Look the likelihood of the Toronto Maple Leafs making to the playoffs is very unlikely but this team believes that they are still in the hunt unless it becomes mathematically impossible that they are not going to make it. They will need a lot of help and hope that either Columbus or Washington go on a bad streak.
Saturday night’s game had some promise until the Red Wings took a 3-1 lead in the second period. Too many things have been going wrong for this team lately and the concern is that it will not be an easy fix for management. Too many people have speculated that it is the coach, and a lot have put the blame on the players.
The defensive breakdowns have been a problem for the last two years not just this year. Reimer and Scrivens kept the Leafs afloat during the 48 game season but even Nonis knew that it could not last forever. He realized that at any point the inexperience in net could have imploded and the Leafs would have missed the playoffs. That is why Nonis attempted to acquire Kiprusoff and Luongo because he knew that the defence wasn’t good enough and having Luongo or Kiprusoff would provide more stability. However Nonis realizes that the price was unreasonable and the Leafs were better off but what he failed to realize was that he was trying to hide the actual problem for this team.
The only significant change the Leafs made on defence was adding Tim Gleason. However what the Leafs failed to realize was that this defence lacks proper hockey IQ. What do I mean by that? The defence fails to make the smart play and they fail to recognize the situation. Morgan Rielly had two fantastic plays on Saturday bight, the first was the pass to Joffrey Lupul on his second goal, the second was when he took away a breakaway chance with the Leafs down by one goal with 13 minutes left in the game. The Leafs need more players like this on their roster, a player that will make the smart play.
I’m not going to argue who on the Leafs has great hockey IQ looking at the players on this team it is clear that there compete and awareness of the situation is not good enough. Lupul had a chance to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead but Howard stops the puck. What happens? The Leafs fall back when Detroit started a counter attack instead of trying to stop the rush in the neutral zone after gaining momentum. When a shark smells blood it attacks and does not stop, this is what other teams have done to the Leafs. When the Leafs let in a goal, the other team does everything it can to get another quick one because they know the Leafs are wounded. This is where the team needs a go to line to get some momentum back by taking away the opposing teams momentum.
There really is no excuse for the Leafs meltdown especially with the way they played before the Olympic break. Other teams have had harder obstacles to overcome especially a team like Detroit who lost Datsyuk and Zetterberg in a critical stretch but young players like Nyquist, Tatar and veterans like Alfredsson and Franzen who have filled the void and kept the Red Wings in the playoff hunt.
The Leafs have not had a balance of consistent play from their young players and veterans. Kessel and JVR have been great this season but players like Clarkson and Lupul have been off and on (not fair to put Lupul & Clarkson in the same boat).
There are a lot of questions that need to be answered this summer and hopefully most of these problems can be resolved but there is no guarantee that they will.
Below are all the players on the Leafs roster and whether they will be back with the team next season.
Phil Kessel- the Leafs just invested the next 8 years in Phil Kessel and he took his game to the next level to the point where he became a top 5 point scorer in the NHL. He will have to step up now if the Leafs want any chance to get into the playoffs but I expect him to pick it up again next season.
Tyler Bozak- when he returned from his injury he provided a major boost for this team. It took away the criticism of whether he was a number one center but again like Kessel he has disappeared a bit during this losing streak. If he wants to convince everyone that he is a number one center, he has to provide stability on the first line like he did before the Olympics.
James van Riemsdyk- a career year for JVR who was a major surprise last year because of the chemistry that he had with Phil Kessel. His size and ability to elude defenders made him a steal when the Flyers traded him for Luke Schenn. He is only going to get better and hopefully he can get better down the final stretch.
Joffrey Lupul- another 20 goal season for Lupul who is seen as one of the vocal leaders for the Leafs. Him and Kadri have been inconsistent this season but during this losing streak he has been able to score when the Leafs needed a goal. He works hard with the puck and puts himself in a good position to score in the offensive zone. He may be a player that could be traded if the Leafs need to get something significant in return. However Lupul is a great player that should remain with this team because he is a go to player that can provide a consistent effort every night.
Nazem Kadri- there are times when he is great and time when he is still making rookie mistakes. This is more apparent with his defensive play, he has the ability to lay the body to create a spark but he has not done it enough this season. His puck handling skills are one of the best on the team but his offence is off and on and his lack of consistency was not a problem last year. It could be a lack of chemistry or it could be that he is trying to do too much and it has affected his play. These last 6 games will be an audition for Kadri because if he is unable to play on the 2nd line the Leafs may be forced to go out and find a player that can be a 2nd line player. I think Nonis may reconsider what they have with Kadri and if he receives a good offer for Kadri he may pull the trigger, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t.
Mason Raymond- He has exceeded expectations this year. $1million for a player that was supposed to play a 4th line role. I don’t see him returning next season because another team will pay him more money and the Leafs cannot have too many one dimensional players on this team.
Nikolai Kulemin- He had a 30 goal season, now he is only known as a great defensive forward with some offensive potential. No offence but his play has been in a decline for years and the Leafs need a change and $3-4 million is too much for a player that has been a 2nd line player for a period of time and now a 3rd line player at best. Leafs should just let him go if he wants more than $2 million.
Dave Bolland- if there is any player that the Leafs needed the most this season it may have been Dave Bolland. His leadership and gritty 2 way play is one that the Leafs needed this season and lost for 60 games. The Flyers game on Friday was the perfect example of a play where hard work will be rewarded. If he is looking for $4.5-5+ million than the Leafs will have to let him go but he may take a pay cut given his injury but he should be the most important UFA this summer. If the price is right he should be back.
David Clarkson- a terrible season that he may not recover from. Not too sure the Leafs can risk buying him out so maybe the Leafs will have to see if he can turn things around, but management may want to cut their loses. I can see him turning his game around but his problem is that he is trying to do too much and if he can simplify his game he may improve.
Jay McClement- he is not the same player from last season. He was supposed to be the back bone of the penalty kill but he’s been the opposite of that. The penalty kill has been worse and part of the reason why is because Carlyle has misused McClement. If he plays more than 15 minutes a game he will not be effective. So the Leafs have to decide whether he is worth bringing back but if the wants a pay raise I would forget it.
Frazer McClaren/Colton Orr- they did not instill toughness or any desire to compete. They will be back but they probably won’t play as much as they should.
Troy Bodie- his work ethic has been a boost and for 7 minutes a night you know that he is going to play his but off every shift. I would take him over Orr/McClaren and hopefully management agrees.
Peter Holland- if he didn’t have that infection, I believe that Holland would still be playing for the Leafs right now. He deserves to be in the NHL and if he Leafs decide to trade Kadri or let Bolland leave then he will be with the Leafs next season as the 3rd/4th line centre.
Players to consider bringing in from the Marlies next season: Jerry D’Amigo, Spencer Abbott, and Carter Ashton
Dion Phaneuf- During this 8 game losing streak his play has been declining and now everyone is questioning whether he should be the captain of this team. It’s not like he has a rock solid defensive partner to help him play against the opposing top line. He has to play with Carl Gunnarsson! I highly doubt that any team could win with Gunnarsson as their number 2 defencemen. So let’s give Phaneuf a break because every top defencemen in the NHL has a partner that can be counted on every night. Chara has Seidenberg Keith has Seabrook, Pietrangelo has Bouwmeester, McDonagh has Girardi, Larsson has Yandle, Letang has Orpik, Vlasic has Boyle. So if the Leafs ever want to become a serious contender get Phaneuf a reliable defensive partner that can help him.
Carl Gunnarsson- not a top 2 on any NHL team, maybe management sees that and tries to unload him in a package deal this summer. He would be better off playing a lesser role because he is not capable of playing against the elite players in the league. The worst part is that he has 2 years left on a deal that carries a $3.15 million salary cap hit. If the Leafs do want to trade Gunnarsson they may want to take some salary as part of the deal.
Tim Gleason- he is your typical warrior on the blueline if he can be a stable 2nd pairing defencemen then paying him $4 million is not a bad thing. He has been average for this team but he is willing to block shots and take the body which is what this team is lacking at the moment. He will probably stay especially because teams won’t want his contract.
Morgan Rielly- an impressive rookie year that got off to a slow start but along with Jake Gardiner you can see that Rielly has the potential to be a great defencemen in this league. His speed and hockey sense are a incredible and hopefully he will be able to take a step up next season.
Jake Gardiner- he has played pretty good during this losing streak demonstrating his offensive capabilities and his speed as a useful skill. The Leafs would be wise to keep him unless they get blown away with an offer He can be better defensively but he needs to avoid holding onto the puck too long or playing out of position. That’s where he needs a mentor on the blueline to help him with that.
Cody Franson- last season was a great season for Franson but that was because of his offensive numbers. He did not have to be as reliable defensively because Mark Fraser was playing decently on defence. He has the size but his skating is not that great and too many times he tries to force a shot that gets blocked and he gets beat too easily in a one on one situation. Not sure if the Leafs will want to keep him unless he takes a pay cut but even then they have too many offensive minded defencemen. So unless Franson can tighten up his defensive game he will probably be traded/not re-signed.
Paul Ranger- he got off to a rough start to the season but he has proved that he can be the 7th defencemen for this team. Does he have the capability to play in a regular role, possibly but not for the Leafs. Maybe he moves on to another team like Edmonton with Dallas Eakins who needs to find some stability on their blueline.
Who should the Leafs look for in the summer to improve their blueline?
Some have mentioned names like Alex Edler or Kevin Bieksa from Vancouver. Bieksa would be the better option especially because he is reliable defensively. Now both players have a NTC but they may want a change of scenery and Toronto would love to have one of them. James Reimer would be an option for Vancouver when they go looking for a goalie this summer but it will probably take more than that possibly throwing in Gunnarsson and a forward prospect but again this is my opinion.
If the Flames want Reimer the Leafs may go after a defencemen from Calgary, maybe Mark Giordano who has been a reliable defencemen for the Flames for years and the Leafs could use a veteran like him on the blueline.
The Jets are another team that want Reimer but I am not sure who the Leafs would want form the Jets but at the same time Reimer would probably welcome a trade to his home province.
The Islanders have a lot of good prospects that the Leafs may be interested in. However when you want something good, you have to give up something good. clearly the Islanders will not trade Tavares but how about a Ryan Strome, Griffin Reinhart? It would be interesting to see what the Islanders would pay for a starter.
I am the last person that wants to see Reimer gone from this team but if this team is ready to move on then he should move on to a better situation because I am not sure if he could ever come back and play in Toronto especially if Carlyle is the coach.
If the Leafs want to make improvements this offseason this is the shopping list that I have prepared for them to consider.
A top 2 defencemen via trade (Bieksa, Giordano, Edler)
A top six forward if possible through UFA (Matt Moulson, Mike Cammalleri, Paul Stastny)
Find a dependable back up goalie if McIntyre is not an option (Scott Clemmenson, Chad Johnson, Justin Peters)
Pursue a defencemen through UFA (Brooks Orpik)
This is not going to be an easy task for Dave Nonis but you cannot go into next season without making any changes especially on defence. A coaching may be something to consider as well. The clock will be ticking for Nonis when the offseason comes.