There's only a month left until training camp starts, which means we're soon to be done living through the slowest time of year for hockey talk. For Leafs fans, we wait for Franson and Kadri to have their new contracts sorted out, while arguing every day about whether this team has made the right moves so far this summer. It'll all be on the ice starting in September.
I've often criticized Dave Nonis and the team's army of a front-office for the decisions they've made in the past few months, which I guess is viewed as "negativity" that will somehow hurt the Leafs, or at least the type of attitude that doesn't make me a "true fan." I may be tough on the Leafs, but I'm not all doom and gloom.
Here are a few things I like about the team going in to this season.
James van Riemsdyk
I'm probably going to mention this as a positive for the next few years, because van Riemsdyk is really good at hockey and can still get better. Thank you, Paul Holmgren, for locking him up until 2018 on a 4.25 million dollar cap hit, and then running him out of Philadelphia.
Sometimes it's easy to forget that van Riemsdyk is so young because he's been in the league a while, battled through a couple injuries, and gone on a Cup run. The guy is a year older than Nazem Kadri.
At 24, the Leafs have van Riemsdyk under contract for basically the entirety of his prime and he should peak over the next couple of seasons. He's a legitimate top-line winger who did well in his first season with the Leafs and really looked good in the Boston series. JvR should be able to keep improving (and scoring) in the upcoming season.
I mean, what's not to like about this?
The cap goes up and up and up
As ugly as some of the contracts may be, both on the Leafs and throughout the league, it looks like they'll become more manageable in the coming years as the salary cap increases. This isn't news to anyone. If it follows a similar path to the cap under the old CBA (8.9% growth)
, the ceiling could climb to as much 83 million in three seasons. Does this give you a free pass to be an idiot and hand out bad contracts? No, but it does at least make it a bit easier for the next GM to handle them. Uh oh, I'm being too negative.
The Leafs do have a good new contract or two
I've already mentioned how great the van Riemsdyk contract is, but the Leafs have a few others that look good, at least in the short term. They should get good value on Gunnarsson with his new deal, and Paul Ranger is a wait-and-see kind of thing. For only a million bucks, the latter is essentially zero risk and potentially huge reward in the upcoming season. If you've seen Ranger play for the Marlies, you know he looked way out of place in the AHL.
As much as I find the Bernier trade bizarre, his two year deal is alright. The Leafs aren't spending much on goaltending at the moment and have two guys who are supposed to be starter material. I'm not sure I buy all the Bernier hype, but goaltending is a bit of a dice-roll anyway so I'll wait and see how it all unfolds. Either way, two cheap controllable assets between the pipes is something I can live with right now.
Hey, look! The Leafs developed a prospect!
To be fair, the Leafs have developed a few JFJ-era prospects like Reimer, Gunnarsson, and Kulemin, but we all waited anxiously to see how Burke's first pick (and a high one at that), Nazem Kadri, would emerge. And it turned out pretty good.
Kadri was always viewed as a guy with a lot of puck-skill and offensive potential, and the Leafs' patience with him paid off. He is now the biggest threat the Leafs have at centre, and while it would be unfair to expect him to keep up his scoring pace from last year's shortened schedule, he should continue to improve this season and be a better player overall.
Even though the title of "the Leafs' most gifted centre" is nothing to be proud of, I'm really a big fan of Nazem Kadri. Plus he does stuff like this to the Habs:
The Leafs are in their prime
Now, this really could be viewed as a bad thing. The team is generally made up of a bunch of players in their mid-to-late 20s, and they're getting prime years out of the majority of their biggest names. And the added downside to this, of course, is that their top scorer and top defenceman are both among this group, and on expiring contracts. There's a lot of money to be dished out to Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf next summer.
Nonis obviously wants to make the most of these prime years and load up to compete. If that fails, the window starts to close again and the Leafs could be stuck with a tire fire of shitty contracts to players that are north of 30.
I guess the positive here is that if you think Leafs will be a good team next season, this the best hockey you're going to see out of a lot of the players on the roster. Again, this is a bit scary, but let's try to keep it positive.
Tyler Seguin is not in the Leafs' division anymore
Finally, it looks like the Kessel-Seguin comparisons are finally going to die off a little. It only took poor Seguin being run out of Boston for throwing down a few jagerbombs. Enjoy the west, buddy.
No excuses left
Whether or not you're a fan of the Leafs' management and coaching staff, it's pretty hard to argue that this isn't "their team" right now.
The Leafs just made the playoffs, Carlyle has had time to implement his "systems" or coaching style, and Nonis managed to buy up (or buy out) whatever he wanted in the offseason. The team is up against the cap, and grabbed the big name free agent they wanted going in to the summer. There are really no excuses that Nonis and Carlyle can fall back on if the team crashes this season. They'll be expected to make the playoffs again by MLSE and a lot of the mainstream media, and I wouldn't be surprised if a few journalists pick them as contenders. Remember when someone picked the Oilers as the third-best team in preseason rankings last year? This kind of thing happens.
Nonis and Carlyle have done a lot to put their stamp on the team, so if it goes over a cliff, it's on them.