It’s official: this Leafs’ season will now end just as the past five have before it – with the team on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
Yet there’s an optimism surrounding the club among even the most hardened of Buds’ supporters that has been lacking before. They see a star player (Phil Kessel) suddenly playing like a star player, several talented young wingers (Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin, Joffrey Lupul) stepping into prominent roles, youngsters (Nazem Kadri, Keith Aulie) looking ready for the big time and a goaltender (James Reimer) rapidly rising up the ranks and, perhaps, asserting himself as the team’s backstop of the future.
A club that has gone 18-7-6 since the beginning of February is certainly due some positive buzz (especially when that club ranks among the youngest teams in the league), but let’s keep in mind: in a league in which more than 50% of the involved teams reach the postseason, Toronto will not.
So there is still work to be done. Which is why it’s time to look ahead and see what the off-season holds in store for Brian Burke’s team.
Leafs’ free agents
UFA: Fredrik Sjostrom, Tim Brent
RFA: MacArthur, Reimer, Tyler Bozak, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson
While the team’s restricted free agent list boasts plenty of young talent, Toronto removes some vulnerability of falling victim to another club’s offer sheet by having plenty of room under the cap. Still, for a franchise that still needs more help before becoming a playoff contender, they would be best served trying to get each of the five key RFA’s (I don’t see the same value in Bozak as some in the organization do, mind you) under reasonable, cap-friendly contracts. If the team does want to go the long-term route with any of the five, look for MacArthur and Schenn to be the best candidates for long deals.
The UFA slate is interesting in that both Sjostrom and Brent could be valuable commodities, but signing them would mean two less spots available up front for incoming talent, be it other free agents (which we’ll get to) or Marlies players getting their shot with the big club. Brent is the more likely of the two to be brought back (he’s at least earned himself full-time NHL duty with strong play this season), but both may be offered contracts if Burke doesn’t feel that the free agent market can produce much or if guys like Joe Colborne, Marcel Mueller, Christian Hanson, Luca Caputi, Fabian Brunnstrom, or Robert Slaney are ready.
Other available free agents
To still hear talk of Brad Richards or Ilya Bryzgalov is puzzling, since neither reportedly has any interest in coming to Toronto and I’m not sure the Leafs are particularly coveting either one (Bryzgalov would be particularly confounding for a club that should place its faith in Reimer).
So who else is out there?
Up front, Tim Connolly could be a stabilizing force down the middle for Toronto, who should be ready to give Kadri his first full-time NHL duty but would even still need added depth at the weak centre position. Zenon Konopka would fit right in as a gritty depth guy who could easily replace the production of Sjostrom or Brent among the bottom six forwards.
On the back end, James Wisniewski would be a nice addition that fits in as a young talent that can contribute now, but hardly fills a glaring hole for the club. If they are inclined to find a back-up veteran goaltender to mentor Reimer, and even possibly Jonas Gustavsson, Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens, they could find more affordable options than Bryzgalov in Dwayne Roloson, Marty Turco or even Chris Osgood.
If you’re into pipe dreams that aren’t going to happen, then look out: Steven Stamkos, Zach Parise and Shea Weber are all RFA’s.
No one expects Burke to sit idly by and be content selecting a pair of prospects unlikely to make any immediate impact with the team’s two picks (previously owned by Boston and Philadelphia) late in the first round. The two picks are assets that could be used in a trade and you can expect the Leafs GM to explore every possibility with those assets.
He may elect to trade them for established talent or to try and move up in the draft. If he pursues the latter, he can’t expect to work his way into any of the top four draft slots, where the ‘big four’ of Gabriel Landeskog, Adam Larsson, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sean Couturier should land. If Toronto’s picks (neither of which is likely to be higher than No. 24) don’t impress potential trading partners, Burke may be inclined to throw in a middling prospect, of which the Leafs have a surplus.
Forwards: Kessel, Kulemin, MacArthur, Bozak, Kadri, Lupul, Mikhail Grabovsky, Colby Armstrong, Colton Orr, Mike Brown
That’s 10 guys (assuming the RFA’s re-sign) who are all-but-guaranteed full-time duty with the club next season. Orr’s health is obviously a factor, but he is reportedly showing no symptoms from a January 20 concussion against Anaheim. That leaves about five spots available, with Sjostrom and Brent possibly returning and guys like Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce getting every opportunity in training camp after nice efforts down the stretch.
Defenceman: Schenn, Aulie, Gunnarsson, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Brett Lebda
Mid-season trades of Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle have chipped away at some of the defensive depth previously enjoyed by Toronto, but the team still has six solid d-men under contract (even if Burke would love to unload Komisarek and Lebda).
Aside from a trade or free agent signing, any of Korbinian Holzer, Danny Richmond, Juraj Mikus, Simon Gysbers, Jake Gardiner or the suddenly-much-talked-about Matt Frattin could make the leap if they impress in training camp.
Goaltenders: Reimer, Gustavsson
Jean-Sebastien Giguere won’t be back, but it remains to be seen what happens in net. Reimer has earned himself some level of trust within the organization, but the team would be tightrope-walking without a net if they were to start the season with Optimus Reim and the Monster (as cool as the two nicknames sound together).
One of Burke’s most interesting challenges this off-season will be to bring in goaltending experience and reliability without impinging upon the development of the club’s netminders. With Reimer now the man in Toronto and Rynnas and Scrivens handling the Marlies’ duties, where does that leave Gustavsson?
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Written by Ben Fisher