Thursday, January 19, 2012

Should the Leafs Be Buyers or Sellers?

I'd like to preface this post by saying that I think we all know what they will do but what I want to talk about is what they should do.  The Leafs haven't made the playoffs since Brian Burke took over and started his rebuild-on-the-fly and they're only 3 points out heading into tonight's game.  There's little doubt in my mind that the Leafs are looking to add and, truthfully, I like their chances of getting in if they do.

What kind of chances would we have if we did get in though?  This post isn't intended to be a treatise on the Leafs' porous defense, their small-ish forwards, or its sub-standard goaltending but the truth is, this team is not built to succeed in the playoffs.  And frankly, "I'm not interested in getting our [butts] kicked in the first round."

I'm not a negative guy by disposition.  This blog is rife with effusive posts praising Burke for his craftiness and his cunning as he pulled together a group of respectable prospects and a middle-of-the-pack NHL roster.  We're much further along than we were when Burke took over and the future looks brighter still; you'll get no argument from me on these points.  Having said this, the future is still in the future.

Now I don't want to come off as excessively reactive.  Danny Gray had a great post on LeafsNation where he warns us against losing perspective during short losing streaks.  These streaks are the cross that a fan of a bubble team must bear.  The objective truth is that there are key pieces missing on this team right now.

As I look at this roster, I don't feel that the team is that far off.  Phaneuf is back to being an elite offensive defenseman and his defensive play is as good as it's been since the Leafs acquired him.  Gunnarsson has really solidified himself as a top-4 calibre defenseman.  Phil Kessel has made the leap from very good goal scorer to elite offensive performer and Joffrey Lupul has come along for the ride.  In Grabovski and Kulemin, the Leafs have a pair of two-way players who can play a great support role to a strong top line.  We're getting there.

What we really need is to set the team up for a strong offseason. 

It looks increasingly likely that none of the big names on the rumour mill will be moved prior to the trade deadline -- these moves just seem to happen with more regularity in the offseason.  So how do we get ourselves in position to make a play for one of these guys, should they become available?

It may not be a popular position to take but, in my opinion, the Leafs should be sellers this trade deadline.

As things sit today, the Leafs have $15M in cap space heading into next season and some key RFAs in Kulemin, Franson, Aulie, and Frattin who need to be re-signed.  If we consider that Grabovski is headed to unrestricted free agency it's apparent that this team could use some financial flexibility.

Even aside from financial flexibility, it's incumbent on the Leafs to bring in as many longterm assets as they can in order to make a push for this offseason's Mike Richards or Jeff Carters. 

John-Michael Liles and Jonas Gustavsson are both UFAs who would carry some value for a team looking to load up for the playoffs.  Liles in particular is the kind of defenseman with an expiring contract that teams seem to love at the trade deadline.

The Leafs also have a glut of players in the $3 to 4.5M range with contracts that expire in 2013.  Guys like Connolly, MacArthur, or Lombardi may also be movable and would provide the team with the cap flexibility that they need heading into the offseason.

If this team is going to take a step forward, these are the kinds of tough decisions that need to be made.  Grabovski is a player that the Leafs can ill afford to lose and with their current cap situation, it would be a challenge to re-sign him.  Getting out from under some of these contracts is important for the Leafs moving forward.

The hard truth is, for the Leafs to move forward, this season needs to be another year of asset acquisition. 

Brian Burke has done a fantastic job of adding assets to a franchise that had very little team equity but that's the easy part.  There are tough personnel decisions ahead and it may require not putting our best foot forward to close out this season.  For the first time on the road to respectability, it seems like there is an even pull between 'push now' and 'build for later' and the fork that Burke chooses to take might be his toughest decision to date -- other than sending Colton Orr to the Marlies, of course.

I had some great input from @charlesbrosky , @mantonio09 , @leafschatter , and @Hedgery while putting this post together.  Putting out content and coming up with ideas for blogposts can be a challenge without these conversations so I'm really greatful for the input I get.

If you love talking Leafs or want to hear our opinion on any number of topics around the Leafs, check us out on Twitter at @bcphockeyblog and send us a tweet.  We really do love hearing from you.


Anonymous said...

There are a couple of things your perspective here ignores. First of all, it's likely that some of the assets you suggested shedding would have value in the future trades you're talking about making. For example, MacArthur has now proven that he's going to be at least capable of 20 goals and 20-25 assists on a bad year, and his contract is cost effective. We don't have to move a contract like that now, because it could easily be part of a trade. Why not just keep it and see if it helps us get into the playoffs.

The same can be said for guys like Connolly and Lombardi. There was a line-up of suitors for Connolly last year, but he told them all to wait because he wanted to hear what Burke had to say. Lots of teams are desperate for centers, and there will once again be a dearth of them on the market this summer. He can either be included in a trade, or moved in a pinch for a draft pick. No need to dump him now. Lombardi is similar. Basically, Lombardi will gain more value the longer he plays, and the longer teams can see that he's fully recovered from his concussion, but he's moveable tomorrow if need be (in my opinion).

More than that though, the Leafs are an ultra rich team, and like the Rangers, can afford to bury contracts, or operate above the cap in the summer and wait for someone to take away the excess. There is no real hurry to make cap space just yet.

One thing Burke did very well, is load us up with movable contracts.

And don't forget, that barring unusual proceedings in the CBA negotiations this summer, the cap will likely rise by at least 3 million.

Doctor Alex said...

i want to read what YOU would do Curt. who is worth keeping, who HAS to go to bring someone else in... etc!

Curt S said...


Assets have different values at different times. You touch on MacArthur, for example. He has more value at the trade deadline than he does at the draft because, as you rightly point out, he can help get a team in the playoffs. Draft picks have more value at the draft than they do in mid-season (generally speaking). If you're going to maximize assets, you need to make your moves intelligently.

With regards to burying contracts, Burke hasn't been at all willing to bury contracts to guys that he himself has signed -- hell, he had a press conference to bemoan sending Orr down!

@Dr. Alex

Personally, I'm a lover of Kulemin and Grabovski. Lupul and Kessel are obviously guys who 'fit'. I think you need to make room for Kadri to skate with better offensive players than he had been (until last night's game). Guys like MacArthur, Lombardi, Armstrong, and, to a lesser extent, Connolly are replaceable, in my opinion. As for exactly what I would do, it depends on the kind of value you can get in a deal. Connolly is the only one of the aforementioned that I would hesitate to trade. Freeing up cap space for a good offseason is the key. There's a good chance we'll need some flexibility if Burke is going to try and land the big fish in a trade.