By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 8th) – Hey, folks, with Colorado Avalanche in town and Dave Nonis, according to motley speculation, evoking Jake Gardiner’s name around the league, perhaps the Leafs GM will find a quick way to land his elusive No. 1 center. As I’ve opined here on several occasions, the guy wearing No. 26 for the visitors tonight could easily be that man.
Without question, Nonis must be very careful here. He and his coach are on the same page (we think), but the coach appears to be profoundly impatient with players that skate outside the line. Randy Carlyle’s line has always been vivid and narrow. Gardiner, as per many youthful, unrefined defensemen, is all over the map. His talent, however, is irrefutable. As it pertains to Nonis, Carlyle and all others in the Toronto hierarchy, one would therefore anticipate a large amount of reflection standing between exasperation and surrender. We could be talking here about the most gifted puck-moving defenseman Leafs have deployed since the similarly uncultivated Al Iafrate a quarter century ago.
That said, Leafs appear to have an abundance of organization-wide promise on the blue line. Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Matt Finn, Stuart Percy, Petter Granberg, Jesse Blacker and incumbent Cody Franson are all projected to be NHL players of varying capacity. Leafs are not, conversely, endowed with size, depth or establishment at the key center-ice position. Neither is the club in desperate straits with Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, David Bolland and Jay McClement – providing injury does not become a factor. But, a prolonged absence involving either Bozak or Kadri could be calamitous. That much is indisputable.
Enter Paul Stastny.
COLORADO VETERAN PAUL STASTNY SCORES GOAL AGAINST MONTREAL.
At the moment, Leafs are brushing too closely up against the $64.3-million salary cap to assume the final year of Stastny’s $6.6-million contract. Were Nonis considering a trade of Gardiner to the Avalanche for Stastny – and assuming Colorado was interested – Leafs would somehow have to off-load another $5 million. That could be accomplished in the same deal; a separate deal, or both.
Difficult yes. Impossible no.
What we can tell you – for certain – is that Stastny would provide Leafs an immeasurable boost up the middle. His grandiose performance for the United States at the World Hockey Championships last May proved he still has a wonderful feel for the puck – as a play-maker and scorer. His valuation in the NHL has undoubtedly been skewed by toiling for a dismal Colorado club. Additionally, Avs appear to be well-established at center with Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon and Ryan O’Reilly. Even with nearly $11 million in cap space, it’s difficult to imagine Joe Sakic forking over a king’s ransom to retain Stastny – still only 27.
Should Nonis have to trade one of Kadri or Bozak (a very good bet), Leafs would still be an improved lot with Stastny in the No. 1 hole. In fact, Toronto would boast as much talent, depth and versatility up the middle as any team in the NHL. So, the question for Nonis – in my view – really isn’t “Would you make a trade that featured Gardiner for Stastny?” but rather “How could you get it done under the cap?” That’s where the Claude Loiselle cranium enters the picture. Mr. Cap Management himself would need to work diligently with Nonis to find a solution.
I certainly don’t have one right now, and neither may the Leafs. It’s also clear that no-such deal has to be made tonight, simply because Colorado is at the Air Canada Centre. Without question, however, it is a concept worth exploring – for both teams.
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