There are a lot of pieces in the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup this year that don’t necessarily seem to compliment each other. Or, well, an NHL lineup.
The Leafs are clearly in the midst of a rebuild, and the team has been far from hush-hush on the matter. Phil Kessel, the team’s leading scorer for every one of the last six seasons, was shipped out for future pieces to help the club – and pretty much everyone brought in via free agency can be described as a ‘wait, what team did he last play for?’ kinda guy.
Despite this, though, there’s still been speculation about which members of the Leafs core will be gone by the trade deadline. It seems logical to assume that anyone with a pending UFA status this year is eligible to be shipped out the door, but one of the handful of albatross contracts sitting on the Leafs’ payroll should probably be flipped for prospects or picks, as well.
According to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, the two most likely candidates are Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak.
This makes perfect sense – and in retrospect, we probably didn’t need to be told it by LeBrun that both Bozak and Lupul are looking like they cost the team more financially than they’re worth. One is making – per NHLNumbers.com – $5.25 million for each of the next three years; the other is making $4.2 million. That’s a lot to pay for guys who serve a middle six role, especially with the team so far above the cap floor once again.
LeBrun mentioned on TSN Toronto 1050 that he’d be ‘surprised’ if one of either Lupul or Bozak wasn’t dealt out of Toronto by the deadline, singling the two out as guys who were on the block all summer and should be the most aggressively shopped throughout the year.
Here’s the transcript of the segment, which started out asserting that the Leafs may be kept out of the perennial drama-filled limelight this year while the Toronto Blue Jays are white-hot:
Bryan Hayes: “Do you get the sense that it’s going to be kind of quieter, because of Babcock and Lamoriello and Shanahan? Or maybe because people are going to be focused on different things?”
LeBrun: “Well… and I know that you’ve touched on this in a lot of your segments, but the Leafs have masterfully lowered expectations. But I also think that fans … you talked about the apathy of the last couple of years, which to me was at an all-time high for the Leafs … and by the way, that’s saying something.
But it really was at an all-time high, and I think that the amount of Leaf fans who gave up on their team and said: ‘enough’. Those fans are back, and I think that they’re back with a long-term view. They understand that this year’s gonna hurt, but there’s a reason for it, for once. It’s actually part of a plan. […] Mike Babcock is running the guys through the grind that a lot of these players have never had before. I believe that there’s already been a lot of growth with this group.”
LeBrun: “I think that a lot of the players that are returning from the last three, four years are a bit of a shell-shocked group, mentally fragile. One of Babcock’s great challenges this year will be to rehabilitate the mental fortitude of the guys that have been here a while. All of the guys that have been there since Game 7 against Boston? This might be the weakest team mentally in the NHL. […] From my understanding, even though he was very hard on them last night, he threw the veterans under the bus, the highlight of training camp and the video sessions has been the positives.
Hayes: “Now, I’m curious to what they’re going to be doing behind the scenes. We won’t have access to that, but… I was expecting more turnover this past off-season, in terms of the regulars, the cast of characters like Lupul and Phaneuf and Bozak, even JVR, Kadri, Gardiner… do you get the impression they’re going to continue to kick tires, maybe they’re just waiting for the right deal to come?”
LeBrun: “oh, it’s not like they didn’t try to move some of those guys.
Now, Phaneuf I wouldn’t put in that group right now. I think Babcock likes the guy […] but I think in terms of Lupul and Bozak, those guys were on the block all summer. I think there has to be a willing participant in the transaction, and I think that between now and the trade deadline… I’d be pretty surprised if one of those two wasn’t dealt.”
LeBrun also said that ‘if he was a betting man’, he’d bet that both William Nylander and Connor Brown start out with the Marlies. Also somewhat unsurprising, given the steaming heap of pain and sorrow that this year’s team may be and the relative level of success that both Nylander and Brown can find in a top six role in the AHL.
I agree with LeBrun on pretty much every count. He talks about sheltering guys like Nylander and Brown from the negativity that the NHL group will be undoubtedly dealing with – something that maybe the Edmonton Oilers have figured out this year as well, as that franchise reassigned blue liner Darnell Nurse to the AHL just earlier today – but he also talked about the mental rebuilding that the Leafs need to undergo and the cast of characters that he thinks will be involved in that.
The biggest surprise in the segment (other than hearing someone actually say that the Jays may pull attention away from the Leafs) was the comments about Phaneuf. The idea that Babcock likes him isn’t too much of a stretch – Babcock has always loved his veterans, and the team considers Phaneuf a familiar face who can blend the old and the new – but the adamance that LeBrun seems to have surrounding Phaneuf’s status with the team is a bit unexpected.
Overall, there wasn’t much given to think about that wasn’t already on the table to consider, but there is some good logic to support it. Now, at least we know a bit more about why we’ll be so sad this year.