When Leafs Are Back

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Dec. 15) – At some point, it’s going to happen. Lights will be on at the Air Canada Centre and a blue Maple Leafs logo will glimmer from centre-ice. The red line will no longer be checkered – now dotted with red maple leafs to honor our nation’s flag.

And, the boys of winter will be back.

How familiar the local team looks will be determined by the NHL lockout. If a labor settlement occurs in time to salvage part of the 2012-13 season, Leafs will have only two – perhaps three – significant changes. If the entire season is lost, the club will be largely unrecognizable when play resumes.

Five Leafs are heading to unrestricted free agency in July: Tim Connolly, Joffrey Lupul, Matthew Lombardi, Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak and David Steckel. Pending a reasonable contract demand, Lupul is the only cinch to return (the others consume $10.85 million of cap space). Carl Gunnarsson and Korbinian Holzer will be restricted free agents. If he isn’t traded, Gunnarsson will at least double his $1.25 million salary. Holzer ($575,000) is a complete unknown, though the Maple Leafs appear to have plans for him.

Even if the NHL remains idle until next October, the memory of last season’s train-wreck will linger among Leaf fans. The 7-17-4 collapse in the final third of the schedule destroyed legitimate playoff aspiration and exposed a deep-rooted flaw involving the three ‘C’s: chemistry, character and commitment. Add in a ‘G’ – goaltending – and the Leafs were doomed to failure.    

NEW CENTRE-ICE DESIGN AT AIR CANADA CENTRE – AWAITING A TENANT.

In that regard, a second lost season in eight years would likely benefit the hockey club. Depending on the cap figure that emerges from the lockout, general manager Brian Burke will have plenty of wiggle room to re-shape the team once again – ideally with a stout No. 1 goalie (Roberto Luongo?) and a small cache of cheap youngsters. It would allow the undisputed franchise gem – Morgan Rielly – a full season of junior development with Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League and deny Burke even moderate temptation to fast-track his top selection from June’s entry draft. Leafs would then hope a couple of prospects could make the jump from the American Hockey League, though Rielly is considered the only “can’t miss” in the organization.

In the interim, let’s have a look at the nucleus of the current roster.

GOAL

JAMES REIMER: The Leafs prize freshman of two seasons ago is the only player under contract at this key position during the lockout. It is well documented how Reimer began the 2011-12 campaign impressively before getting cold-cocked by Montreal’s Brian Gionta at the Bell Centre in the third week of October. A lingering neck injury/concussion and the sophomore yips neutralized the 24-year-old Manitoba native who returned in early December, but could not re-establish his rookie form. With one good and one middling season under his belt, Reimer hasn’t provided enough evidence that he can carry the principal load. If Leafs had missed the playoffs for one or two years, gambling on Reimer would be plausible; he may well grow into a legitimate No. 1 puck-stopper. But, a seven-year playoff drought has all-but eliminated the margin for error. Burke needs more assurance between the pipes… and he needs it now (or whenever the puck is dropped).  His radar is therefore locked on Roberto Luongo – as it must be.

DEFENSE

DION PHANEUF: Earlier this autumn, I wrote how I changed my mind about the Maple Leafs embattled captain, and how efficiently he would augment a more representative team. I did so by watching tapes of Leaf games in the Pat Burns-Doug Gilmour era (1992-94) – one that is fondly remembered by fans of the Blue and White and came closet to vying for a championship in the post-1967 era. Though Burns, Gilmour and company made it to the Conference final in consecutive years, the team had one glaring weakness: a lack of physical presence on the blue-line. Chances are Leafs would have won the Stanley Cup with a boisterous player like Phaneuf, who can dish out a crunching body-check in open ice and handle the puck with authority. Dion has often been criticized for an apparent dearth of leadership in his role as captain. But, how many players could truly shepherd as hollow and passive a club? Surround Phaneuf with a deeper, more pugnacious group and see what he can accomplish. Dion is not the problem here – either in execution or temperament. He represents the Maple Leafs more than adequately in the captain’s chair. What he needs is a team capable of being led.

MIKE KOMISAREK: Veteran blue-liner has become a lightning rod for the team’s lack of success and the gargantuan, multi-year contract he signed as a free agent on July 1, 2009. A couple of things: First, how many of us would have said “no thanks” to the deal Mike was offered by Brian Burke (five years, $22.5 million and a limited no-trade clause)? Second, is there another player on the team that shows up for battle every night he is dressed, regardless of the situation? The answer to both questions is an unqualified “no”. When the mostly petrified Leafs were getting annihilated in Boston last March (8-0), Komisarek dropped the gloves with Milan Lucic: a formidable scrapper that had decisively won prior battles between the two. After the game, while many Leafs rationalized their appalling performance, a perturbed Komisarek spoke forcefully about the timid effort; how unacceptable it was, and how shamefully it represented the blue-and-white jersey. There was nothing artificial about Komisarek’s diatribe, nor were there one-fifth as many teammates similarly annoyed. Though Mike has clearly struggled to legitimize his enormous salary, the Maple Leafs could use a half-dozen more players with his character and abhorrence for defeat. He’s a warrior.

CARL GUNNARSSON: Though he’ll never be an All-Star, the native of Sweden is arguably the Leafs’ steadiest blue-liner. A lack of flair causes him to be overlooked most nights, and there is no higher compliment for what he offers the team. Joining Leafs from Toronto Marlies as a result of injury 18 games into the 2009-10 season, Carl quickly developed into a competent NHL defenseman; the club missed him during a 22-game absence with a dislocated elbow. Since that time, Gunnarsson has proven valuable for his composure with the puck in the defensive zone. He almost never makes an ill-considered play, though he’s much less of a resource in front of the goal for his lack of belligerence. In my mind, Carl is a valuable trade asset. With the potential for Leafs to develop young defensemen (Korbinian Holzer, Cody Franson, Morgan Rielly, Stuart Percy, Jesse Blacker and, of course, Jake Gardiner), Gunnarsson could be a worthy adjunct to a prominent deal – perhaps  one that enables the Leafs to acquire Luongo from Vancouver.

JOHN-MICHAEL LILES: Burke gave up a valuable, second-round pick for the native of Indianapolis and then signed him to a four-year, $15.5 million contract extension. It was considered by many to be an exorbitant outlay for an average performer, though serviceable defensemen are not in abundance around the NHL. Leafs need more offense from Liles, who registered 27 points in 66 games from the back end after seasons of 46 and 44 points with Colorado. This will only result from more a commanding effort by a veteran that has played regularly in the league since 2003-04, including 36 post-season games with the Avalanche. Liles seemed reticent through much of his first campaign with the Leafs, even before he suffered concussion-like symptoms in a Dec. 22 home game against Buffalo when crunched by Sabres’ Paul Gaustad. That cost him more than five weeks (16 games) of action and likely restricted his much-needed influence on the club. Given the nature and aftermath of head trauma, John-Michael is deserving of a healthy season before he can be adequately assessed as a Maple Leaf.

CODY FRANSON: It is either too early to evaluate the blue-liner Leafs acquired from Nashville a year ago July, or he is simply not capable of maximizing his large frame. Franson appeared in 57 games during his first season with the Leafs; he was a healthy scratch in the other 25. Of concern is the fact Cody has been around the bend in the NHL. Though still only 25, he’s played in 198 regular-season games, including 61 with Nashville in 2009-10 and 80 in 2010-11. His progression at the big-league level has been slow to moderate and Leafs need more from him. At 6-foot-5, 213 pounds, Franson is not an imposing presence; he registered only 22 penalty minutes last season – clear indication of a remote physical element. Sadly, a mean streak cannot be manufactured. It is therefore incumbent upon Franson to add more offense to his game; he has a formidable shot and compiling only 21 points did not sufficiently compensate for his lack of aggression. With the Leafs having traded Luke Schenn, and developing a number of prospects on the blue-line, Cody needs to make strides in the NHL – and fast.

JAKE GARDINER: The impressive youngster that turned the Francois Beauchemin trade with Anaheim into grand larceny faces an enormous challenge in his big-league development. And it has nothing to do with on-ice potential. Given how the Leafs and their fans are hungering for any sign of prosperity, Gardiner is likely to be the victim of undue expectation. In the lexicon of boxing, he is the club’s “Great White Hope.” Miracles must abound every time he jumps over the boards. If Burke were to offer him straight-up for Evgeni Malkin, he’d be hung in effigy. I’m exaggerating here on purpose. Time will prove that Gardiner is like any young defense prodigy not named Bobby Orr. He’ll show flashes of brilliance; make glaring mistakes, and likely struggle in his second professional season. If Leaf fans show patience with Gardiner and evaluate him reasonably, he might justify his rookie plaudits and become an offensive weapon. If fans anticipate a Norris Trophy nomination before 2014, Gardiner will self destruct. He’s a tantalizing prospect with notable puck-handling skill that sneaked up on the NHL. He wasn’t quite Moses descending from the mountain – almost every Leaf prospect is absurdly over-rated – but he did exhibit undeniable big-league potential. A recent head injury sustained in the AHL could be troublesome and the Leaf medical staff will have to treat him with appropriate caution. Given time and space, however, Gardiner could be an absolute gem.

FORWARD

PHIL KESSEL: Without question, the Leafs most talented player has provided the team everything in his arsenal since arriving amid controversy more than three years ago. He is a brilliant skater and stick-handler with an accurate shot and quick release that ranks among any top forward in the NHL. When discussing Kessel, however, there always seems to be a “but”. He is a monumental talent, “but” can the Leafs win with him? Along with Mats Sundin, he ranks as the team’s most gifted forward in the past 20 years, “but” was it worth trading a pair of first-round draft choices to Boston for him, given that one of the picks – Tyler Seguin – is a budding superstar? From being around Kessel as a reporter, I can tell you he clearly detests losing, “but” does he fully engage on enough nights to help prevent such defeat? All we know, for fact, is that Leafs have been a terrible club during his time here. How much culpability rests with him is purely subjective. As mentioned, I think he’s given the Leafs as much as he possibly can – physically and emotionally. “But”, is that enough to move forward with him as a franchise cornerstone; for Burke to sign him to a multi-year contract extension that would undoubtedly increase his $5.4 million cap consumption? Or, does Burke alter the team’s chemistry by trading Kessel before he can walk as an unrestricted free agent after the 2013-14 season? There are no easy answers. Fast Phil finished sixth among NHL scorers last year with 37 goals and 82 points. Many Toronto hockey fans are emotionally attached to him because of those numbers. Still, Maple Leafs were probably the worst team in the league when the 2011-12 season ended. Both Kessel factors – numeric and composite value – must be carefully considered by Burke.

JOFFREY LUPUL: Was one of the NHL’s top wingers until a shoulder injury sustained against Boston, Mar. 6, ended his promising season. Lupul missed the final 16 games and Leafs were 5-8-3 without him. Included were humiliating defeats at Boston (8-0) and at home to Philadelphia (7-1). It is reasonable, therefore, to suggest the club’s record may not have been so dismal had Lupul remained healthy. On the flip-side, he was in the line-up and taking a regular shift through the first month of the Leaf collapse (Feb. 7 to Mar. 6), during which the club plummeted to 2-11-1 and forced Burke to fire Ron Wilson. So, it is somewhat difficult to accurately gauge his effect on the team. But, with 25 goals and 67 points – both career bests – Joffrey did prove his worth and will almost certainly garner a contract extension from Burke. Many will argue that Kessel had a major influence on Lupul’s good season and should therefore also be retained. As Burke often says, however, it is important for a GM to look at the entire movie rather than a particular scene. And the Leafs 2011-12 movie would have been X-rated. Unlike Kessel, Lupul plays a fairly robust game and uses his size effectively. When healthy, he’s a valuable asset and still only 29 years of age. He warrants a longer look.

MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI: It’s funny how the worm can turn in hockey. After Burke’s first full season with the Leafs (2009-10) – in which Grabovski scored only 10 goals and embarrassed the team with an incident during the Vancouver Winter Olympics – the GM would have given away his underachieving forward. But, there weren’t any takers. With his NHL career on tenterhooks, Grabovski dedicated himself to becoming a better player. His private life stabilized through marriage and the birth of a child. In 2010-11, he put up his best career numbers – 29 goals and 58 points – impressing Burke enough to warrant a five-year, $27.5 million contract extension signed on Mar. 6, 2012 (coincidentally, the day Lupul was lost for the season). “Grabo”, as he is known, followed with another decent showing last year (23 goals and 51 points). With a limited no-trade clause – he can provide Leafs a list of 10 destinations each year – it appears Mikhail will be a part of the Toronto hockey scene for the remainder of his deal, which expires after the 2015-16 season. He’s a friendly, likable chap; popular with teammates, and slick in the attacking zone. In other words, a good guy to keep around.

NIKOLAI KULEMIN: No Leaf player has become more of an enigma than the 26-year-old native of Magnitogorsk, Russia. Kulemin’s plight is seared into the memory of all Leaf fans, who watched – bewildered – as he plummeted from 30 goals in 2010-11 to a mere seven last season. What could possibly have led to such a calamitous decline? Since joining the Maple Leafs from Russia in 2008, Kulemin has been an honest, dedicated worker – supremely coach-able – and willing to contribute at both ends of the ice. But, he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn last year. Clearly, Burke felt it was an aberration. He has twice extended Kulemin’s contract – once in 2009 and again this past July – when the winger avoided salary arbitration by signing a two-year, $5.6 million deal. Nobody can be sure, however, which Kulemin will show up once the lockout ends: the player that seemed to be breaking into the front line among NHL wingers or the ham-handed performer of a year ago. For Kulemin and the Leafs’ sake, it had better be Door No. 1.

CLARKE MacARTHUR: It is my vehement opinion that the former Buffalo Sabre and Atlanta Thrasher has never garnered enough credit for his contribution to the Maple Leafs. Unlike such players as Kessel, Grabovski and Kulemin, he was acquired (at the behest of Dave Poulin) not to be a difference-maker on the club. In that realm, Clarke has most-certainly overachieved, contributing 41 goals and 105 points during his two seasons in Blue and White. He played a major role in 2010-11 when Kulemin was scoring and Grabovski enjoyed his finest pro season. Yet, he doesn’t receive nearly the respect he has earned. Based on my correspondence, Leaf fans have grouped him with such non factors as Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi. They seem eager for MacArthur’s contract to expire in July. I don’t get it. What I see is a terrific teammate devoid of ego; a player that shows up almost every night and – not unlike Kessel – is prone to slump offensively. His statistical contribution over two seasons, however, is commendable and I see no harm whatsoever in the Leafs keeping him around.

TYLER BOZAK: Similar to the majority of non-drafted players that emerge cheaply in subsequent years, this thoughtful, intelligent chap is a middling performer that will not likely contribute to ascendancy by the Maple Leafs. His numbers are average to mediocre and he suffered through a horrendous start to last season, when he didn’t score a goal until the Leafs 14th game. Bozak has often skated on the No. 1 forward unit – mainly by default, as the critical centre-ice position lacked size and depth. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in July and it would surprise me if Burke retains him.

JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK: There is obviously no book on this promising youngster, who has yet to suit up for the Blue and White. His contribution in Philadelphia may not accurately reflect what he can achieve here in Toronto, for the Flyers – as a team – have been light years ahead of the Maple Leafs. Chosen second overall in the 2007 NHL draft, Van Riemsdyk is best known for a scoring outburst in the 2011 playoffs, when he pored in seven goals for the Flyers in 11 games. Otherwise, the early portion of his career has been unremarkable for a player drafted in his position. Nonetheless, with the Maple Leafs badly in need of size up front, Burke made a prudent deal by swapping Luke Schenn to Philadelphia. Though I’m always wary of trading a defenseman for a forward, Van Riemsdyk is young enough to develop into an impact player in the NHL. Leaf fans will be disappointed, however, if they expect him to be a banger and crasher. Though James has good size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), he performs with finesse rather than aggression. A natural winger, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle plans on shifting him to centre.

TIM CONNOLLY: This veteran forward came to the Leafs from Buffalo with a reputation for blatant inconsistency and he was precisely as advertised during his first season in Toronto. On and off the ice, he seemed detached and indifferent – hardly what Burke was hoping for when he signed Connolly to a two-year, $9.5 million contract as a free agent two summers ago. In fairness to Burke, Connolly was a consolation purchase after the Leafs GM made an open-market bid for Brad Richards, who left Dallas to join the New York Rangers. Still, Leafs expected – perhaps foolhardily – more than 13 goals and a minus-14 in 70 games. With a $4.75 million cap hit, Connolly is untradeable and will play out the final year of his contract in Toronto.

MIKE BROWN: Though devoid of flash and noticeable talent, Burke’s favorite player on the team – acquired  from Anaheim at the 2010 NHL draft – supplies maximum effort each night, battling frequent injury and misfortune. How many players in NHL history have been sidelined by taking a puck in the nether regions during practice? Brown’s protective cup was fractured by a poorly aimed shot two seasons ago, yet he was able to speak about the near-disaster with levity and humor. Brown is respected for having the back of all teammates. He isn’t a particularly accomplished fighter, but he’ll never shy away from a challenge. He is also prolifically good-natured, as evidenced by a willingness to grow his hair wildly in the off-season so it can be sheared for cancer patients. Mike has one season after this remaining on a modest $725,000 contract but he’ll likely be a Leaf as long as Burke is GM.

DAVID STECKEL: The lanky forward renowned for unintentionally blind-siding Sidney Crosby in the 2011 Bridgestone Winter Classic came to the Leafs from New Jersey for a fourth-round pick. He played a negligible role under Ron Wilson but was liberally deployed as a penalty killer and face-off specialist when Randy Carlyle became coach. As such, Burke will likely extend his contract beyond this season. Appearing in 76 games for the Leafs, David contributed eight goals, but the team isn’t counting upon him for offense. His 58% face-off percentage ranked sixth in the league.

MATTHEW LOMBARDI: Acquired from Nashville along with Cody Franson, the speedy veteran suffered a dislocated shoulder, ironically in a November road game against the Predators. His season was pretty much a write-off after that, as he scored only eight goals in 62 games and registered a team-worst minus-19. Lombardi has had a couple of decent years in the NHL (20 goals with Calgary in 2006-07; 19 with Phoenix in 2009-10) but his future here in town is cloudy at best, given he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in July. The prevailing assumption is that he’ll not return.

JAY McCLEMENT: Acquired by Burke as a free agent this past summer from Colorado, the 29-year-old Kingston native will pair with David Steckel to try and improve the Maple Leafs chronically abysmal penalty killing. Having played in the NHL with St. Louis and the Avalanche since 2005-06, McClement will bring some veteran savvy to the club and is expected to be a prime contributor in Randy Carlyle’s defensive system.

NAZEM KADRI: We can only guess when, or if, the Maple Leafs will grant their first-round pick from 2009 extended liberty to play in the NHL without onerous pre-condition. Nazem had no chance of succeeding under Ron Wilson and it is unclear whether Randy Carlyle will provide him more of a big-league opportunity. What we know, for certain, is that Kadri is among the most gifted players in the organization, with soft hands and shifty moves. His performance without the puck has limited his time in the NHL and if he’s not in Carlyle’s plans, Burke will almost certainly trade him. Such a move, however, could come back to haunt the Leafs, given Kadri’s natural ability.

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