By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 26) – Two factors need to be understood by fans and media heading toward the National Hockey League trade deadline next Wednesday: a) the majority of general managers had reasonably established their plans of attack before the Olympic break, and b) the right phone-call can prompt a detour.
With that in mind, I suspect any fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs yearning for momentous activity will be disappointed. Given the Leafs performance going into the Winter Olympics (11-2-1 in 14 games) and their comfortable-for-now standing in the Eastern Conference (seven points clear of the wild-card playoff terminator and one point behind second-place Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division), it’s likely David Nonis has decided to leave well-enough alone. In other words, to have the antenna on alert, while maintaining a reactive posture. With the NHL salary cap increasing by $7 million next season, and virtually half his current roster to be dealt with, contractually, before then, Nonis can’t expect to make a team-altering maneuver prior to next week’s embargo. Lucrative playoff dates at Air Canada Centre are on the horizon and the club was profoundly effective before Sochi. Why screw with it now?
Unless Nonis is presented a trade option be thinks can vault the Leafs into legitimate Stanley Cup contention this spring – and what are the chances of that? – it makes sense for him not to do business with the likes of James Reimer, David Bolland, Nikolai Kulemin and maybe even Nazem Kadri – players he can attend to in the summer. I have deliberately excluded Jake Gardiner from the conversation, for I don’t believe there is any chance Nonis will surrender the young, skilled defenseman prior to next season. Nor should the GM even consider such a move – despite what his coach may be advising. As Leafs were blazing toward the Olympic hiatus as the NHL’s third-hottest team – behind only Boston and St. Louis – Gardiner was moving the puck like he did toward the end of last season and into the playoffs. Had the notion of trading Gardiner arisen during the seven-game clash with Boston, it would have been scoffed at from all sides. As it should be today.
LAST TIME WE SAW DAVE BOLLAND, HE WAS BEING HELPED OFF THE ICE AT ROGERS ARENA IN VANCOUVER – NOV. 2 – BY LEAF TEAMMATES PAUL RANGER, MASON RAYMOND AND DAVID CLARKSON AFTER INCURRING A SEVERED ANKLE-TENDON THAT REQUIRED SURGERY. NEARLY FOUR MONTHS LATER, CHICAGO’S STANLEY CUP HERO LAST SPRING IS CLOSE TO RETURNING. JEFF VINNICK GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Reimer, you don’t even touch – and that wasn’t necessarily my train of thought a month ago, before Leafs began to hoard 23 of 28 available points. Back then, I felt Nonis might have to trade Reimer to preserve the goalie’s sanity – figuring the way Randy Carlyle was yanking him around, he’d be of little use to the club. Then the Leafs stabilized. Johnathan Bernier continued to entrench himself as the club’s No. 1 netminder; results were becoming conclusive, and Reimer – even if not enamored of his role as definitive No. 2 – at least knew where he stood. For once. Today, with Leafs in a stout playoff posture, Nonis must keep Reimer aboard as valued injury assurance should Bernier go down.
Despite what could be a tricky contract scenario, the notion of trading Bolland next week seems absurd. All the chatter about Leafs figuratively receiving an impact player “for free” at deadline, with Bolland returning from injury, is bang on. Let the forward who notched the Stanley Cup-winning goal for Chicago last spring take his savvy into the playoffs with the Blue and White. Negotiate afterward. Otherwise, what was the purpose of acquiring him from the Blackhawks?
Kulemin will not fetch anything of prime value on the trade market and he could be somewhat under-valued by Leafs Nation. Though it’s all but certain his 30-goal eruption three years ago was fortuitous (don’t call it a “fluke” – no player “flukes” 30 goals at the NHL level), Kulemin is a likable teammate and can perform effectively without the puck, as he did against the Bruins last May. Moreover, he was playing his best hockey of the season going into the Olympic break. Though Kulemin will probably not be re-signed, I wouldn’t give him away at the deadline.
On Jan. 6, I wrote a column in this space thoroughly doubting that Kadri and Carlyle could amicably co-exist beyond this season (blog here: 1ab0WrG). I still have my doubts, though it’s virtually impossible to imagine Nonis trading Kadri before the deadline (even if the young Leaf forward would fetch a price). Again, the 11-2-1 uprising in January and early-February was enough to silence the Kadri-Carlyle issue… for now.
So, what will Nonis do prior to next Wednesday?
Probably nothing of significance… unless Dion Phaneuf goes down for the season beforehand. Despite what you may think of Phaneuf, he is the Maple Leafs’ most indispensable commodity for the minutes he consumes on the blue-line. Being suddenly without him would prompt Nonis to consider adding a body before the trade cut-off.
Right now, if you’re a Leafs fan, don’t complain.
Prior to the Olympics, your team authored its best stretch of meaningful hockey in more than a decade – dating to the club-record 14-0-2 run of November-December 2003 under Pat Quinn. We don’t know how Leafs will come out of the break, starting tomorrow against the Islanders in Uniondale, N.Y. But, the club has earned its roomy perch in the standings, and I’d be astonished if it collapsed over the final 22 games.
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