Open Thread: Angling for young forwards

Alex Burmistrov, via Wikimedia commons

Thomas Drance has a post up on Canucks Army this morning about the availability of players like Alex Burmistrov, Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Johansen. The Maple Leafs aren’t in the same position, forward-wise, as Vancouver (meaning, Toronto has the ability to score goals on occasion) but it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing to kick the tires on any of those three players.

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I’ve been thinking about the success of the New York Islanders this season, how on a shoestring budget, they wrangled together not just a team that made the playoffs, but one that was also 11th in Corsi Tied. They slightly improved from last year’s 17th from a team that needed good goaltending to make the playoffs to one that could survive even if the goalie was below average.

The Leafs were 29th in Corsi Tied this season. They performed much better in the playoffs, thanks to a blogger-approved, optimized lineup with Jake Gardiner given a prominent role and Nazem Kadri moving up to the first line centre position, as well as a strong two-way unit in Mikhail Grabovski, James van Riemsdyk and Nik Kulemin that excited a lot of commenters and commentators.

There’s something about the Islanders’ improvement that I think teams can learn from.

Check out who the Islanders’ major additions were in the offseason:

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-Lubomir Visnovsky
-Thomas Hickey
-Keith Aucoin
-Brad Boyes
-Colin McDonald

Those five played at least half the season, and other than Visnovsky, aren’t household names.

What’s the common theme? Somebody thought they were good, years and years ago. Colin McDonald scored 42 goals as a 25-year-old in the AHL, and was picked 51st overall in 2003. Thomas Hickey was drafted 4th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2007. Brad Boyes scored back-to-back 30-goal seasons in the NHL then fell off, and got back on track on a one-year deal with the Islanders. Keith Aucoin had tonnes of success as a scorer in the AHL.

General Manager Garth Snow did a great job at getting undervalued players on the roster. Some of his other acquisitions that didn’t pan out were Joe Finley (former 1st round pick) Radek Martinek (a coveted “former Islander”) and Matt Carkner (a tough guy who was paid too much).

They can’t all be gems.

An interesting post from mc79hockey this summer showed that depth players are almost exclusively former first rounders. Generally, the life-cycle of a Top 30 pick is that you come to the league with tonnes of hype, and if you don’t live up to it and start skating on the first two lines, you become vilified within the organization and they either demote you to a third line spot, or trade you to a team that finds a useful role for you.

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I’m thinking here of a guy like James Sheppard in San Jose, or T.J Galiardi in San Jose, or Kyle Turris in Ottawa. At some point, organizations let go of players that don’t contribute up to massive expectations. Some teams make poor decisions in regard to their players. You could go off on a laundry list of multiple “players they never should have let go” for every team in the NHL. The Leafs, you could make the argument for Jiri Tlusty, Viktor Stalberg, Tuukka Rask, Anton Stralman…

But it is a two-way street, and it works for any team. Montreal got rid of Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Grabovski, Guillaume Latendresse, Sergei Kostitsyn and Kyle Chipchura, all guys who have had prominent careers away from Montreal. They were all drafted and moved with different expectations and thought process, but ultimately you can look at any team and suggest they handled players poorly. It happens. You move on, you adapt, and you hope to be the next guy to benefit from an organization’s poor handling of a player.

Burmistrov is a former No. 8 pick. Niederreiter a No. 5. Ryan Johansen a No. 4. But they aren’t the only ones available.

2004 first rounder Wojtek Wolski, one of the most efficient scorers in the NHL (since 2008, Wojtek Wolski is 41st in the NHL in even strength points per 60 minutes, ahead of players like Zach Parise, Milan Lucic, Blake Wheeler and Ryan Getzlaf) went off to the KHL this week because he was so undervalued here and got little playing time. Didn’t even wait for the free agency period. All of his offensive comparables, adjusted for minutes, are rich, and Wolski is not.

2005 No. 4 overall pick Benoit Pouliot is an RFA this season. He made $1.8-million and has bouned around several organizations. He’s a plus-possession player on his career, has strong WOWY totals, and his points per 60 comparables include Brad Richards, Jiri Hudler and Jeff Carter.

There’s a laundry list of available players taken high in drafts that can be added via waivers or cheap free agent deals.

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Of course, Toronto doesn’t have a problem scoring. But when Tyler Bozak presumably leaves to chase big money and a contract he can’t possibly live up to, the Leafs will need to fill the spot with Joe Colborne or a pickup. When Clarke MacArthur accepts a menial one-year deal with a team, the Leafs will need to fill the spot. When Glen Sather makes a big pitch to Colton Orr to have him return to the Rangers, well, there’s another forward spot the Leafs would have to fill.

I think they should look for hockey players on the third and fourth lines and stray from face-punchers altogether. But it doesn’t count unless we’re able to identify available players from the get-go rather than “THEY SHOULD OF GOTTEN WHATSHISFACE” six months from now.

So… bearing all that in mind… who do you go after to shore up some of those depth positions? Make a pitch for Niederreiter? Pouliot? Johansen? Or use up all the available cap space to lock up the current team. Clock is ticking.

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  • SkinnyFish

    I might be remembering incorrectly, but I think Nonis said that he plans on adding to the team mainly through trades. Wouldn’t mind any of the three main forwards you mentioned (Burmistrov, Niederreiter, Johansen) although I seem to remember an incident involving Niederreiter and Kadri at the juniors.

    Pouliot I think is getting re-signed.

  • SkinnyFish

    The unsung hero for the NYI is A. Macdonald on defence. He is the primary minute munching shutdown dman and go to dman on the PK. This is the type of player the leafs so they can use their existing defenders effectively. Defence should be the leafs top focus.

    As for #1C, I think the team needs to give up on the search for that player and go with two #2C (Kadri/Grabbo). Kadri may become a #1C in time but for now they can add a pure checking shutdown center as #3C or bring back your favourite Bozak in a depth #3C role who can fill in for injury and when the MSM turns on Kadri if he struggles as a top 2C against tougher competition.

    The other area the leafs need to address team wise is shootouts. The leafs lost all 6 shootouts this year and in a much tougher conference and likely with no Bozak (their most effective shoot out option). These points (about 7% of the available points) will be more critical next year for playoffs.

    Also I think leaf fans need to concede that the team will have face punchers especially with Sabres resigning John Scott. The best outcome fans can hope for is the addition of gritty and bigger yet skilled players like Clarkson or Horton which may relegate Mclaren to the press box except for a few games.

  • SkinnyFish

    The Leafs, you could make the argument for Jiri Tlusty, Viktor Stalberg, Tuukka Rask, Anton Stralman…

    Tlusty is a good example, Stalberg and Rask were traded for better players at the time (Raycroft wasn’t good but at least he played in the NHL).

    I think Steen and Colaiacovo are other prime examples.

  • millzy09

    Colaiacovo doesn’t fit in this discussion imo. He has never once played a full season and looking at his stats, is generally a 65 game per year player. Not good enough. When he was in the lineup he wasn’t nearly a usable enough player to make up for it. Now this is ignoring the fact that he was traded, along with steen, for stempniak which is obviously a terrible trade in retrospect.

    I laugh so so SO hard at Richards being a healthy scratch this game. 12 million…wow

    Leafs need a depth forward who can win 65% of their faceoffs. Bruins may be the best, but they made the Leafs look REALLY bad. Worst I’ve ever seen on any team I can remember. I’d have a spot for Manny at 1.5 I think.

  • millzy09

    I watched Burmistrov when he played here in St John’s before the lockout ended.
    Not too impressive.
    it’d be easy to say he personified the typical enigmatic russian offensive threat.
    While his skating seemed terrific, and he wasn’t afraid to take a hit, he seemed to only play when he felt like it.

    he DID score the OT winner in a thrilling 8-7 game early in the year, and that was worth the price of admission.

    Anyway, as a leafs fan, I wouldn’t want him on the team unless it came at next to no cost.