*co-authored by Ben Kerr*
Welcome back to Puck Drop: NHL Preview 2013-14, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season. Check back often as new teams are added to our Puck Drop page. Today we take a look at the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs.
For the sake of every Maple Leafs fan our there, I won’t subject them to re-live the ending of last season, I’m sure that all hockey fans, not just Leafs fans, have seen and heard about the ending of their series with Boston enough over the summer. Overall, the season was a step forward. Toronto made the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-2004 season, and things for the team look like they are on an up-swing.
This Maple Leafs off-season has been one to remember. Toronto traded Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens, and a second round pick for goalie Jonathan Bernier. Bernier is a former first-round pick in L.A. who found himself in a back-up role to superstar Jonathan Quick. After the season that Leafs goalie James Reimer had, you would think management would have a bit more trust in him going forward – he enjoyed a career high .924 save %.
Sure, the team did have the meltdown in the playoffs, but this is a young team and can grow with experience. The Bernier move either stunts Reimer’s growth and he gets traded or is the extra push to make him the number one starter for good. Without any evidence that this is a bad move, it’s still questionable.
In other trade news, the Leafs packaged draft picks to the Chicago Blackhawks to acquire Dave Bolland, fresh off his Stanley Cup winning goal. Bolland will be expected to centre the Leafs third line and match up against every other team’s top line. He will be a key face-off man, and team with Jay McClement to continue the vast improvements we have seen in the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill units over the past year.
The Toronto Maple Leafs then went on to re-sign center Tyler Bozak to a five-year $4.2mil cap hit deal. The money on this one is too high, which seems to be the theme of this Leafs offseason. Bozak has yet to truly prove that he is a number one center, and getting this deal puts even more pressure on him to perform.
Another move this off-season includes the buyout of Mikhail Grabovski, who was only one year into a five-year deal. The Leafs were obviously unimpressed with what they saw and decided to cut ties with him. Though he did have a down season, coach Randy Carlyle obviously misused him throughout the season and it directly impacted his performance. Grabs was coming off of back-to-back 50-point seasons, and Toronto decided not give him the benefit of the doubt, which he seemed to deserve. Another questionable move by Leafs management.
On the first day of official NHL free agency, Toronto signed winger David Clarkson to a seven-year contrat at $5.25 million per year. Obviously this deal is ridiculous in the long term. Clarkson is a player who has peaked at age 29, and while I believe he can help this team now, the weight of this contract will crush him long-term. Having seen a lot of Devils games over the years, I can say with confidence that he has struggled to stay a top-six forward. Clarkson will love playing in his hometown Toronto, and I hope he finds success. If he can find some chemistry with guys like James van Riemsdyk or Nazem Kadri, he can score enough goals to keep the media off his back.
Leafs GM Dave Nonis’s best move of the offseason was getting center Nazem Kadri to accept a ‘bridge deal’. His two-year $5.8 million overall contract is very reasonable, as he will more than likely outplay that contract. As for unsigned RFA defensemen Cody Franson, the team has a tight cap to work under to get his deal done. Another team could swoop in and have an offer sheet for him. Well see what happens within these next few days.
According to Doug Maclean of Sportsnet, The Maple Leafs also have signed winger Mason Raymond to a one year deal worth $925,000. However other sources have not been able to confirm this and still have Raymond in camp on a PTO. If a deal is done, he would provide the Leafs with some speed and scoring in a non top-six role and be a great pick-up for that money.
The last issue that remains is a contract for restricted free-agent defenceman Cody Franson. Franson is holding out of training camp at the moment as the team and player can not agree on an appropriate value for a defenceman who scored more points than Tyler Bozak last season, and was amongst the NHL leaders for points by a defender, while also playing solid minutes in his own end for Toronto.
Storylines to watch
Will core players Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf talk about extensions? Kessel has stated that he is unwilling to talk extension during the season as he feels that it will be a distraction. He’s set a clear deadline, the Leafs have until October 1st to negotiate an extension, or he will head to free agency next summer. Meanwhile, Phaneuf has stated that he will be willing to talk extension during the year. With the Leafs top scorer, and captain and number 1 defenceman both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st, this could loom large over the team all season long.
Who wins the number one goalie spot? It will be a head-to-head battle between Reimer vs. Bernier. At this point Reimer has the better career stats and more experience between the pipes, but the Leafs gave up a lot to bring in Bernier, and have signed him to the bigger contract between the two players. Many feel that given Reimer’s play last year, he has earned the number one spot, but given that the Leafs were trying to bring in Mikka Kiprusoff at last year’s trade deadline, and now have brought in Jonathan Bernier, it would appear that Nonis and the Leafs management don’t trust Reimer enough to put all their eggs in his basket at this point.
Can Tyler Bozak or Nazem Kadri become a true franchise number-one center? The Leafs have lacked at this position since Matt Sundin left Toronto for Vancouver. Bozak has spent most of his career centring Phil Kessel, but his point totals do not suggest that he is a true number 1, even if Kessel is lighting up the league on his wing. Kadri put up big points last season but did not play the big minutes or the tough matchups that a true franchise changer up the middle is expected to do. When we look at the elite teams in the NHL, nearly all of them have a top notch guy as their number 1 centreman. If the Leafs want to join the group of true cup contenders they will need to find one. Once again they will look internally to solve the issue, as despite many attempts they have not been able to bring a franchise centre in from another organization. When a team finds one of these players, they rarely, if ever give them up.
Players to watch
A player to watch this season is David Clarkson. There’s almost no way he can live up to the expectations of his contract and cap hit. David is a very hard worker, and a respectable guy off the ice, which is why I hope he succeeds in Canada. If he notches 20-something goals, it won’t be a bad season.
Another player to watch is Paul Ranger. Paul is looking for this to be his first year back in the NHL since 2009. He took time off from hockey to go back to school and for “other personal reasons”. With 4 years out of the NHL there are some questions if he can still be trusted with top 4 NHL defensive minutes. If he can, the Maple Leafs have an absolute steal in signing him for just $1 million. He spent last season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, so the front office has seen that he is ready for the big leagues.
Overall, the core group of this team still has enough talent to make it back to the post-season. Despite very questionable front office decisions this off-season, they still look like a team that will fight to be a playoff team in the East. In the new Atlantic Division, the competition will be strong for spots, and so the Leafs must get out of the gate strong and be consistent all season long in order to lock down their place.
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Main photo credit: bridgetds via photopin cc