I can assure you that teams that aren’t the Pittsburgh Penguins are still allowed to make deals. The problem, as several people have noted, is that there’s such a small gap between buyers and sellers this season and few clear impact players who are available.
This is a side-effect of those long-term deals signed by star players. There is simply less legitimate talent available at deadline time. It doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing, since teams are now far less likely to overpay for a rental player given roster turnarounds and an added focus on players under the age of 26.
The biggest deal made at the deadline last season involved Jack Johnson and Jeff Carter, two players on long-term deals, with the second most-talked about being Cody Hodgson for Zack Kassian, two NHL prospects. Deadline time to me isn’t the task of stocking up on rental players determined to make a run for a big payday, but the last chance you have to tweak the current roster after a long season of assessing the positives and negatives of the group.
So we’ll go ahead and do that today, and see if there are some available names at the positions the Leafs could use an addition.
The Leafs are sixth in the NHL in goal-scoring, and even without Joffrey Lupul and Matt Frattin for long stretches of the season, the Leafs were able to keep scoring by committee. The Leafs have two players in the top 20 in the league in scoring: Nazem Kadri with 35 points and Phil Kessel with 32, while Kadri and James van Riemsdyk are tied for 14th in the league with 14 goals.
Toronto have 10 guys with 5 or more goals, which is a pretty remarkable pace, although it does have to be noted that there are also some elevated shooting percentages there as well. Frattin, van Riemsdyk, Jay McClement and Joffrey Lupul are all posting career-best shooting rates. Overall, the Leafs are 22nd in the NHL in shots on goal per 60 minutes of five-on-five, which looks less good.
Mainly, while the team has a few good shooters, a reason why the Leafs don’t take many shots is because the Bozak lines and the line centred by Mikhail Grabovski have spent far too much time in their own end this season than a good hockey team should reasonably get away with. I don’t think that’s a personnel issue, and I think that Grabovski’s current role, as a limited minutes defensive player, and Bozak’s, as a top-line centreman, are mixed up right now. Grabovski is down to 16:30 a game this season and barely sees time on the powerplay. His low point totals are almost exclusively due to not getting assists, as he is third on the team in 5-on-5 goal scoring rate behind van Riemsdyk and, er, Frazer McLaren.
Historically, the major issue for the Leafs up front was that of the first line centre, but with the evolution of Nazem Kadri, I don’t think this is an organizational need anymore. Giving more minutes to either him or Grabovski and you may alleviate some of the issues with the Leafs first line. I find it interesting that Randy Carlyle has done virtually everything to his forward unit but split up Kessel from Bozak, but here we are.
So the need becomes less of a “first line centre” and becomes “second or third line centre” which may be easier to purchase. Outside of the draft, there’s no easy way to get a top centreman on the team, so the team has to hedge its bets with a good player having an otherwise poor season or not being used properly by a competing organization. If there’s a market for Paul Stastny, he’d be a player to look at, or Alexander Burmistrov in Winnipeg. Both are historically good players with underwhelming boxcar numbers this season.
That’s not to say you can’t buy a winger if necessary. I’m interested in names like Magnus Paajarvi or Ales Hemsky possibly being available out of Edmonton. Both are strong two-way guys and outside of Kessel, there isn’t a whole lot of pure skill on the wings in Toronto. van Riemsdyk, Lupul and Frattin all find success going to the net, Kulemin and MacArthur’s games are more suited towards physical play.
We don’t know which players are available, but I think the Leafs need is in that 2C or 3C position, but if there’s a skilled winger available the Leafs really ought to be in talks.
Incredibly, Mark Fraser is still third in the NHL in individual PDO, behind just Kadri and Sheldon Souray. That third pairing with him and Cody Franson, after a real good start to the season, have begun to show a little wear playing against opponents who are on the first two lines. Over the last couple of weeks, those two have found themselves on the wrong end of scoring chance battles and frequently the only pairing the Leafs have that doesn’t generate a scoring chance for.
While Fraser still leads the team on defence in +/-, using that as a reason for why the Leafs don’t have to upgrade him is problematic. Our feeling coming into this season is that the Leafs had one pretty good pairing in Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson, and after that they had a lot of fives and sixes. I haven’t seen enough this season to change that view although I’ve been impressed with Cody Franson’s play both with Fraser and without and, as a right shot, he’s a surprisingly rare commodity in this league.
Phaneuf has struggled away from a healthy Carl Gunnarsson and a pairing that was able to take on the toughs and keep even possession battles last season has found itself increasingly on the wrong end of the shot clock and scoring chance counts. Phaneuf and a banged-up Gunnarsson have been doing better than Phaneuf and an AHLer like Mike Kostka or Korbinian Holzer, but there’s still the indication that the Leafs might be better off with another top defenceman to take some of the heat off of the top pairing. As we’ve seen with the Grabovski line, too much overuse in defensive situations can absolutely kill a guy. Another top pairing guy could allow Phaneuf and Gunnarsson to stay together, and possibly pair with Franson to take on similar levels of competition so Randy Carlyle isn’t forced to run a single five-man unit out against scoring lines all the time.
The Leafs have the cap space and Jay Bouwmeester is a guy Calgary may want to get rid of. He could be cheap considering the Flames would be happy to get anything for him at this stage of their rebuild. He’s not at all worth the money, but as we’ve seen with players like Sheldon Souray and Wade Redden, just because players are not on team-friendly deals does not mean that they aren’t useful. Bouwmeester realistically is a better player than you could get another season out of and he’d be worth looking at unless the Leafs are committed to overspend during the free agent period.
The pool of veteran defencemen who may be available is admittedly pretty thin. Keith Yandle is a good left shot who makes $5.25-million over the next three seasons with a team that may not have the money to pay two franchise defencemen.
This is not an issue. We didn’t think it would be an issue going into the season, with one of the AHL’s best goaltenders over the last two seasons splitting time with one of the NHL’s best even strength goaltenders over the last two seasons. The Toronto Maple Leafs continue to find ways to outscore the opposition despite being outshot most nights. Any thought that Ryan Miller, Miikka Kiprusoff or Roberto Luongo could come in and provide a sizeable upgrade worth the price over James Reimer and Ben Scrivens must immediately be quelled.
Maybe this is something to look at when prices come down, but historically, paying for a goaltender hasn’t been a really effective move.
We don’t know who’s available or who gets moved. The Jeff Carter and Mike Richards moves that ultimately altered the fate of the Philadelphia and Los Angeles franchises were hardly rumoured or discussed. Sometimes useful players aren’t traded in a way that involves a lot of lead-up to the deal.
My argument is that should the Leafs improve for this season, it’s at 2C, 2W and 2D. I think they have a number of “top guys” in place who need a more effective supporting cast to live up to their potentials.
There is a hockey team here. There’s a skeleton and guts, but no muscles or joints. The heavy-lifting players are getting out-matched and two forwards consistently see fewer than five minutes a night. As we’ve argued, the team needs players to push others down the lineup. A few interesting names may be available, and ultimately you want to look at players mis-cast by their own organization to fill the holes on the Leafs currently occupied by guys mis-cast in theirs.