The Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be hoping to make several moves over the course of this offseason, and rumours have been aplenty as a result. Think what you want about the Jonathan Bernier trade, and opinions really are all over the place (I’m still trying to convince myself to have a conclusive opinion), but it at least means that speculation involving goaltenders is over and done with for this offseason. The defence is probably the team’s most practical concern, and potential moves range from retaining borderline players, to extending restricted free agents, and even possibly going after superstars. But whether you like it or not, the public pressure is on for Dave Nonis to acquire a top line centre.
Personally, I’m not of the belief that the Leafs need to acquire someone for this role. I think that while Nazem Kadri’s production will not stay at the video-game like totals he put up last year, he’s more than able to exceed the production of Tyler Bozak, while not being a "weak link" in a line with Phil Kessel and whichever of Lupul or van Reimsdyk plays left wing. Mikhail Grabovski’s production dipped last year, but a decrease of and stylistic change of minutes has me optimistic that he can return to form on the second line. Joe Colborne appears to be back on track with a healed wrist, and Jay McClement is the fourth line centre of Toronto’s dreams. I genuinely believe that they’re in a good position. But this is a situation that won’t be forgotten unless it’s addressed. So, with all of that said, I think Vincent Lecavalier may be the best possible option.
The Basis For Speculation
When the Tampa Bay Lightning bought out the remainder of Lecavalier’s contract, it had nothing to do with wanting to go separate ways with their Captain. Lecavalier is the team’s most successful draft pick ever, longest-serving captain, all time and all time goals leader. At worst, he’s the team’s second best player of all time behind Martin St. Louis. He was very happy in Tampa Bay, and if it wasn’t for the current cap climate, I’m sure he would still be playing there next season. Alas, with the salary cap going down, compliance buyouts being on the table, and Lecavalier having a hit of 7.7 million on the books, it simply was not going to work out, leading to his buyout 4 years into an 11 year deal. Current owner Jeff Vinik has shown over the past several seasons that he’s willing to allow the team to bleed money for a couple of years to establish themselves as a world-class organization on and off the ice, and this was perhaps the strongest statement of that.
As proof that this has nothing to do with removing him from the roster, there were rumours going around that the Bolts and Leafs were going to use some CBA trickery to help each other out. The jist of the speculation was that the Leafs would acquire Lecavalier and a major asset in exchange for a minor asset, buy out Lecavalier themselves, and allow Tampa Bay to resign him. The NHL closed that loophole, but it makes you think that the Lightning want him back in the future. With that said, my thought is that Toronto can help them out by signing Lecavalier to a 1 year deal, playing him through, and allowing him to go back to Tampa Bay at the end of 2013-14. It gives the Leafs a productive centre for a year, and it gives the Lightning their captain back as soon as possible.
Do note that Lecavalier has said that he’s pursuing a long-term deal, but for the sake of this post, lets assume that he’s either posturing because he has a plan to return and doesn’t want to make it obvious, or would accept an overpayment for a single year.
Production is Still There
There’s a lot of talk about Lecavalier "falling off". In actuality, while the 33-year-old isn’t exactly in his prime, this season was a rather strong one in disguise.
The adjusted stats are very promising. Given a healthy year and first line minutes, Lecavalier is still capable of first line production, and actually had his best season since signing his extension in terms of production. As well, he seems to be passing the puck more than he has in a long time, with nearly 70% of his points coming from assists, the bulk of those (15 of 22) being primary. This is particularly enticing when you consider his primary goal is to feed the puck to Kessel.
Further per 5-on-5, per 60 stats show a strong year for Lecavalier as well, one where he shoots less but generally produces more even strength:
Worth looking at as well are Lecavalier’s stats with his teammates, to see if he owes anybody for this years’ success:
What you can gather from this is that Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis is the main catalyst in his point production, also contributing on 59.4% of Lecavalier’s points, and having a direct influence (puck possession immediately before or after) on 43.8%. All the same, this isn’t incredibly shocking, with him being Lecavalier’s most frequent forward linemate throughout the year. What is surprising, however, is that even with that in mind, St. Louis was only on the ice for 38.2% of Lecavalier’s even strength minutes. This is an indication that while they played well together, Lecavalier’s line was very much a grab bag throughout the year. In fact, just half of Lecavalier’s top 10 most played with teammates are forwards. Benoit Pouliot (32.1%), Teddy Purcell (26.1%), Alexander Killorn (25.2%), and Cory Conacher (20.2%) round out the list. Purcell was rather unproductive with Lecavalier, and Killorn’s input was in lower-importance areas. Conacher left the team at the trade deadline.
In short, Lecavalier was at his best in the limited minutes he recieved with a top-end linemate, and was a relatively productive centre overall. Logic would have it that if you gave him more minutes, put him in between two productive wingers, and he stayed healthy, he could put up another solid season. If I’m any team that has at least one first line winger and a spot for him as their main pivot, this is a risk I take. For the Leafs, he definitely fits.
This borders into the ever-dreaded "intangibles" territory, but I don’t think that you can underestimate the potential effect that Lecavalier could have as a mentor on this team. He immediately becomes the Leafs’ oldest and most experienced player, and the only one with an active role in a Stanley Cup Win (I refuse to consider Jonathan Bernier a substitute for a grizzled vet in this department). He can take some of the pressure off of Dion Phaneuf to carry the leadership load, much like St. Louis did for him in Tampa Bay.
He’s also capable of helping out a couple of young centres on the Leafs roster. Nazem Kadri’s favourite player growing up? You guessed it. As Nazem grows into a star in his own right, having somebody who’s been there before is great to have, and having it be a prior idol being that helper is a bonus. It also takes the pressure off of Kadri to repeat his success, which is highly unlikely in the immediate. As well, Joe Colborne is a guy who could learn a lot from him. Practically the same size (an inch taller at 6’5), Colborne is most comfortable when he plays a skilled game, and looking to a player who was (and arguably still is) the best in the league at using his wing span as an offensive weapon for advice will only help him. Lecavalier can also encourage more physicality and help with his puck protection game. As much as these are coachable assets, it’s best to have a practical measuring stick while perfecting them, and Vinny is the perfect person for it.
Lets say the Leafs season doesn’t go that well. Maybe Reimer and Bernier have a combination of injures and "not as good as last year showed". Maybe Joffrey Lupul’s shooting percentage comes down from 14500%. Maybe Phil Kessel misses a game or two for the first time since he joined the team. Or maybe the speculation that the Leafs were an "unsustainably lucky" team turns out to be correct, and come trade deadline day, the Leafs are right back where the were in previous years. Lecavalier is definitely an asset that other teams would bid on without the near-decade remaining on his deal. Of course, I expect the Leafs to at least be playing meaningful games at this point, even with "falling back to earth" considered, but it’s a potential scenario.
As well, signing him to a big single year deal leaves the Leafs unable to make any long-term commitments this offseason. You may be up in arms about this now, but when David Clarkson is considered a major UFA who could command over 5 million dollars a year on a muti-year deal, the Leafs would be wise to be out. This allows for them to be tapped out this year, but focused on signing the likes of Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel to extensions beyond 2014.
Lastly, given the circumstances and potential competition, signing Lecavalier would be a smart way to stay competitive in the division. As it is, newcomer Tampa Bay’s loss would be Toronto’s gain, but both Montreal and Detroit have also shown interest. Keeping a quality asset out of their hands is good enough as it is, without the gains received by having him contribute to the team. Plus, the idea of Habs fans being heartbroken after losing their chance at a once-hyped "chosen one" is pretty fantastic.
In a perfect world, the Toronto Maple Leafs ignore the hype and stay the course with their current centres. After all, it’s not a weak position for the team at this time, and there are holes that can be fixed elsewhere. Ultimately, we all know that isn’t going to happen, and the team will feel pressured to make a move. So if the issue is now "not ready yet" instead of "there’s nobody here", why not make a short-term investment that only costs in written cheques? Vincent Lecavalier is still a first line quality player, who should continue to see success with quality linemates. He would be helpful in a leadership role, and keep save the team from themselves in forcing a hesitance to adding other steep contracts. If it fails and the Leafs fall face first, you flip him and move on. If he succeeds, both parties can go from there.
It will be interesting to see what Lecavalier decides to do over the next few days.