Monday, February 21, 2011

*Staring Into The Blue & White Abyss - Part 3

Part 3: The Future

During the writing process of this blog over the last two weeks, the future of the Toronto Maple leafs has been shaping itself in real time. First Francois Beauchemin is shipped back to Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul and prospect Jake Gardener, then new-kid-on-the-block Kris Versteeg gets the harsh goodbye as well for a pair of picks, and the yearly Tomas Kaberle trade rumours came back out of hibernation, only this time they actually materialized into a solid prospect and a first round pick. Not too shabby (it's better than they ever got for Mats Sundin). In a matter of weeks the face of the roster has been significantly altered, answering some questions and raising several others. We are presently in a time that could prove itself to be the fulcrum to the future.

First let's take a look at how the roster is currently constituted and pose the question "when nobody is safe, who will find themselves in the lineup on opening night in 2011-2012"? The chosen few who may be safest are Dion Phaneuf, and Phil Kessel, most likely James Reimer and Keith Aulie aren't going anywhere, and the team's emerging young leader: Luke Schenn.

Schenn has taken his game to another level this season, finding himself near the top of the league in blocked shots and hits for defencemen, and after Kaberle packed up for Beantown, Schenn was the one to take over his assistant captain duties. At 21 Schenn is the second-longest serving Leaf, behind only Nikolai Kulemin by two games, and has quietly become an impact player. He's also a free agent at year's end, and should be retained on a three or four year deal in the range of 3.5 million dollars per season, allowing him to be appropriately paid as he reaches his prime years, when the team will have a better view of how his development will turn out, and can either give him a big raise, or retain him for market value.

Keith Aulie appropriated the bulk of Beauchemin's minutes, and has handled them like a boss, using his size and strength to make himself a force to be reckoned with in the corners. Forwards now have a to keep their heads up on both sides of the rink; you go out of your way to avoid a patented Phaneuf open-ice hit, you're going to get wiped out on the boards by a mini-Pronger. This kid is going to become a minute muncher in the next couple of seasons, while still on a entry-level rookie contract.

Carl Gunnarsson is a decent puck mover, is responsible in his own end, and could reasonably become a solid contributor on the power play. Mike Komisarek's contract is about as movable as a heavily sedated Mexican ox, which is ironically what he resembles when he plays. Expect him to be back in the fifth or sixth slot. Add to the mix up-and-comers Juraj Mikus, Korbinian Holzer, and Jake Gardener, and the blue line seems like one of the more solid areas on this team in the near future.

Goaltending is a fairly safe area as well, with James ("Optimus Reim") Reimer proving that he can handle the big minutes, and put the heat on Jonas Gustavsson to show some better poise and composure on a nightly basis (all too often lately Gusto has looked like a fish flopping around on a dock longing for the icy embrace of a merciful death). Gigeure will limp his way into the end of the year and become an afterthought in the minds of hockey fans in Hogtown, while Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens will continue to develop on the farm, likely getting spot starts next season when The Monster has another monster heart problem.

The really intriguing part of this team is the unit of forwards. The lineup as is today could potentially have a massive turnover by the time the next season rolls around.

Kessel and Lupul will likely remain linemates into next season, as would the Grabovski - Kulemin - MacArthur line, assuming the Leafs are willing to pony up the cheddar to keeep MacArthur in blue & white.

The team needs to deal for a big-bodied, top-line centre, an asset which is hard to come by in today's NHL. Sombody Joe Thorntonesque. Bozak should, in all fairness, be bumped to the third line where he would be far more comfortable in a two-way role, and his commitment to the backcheck could go to good use. Colby Armstrong is bound to be a staple on the third line as he was all of this year.

A fourth line of Colton Orr, Tim Brent, and Mike Brown seems likely to return, as all three have proven themselves very effective in their given roles, although the lower you go on the talent scale, the more expendable you become, and the Leafs will be looking to upgrade at all positions.

This is what makes Fredrik Sjostrom expendable. He's a one-dimensional player who is highly effective on the penalty kill but does very little else over the course of a game (let it state for the record that Sjostrom is highly effective on one of the league's worst penalty killing units. Take that for whatever it's worth. Just saying). Joey Crabb, and Daryl Boyce are a couple of other guys who have to be on the cusp. While both have been solid for the Leafs this season, neither seem to be the calibre of player to remain at the NHL level on a team deep enough to contend.  

There will be, at best, four to five spots up for grabs at the forward position for this coming year, and there are going to be alot of players vying for them. Youngsters like Nazem Kadri, Jerry D'Amigo, and Joe Colborne will be looking to snag a chance at becoming impact players, while returnees like Christian Hanson, and Luca Caputi will get strong consideration, all battling with the likes of Brent, Boyce, Crabb, and Brown for those last few spots. 

These are just questions for the coming year. Those who know sports know that it's more like chess than checkers, and having a sense of foresight in your transactions is essential. So what are the answers long term for this group? 

The best thing that could happen to this team is if they were to finish dead last for one or two more seasons, and have their poor finish actually pay off with a couple more top picks. By this time Phaneuf and Kessel will have either given us a great return for their hefty paycheques, or will have proven themselves failures and will be dumped for much needed cap space. Ditto goes for Joffrey Lupul who makes a little too much for what he provides, but in an undermanned, undersized forward unit, he could flourish. This would also give upper management a chance to see young players like Kadri, D'Amigo, Gardener, Aulie, and Colborne develop, as well as the next wave of youngsters like Greg McKegg and potential Darcy Tucker clone Brad Ross.

All of these personnel changes mean nothing without the proper voice providing direction, and it would seem that Ron Wilson's is not that voice. One potential solution to this problem is currently working about an hour down the highway.

Lindy Ruff has been coaching the Sabres for about fifteen years, keeping them consistently competitive despite the lack of many bonafide impact players, save for the people between the pipes. It's a situation not unlike the one in Toronto, where goaltending and defence are the strengths of the roster, and a guy like Lindy Ruff could get a sub-par group of forwards committed to back checking with one stern discussion. Buffalo has not offered Ruff an extension for next season and the general consensus around the league is that the team is going to be going in a new direction.

With Ruff looking for work, and a prefect fit just up the highway from the place he's called home for such a long period of time, it would seem only natural that the Leafs move on from Wilson now, while his stock is at an all-time low. Kris Versteeg seemed elated to be out from under Wilson's reign of terror, and Kessel made his feelings about his relationship with the coach abundantly clear. Wilson seemed like a great fit at first, but the time has come to move on, and the team needs a confident new leader.

Speed, leadership, and commitment to team defence. These are the areas that the Leafs need to master to return to respectability, and there needs to be a healthy dose of realism in the public perception. They're still pretty far off from being a real team, and the fan base needs to be ready to suffer through a little more mediocrity. The calls are going to come for Burke's head, but patience is the key.

If Burke is allowed to see out the length of his six year deal, and possibly beyond, he can and will make this team a winner again. Vancouver made the mistake of giving up on Burkie's vision, and some of the moves he made in his time there are still paying them dividends, and his work is part of what is currently putting them head and shoulders over the entire league in the standings.

We still hang our hearts on a polished turd in this city, but there are things to be excited about. Toronto is a team on the upswing, and depending on the magnitude of the moves they can pull off before the deadline, and in the coming off season, they could be back in the playoff picture sooner than later. Never too soon to plan the parade for a city that's been refining the route since 1967. Keep the faith, Leafers, and take comfort in the fact we're still better off than Ottawa...

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