Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Leafs Offseason Overview: Thoughts Following A Busy Start

(Photo: Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Matthew Hedge
Staff Writer

A lot has happened for Dave Nonis and the Toronto Maple Leafs since the beginning of the month. Actually, saying that is an understatement. The team has made some huge changes since the month has started, and whether or not these changes have been positive ones or not have been wildly debated among Leafs fans.

Things all started for the Leafs at the draft on July 1 when they selected Frederik Gauthier with the 21st overall pick in the draft and traded their second round pick along with two fourth round picks for David Bolland. Both of these moves were solid ones for the Leafs. It was obvious that the Leafs had interest in Gauthier and he was one of the best available players when the 21st pick came around so it’s hard to dislike the pick.

Trading for Bolland gave the Leafs a third line center who could play in a shutdown role that Grabovski had played in last season. Bolland is also a Carlyle-type player who can excel in a pure shutdown role better than any of the Leafs’ other centers, and he came at a fairly low cost to the team, so it should be a move that pays off for as long as he can play his role effectively.

At the time, I thought that the trade for Bolland signaled the end of the Tyler Bozak era in Toronto. Nazem Kadri had played well last season and was looking to be a solid top six center going into next season, and the acquisition of a true shutdown center for the third line seemed like an opportunity to free up Grabovski to be used in a more offensive role in the top six, so it looked like the Leafs had no room for Bozak on their roster. All signs pointed to Dave Nonis realizing that Bozak was not worth nearly what he was asking for and that he was ready to move on with his new group of centers.

I was excited for the potential of a top six of Lupul-Kadri-Kessel, Van Riemsdyk-Grabovski-Kulemin (or some other combination of those six players) as they all have shown they can handle top six roles and have proven themselves in Toronto. This would give the Leafs two solid scoring lines with a lot of scoring depth and good possession players. The second line would feature three solid two-way players that seemed to excel together when they were used in the playoffs against Boston. The top line would feature the dynamic duo of Lupul and Kessel who have proven they can be an offensive force together, and Kadri would be a great improvement at center for them over Bozak. Things were starting to look very good for the Leafs.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly when Leafs’ management decided to mess with the good thing they had to make changes to the roster. The Leafs used their first compliance buyout on Mike Komisarek, as expected, which opened up a much needed $4.5 million of cap space, but then on July 4, Dave Nonis shocked Leafs Nation by buying out the final four years of Mikhail Grabovski’s contract. Arguably the Leafs’ best center over his entire time in Toronto, as demonstrated by his 125 points he put up over the previous three seasons, apparently Nonis felt that Grabovski’s $5.5 million cap hit could be better used elsewhere.
(Photo: USATSI)

Grabovski’s production had seen a decline in the shortened season, but that was largely due to the fact that he was used in a shutdown role that held him back offensively, not due to a lack of skill. Buying out a solid second line center who was arguably the best center on the free agent market once his buy out was completed was more than a questionable move by the Leafs, it was a poor one. The move had more to do with Carlyle misusing Grabovski, potential conflict between Grabovski and Carlyle, and the “chemistry”/relationship between Bozak and Kessel than actually trying to ice the best roster possible. The move did give the Leafs more cap space to work with, but ultimately it was hard to watch the Leafs dump such a talented player for absolutely nothing in return.

The Leafs followed the Grabovski buy out by signing Tyler Bozak to a five year deal worth $4.2 million per year, and David Clarkson to a deal that would see him have a cap hit of $5.25 million for each of the next seven seasons. Just like that, $9.45 million of cap space was committed long term to two players, and neither of them has exactly proven that they deserve such high cap hits.

Bozak has never been able reach 50 points over a full season despite playing with one of the league’s best goal scorers on his wing, and Clarkson despite tallying one 30 goal season has also never reached 50 points. $9.45 million is a lot of cap space to commit long term to two players who haven’t really proven that they are worth that kind of cap commitment. Obviously the argument could be made for Clarkson coming in and producing well with his new linemates in Toronto, but Bozak is a known commodity already with the Leafs, and his production will most likely remain at the same low level it’s been over the past few years with the Leafs.

(Photo: Gene J. Puskar / AP)

 The $1.3 million of cap space the Leafs saved by choosing Bozak over Grabovski isn’t nearly worth the difference between their production, and when you consider that the Leafs could have used that buy out on Liles to open up an additional $3.875 million of cap space, really choosing Bozak over Grabovski ended up costing them an additional $2.575 million of cap space, assuming they are unable to move Liles. It’s really looking like the Leafs made the wrong choice in keeping Bozak over Grabovski. Hopefully Bozak can prove that statement wrong, but really all indications point towards Grabovski being the better option of the two, and as I said before it’s really sad that Nonis would base this decision more on the differences between Carlyle and Grabovski and Bozak’s history with Kessel rather than actual skill or production.

Following the Clarkson signing I was very much against it but I have warmed up to it a bit given more time to think about it. I don’t think that he is worth the $5.25 million he is being paid, but in the short term that slight overpayment wouldn’t be something that would be a huge issue. If it was for a deal for four years or less I’d be fine with this deal, I mean sure they overpaid slightly for the guy but at least he should still produce for them, and worst case scenario it is still a deal that would be movable by trade if the Leafs decided he wasn’t worth the cap space they had committed to him.
(Photo: Ed Mulholland/USA Today Sports)

The problem with the deal is that it carries a seven year term. Clarkson, barring a trade or buy out, will be with the Maple Leafs until he is 36 years old. Even if his $5.25 million cap hit wasn’t overpayment for his production when he is 29 years old, it will be by the time he’s in his mid-thirties.

The contract could eventually be a burden to the Leafs long-term, but in the short term it shouldn’t be too bad. He’ll most likely be used in a second line role, and the Leafs have the personnel in their top six that should be able to be successful with Clarkson. Clarkson also brings a grittier, tougher style to the top six that Carlyle loves, and has had decent production in New Jersey his past two seasons, so as long as he can keep producing at a good enough level then this deal won’t look too bad. It’s just when or if his play begins to deteriorate (as usually happens early on with players who play a rough style as he does) that this deal will look worse and worse for the Leafs, as it is a long-term deal that could be very difficult to move if the cap hit eventually outweighs the benefit of having him on the team.

So overall the two signings aren’t terrible right now. Clarkson should prove to be productive for the Leafs in the short term and keeping Bozak will still allow the top line to be fairly productive, but as I said earlier buying out Grabovski in order to keep Bozak is the issue at hand. It was a poor move that overall didn’t really help the Leafs’ cap situation at all, and when you compare the production levels and skill sets of Grabovski and Bozak, it really seems to indicate that the Leafs’ top six would be better off with Grabovski in it making $5.5 million per year than with Bozak there making $4.2 million per year.

After those signings, the Leafs also signed depth defenseman TJ Brennan for one year at $600,000, re-signed Jonathan Bernier to a two year deal worth $2.9 million per year, and also brought back Frazer McLaren for a two year deal worth $700,000. This has left the Leafs with just over $10 million in cap space to re-sign Kadri, Gunnarsson, Franson, Fraser and Colborne. Obviously that won’t be nearly enough cap space to re-sign the 5 RFAs, so it’ll be interesting to see what the team does to free up cap space. The obvious move would be to try to move Liles out, and Nonis will probably do this if there proves to be a market for him. If not, it certainly will be interesting to see what moves the Leafs make to open up cap space for re-signing their restricted free agents.

Overall, it has been a crazy offseason for the Leafs. There’s a lot to like and a lot not to like in what the Leafs have done so far this offseason, and there are also a lot of questions to still be answered. How will they open enough cap space to re-sign key RFAs? Who will fill the hole on the third line wing left by the departures of Frattin and Macarthur? Will Nonis work on locking up key players like Kessel and Phaneuf long term? All these are questions that will need to be answered before the start of the season, and hopefully they are answered in a way that will help the Leafs continue to build on their success from last season.

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