhail Grabovski Nikolai Kulemin
Fredrik Sjostrom** Tyler Bozak* Colby Armstrong
Colton Orr Tim Brent** Mike Brown
Jay Rosehill** Darryl Boyce** Joey Crabb**
Defense Defense
Dion Phaneuf Luke Schenn*
Keith Aulie Carl Gunnarsson*
Mike Komisarek Matt Lashoff*
Brett Lebda
Goalie
James Reimer*
JS Giguere**
Jonas Gustavsson

*Restricted Free Agent

**Unrestricted Free Agent

There are essentially 6 restricted free agents that need to be re-signed and an additional 5 unrestricted free agents that decisions need to be made on.

Restricted Free Agents

James Reimer – Maybe the most important RFA to be re-signed is James Reimer.  In Reimer the Leafs hope to have finally found a true #1 goalie but as of yet Reimer can’t claim to be that having only started 35 NHL games.  I expect Reimer to get a similar deal to the one Gustavsson signed (2 years at 1.35M/year) after his first season in the NHL in which he started 39 games.  Now Reimer performed better so might deserve a little more but I think 2 years at $1.5M/year is reasonable.

Luke Schenn –  If Reimer isn’t the most important RFA to be re-signed, Luke Schenn is.  The question is, what is he worth?  The New York Rangers re-signed Marc Staal to a 5 year deal at an average salary of $3.975M per season last summer.  It could be argued that Staal is a better defenseman than Schenn but the difference would not be great so I’ll suggest that $4M/year is an upper limit on Schenn at this point in time.  I think Schenn’s contract will probably come in around $3.5M/year on a three year deal or a more Staal-like $4M/year deal if the contract length was 5 years.

Carl Gunnarsson – I like Gunnarsson as a defenseman and he has done some really good things in his brief NHL career.  He has good long term upside but as of right now is still not yet proven.  I think a fair price for him is a 2 year deal at $1.25M/year and lets see what he can do in a full time, possibly top four, role.

Clarke MacArthur – I wrote an article a month or so ago on the progression of the Grabovski-Kulemin-MacArthur line in which I suggested that MacArthur might not have as much value as we think.  Brian burke was listening to trade offers on MacArthur at the trade deadline and I think he will continue to do the same, especially if MacArthur is asking for $3M/year type money.  I personally don’t think he is worth that.  He isn’t that great defensively and while he was important as a playmaker for Grabovski and Kulemin, I don’t consider him someone that isn’t easily replaced and I think Kadri might be good replacing MacArthur on the wing if the Leafs manage to find a proven #1 center.  If he is asking for much more than $2.0M/year I’d seriously consider trading him.

Tyler Bozak – I am not quite sure what to make of Bozak yet.  He has some offensive skill, but not good enough to be a first line center.  He has shown some ability defensively and on the PK but his defensive ratings are still quite poor (HARD+ of 0.816 over past 2 seasons is actually pretty bad) but he is the Leafs best faceoff guy (54.6%) and I think the potential is there that he can be a solid 2-way third line center.  As such I would like to see him re-signed and see if he can excel in that role.  A fair value might be a 2 year deal at somewhere around $1-1.25M/yr, certainly no more.

Matt Lashoff – I liked what I saw from Lashoff in his short time with the Leafs at the end of last season.  In limited ice time over the past 4 seasons he has a weak 0.611 HARO+ rating but a very solid 1.288 HARD+ rating.  I’d like to see him as the #6/7 defenseman and see what he can do.   He has good size and skates well and as a former first round pick was once highly thought of.  He might be one of those guys that just needs to be given a chance and he’ll be cheap so why not.

Continue reading »

Apr 212011
 

The best and most consistent line for the Maple Leafs this past season was the Grabovski-Kulemin-MacArthur line.  This trio of forwards are all just entering their primes at ages 27, 24 and 26 respectively and they were the second, third and fourth leading point producers on the Leafs.  I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how these three guys careers have progressed up to now.  Here are each players basic stats over the past 4 seasons (3 for Kulemin) along with their 5v5 even strength HARO+, HARD+ and HART+ statistics (my HockeyAnalysis.com offense, defence and total ratings).

Mikhail Grabovski:

Season Games Goals Assists Points +/- HARO+ HARD+ HART+
2007-08 24 3 6 9 -4 1.185 0.641 0.913
2008-09 78 20 28 48 -8 0.959 0.891 0.925
2009-10 59 10 25 35 3 1.209 0.904 1.057
2010-11 81 29 29 58 14 1.343 1.064 1.204
2008-11 (3 yr) 218 59 82 141 9 1.137 0.972 1.055

In limited ice time he showed some decent offensive capabilities in his rookie 2007-08 season and progressed nicely in 2008-09 statistically but his ratings suffered some.  Many people considered his injury shortened 2009-10 season to be a bit of a disappointment but his HARO+ rating indicates that he really helped his team offensively when he was on the ice and in 2010-11 he took his offensive game to another level again.  Of the 221 players who have played at least 1500 minutes of 5v5 even strength ice time over the past 2 seasons, Grabovski ranks 18th in HARO+ and 24th in HART+ which is outstanding.

Nikolai Kulemin:

Season Games Goals Assists Points +/- HARO+ HARD+ HART+
2008-09 73 15 16 31 -8 1.092 0.757 0.925
2009-10 78 16 20 36 0 1.050 1.034 1.042
2010-11 82 30 27 57 7 1.264 1.024 1.144
2008-11 (3 yr) 233 61 63 124 -1 1.109 0.952 1.030

Kulemin had a more than respectable 15 goal rookie season and he showed that his good shot will work in the NHL but last season was a bit of a breakout year for him even though he didn’t dramatically improve his offensive numbers.  It was a breakout season because he really learned how to assert himself physically.  He isn’t a big physically imposing player, but he is strong on his skates and has learned that he can hold his own against opposing forwards.  This has really helped his defensive game and then this year he took his offensive game to another level.  Kulemin ranks 57 in HARO+ and 40th in HART+ among forwards over the past 2 seasons.

Clarke MacArthur:

Season Games Goals Assists Points +/- HARO+ HARD+ HART+
2007-08 37 8 7 15 3 1.219 0.922 1.070
2008-09 71 17 14 31 -4 0.941 0.902 0.922
2009-10 81 16 19 35 -16 0.983 0.792 0.887
2010-11 82 21 41 62 -3 1.206 0.971 1.089
2008-11 (3 yr) 234 54 74 128 -23 1.025 0.904 0.964

Of the three players, MacArthur has clearly been the lease consistent so far in his career, offensively anyway.  He showed some good things in limited action in his rookie year but his offensive production stagnated for a couple seasons before taking a jump forward his season.  Defensively he has been mostly mediocre for his whole career so far.  Overall we can be less certain about what MacArthur will bring to the Leafs in the future.  At best I think he is a decent second line center who can provide some secondary offense.

Of the three players, I think MacArthur is the least valuable and the Leafs will have to make a decision on where he fits in going forward.  He probably has more pure playmaking skills than either Grabovski or Kulemin which makes him a good fit for that line.  Overall thought he is easily replaceable and a decision will have to be made as to whether to whether to keep him around and at what salary.  An alternative would be to work a youngster such as Kadri onto that line either at wing or at center (moving Grabovski, who struggles at the face off dot, to wing) and use MacArthur as trade bait to fill a hole elsewhere.

Mar 152011
 

I thought this debate had been fully hashed out already but apparently some people still don’t believe that the game score has an impact on shooting percentage (and shot quality).  The following table shows the shooting percentages by game score over the past 3 seasons (2007-08 to 2009-10) during even strength situations where neither goalie is pulled for any reason (including delayed penalty situations).

Situation Shots Goals SH% Prob<= Prob>
Down2+ 23650 1852 7.83 0.3794 0.6206
Down1 30447 2356 7.74 0.1696 0.8304
Tied 60753 4427 7.29 0.0000 1.0000
Up1 26842 2288 8.52 0.9999 0.0001
Up2+ 19351 1779 9.19 1.0000 0.0000
Overall 161043 12702 7.89 0.5024 0.4976

The Situation, Shots, Goals, and SH% columns are self explanatory.  As you can see, shooting percentage is at its lowest in game tied situations, increases slightly for teams that are trailing and increases significantly for teams that are leading.

The second last column titled Prob<= show the probability (according to a binomial distribution) that that number of goals or fewer would be scored on that number of shots if the expected shooting percentage was 7.89%, the same as the overall 5v5 shooting percentage.  The last column titled Prob> is simply 1-Prob<= and shows the probability of getting more than that number of goals on that number of shots.  So, in down 2+ goal situations, there is a 37.94% chance of their being 1852 or fewer goals scored on 23650 shots which indicates that the down2+ shooting percentage isn’t different from the 5v5 mean at any reasonable confidence level.  The same conclusion can be drawn about down1 situations.  But, the shooting percentages in game tied, up1 and up2+ situations are statistically different at an extremely high confidence level.  Essentially there is zero chance that game tied, up1, or up2+ situations have the same natural shooting percentages as game overall 5v5 situations.  In no way can luck be the sole reason for these differences.

So, does this conclusively tell us that shot quality exists and varies according to game score?  It probably does, but I can’t say it is conclusive as it could mean that teams that trail a lot have bad goaltending (the reason they are trailing) and this results in the team leading having an inflated shooting percentage.  So, what if we looked at shots against a particular team.  Let’s say, for example, against the NY Rangers.  Here is what that looks like.

Situation Shots Goals SH% Prob<= Prob>
Overall 5159 386 7.48 0.5135 0.4865
Up1 843 73 8.66 0.9116 0.0884
Up2+ 485 46 9.48 0.9571 0.0429
Leading 1328 119 8.96 0.9800 0.0200
Tied 2004 138 6.89 0.1658 0.8342

I chose the Rangers because they use predominantly one goalie and that goalie is generally speaking a quality goalie.  As you can see, the confidence levels aren’t quite as strong as league wide mostly because of the smaller sample size but if we combine the up1 and up2+ categories we can say that shot quality against the Rangers when the opposing team is leading is statistically different than shooting percentage against the Rangers overall.

If you are interested in seeing what happens with a team that has had chronically bad goaltending, here is the same table for the Maple Leafs.  We see the same sort of things.

Situation Shots Goals SH% Prob<= Prob>
Overall 5309 491 9.25 0.5120 0.4880
Up1 938 94 10.02 0.8098 0.1902
Up2+ 906 100 11.04 0.9698 0.0302
Leading 1844 194 10.52 0.9712 0.0288
Tied 1985 149 7.51 0.0034 0.9966

So what have we learned.

  1. Shooting percentages vary according to game score.
  2. Those shooting percentage differences can’t be attributed to luck.
  3. Those shooting percentage differences can’t be attributed to goaltending.

That means, it must be the quality of the shots that varies across game scores.  In short, we can conclude that when teams get down in a game they open up and take more chances offensively which in turn gives up higher quality shots against which makes perfect sense to me.

When we combine this with my previous post on the Washington Capitals shooting percentage last season, it is probably safe to assume that shot quality exists and we can’t safely assume that all shots can be treated equal in all situations.

Feb 182011
 

First off, it should be a sad day in Leaf land as we all say good bye to Tomas Kaberle.  It seems many people are unaware of just how good Kaberle was and still is.  Here are some facts about Tomas Kaberle:

  1. Since Kaberle entered the NHL in 2008-09 the only defenseman with more assists than Kaberle is Niklas Lidstrom and only Lidstrom, Gonchar and Pronger have more points.
  2. Since the lockout only Lidstrom has more assists among defensemen and only Lidstrom and Rafalski have more points.
  3. Among all skaters, not just defensemen, Kaberle ranks 20th in assists since the lockout and has more assists than Vincent Lecavalier and Eric Staal.
  4. His point production has not tailed off significantly the past several seasons despite many people seemingly believing otherwise.  He had 49 points last season and is on pace for about 52 this season.
  5. Only 2 defensemen (Keith, Enstrom) have more combined assists this season and last and only 8 defensemen (Green, Keith, Boyle, Lidstrom, Enstrom, Visnovsky, Doughty and Yandle).

That is pretty good if you ask me and while he had his flaws he truly was an elite puck moving and passing defenseman.  He’ll be missed in Toronto.

Now, it is time to take a look at the Leafs future.  What Burke has done the past couple years has actually been pretty extraordinary and for all those who have begged for the Leafs to go with the build through the draft method of team building here is some of the assets currently in the Maple Leaf organization.

  • 2011 Boston 1st round pick
  • 2011 Philadelphia 1st round pick
  • Nazem Kadri – 7th overall 2009
  • Luke Schenn – 5th overall 2008
  • Joe Colborne – 16th overall, 2008
  • Jake Gardiner – 17th overall, 2008
  • Phil Kessel – 5th overall, 2006
  • Dion Phaneuf – 9th overall 2003
  • Joffrey Lupul – 7th overall 2002
  • Mike Komisarek – 7th overall, 2001
  • Fredrik Sjostrom – 11th overall 2001
  • Colby Armstrong – 21st overall, 2001

Now we don’t know what Kadri, Colborne, Gardiner and the two 2011 draft picks will turn out to be, but that is what rebuilding through the draft is all about (and isn’t that what Leaf fans have been demanding).  So while it may not be the traditional build through the draft, what Burke has done to the depth of young talent on these Leafs has been amazing, even if we haven’t seen the results on the ice yet.  On top of that, the Leafs should have about $25M in cap space available for next season (though MacArthur, Bozak, Schenn and Gunnarsson need to be re-signed). Fear not Leaf fans, I believe good times are ahead, and not too far away.

Jan 062011
 

The score of a game influences how a team plays.  When a team is trailing they play a more aggressive offensive game, when they are up a goal or more, they play a more defensive game.  The question I answer today is, how does score influence a teams save percentage.

To answer this question I looked at the past 3 seasons of 5v5 even strength save percentage data when the score is tied, when the team is up by a goal, when the team is up by 2 or more goals, when the team is down a goal and when the team is down by 2 or more goals.  For each team and score category I have a data point for 2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10 as well as a three year average (2007-10).  For each score category I sorted from lowest to highest save percentage and then plotted them on one chart and got the following:

As you can see, when the game is tied generally produces higher save percentages than when a team is leading or trailing and when a team is trailing their save percentages are at their worst.  This is probably not surprising as a team will open up its game in hopes of creating offense but also puts them at risk defensively.  Now, what that table doesn’t tell us is if all teams experience the same score effects or, for whatever reason, do some teams actually have improved save percentages when trailing or leading.  The following chart shows each teams 3 year save percentage by score ordered from lowest 5v5 game tied save percentage.

The majority of teams have the majority of their leading or trailing save percentages below the game tied save percentages but there are a number of occassions where that doesn’t occur and they are mostly related to up2 or up2+ save percentages.  The only teams that had a down1 or down2+ save percentage above game tied save percentage were:

  1. Dallas – Down1: 92.51% vs Tied: 91.74%
  2. Detroit – Down1: 93.05% vs Tied: 92.16%
  3. Pittsburgh: Down2+: 92.87% vs Tied: 92.78%
  4. Minnesota:  Down2+: 93.21% vs Tied: 92.89%
  5. Florida: Down1: 93.92% vs Tied: 93.23%

On average, teams had their down 1 goal save percentage 1.3% lower than their game tied save percentage and their down 2+ goal save percentage 1.90% lower than their game tied save percentage.  The average team save percentage at 5v5 tied is 92.7% vs 91.4% down a goal, 90.8% down 2+ goals, 92.2% up a goal and 92.1% up 2 goals.  Tailing can have a sizable negative impact on save percentage where as leading can have a minor negative impact.

So what does this mean?  It means we need to be careful when evaluating goalies (and probably shooters to some extent) based on save percentage (special team effects) or even 5v5 even strength save percentage because the game situations a goalie has been exposed to will influence the goalies save percentage.  A goalie on a weak team will have his save percentage lowered simply because his team is going to be trailing more often and be forced to take chances to create offense and thus he will be exposed to tougher shots where as a goalie on a good team who leads the game more than they trail a lot will not face as many tough shots.

One interesting thing I noticed while doing all this was the Toronto Maple Leafs up by a single goal performance over the last 3 seasons.  While they were middle of the pack 5v5 game tied (16th in 3 year 5v5 game tied save percentage), they were downright horrific when they got up a goal.  They just couldn’t hold a lead.  The three worst single season save percentages when up a goal were the 2009-10 Leafs, 2008-09 Leafs, and the 2007-08 Leafs so they were three for three there.  Over the course of the past 3 seasons the Leafs posted an 88.4 save percentage when up a goal which was 3.44 standard deviations from the mean.  Next worse what the Ottawa Senators who were well ahead of them at 90.8, a mere 1.23 standard deviations from the mean.  The good news for Leaf fans is their 5v5 up a goal save percentage is much better this year: 95.6% (better than any team in any of the last 3 seasons), 97.2 for Gustavsson and 93.9% for Giguere so they are much better at maintaining the lead.  Unfortunately this season they can’t score well enough to get them a lead to protect.

Oct 022010
 

As we head towards the start of the 2010-11 season, lets take a look at 9 teams who may struggle in goal.

Philadelphia Flyers – Michael Leighton has been a waiver claim 4 times in the past 4 years and another time was traded straight up for a 7th round pick.  Despite playing well at times last year, he isn’t anyone I’d be comfortable depending on and he will be starting the season on IR with a bad back.  Brian Boucher has had moments of great play in his career too but has never been able to establish himself as anything more than a backup.  This is not the goaltending a supposed Stanley Cup contender should have.

Ottawa Senators – The Senators had the third worst save percentage in the NHL and they chose to come back with the same tandem and they haven’t looked any better in the pre-season.  Pascal Leclaire might be the worst goalie in the NHL over the past couple seasons (challenging Toskala for that title) though the Senators hope that is in part due to his injury issues.  Brian Elliot looked like he was in the process of transitioning from prospect to reliable NHL starter but he also struggled at times, and didn’t look good in the playoffs.  What Elliot’s NHL career looks like is still a big question mark.  Adding to the problem is the Senators lost a key defensive defenseman in Anton Volchenkov and added an offensive defenseman in Sergei Gonchar so the team may choose to go with a more offensive style of play which would only expose their goaltending issues even more.

Dallas Stars – Kari Lehtonen isn’t a bad goalie, just an unhealthy one.  Only once in his 5 year career has he been able to start more than 45 games.  Behind Lehtonen you have Andrew Raycroft who probably has been one of the worst goalies post lockout.  If Lehtonen gets injured yet again, it could be trouble for the Stars.

Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs have had terrible goaltending the last several years.  The good news is there is no one on the Leaf roster named Toskala or Raycroft so that has to be a positive.  But, with that said young Jonas Gustavsson hasn’t proven anything and has looked iffy in the pre-season and veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere is past his prime.  That said, I think Giguere will have a more steady influence on the team even if he isn’t a great goalie anymore and at least there is hope that Gustavsson can provide some upside as he develops.

Montreal Canadiens – I don’t understand the logic of trading away Jaroslav Halak who in addition to being a playoff hero also posted a 26-13-5 record with a .924 save percentage in order to keep Carey Price and his 13-20-5 record and .912 save percentage.  Price has looked shakey in the pre-season and if he doesn’t turn it around it could be a long year in Montreal.  New backup Alex Auld can be a decent backup but not someone I’d want to have to depend on too much.

Washington Capitals – Like the Flyers, the Capitals are Stanley Cup contenders with big question marks in goal.  While the Flyers have a pair of goalies with more experience than the Capitals the Capitals have a pair of young goalies with potential to have very good careers.  Both Seymon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth have been solid in goal at times but combined they have just 47 NHL regular season starts.  The good news is the Capitals have enough offense that they don’t need great goaltending but even so, that is a lot of pressure to put on a pair of youngsters with no veteran goalie around to support them.

Edmonton Oilers – Khabibulin is one of the most streaky goalies around.  When he is good, he can be really good, but when he is bad he can be awful, and there isn’t much behind him to support him during those bad streaks.  All that said, goaltending isn’t all the Oilers will have issues with.

NY Islanders – Rick DiPietro can’t seem to stay healthy and Dwayne Roloson is 41 years old.  The potential is there for the Islanders to have serious goaltending problems this upcoming season.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Both Dan Ellis and Mike Smith have shown potential to be decent NHL goalies but neither have played well enough to be called a reliable starter and neither are coming off good seasons.  Despite some good talent up front, it could be another long season for the Lightning if one of these guys can’t step up their games or the coaching can’t optimize the ‘go with the hot goalie’ strategy.

Honourable Mentions:  Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks.  I am not overly worried about Turco in Chicago, I think he can still be a reliable goalie for 50-60 games.  Can Crawford deliver in his 25-30 games though?  I am also not that worried about Niemi and Nittymaki in San Jose.  I think between them they will provide solid goaltending, but it probably won’t be as dependable as Nabokov’s.

Jul 022010
 

When Brian Burke makes a trade more often than not he does it by targeting players and going hard after them until he gets them.  He did this with both Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.  He identified them as players he needs to fill a hole on the roster and went hard after them.  If Brian Burke is to trade Kaberle he will probably do the same.  He isn’t going to trade Kaberle for the sake of trading Kaberle, but rather for the sake of filling a hole on his roster.  He has on numerous occasions identified the need for a scoring winger, preferably one with size and although he has added Versteeg and Armstrong in the past 2 days he may still be seeking that kind of player, especially if he can’t get Kulemin signed to a contract.  So, we need to ask, who fits that profile and might be available?  To answer that question, lets take a look at all the wingers who scored more than 25 goals this past season.

Ovechkin, Marleau, Kovalchuk, Semin, Heatley, Parise, Burrows, Ryan, Nash, Iginla, Penner, Kane, Jokinen, Samuelsson, Hornqvist, Moulson, St. Louis, D. Sedin, L. Eriksson, Knuble, C. Stewart, Vanek, Stempniak, Gionta, Perry, Bourque, Neal, Selanne, Latendresse, Briere, Cammalleri, Sharp, Brunette, Raymond, Holmstrom, Hagman.

The majority of those players you can immediately scratch off the available list because their teams just won’t trade them (i.e. Ovechkin, Marleau, Heatley, etc.).  Others are probably too old (Knuble, Holmstrom) or not established enough (Jokinen, Moulson) for Burke to be interested in.  There are some interesting names though that might be available.

Certainly Kovalchuk is available as an unrestricted free agent but as I recently wrote, I think he will cost more and demand a longer term contract than Brian Burke is willing to give.  Teemu Selanne is an unrestricted free agent as well and has a history with Burke, but I suspect he ends up in Anaheim or retires and he is outside of Burke’s ideal age range.

The interesting players on the list are Alexander Semin, Bobby Ryan, Loui Eriksson, James Neal and maybe even Tomas Vanek.  Alexander Semin is probably the most skilled forward in that list and for salary reasons it seems almost certain that the capitals will have to part ways with him at some point but they are probably looking more for a physical defensive defenseman on defense than another offensive one like Kaberle.

There has been a ton of speculation revolving around Bobby Ryan.  We can be sure that Ryan is the exact kind of player that Burke would love to acquire.  He is young, he can score, and he plays a physical game.  On top of that, with Scott Niedermayer retiring the Ducks could use another defenseman but Kaberle might be just too much like Lubomir Visnovsky to be an ideal fit.  It would also cost more than just Kaberle to pry Ryan away from the Ducks and the Ducks may in fact be more interested in a young defenseman like Luke Schenn than in Kaberle.

James Neal and Loui Eriksson, both of the Dallas Stars, are intriguing possibilities.  Eriksson is coming off back to back seasons with 36 and 29 goals and 63 and 71 points and is just coming into his prime.  Eriksson is signed long term and has a no trade clause so it is uncertain if the Stars would, or can, trade him.  James Neal, on the other hand, is an unsigned restricted free agent and in his 2 NHL seasons he has scored 24 and 27 goals and should only get better.  The Stars have some depth on the wing with Morrow, Ott, Eriksson, Benn, and others so they may be willing to trade Neal in the right deal.  I also believe that the Stars could use another defenseman because after Robidas there isn’t really much there.  Trading for Neal will probably cost more than just Kaberle but would probably cost less than trading for Ryan, especially if the Leafs were willing to take some salary in return.  I personally think Neal would be a nice addition to the Leafs and would fit in perfectly with their young core.

The final player in the 25+ goal category that might be available is Tomas Vanek.  Vanek if you recall was signed to a big offer sheet by the Edmonton Oilers which the Buffalo Sabres matched but Vanek has not really lived up to his $7 million per year contract.  He has been good but I am sure the Sabres hoped for more.  The Sabres have said goodbye to long time defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman and are in the market for some new talent on the back end.  They have signed Milan Jurcina, but still need a defenseman or two.  Buffalo is also a small market team that probably won’t spend to the salary cap and might be willing to part ways with Tomas Vanek if the return fit their needs but it will take some kind of replacement forward along with Kaberle for them to make that trade (Kulemin?).  Vanek has good size and 40 goal potential and I am sure would be of interest to Burke but a deal like this with a division rival would be a tough one to make.

Wingers with 20-25 goals that might interest the Leafs and might be available are the Blue Jackets RJ Umberger, the Stars Jamie Benn, the Sharks Setogutchi or the Lightning’s Ryan Malone.  RJ Umberger is interesting as it was Burke who drafted him in 2001 when he was with the Vancouver Canucks.   Jamie Benn is on a cheap entry level contract which likley means Dallas has no interest in trading him so scratch him from the list.  With Tampa signing Pavel Kubina today it seems less likely they would be interested in another defenseman and will probably keep Malone.  Setogutchi doesn’t have the size that Brian Burke is seeking but he had 31 goals in 2008-09 and has more pure scoring ability than any current Leaf forward outside of Kessel.  The Sharks are also likely looking for a defenseman to replace the retired Rob Blake and may have interest in Kaberle.  Another Shark forward that may interest Brian Burke is Ryane Clowe.  Though Clowe may not have the goal scoring ability of Setogutchi he has good size and can play a tough physical game.

If I had my wish, I would love to see either Bobby Ryan or James Neal in a Leaf uniform.  Both have good size and have 30+ goal potential (maybe 40+ for Ryan).  Failing that, one of the Shark wingers would be interesting pickups.

Jun 302010
 

As always, there is a lot of speculation as to what the Maple Leafs will do on July 1st when the NHL free agent season begins.  Some are suggesting they should go big or go home and do whatever it takes to sign Ilya Kovalchuk as the answer to their offensive woes while others believe Kovalchuk is going for the big long term contract to which Burke has said on numerous occasions he isn’t interested in doing.  After Kovalchuk though there aren’t any top tier forward free agents available to help solve the Leafs lack of scoring problems.

I am in the camp that I don’t believe that Kovalchuk will be a Maple Leaf.  He’ll end up signing a long term big dollar contract somewhere else.   Whether the Leafs will, or should, go after Kovalchuk depends a lot on what Burke believes he can acquire in a Tomas Kaberle trade.  If Burke believes he can land a scoring winger with size in a Kaberle trade then the need to go after a guy like Kovalchuk is minimized.

Historically teams that win the Stanley Cup have excellent defenses, solid goaltending and are strong down the middle.  Teams that have had elite level wingers but have lacked at center have generally not done well.  What has Kovalchuk won?  What about Jarome Iginla?  What about Rick Nash?  These are three of the best wingers in the game but haven’t achieved much, if any, playoff success.  Feel free to toss Ovechkin into the mix (for now anyway). The Leafs already have an offensive minded winger in Phil Kessel and I don’t believe they necessarily need another offense-first winger like Kovalchuk, at least not if the price tag is $9 million.

As it stands right now, the Leafs forward lines might look like this:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Tyler Bozak Phil Kessel
Mikhail Grabovski
Fredrik Sjostrom
Mike Brown Colton Orr

I have intentionally left a lot of blanks in there and have only listed the players I believe are fairly certain to fill those positions.  That leaves the two left wing slots on the first two lines open, the second and third line right wing positions and the third and fourth line center positions as well as a reserve position or two which Brown may get bumped to depending on how the roster unfolds.  Should Kulemin get re-signed he will fill in one of those open winger slots, probably either on the second or third line.  The Leafs also have Luca Caputi, Viktor Stalberg and Christain Hanson in the fold but while all have showed flashes of potential, I don’t believe any of them showed enough last year to make me believe they should be written in as a sure bet to make the club.  The same goes for John Mitchell who is set to become a UFA but who the Leafs have said they would like to bring back at the right price (read: close to league minimum or even a 2-way deal).  Caputi probably has the best opportunity to make the club because he plays a physical game and is probably more suited to a third line role than Stalberg though Stalberg showed he might be ready for a top 6 role late last season.  I haven’t mentioned Nazem Kadri yet but I should as it is likely he will fill one of the top six positions, possibly as a winger or as the second line center pushing Grabovski to wing where he may be better suited anyway (or he could be used as trade bait).  So as it stands now there are five or six forward slots up for grabs and I am certain that Brian Burke wants to bring in at least two, if not three additional forwards to really create battles for those open slots.

Now it is time for some speculation.  If Kovalchuk is out of the picture, as I believe he is, who will Burke go after.  There are three things that we know that can guide us into figuring out what Burke might do.  First, Burke has stated he wants to find a winger that can score, preferably one with some size.  Second he wants to add more toughness throughout the lineup.  Third, historically he has shown that he really likes to bring back players who have played for him before.  So where does that leave us.

There are no first line or even true second line wingers who can score and have size on the open market.  It seems to me that this is what he intends to acquire via a Tomas Kaberle trade.  That trade probably won’t happen for at least a few days after the early free agent frenzy settles so I won’t speculate on that here right now.

There are players that will address toughness further down the lineup though and who are young enough who can contribute to the Leafs for the next several years.  Two names that have been speculated upon are Colby Armstrong and Raffi Torres and both of these guys can fill that toughness role and they are both capable of scoring 15+ goals so in a pinch are capable of playing a second line role or second PP unit role.  I fully expect that Brian Burke to go after and sign one of these guys so long as the price tag is around $2.5-3M per year on a 3 or 4 year deal.

In my mind the Leafs can desperately use a veteran centerman, if not two, as Bozak and Kadri would form a pretty inexperienced top two.  If Burke is looking for a center under the age of 30 who can produce offensively you are pretty much limited to Matthew Lombardi, but I don’t see that as the route Burke will go because I don’t see Lombardi as the kind of ‘role player’ Burke wants on the third line.  That means you may have to go a little older and so I think he might consider going after a guy like Matt Cullen who is 32 years of age and a pretty good 2-way player versatile in that he can play a second or third line role and play at center or on the wing.  His price tag might get a little high for what Burke wants to spend on a third line player but he would be a nice veteran addition.

A similar player to Cullen who will cost somewhat less is Eric Belanger.  Belanger isn’t big, but he plays a gritty physical game and would look good in a third line role and has consistently gotten around 35 points throughout his career.

We know Brian Burke has liked Brendan Morrison in the past.  He had Morrison in Vancouver and signed him as a free agent in Anaheim.  The Anaheim experiment was a bit of a flop mostly because he paid him too much money for what he could contribute but last year in Washington he showed he could be a serviceable role player as a third or fourth line center.  I don’t know if Burke intends to go after Morrison but it wouldn’t surprise me if Burke signed Morrison so long as his contract short term (1 or 2 seasons) and no more than the $1.5M he made last year.

If Brian Burke is set on trading Kaberle for help up front he’ll probably want to pick up another defenseman but not one with a big salary.  There are a lot of defensemen to choose from in this UFA class so it is difficult to speculate who he might go after but I suspect he’ll wait until the first rush on defensemen passes and he’ll try to pick up someone at a bargain price a week or two down the road as players start to see job openings dwindling away and get concerned about if and where they might play come September more than they are about holding out for maximum dollars.

Update:  The Leafs have acquired Kris Versteeg from the Chicago Blackhawks for Stalberg and prospects DiDominico and Paradis.  Versteeg will likely fill one of those second line winger roles.

Jan 282010
 

The Leafs, Hurricanes and Oilers are the only teams in definitive selling mode as we approach the Olympic break and subsequent trade deadline and with the way things are going there may not be all that many other sellers out there. So for now, let’s stick with these three teams and Ilya Kovalchuk and make some predictions on whether the following players will be traded and what kind of return they could garner. My predictions will be in the comments.

Atlanta Thrashers
Ilya Kovalchuk

Toronto Maple Leafs
Tomas Kaberle – one more year at $4.25M cap hit and salary
Alexei Ponikarovsky
Matt Stajan
Niklas Hagman – 2 more years at $3M cap hit and salary
Lee Stempniak
Jamal Mayers
Garnett Exelby
Wayne Primeau
Vesa Toskala
Jason Blake – 2 more years at $4M cap hit, $3M actual salary
Jeff Finger – 2 more years at $3.5M cap hit and salary

Carolina Hurricanes
Ray Whitney
Matt Cullen
Stephane Yelle
Joe Corbo
Aaron Ward
Niclas Wallin
Manny Legace

Edmonton Oilers
Sheldon Souray – 2 more years at $5.4M cap hit, $4.5M actual salary
Steve Staios – 1 more year at $2.7M cap hit, $2.2M actual salary
Shawn Horcoff – 5 more years at $5.5M cap hit, 6.5M,6.5M,6.0M,4.0M,3.0M actual salary
Ethan Moreau – 1 more year at $2.0M cap hit, 1.75M actual salary
Fernando Pisani
Robert Nilsson – Another year at $2M cap hit, $2.5M actual salary.
Lubomir Visnovsky – Three more years at $5.6M cap hit, $6.0M, $5.0M, $3.0M actual salary.

Sep 302009
 

I am going to come out with complete 2009-10 season predictions for the eastern and western conferences later today or tomorrow but for now let me focus on my favourite team, the Maple Leafs.

Coming out of training camp there is a lot to be optimistic about the Leafs future. Nazem Kadri showed very well in his first NHL training camp and gave every indication that he has a bright future in the NHL. Youngsters Hanson, Bozak and especially Stalberg all played quite well and all showed that they have a future of some kind at the NHL level, especially Stalberg and Bozak who should make an impact this season. Furthermore, come some time in early November the Leafs should be inserting a 36 goal scorer into their lineup when newly acquired Phil Kessel returns from his shoulder injury. At that point there will be more speed and skill on this Leafs roster than we have seen since before the lockout. On defense the additions of Komisarek, Beauchemin and Exelby add additional toughness and a more balanced grouping and Ron Wilson informed us all that Tomas Kaberle is no longer fat so we can be optimistic that he can return to his 60+ point form.

But what Leaf fans need to be most optimistic about is goaltending. Ok, I realize that some of you may still be skeptics considering that Toskala gave up 7 goals on Sunday and looked bad and his backup is a raw rookie with just 3 periods of exhibition play, albeit good play. But what Leaf fans really need to be optimistic about is that last season the goaltending was truly dreadful and it is almost impossible for this seasons goaltending to be worse. As bad as Toskala was last season, and he was quite bad, the trio of backup goaltenders (Joseph, Pogge, Gerber) that were used were significantly worse. Last season Toskala had a record of 22-17-11 while the backup goalies had a record of 12-18-2. Even if Leaf fans assume no improvements in the forwards and defense and that Toskala is just as bad in 2009-10 as he was in 2008-09, if the backups, be it Gustavsson or MacDonald, can even be just as good as Toskala they would have posted a 17-14-1 record. Yes, if the backup goalies last season posted a similar record to Toskala, who was still a bad goalie, the leafs would have had 9 extra points. That would have given them a total of 90 points, just 3 points behind 8th place Montreal.

So, even if Toskala remains the same and the backup goaltending improves from horrific last season to a Toskala-like bad this season, the Leafs should be in playoff contention. If you believe that a now healthy Toskala can even be a little bit better or that Gustavsson is the real deal or if you believe that the there are improvements on defense or up front, you have to be optimistic that the Leafs have a very good shot at obtaining a playoff spot. If the Leafs goaltending can be anywhere close to middle of the pack they are probably a lock for a playoff spot. Even if they only take their save percentage from .885 to .900, which would put them on par with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders of last year, the Leafs should make the playoffs.

In short, Leaf fans should be optimistic because the goaltending was so horrific last season that improving goaltending enough to make the playoffs is not really a difficult task and certainly one that the trio of Toskala/Gustavsson/MacDonald should be able to accomplish.