Heading into last offseason there were a lot of questions surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs. Luke Schenn was coming off of a tough season, Dion Phaneuf had produced very little offensively for the team, the forward corps looked like Phil Kessel and a bunch of question marks and nobody knew what to expect out of Jonas Gustavsson.
This offseason, there is a lot more clarity. Luke Schenn bounced back and there's little question about the kind of defense he'll provide. Dion Phaneuf re-found some of his offensive prowess and is expected to provide more of the same. The line of Kulemin, Grabovski and MacArthur stabilized our forwards and despite an up-and-down season, Phil Kessel still managed to put together a 32 goal year.
Despite the stability we've found in some areas, some key questions still remain. Just how good is James Reimer? Who is going to center Phil Kessel's line? Are Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson ready to play consistent second pairing minutes at a high level?
With these questions in mind, I've decided to draw-up what I see as an offseason road map for the Leafs during the 2011 offseason.
First of all, the Leafs should try and re-sign their RFAs that they intend to keep as soon as possible, and certainly before July 1st. Brian Burke has already begun this process, inking both James Reimer and Carl Gunnarsson. Getting Luke Schenn, Clark MacArthur and Tyler Bozak signed sooner rather than later will give Burke a better idea of how much cap space he has heading into free agency. I'm sure he has a pretty good idea of how much these guys will cost him, or at least a range, but more information is never a bad thing.
Secondly, have a good draft. I know this seems like a no-brainer but a lot of GMs make some really bad moves on draft day. Remember the deal Vancouver made for Keith Ballard? If not, let me refresh your memory: Vancouver got Ballard (healthy scratch most of the playoffs) in exchange for a late 1st round pick, Calder finalist Michael Grabner and Steve Bernier. My point here is that though your team has a need, it doesn't mean that you need to fill it irrespective of cost. I know that Brian Burke wants to move up in the draft but if the right deal isn't there, I hope he doesn't throw big packages around to make something happen. We have 3 picks in the top 40 in a draft that has some deep middling talent. If the deal you want isn't there, just use your picks.
Burke has publicly stated that they intend on drafting the best player available, irrespective of need and I completely agree with this strategy. By the time these guys make the NHL, the needs of your team can completely change. Just draft the players you like.
Scott Mayfield is a Brian Burke guy and I fully expect that he will be a Maple Leaf, whether it's with the 25th overall or the 30th overall. Other than that, there are a lot of good prospects out there (I'm partial to Puempel if he's available) so we should get some good prospects. The Leafs have done well in recent drafts with Blacker, McKegg and Ross all developing very well. Hopefully we can land a gem with our first rounders.
After the draft, is the July 1st free agency rush. The lineup as it exists has some holes in it. The Leafs need a first line center desperately and could use a veteran defenseman and (in my opinion) a veteran goalie.
The only true first line center in this year's free agent pool is Brad Richards. I'd like to see the Leafs go after him and don't really care what he costs in terms of dollars. What I don't want to see is a contract of more than say four or five years. If you can't land him at so few years then walk away. If you can't sign Brad Richards, then don't bother signing someone just to sign someone.
There are plenty of solid veteran defensemen available and I don't doubt that one of them will be a Leaf. This is an area that has been a real problem for us though. Mike Komisarek has been an unmitigated disaster as has Brett Lebda. Beauchemin was adequate but not groundbreaking. It's important that we get good value for money on whoever we sign here as Aulie and Gunnarsson will both likely have their ups and downs. I really feel that it's important to insulate them from this pressure as much as possible.
I'd really like to see the Leafs bring in a veteran goalie to support Reimer but I don't want to sign them on July 1st. In my opinion, you get the other signings done first and then you wait. Let other teams overpay for goaltenders and then have a look at which guys are left once the dust settles. You'll probably be able to get a guy that wont mind being a backup, or at least contending for the starting position, on a very reasonable contract.
The offseason is probably the best time there is to make hockey deals. Moves at the trade deadline are between contenders and pretenders and are almost exclussively trades that see talent move for futures. The offseason is a different animal. People are trying to improve their rosters and the salary cap is a lot more manageable at this time of year.
If Brad Richards doesn't sign with the Leafs (which I expect he will not) then the Leafs will certainly explore acquiring a first line center via the trade route. The Flyers have cap issues and may be looking to move Carter or Briere. Stastny has been involved in trade rumours for months. Rumours of a shake-up in San Jose persist with Pavelski being a player that may move out to make that happen. There are some attractive names that are continually mentioned but what the cost would be to acquire one of these guys or whether they're even available at all is tough to say. Of this group, Stastny is the only guy that I'm genuinely interested in and who I would overpay to acquire.
There are some good RFAs out there, including Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Zach Parise and Steven Stamkos. I mention this not because I think that an offer sheet is in the cards or would have a chance at being successful. Having said this, who knows how things will unfold, particularly with Parise. New Jersey is in a tough spot with the cap and it seems as though they'll be taking him to arbitration. These hearings can often sour a player's feelings towards a team and management. New Jersey probably can't afford to pay Parise as much as they're paying Kovalchuk and frankly, he deserves it. It wouldn't surprise me if Parise was made available at some point though the price for him would be justifiably astronomical. If not Parise, New Jersey may need to make Zajac available to free up salary. It's a long shot to be sure but I'm not ready to discount the effect that an arbitration hearing can have on a player's psyche.
As it pertains to trades, I still feel that I would rather see the Leafs walk away from any deal they aren't comfortable with. The team is young and improving. We have some solid prospects in the system and will likely add to that during the draft. We're not quite sure what we have in Reimer. When you add all of this together, it might be best to stay the course and see how the season plays out. If Reimer plays as well as he did last season, then we're probably a playoff team anyway. If he falters, then we have a good draft pick and we go to work next offseason.
By The Time Training Camp Rolls Around
Let's face it, this is a team that missed the playoffs last season and that's a pretty good indication that you have some holes in your lineup. If the Leafs could land a solid veteran goalie, a veteran defenseman, and re-sign all their key RFAs then I think you'd have to say that it was a successful offseason. If they land a legitimate top line center then this offseason will have been a homerun.
With the prospects that we have in the system right now, there are some opportunities for guys to surprise us. Maybe Kadri, Gardiner, Blacker or Colborne will take a giant leap forward in their development. Maybe Lupul finally lives up to his potential which has seen him traded for Pronger on multiple occasions. We don't need to hit a homerun in a trade or free agency for next season to see the Leafs in the playoffs.
This offseason is about trying to accomplish some major objectives but it's also about not tearing down some of the work that's been accomplished thus far. Modest changes would make it a successful summer but we'd all still love to land the big fish.