Right into the dog days of summer as the initial free agent frenzy appears to be over.
The best players still available in free agency are Tom Gilbert and Mikhail Grabovski. Since the Toronto Maple Leafs are forbidden from signing one of those players and don’t have an awful lot of money left for the second, it’s safe to say that any roster tweaks that appear between now and September 15th will be minor. Not that there’s a problem with that, because the top six looks pretty good on paper, but because the Leafs didn’t improve in the spots it needed to improve.
So before getting into a few important statistics about play by Leafs centremen in split zone start situations, let’s kick off the week by looking at what Toronto has on July 15, ten days after free agency began. Seems like a good jumping-off point. Salary info via Capgeek.
Tyler Bozak ($4.2-million)
Dave Bolland ($3.375-million)
Jay McClement ($1.5-million)
Joe Colborne ($600K)
Trevor Smith ($550K)
Nazem Kadri (RFA)
I didn’t think it was possible for the Leafs to downgrade at this position, but here we are. Despite the calls for a No. 1 centreman in Toronto and the assurance during the frenzy that the Leafs weren’t paying Bozak to be a No. 1 centreman, the Leafs will not go into next season with a No. 1 centreman.
Not too worried about Nazem Kadri’s situation and neither should you. I’m guessing Kadri wants something long-term while Nonis wants a bridge contract, and given Kadri is coming off what will probably be his highest On-Ice Sh% season of his career, it’s probably preferable for Nonis to play hardball here. Still, Kadri may miss a few days of training camp but I don’t think he has the leverage for an extended holdout. Bolland is listed as the second C here, but Kadri will have the second-line C spot on this team.
Phil Kessel ($5.4-million)
David Clarkson ($5.25-million)
Colton Orr ($925K)
There is a hole here thanks to Clarke MacArthur’s departure, and may be filled by a minor leaguer like Tyler Biggs or Josh Leivo. Despite the departure of MacArthur, Randy Carlyle’s reluctance to play him in higher-leverage situations means that Toronto does have an upgrade in the top six for next season—I’d rather David Clarkson on Nazem Kadri’s wing than Colton Orr or Matt Frattin, and I think Clarkson and Kadri’s games complement each other’s quite well. Kadri is a puck-control player that creates shots on goal, while Clarkson drives to the net and takes them.
Phil Kessel is around for at least the start of one more season and I’d like to see the Leafs re-up him for a not-too-crazy deal. The maximum term they gave give him would take him through his 34-year-old season. I’d rather see him get more dollars and less term but I suspect Nonis feels differently.
Joffrey Lupul ($5.25-million)
James van Riemsdyk ($4.25-million)
Nikolai Kulemin ($2.8-million)
Frazer McLaren ($700K)
Joe Colborne’s a left shot as well, so he’ll likely play on this wing if he makes the team. Even Randy Carlyle didn’t play both Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr every night, so the Leafs will need somebody to rotate in and out of that fourth line winger job that’s waiver-exempt, so that could be Colborne, or Jerry D’Amigo or they could flip Carter Ashton back to his natural wing.
With the exception of Facepuncher No. 2, the Leafs look pretty good at left wing if Joffrey Lupul can continue firing pucks in the net at a rate above 12%. Both Kulemin and van Riemsdyk would look excellent on Clarkson’s other wing, and either way, the Leafs will have a two-way winger slot alongside David Bolland on the third line unless the team does something stupid like trade away the other guy that speaks English.
Dion Phaneuf ($6.5-million)
Korbinian Holzer ($787,000)
Cody Franson (RFA)
This looks pretty thin. Had the Leafs concentrated on the centres and the right-side D going into the offseason rather than top six wingers and goaltending, they’d have gone into this week with a significantly-better team. This would be the appropriate spot for Tom Gilbert, and letting Korbinian Holzer become a depth option rather than one expected to play as an everyday player. They won’t do something colossally stupid like play him alongside Dion Phaneuf again.
Cody Franson being an RFA scares me more than Kadri. With six years of pro experience, I’m quite surprised that Franson didn’t file for arbitration when he could have. He played 18:47 per game last season and had 29 points, which is impressive for any defenceman over an 82-game season, much less 48 (although he played just 45 games). Maple Leafs Hot Stove had a theory on why Franson chose not to go the arbitration route, but I doubt that Franson would want a long-term deal now. On June 30, 2014, he would be 27 years old and thus eligible for Group 3 unrestricted free agency and make a whole lot more money.
Franson to me is a player that you lock down for a few years and take a salary cap hit because he has some top four potential. His defensive game showed last season and he’s a terrific puck-mover. Him and Jake Gardiner looked fabulous together in their brief moments with each other in the playoffs, and I like the idea of partnering him with a player that can skate.
Note that Morgan Rielly could start the year here, but the better plan is to have him back in junior and develop another year. While he won’t be on a good team if he stays with the Moose Jaw Warriors, that’s probably the preferred situation since it means he can go play in the AHL sooner and spend some regular season time with the Toronto Marlies.
John-Michael Liles ($3.875-million)
Jake Gardiner ($1,116,667.00)
T.J. Brennan ($600K)
Carl Gunnarsson (RFA – Arbitration)
Mark Fraser (RFA – Arbitration)
I’d expect Carl Gunnarsson to get a little under $3-million and Fraser could get a little over $1-million. Still, not buying out John-Michael Liles looks a little silly. The Leafs added T.J. Brennan, another offensive player that can skate and there’s no way they can hold Gardiner back from being an everyday player this season.
I guess there’s the possibility of the more offensive Brennan moving to the right side to capitalize on his skating and shooting talents, but despite the five players the Leafs will have under contract to start the season, there are a lot of questions. How durable is Gunnarsson? His injury really melted his play last season. That and the tough minutes and Gunnarsson had a career-low -14.21 Corsi/ON per 60 minutes of play. I like him, but who plays alongside Phaneuf in the absence of Mike Kostka?
Jonathan Bernier ($2.9-million)
James Reimer ($1.8-million)
Two potential 55-game players for real cheap. In a vacuum this looks excellent. Let’s keep it in a vacuum.
I gave Gunnarsson the same money as Karl Alzner, I gave Kadri Matt Duchene money and I gave Mark Fraser $950K. I’m not too sure on comparables for Cody Franson, since his ice-time and point totals were elevated this season. We’ll go with James’ estimate of $2.85-million although I think the Leafs would be wise to sign whatever will keep him around for four years.
Those bullish estimates on Leafs restricted free agents puts the team at 24 players and $1.2-million over the salary cap. Can get under that by demoting Smith and Brennan, so we’ll put the Leafs at 22 players to start the season.
Remember when the Leafs had space to work with and spent half of it on Tyler Bozak? The potato did pretty well last week, in my opinion.
PROJ. OPENING DAY LINES
Joffrey Lupul – Tyler Bozak – Phil Kessel
James van Riemsdyk – Nazem Kadri – David Clarkson
Nikolai Kulemin – David Bolland – Tyler Biggs
Frazer McLaren – Jay McClement – Colton Orr
Carl Gunnarsson – Dion Phaneuf
Jake Gardiner – Cody Franson
John-Michael Liles – Korbinian Holzer