With the season winding down to the final few games, local coverage of the Leafs is slowing beginning to shift from the here and now into the summer. It’s still nice to celebrate wins like last night’s 4-2 triumph over the Sabres, but for a non-playoff team, much of the focus has to look at what is to be done in order to return to the postseason.
This isn’t a speculation piece on who the Leafs will trade or acquire, but a look at some of the storylines that will add intrigue to the team’s summer. Without further ado, here are the questions to be answered and stories to play out within Leafs Nation.
Is Ron Wilson the right guy to lead this team?
You don’t hear Leaf fans clamouring for the exit of Wilson, who is heading into the third year of what is a four-year deal. His teams haven’t wowed anyone, but they weren’t expected to. But now with a franchise forward (Phil Kessel) and defenceman (Dion Phaneuf) in tow, and a solid young core coming together, the expectations are slowly rising and play-offs are an unmistakeable target next season. Wilson has been given a vote of confidence from his friend and boss, Brian Burke, but the Leafs GM may be forced to take action if the team stumbles out of the gate early next season.
Are Tomas Kaberle’s days in Toronto numbered?
One guy who may not be too disappointed to see Wilson go is Kaberle, who reportedly is embroiled in a rift with a coach known for not being overly popular with his players (just ask Patrick Marleau, an unrestricted free agent who won’t consider Toronto as long as Wilson’s around). But this isn’t about Wilson or Marleau, it’s about the longest-serving Leaf who has faced trade rumours for the better part of the last two seasons and now appears primed to be shipped out. He wants to be in Toronto, but happens to be one of the few trade-able assets on the team that can fetch a decent return. It’s likely in the team’s best interest to find a new destination for Kaberle, but the puck-moving defenceman deserves better than a drama-filled divorce that could end messily.
It may not be the first change Leaf fans were hoping for this off-season, but the team will unveil slightly tweaked home and road jerseys at some point this summer. Likely paired with the announcement of Phaneuf as the new team captain during the off-season, the introduction of the new jerseys has been confirmed but details on the look are a closely-guarded secret around Leafs land.
Creativity with restricted free agents
Burke has shown he is ready and willing to pursue restricted free agents if he feels they will help his team, just as he did last year with Kessel before ultimately agreeing on trade terms with the Bruins. However, it is because of the Kessel deal from last summer that he will be in tougher to repeat the same arrangement this year. The Leafs GM does not have the luxury of presenting an offer sheet, since the Leafs no longer have the 2010 or 2011 first round picks that they would potentially have to surrender in such a transaction. That means Burke will have to agree to trades in order to procure one of a restricted group that includes Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan, Boston’s Milan Lucic, Edmonton’s Sam Gagner and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom.
Dealing with our own RFA’s
Burke undoubtedly wants to lock up much of a group that includes Jonas “the Monster” Gustavsson, Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell and Christian Hanson, but each player faces their own questions moving forward.
- Is Gustavsson the goalie of the future in Toronto? He’s certainly played like it in the second half of the season, but struggles and heart issues early mean he’ll still be watched closely next year.
- Is Kulemin a top line mainstay? He has gelled with Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski, but Wilson will continue to shake things up in pursuit of the right line-up.
- Is Mitchell a top-six forward? Mitchell’s role with the team will be largely determined by what else the Leafs do during the off-season, but his strong play of late and shootout success has cemented his place on the team moving forward.
- What can be done with Hanson? The Frat Pack member is stuck in a catch-22 in that he hasn’t demonstrated a knack for scoring at the NHL level, so he’s played primarily on a grinder line. He’ll continue struggling to score if he remains on the grinder line, but has to show an ability to bulge the twine in order to be promoted to a scoring line.
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Written by Ben Fisher