Thirteen thoughts: Mats in the Hall, forward depth

Cam Charron
June 30 2012 09:40AM

----This new regular Friday/Saturday feature column was written by Matt Wright. Follow him on Twitter @mattwright9

Welcome to the first *official* edition of 13 thoughts: a simultaneous tribute to the inspiration for the column (Elliotte Friedman’s “30 Thoughts” – the best hockey column on the internet right now) and the Leafs all-time point leader and most recent Hall of Famer.  As the season approaches, this column will be a source for Leafs facts and behind-the-scenes information. However, due to my writing hiatus I’d like to take Volume 1 of this post and column on some of the most important matters since the off-season.

The last time I wrote for this website was February 10th. To give you a frame of reference, when I wrote that column, the Leafs were cruising to make the playoffs, the Kings were on the outside looking in, and Roberto Luongo was a Canuck…well, okay, we’re not all the way there, but the fact is, a lot has changed. However, there is one constant. Take a look at thought #10 from my previous entry:

The Schenn for James Van Riemsdyk trade talks refuse to go away. To be honest, I'm okay with it. It's no secret Burke wants JVR, so I asked noted Philly fan @DownGoesSpezza who he'd want for Van Riemsdyk: Luke Schenn and a second rounder. 

Done. JVR is going to be a real beauty and is young enough to grow with this team. While I like Schenn, he's surplus to requirements and is a little slow compared to the rest of our defense. The only knock I have on Van Riemsdyk is the concussion issue. Let's make sure he's healthy before we do anything drastic.

#1 - Before talking about the actual trade itself, I think it’s important to take some time to discuss the player on the way out the door. I watched Luke Schenn’s draft day. Luke was supposed to be the identity after Sundin’s retirement: an eventual captain, the face of the franchise, and a symbol of hope. If you told anyone as little as a year ago that Luke Schenn was going to be traded, you’d have been flamed endlessly. However, as we all know, Leafs Nation soured on Schenn fairly quickly and he’s off to Philadelphia to play with his brother. Who’d have thought the Schenns would end up on the same team and it wouldn’t be Toronto or LA?

I believe the best is ahead of Luke Schenn, and I hope he finds his game in Philly. His style of play has “Flyers” written all over it and I truly think he will get better. Will a change of scenery help? Sure. But more than anything, Luke Schenn is 22. By the time he’s 27; for better or worse, we’ll know what kind of player he is. It takes time for a defenceman to develop. The fact is, we’ve needed to swap defense for offence for quite some time and the fact that he’s valued enough to go straight up for JVR indicates that the NHL hasn’t given up on Luke Schenn like so many Leafs fans have. I was excited to see a full year of Luke Schenn under Carlyle, and I don’t doubt a day will come when we wish  he was wearing blue and white.

#2 - That said, I am ecstatic about this deal. We swapped a 5-6 defenceman for a top six forward as legitimate as anyone on the roster not named Phil Kessel or Mikhail Grabovski. We’re getting a 23 year old former second overall pick on a reasonable contract (Dennis Wideman says hi). JVR brings size, skill, and a new element to our top six. If he comes into his own, we could have a major steal on our hands. I imagine he’ll line up next to Grabovski on the second line. If that’s the case, we are offered two options, both marking improvement:

Scenario A: JVR and Grabo play with Kulemin, which would take a lot of pressure off of Kulemin and creates our only line that can drive possession and play the cycle game. MacArthur drops to the third line to play with Tim Connolly; who he has a history with and the two supposedly enjoy playing together. 

Scenario B: JVR and Grabo play with MacArthur, allowing Nikolai Kulemin to fully throw himself into being a defensive forward.

Either way, it’s an improvement. 

#3 - I watched the draft with my roommate; who’s as die hard as Habs fan as anyone I know. I thought the Habs had as good of a draft as anyone. Alex Galchenyuk was an easy (but correct choice), and I had visions of the Leafs grabbing Mikhail Grigorenko to go Russian vs Russian for years to come. What can I say, I’m a sucker for narrative. I didn’t think it was likely Grigorenko went as high as #5 (though I do think he’ll be a steal and a massive pain in the ass to have him in the division) but when Filip Forsberg dropped to the fifth overall pick, I thought it was a gimme.

I had been so convinced that the draft’s first five players would be Yakupov, Murray, Galchenyuk, Forsberg, and Grigorenko that the Leafs would take whoever was still available…and up steps Morgan Rielly. This marked my first time I’ve said “I don’t think Brian Burke is the man to run this team”. I was positive we’d draft a forward so I hadn’t done any reading whatsoever on Rielly, so I had trouble reacting. My immediate thought on the pick: no matter what, this kid is going to be crucified because he isn’t a forward.

Flash forward 24 hours, Luke Schenn had been dealt for immediate help up front and we had a more dynamic player (Rielly) on the way to take his spot. Now that I’ve done some reading, I’m excited about Rielly moving forward as a Leaf and there’s not much to not like about him. Matt Finn was unexpectedly left on the board and suddenly our defence corp looks incredibly deep. Truth be told, this was Brian Burke’s best draft under the Toronto Maple Leafs. What a difference a day makes.

#4 - I have to address the potential of Roberto Luongo coming to the Leafs. At this point, it seems obvious he’s going to either go to Florida or Toronto. Would I welcome Roberto Luongo as a Toronto Maple Leaf? Yes, absolutely. And here’s the case:

For all the talks of Luongo being a choker, being past his prime, overrated, whatever, here’s the thing: hockey is a sport of intangibles. You can look at a statline in baseball and see who’s a good hitter, but even someone who scores 40+ goals (Alexander Semin, for example) can be maligned by the entire league because of other parts of his game. But the most relevant stat in hockey? Save percentage. The goalie with the best save percentage in the league is 9/10 considered the best goaltender in the league, and for good reason. Roberto Luongo has been in the upper echelon/Vezina trophy candidate for the better part of ten years, and may be the best overall goalie in the last decade. He’s aging and his contract is long (though at ~5M, not expensive) but for the first time since Curtis Joseph, he represents an answer in goal instead of a question mark.

#5 - Everyone in the league knows Luongo needs to be moved and his 10 year contract doesn’t give Mike Gillis much room to 
manoeuvre; stubborn as he may be. I don’t offer much in terms of quality to acquire Luongo (middling prospect and some money going the other way). Taking on his monster contract is a risk I’m willing to take. Trading away important pieces is one I’m not so enthused about. 

That being said, Ben Scrivens is a young goaltender who cannot pass through waivers again, had an incredibly strong playoffs with the Marlies, and sounds like a pirate’s nephew. I would hate to lose him for nothing, and if we bring in veteran help in goal, he or Reimer have to go. That’s not a decision I’d want to make.

#6 - James Reimer is another player I’m not ready to give up on. Apparently he’s been training like an animal all summer and is healthy for the first time since the Gionta hit (so…why was he playing at all?). Recovering from a concussion is serious business, not everyone can come back like Sidney Crosby. Goaltending is a position that requires mental stability. A concussion is an injury that guarantees the opposite of that. If we roll into another season with Reimer and Scrivens…I’m cautiously optimistic. I said once before: between Reimer, Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, and Mark Owuya…doesn’t at least ONE of them have to be good?

#7 - Beyond Justin Schultz and a shot in the dark at Zach Parise, I’d stay out of free agency this year altogether. We have a variety of bit role players (Brandon Prust comes to mind) who are available who seem destined to sign a Colby Armstrong-esque contract. I wait until next year and see what the players on our roster are really made of. However, Peter Mueller is an interesting player. He’s got size, skill, and is versatile enough to play anywhere up front. He’s had a hard go with injuries but has a noted friendship with Phil Kessel, a background in USA hockey and a strong draft pedigree. He should come fairly cheap and could be a potential low risk-high reward option. 

#8 - With the acquisition of JVR, our bottom six situation has become murkier than ever. Let’s assume MacArthur claims the top six winger spot with JVR and Grabo and Bozak plays with Kessel and Lupul. That leaves Tim Connolly, Colby Armstrong, Matthew Lombardi, Dave Steckel, Nikolai Kulemin, Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri, Mike Brown, Leo Komarov and Joey Crabb fighting for six spots. More than anything, Connolly, Armstrong, and Lombardi are simply making too much money. Someone has to go, and it remains a priority for Burke to swap a couple of these questions marks for a player with a solid role.  

#9 - Tim Connolly, Armstrong, Lombardi and Kulemin in particular had disappointing years last year. Personally, I think Kulemin levels out this year as the reliable 20-20-40 two way forward that he truly is, but Connolly, Armstrong and Lombardi are a mixed bag. Armstrong has never found his place in Toronto and would benefit from a change of scenery. Tim Connolly was a player who (surprise surprise) had a tough go in Toronto. He had his typical Tim Connolly injury troubles but with the success of the Lupul - Bozal – Kessel line had Tim Connolly splitting time between third line centre and wing. Don’t be surprised if he gets another chance at being a first line centre and puts together a respectable year. Matthew Lombardi is an interesting case. Beyond his eye-popping skating, Lombardi had a pretty awful season, nut let’s not forget he wasn’t supposed to play at all and was recovering from a serious concussion. Don’t take for granted the importance of a healthy summer of preparation (See Lupul; Joffrey). I can’t see at least one of them not rebounding as a productive Leaf next year…but there isn’t room for all of them.  

#10 - Before succumbing to injury, Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri both had a strong playoff showing with the Marlies; Frattin in particular. We need to be able to have a third line wing spot open for Kadri and Frattin to fight over during training camp. This is, yet again, the biggest year of Nazem Kadri’s career.  

#11 - With the trade of Luke Schenn, the John-Michael-Liles extension, and the drafting of Morgan Rielly, Burke is sending a message that mobility on the backend is key. I’m of the opinion that the slow, one way defenceman is on the way out shortly after the enforcer. Skating and speed are paramount in this league and anyone with wheels like a zamboni (what up Komisarek!) is on the way out. While I am certainly in favor of speed on the back end, this doesn’t exactly mesh with Randy Carlyle’s coaching style. I am somewhat hesitant about the Carlyle hire (and even moreso about Dallas Eakins becoming a great coach somewhere else) but that’s an issue we’ll look deeper into later. 

#12 - People are having a tough time with the notion that Shanahan wasn’t a first ballot hall of famer (insert suspension video joke here), but the fact that Pat Burns was passed up yet again is nothing short of unforgivable. We missed an opportunity to add some light to his dying days, and we’ve missed another chance to honor him here. I have no explanation or reasoning for this. 

#13 - I spent about $1500 this year to go to Toronto to watch the Leafs honor Mats’ number 13. The Leafs lost 5-0 to the Habs that night. They might as well not even been there. In hindsight, would I do it again? Yes. Absolutely. As a cash-strapped recent college grad, that’s the best compliment I can give Mats Sundin. 

Thanks, Mats. And congratulations. See you in church.

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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