Leafs Looking For a “Big Body”

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Jan. 13) – If you frequent this corner, or even visit occasionally, you will know that I hardly ever devote a blog to trade rumors. While covering the Toronto Maple Leafs for much of the past 30 years, I’ve gotten to know enough people in the game that I could easily pen a rumors blog every day – were that my objective. Though general managers “work the phones” as part of their routine, trading is very difficult in the strategic and economic climate of the National Hockey League.

Ubiquity of the three-point game enables the majority of teams to remain within striking distance of a playoff spot until the annual trade deadline – this season on Mar. 5. More restrictive, of course, is the salary cap, which has all but eliminated meaningful transaction prior to the deadline. Trade speculation, therefore, should be considered more thoughtfully when it originates from a trusted source than it may have been 10 years ago, in the pre-cap era. As such, word was passed along today from someone I trust that Maple Leafs GM David Nonis is pursuing additional depth and size up front. It largely substantiated what Bruce Garrioch wrote in his Sunday Sun column this week – that Nonis could peddle a defenseman to acquire the type of player he is seeking.

“From what I understand, David is looking for a big body… someone that can spark a more aggressive forecheck, which the Leafs have been lacking, and – just as importantly – can be relied upon in the playoffs,” said a Western Conference scout. “Acquiring a skilled player of that ilk is difficult, but Toronto could have a big [trading] chip on the blue-line.”

DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN OF THE WINNIPEG JETS ON A FLY-BY AFTER SCORING FIRST-PERIOD GOAL AT BOSTON, JAN. 4. HOW MIGHT THE BIG FELLOW LOOK IN A DIFFERENT SHADE OF BLUE AND WHITE? BRIAN BABINEAU GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

The “playoff” inference was clear: That Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, while occasionally useful in the regular season, should not be deployed in the Stanley Cup tournament… and certainly not together. Randy Carlyle made that mistake in Game 1 of the opening-round series with Boston last May and his team was routed, 4-1. When the coach opted for skill in Game 2, inserting Jake Gardiner, Matt Frattin and Ryan Hamilton, the Leafs rebounded with a 4-2 road triumph. The “blue-line chip” would seem to be a reference to Carl Gunnarsson – somewhat taken for granted here, though coveted by a number of GM’s around the league. Defensive acuity having been obtained with Tim Gleason, Gunnarsson could be expendable. Both are locked up through 2015-16 – Gleason with a $4 million cap hit; Gunnarsson a very trade-able $3.15 million.

A few observations:

• Do not consider this trade rumor to be a reflection on David Clarkson. Trust me when I tell you the Maple Leafs have not thrown in the towel on their lucrative, off-season acquisition. Though Clarkson has been terribly unproductive, he was signed expressly for the purpose outlined by my source – to provide the Leafs someone that can fight and play in the post-season. Orr and McLaren can do one; not the other. Don’t be surprised if Clarkson comes out of the Olympic break much more focused and combative. He suited up 44 times in the playoffs with New Jersey – more than half (24) in the Devils’ march to the 2012 Eastern Conference title when he added three goals and 12 points to his typically robust game. Given social media, fans of the Maple Leafs appear to be fed up with Clarkson. But, that could change in a hurry.

• Though James Reimer is absolutely an intriguing trade prospect, I find it inconceivable that Nonis will part with him before the Mar. 5 deadline. At that juncture – and providing Jonathan Bernier has more-than clearly established himself as the Maple Leafs No. 1 goalie – a deal could be workable. If Winnipeg continues to tumble out of playoff contention (Paul Maurice will slap me around for that), Reimer could be attractive to the Jets – and not because he is from Morweena, Manitoba. Trouble is that Ondrej Pavelic is under wraps through the 2016-17 season at a $3.9 million cap gouge. Reimer is a restricted free agent after this year and will be seeking a raise on his $1.6 million salary. Could the Leafs pry Dustin Byfuglien and his $5.2 million cap hit from the Jets for Reimer and Gunnarsson? As we speak, Winnipeg has less than $49 million in cap space committed for next season – leaving a $22 million gap toward the ceiling. Fans of the Jets are justifiably growing restless. A Reimer-Pavelic tandem in goal – while expensive – would be an improvement and Gunnarsson (though a completely different player than Byfuglien) would stabilize the Winnipeg blue-line. Some food for thought, anyway. 

A BELLY-LAUGH: The Maple Leafs made a wonderful call by summoning Harry Neale for a handful of games this season. The former NHL coach, elected last summer to the Hockey Hall of Fame’s broadcasting wing, has long been among the most entertaining voices on TV. He offered a splendid anecdote during Sunday night’s New Jersey at Toronto telecast, seconds after Mason Raymond of the Leafs made an errant drop-pass in Devils’ territory. Quoting legendary Montreal player and coach, Toe Blake, Neale said, “There are only two places you shouldn’t use a drop pass – home and away.” I was reminded of another Neale classic on Facebook. Citing the gargantuan, flattened beak of ex-NHL tough guy Tim Hunter (a Leafs assistant coach under Ron Wilson), Neale quipped, “Tim looks like he ran the hundred-yard dash in a 90-yard gym.” Hall-of-Fame writer Frank Orr of the Toronto Star once made a similar comment about Dave (Tiger) Williams – the Maple Leafs roughneck of the 1970’s. Said Orr: “Tiger’s nose is so flat, he could bite a wall.”

HARRY NEALE: ALWAYS GOOD FOR A BELLY-LAUGH.

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