Toronto Maple Leafs Looking For Change?

October 26th, 2011 No Comments

A few weeks ago we speculated that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was seeking a trading partner.

At the time, the Leafs were undefeated, but the feeling was that with so much depth at the centre and defense positions that Burke would attempt to address his need for a shutdown forward and/or another top-six forward.

Mike Komisarek, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Cody Franson and even Carl Gunnarsson have all been the subject of a number of early season trade rumors, but up to now nothing has emerged as more than fodder.

While there is no more concrete evidence that Burke is seeking a trading partner today than there was ten days ago, the recent play of the Maple Leafs (two bad loses in their past three games) and the news that off-season signing Tim Connolly is close to joining the team have re-ignited the possibility of Burke looking to make some moves.

The Maple Leafs lineup currently encompasses Matthew Lombardi, Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak, Phillipe Dupuis and David Steckel (who is also used as a winger) down the middle. The Maple Leafs also have the option of using Kadri down the middle—however slim the chances of that happening.

If Connolly is ready to join the Maple Leafs, it appears as if the first order of business for Burke will be sending Kadri back to the AHL to join the Toronto Marlies. Kadri was thought to be a breakout player in waiting, but the emergence of rookie forward Matt Frattin has attributed to Kadri falling out of favor with Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson.

Kadri has looked tentative in his three games with the big club this season, especially in the corners and along the boards, registering just two shots on goal and earning one assist. Kadri has also exhibited a penchant for turning over the puck—an attribute that seems to have followed him from last season.

For Kadri, it appears as if another stint with the Marlies will serve as the best tonic to bring him up to the NHL level; how long he remains there is up to him.

To be fair, Kadri’s defensive game is better, but until he demonstrates the desire to get dirty and the ability to stay on the puck, he will not find himself in the Maple Leafs lineup, at least not regularly.

Matthew Lombardi and Tyler Bozak have each seen a fair bit of time on the first line alongside Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel, each with varying degrees of success.

While Bozak seemed to have the first line humming along, a lack of consistency and a recent injury bumped him from his first line duties in favor of Lombardi. Lombardi also failed to impress, leading to an experiment of David Steckel on the first line, which, with all due respect to Steckel, is not really his bag.

Outside of Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski has arguably been the Maple Leafs most consistent offensive threat. While the unit of Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin has had its fair share of struggles this season it is hard to imagine Wilson breaking up his most damaging line of the 2010-11 season anytime soon.

Going forward, it would appear as if Connolly will be given every opportunity to assume a role on the Buds first line with Grabovski keeping his spot on the second unit.

That leaves Lombardi, Bozak, Steckel and Dupuis to fight it out for the remaining two centre positions, which, at this point, look to belong to Lombardi and Dupuis, with Steckel making the move to the wing and playing a role on special teams where his face off prowess can be taken advantage of.

That means Bozak and Dupuis (who will likely remain due to his effectiveness on the penalty kill) appear to be expendable.

Meanwhile, on the farm, rookie forward Joe Colborne continues to evolve, while veteran AHLer’s Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce also continue to impress as well.

All three of Colborne, Crabb and Boyce could be called up should any player on the big roster falter but, for now, they all look to be staying with the Marlies for the foreseeable future— that is unless Burke pulls off a trade or two, which could rapidly change the depth chart.

It is becoming painfully clear that Colborne and not Kadri will be the Maple Leafs centre of the future. Colborne needs time at the AHL level but, in the end, he will be a far better NHL player than Kadri will be—you can take that to the bank.

Colborne has more size, is getting better with his skating, is more aware defensively and seems to have a great attitude while Kadri’s overall hockey sense and attitude has come into question of late.

It all speaks to the depth that Burke has assembled up front, which, as the saying goes, is a good problem to have.

On the back end, poor play of some of the players and overall depth at defense are all contributing factors to all the trade rumors.

Defenseman Mike Komisarek (who has heard his fair share of boo-birds this season) was the subject of many trade rumors last season, which only perpetuated itself with his on-again/off-again poor play this season.

Komisarek’s hefty $4.5 million cap hit through 2013-14, combined with a modified no trade clause/no movement clause which demands Komisarek to supply a list of teams he’d accept a trade to each June 15th, will likely hold teams back from acquiring the hard luck defender, but you never know?

Defenseman Cody Franson was brought in this off-season to address some of the offensive shortcomings from the Maple Leafs rearguards last season. Franson has failed to impress early on in the season, leading to a number of trips to the press box but there are still a number of NHL teams that could use his skill set.

Carrying a salary cap hit of $800,000, Franson would be an attractive acquisition for any team looking to bolster their defense corps and/or replace an ailing blueliner. Despite being benched more often than not this season, Franson has a measure of offensive upside to his game and at 6’5″, 213 pounds, he has the size that many teams desire.

The Edmonton Oilers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Ottawa Senators, Calgary Flames, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and even the Tampa Bay Lightning could use a boost on defense, all of which may have an interest in a player of Franson’s ilk and the low salary cap hit he carries.

Ideally, Burke would like to ship Komisarek and his hefty salary out of town, but at this point Franson looks to be the more attractive option for teams.

The poor play of Luke Schenn has magnified itself from just being a bad game or two, to being an extended poor start to the season. Should Schenn’s struggles continue, look for his name to pop up on the trade boards, but also be aware that his modified no trade clause will put the breaks on most of those rumors, as will his newly signed five-year, $18 million contract.

So, what does Burke need?

First, Burke could use some relief from his overall team salary cap which, according to capgeek.com sits at $64,657,879.

That said, in the end, Burke needs the same thing he’s needed since he joined the Maple Leafs—a legitimate first line centre (sorry Mr. Connolly), a shutdown defensive forward and another scoring threat up front that can help carry the power play.

Will one of or a combination of Franson, Komisarek, Bozak or Kadri bring in said player/players? Probably not, but if packaged with draft choices Burke could be able to make a significant acquisition.

Consider the fact that David Booth was had from the Florida Panthers for veteran forwards Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson, both of whom are soon to be free agents.

In the case of the Booth trade, the right trading partner presented itself and the Vancouver Canucks pounced on the deal. Should Burke be able to find the right trading partner you never know what he might get in return, especially when you consider Burke’s good fortunes of late which include bringing in Joffrey Lupul, David Steckel and Franson— all of whom strengthen the Maple Leafs lineup, even with Franson’s struggles.

Either way, given the struggles of a number of perceived playoff teams this season that need help, the growing number of surprise teams that may chose to bolster their lineup and the early season trades that have already taken place, it appears as if Burke will likely bump what he has done historically (waiting until close to the deadline to make changes) by entering the trading market sooner, rather than later.

Until next time,

Peace!

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