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Off-Season Game Plan: Maple Leafs

Scott Cullen
5/1/2009 4:04:10 PM
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Another year with no playoff berth for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the new regime brings with it a sense of optimism moving forward.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what is expected to be an active summer for Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke.

Burke didn't go into the off-season quietly, stating that he would be attempting to trade up from Toronto's seventh spot in the draft, in an effort to land highly-touted London Knights sniper John Tavares; Burke also made sure to note that might not necessarily require a move to number one, depending on who the New York Islanders plan to take with that first pick, Tavares or Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman.

If Burke can make a move up to get one of the top couple of picks, then the Leafs are going to add a young player capable of stepping into the lineup right away. However, if they are stuck picking at seven, the prospects available in that range will assuredly upgrade the skill level of the organization and there's nothing wrong with that.

Fact of the matter is that the Maple Leafs need to get better, and Burke knows it, ranting to reporters at season's end: "A player's here long enough, he starts thinking, 'I'm special, because there's 20 people who want to talk to me.' No. They're there to talk to whoever comes off the ice with a Maple Leafs uniform on and I think players confuse their role on a team that's struggling with being a good hockey player. 'Oh, I'm on the second power-play unit. I must be a good hockey player.' No. We don't have a very good team, and so you get that ice time."

While there will be a certain amount of improvement expected from the players on the current roster, it's going to take smart moves in the draft, trades and free agency if Toronto is going to meet Burke's expectations of competing for a playoff spot next season.

"We've identified some people we believe we can build our team around in the future," head coach Ron Wilson told the Toronto Sun. "There are lots of pieces we have to add, but all in all I'm generally pleased with the effort. I think the future is bright for a lot of our young people who learned a lot this year."

It was a year of learning, for the Leafs and their new coach and GM tandem. This summer is their first crack at really addressing the roster and making it into the kind of team that they believe will not just make the playoffs but, eventually, be a real contender.

No matter what moves the Leafs make this summer, rest assured, it will be interesting, because Burke doesn't seem to have the wallflower, wait-and-see gene when it comes to building a team.

GM/COACH
Brian Burke/Ron Wilson

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Jason Blake 81.05 $4.5M
Alexei Ponikarovsky 77.60 $2.5M
Niklas Hagman 73.97 $3.0M
Matt Stajan 73.49 $1.75M
Lee Stempniak 70.92 $3.5M
Nikolai Kulemin 66.35 $850K
John Mitchell 63.64 $500K
Jamal Mayers 59.65 $1.4M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Boyd Devereaux 69.32 UFA $600K
Mikhail Grabovski 67.90 RFA $850K
Jeffrey Hamilton 66.41 UFA $475K
Brad May 57.13 UFA $600K

Top Prospects: Jiri Tlusty (25-41-66, plus-11 in 66 GP; Toronto-AHL), Viktor Stalberg (24-22,46, plus-11 in 39 GP; Vermont-HE), Tyler Bozak (8-15-23, plus-14 in 19 GP; Denver-WCHA), Christian Hanson (16-15-31, plus-10 in 37 GP; Notre Dame-CCHA), Mikhail Stefanovich (49-27-76, plus-30 in 56 GP; Quebec-QMJHL).

After a miserable first season in Toronto, Jason Blake rebounded with a better campaign in his second season, topping 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. While his improved production certainly helped, it's likely not enough to attract interest from other teams in the three years remaining on the 35-year-old's contract.

A sensational finish to the season should elevate Alexei Ponikarovsky's stature. After the trade deadline, the big Ukrainian winger scored 22 points in 18 games, so he should be more than capable of playing a complementary scoring role somewhere next season.

Niklas Hagman proved that his 27-goal season with Dallas in 2007-2008 was no fluke, tallying 22 in 65 games for the Leafs last season. Hagman finished with a career-high 42 points, so there is only so much offence to expect from him, but he's a hard worker and a solid pro.

Though he scored a career-high 55 points, Matt Stajan's credentials as a scoring centre are still questionable to some degree, particularly when he finished with three goals in the final 32 games, yet he provides an all-around game that is so reliable. Perhaps the question is, if he's not quite a scoring centre, does Stajan play with the type of grit that is typical of checkers on Burke's teams?

After coming over in a trade from St. Louis, Lee Stempniak was inconsistent and 14 goals in 75 games overall last season isn't enough to warrant a spot among the top six forwards. Now, if he could score 27, like he did for the Blues in 2006-2007, then that would be a different matter entirely.

Nikolai Kulemin had a respectable rookie season, scoring 31 points and playing better late in the season, but he'll need to improve his offensive contributions as he matures if he's going to secure a spot on a scoring line. To his credit, he's not shy about going into the hard areas in front of the net and in the corners.

The career ascent of John Mitchell continued and he performed well when given a greater opportunity late in the season. He still needs to improve his work in the defensive zone, but Mitchell has steadily improved every year he's been a pro, so if he can take another step in that development next season, perhaps a 20-goal season isn't out of the question.

After a difficult start to the season, Jamal Mayers rebounded to finish better. He does play with the toughness that is typical of a fourth-line checker on Burke's teams, so Mayers may hold some appeal, even if his salary might be higher than ideal for that role.

Mikhail Grabovski had ups and downs in his rookie season (he scored just one goal in a 29-game span in the middle of the season), but his 48 points put him third in the rookie scoring race. His speed and creativity with the puck help to offset the lack of discipline that may be a reflection of his inexperience.

That's a solid number of NHL forwards, yet none that would be considered first-line calibre on a playoff team. In order to acquire that talent, the Leafs have the cap room to address their needs on the trade and free agent fronts.

The most obvious target, and a way to immediately give the Maple Leafs a number one line, would be Vancover's Sedin Twins, who Burke orchestrated to draft together for Vancouver in 1999. The conundrum that faces any suitors for the Sedins this summer is that if they continue to play well in the playoffs, that not only drives up their price, but increases the incentive for Vancouver to pay the market rate to keep them.

If we're linking players from the past, then (in the case of Ron Wilson) the Leafs may as well explore how available Joe Thornton may be in trade after another playoff flameout for the Sharks.

Another popular free agent target for the Leafs would be Mike Cammalleri, the Toronto native who just scored a career-best 39 goals for Calgary.

At the lower end of the forward depth chart, look for Burke to find more forwards that play the combative style he relishes. Some notable free agents with experience in that regard include Chris Neil, Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson and Colton Orr (as well as Leafs free agent Brad May).

In addition to free agent or trade additions, the Maple Leafs will have several forward prospects ready to compete for jobs in training camp next season. Jiri Tlusty had a very good season for the Marlies in the AHL, while 23-year-old collegians Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg will have a chance to crack the lineup as well.

There will undoubtedly be some shuffling and new faces before next season and the right new faces could really lift the Leafs' offensive production.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Tomas Kaberle 75.32 $4.25M
Ian White 74.19 $950K
Pavel Kubina 72.62 $5.0M
Mike Van Ryn 72.44 $3.35M
Jeff Finger 71.36 $3.5M
Anton Stralman 68.48 $665K
Luke Schenn 67.25 $850K
Jonas Frogren 64.20 $900K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Jamie Heward 63.22 UFA $475K
Erik Reitz 60.76 UFA $500K

Top Prospects: Dmitri Vorobiev (4-14-18, plus-15 in 44 GP); Lada Tolyatti, Ufa Salavat Yulayev-KHL), Phil Oreskovic (1-10-11, plus-17 in 65 GP).

Entering the off-season, the Maple Leafs have eight NHL-calibre defencemen under contract, but those same eight may not necessarily be with the team by the time training camp rolls around.

Tomas Kaberle has been a quiet leader on the blueline for most of the past decade and, while he's not the most physically-committed player, his vision and hockey sense make him a superior quarterback for the power play. Under contract for two more seasons at $4.25-million, Kaberle is good value and would be attractive to other teams if the Leafs were to make him available.

Fellow Czech Pavel Kubina has run hot and cold in his three seasons with the Maple Leafs. For all his inconsistency, Kubina has scored a career-best 40 points in back-to-back seasons. He's a big workhorse defenceman who may also attract interest from other teams now that he is entering the final season of his contract.

Both Kaberle and Kubina had no-trade clauses that were effectively voided, from the date of the NHL draft through August 15, when the Leafs missed the playoffs. In order to free up money to be spent elsewhere, at least one of them could find a new home this summer.

After starting last season in the press box, Ian White emerged as one of the most effective players in the lineup. He's undersized and can still turn the puck over at inopportune times, but White has improved his decision-making and could very well take on more power play responsibility if needed.

One injury after another prevented Mike Van Ryn from generating much momentum in his first year in Toronto, but he played well when he was healthy and the Leafs were better with him in the lineup. The veteran is another blueliner that could be moved to create salary cap room, though it's hard to nail down the market for a guy who has played only 47 games over the past two seasons, so he may have more value to the Leafs than another team.

Faced with a lot of scrutiny after signing a lucrative free agent contract, Jeff Finger performed admirably. By no means is he going to be a franchise saviour, but Finger is a battler who can handle 20 minutes a night.

Luke Schenn's rookie stats (14 points, minus-12 in 70 GP) were nothing to write home about, but that doesn't begin to tell the story of the 19-year-old's first NHL season. He ranked second among all rookies in ice time, logging 21:32 per game and he did it against the best the opposition had to offer. That's awfully soon for shutdown duty, but Schenn learned on the job and will have a more favourable impact in the years to come.

It seems as though the Leafs aren't getting the best out of Anton Stralman yet, but he's still just 22, so it's not like he'd be the first defenceman to take a few years to get up to speed. Stralman has potential as a puck-moving defenceman, but may need one of the incumbents to move on before he sees regular action.

Jonas Frogren only got into 41 games, thanks in part to a couple of injuries, but was generally difficult to play against in his limited ice time.

If any of the regulars are moved out, Burke may be interested in getting re-united with Francois Beauchemin, who played big minutes for Burke's Ducks in Anaheim, and will be a free agent in the summer.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Salary
Vesa Toskala 55.57 $4.0M

Free Agent Goaltenders

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Martin Gerber 60.37 UFA $3.7M
Curtis Joseph 37.47 UFA $700K

Top Prospect: Justin Pogge (26-21-5, 2.70 GAA, .895 SVPCT in 53 GP)

There were rumours that Vesa Toskala was playing hurt for much of last season and, to some degree, that was supported by the decision to finally shut him down at the trade deadline so that he could have surgery to correct hip and groin problems. It would also help explain why he had his worst statistical season, posting a 3.26 goals against average and .892 save percentage.

Even assuming that Toskala will be healthy next season, it will be the final year of his current contract, so the Leafs should be looking for another option in goal, at least someone who can push Toskala for starts and handle more than the 11 starts they gave Curtis Joseph last season.

In theory, it might be a spot that would have been good for Justin Pogge, but Pogge has struggled at the NHL level (a 4.35 GAA and .844 SVPCT in seven games last season), to the point that another option for "goaltender of the future" is required.

Certainly the Leafs would like to secure the services of free agent Swedish goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, a 24-year-old who dominated the Swedish Elite League with Farjestads and is currently playing with Sweden at the World Hockey Championships.

If not Gustavsson, the Leafs could try the free agent market, where the likes of Manny Fernandez, Scott Clemmensen and Craig Anderson would be among those who are qualified and available.

DRAFT
7th - Brayden Schenn, Magnus Paajaarvi-Svensson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jared Cowen.

FREE AGENCY
The Maple Leafs have approximately $42.5-million committed to salaries for next season.

Needs: Three first line forwards, backup goaltender

What I said the Maple Leafs needed last year: Three top nine forwards, one defenceman, backup goaltender

Who did they add? Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman, Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell, Jamal Mayers, Mike Van Ryn, Luke Schenn, Jeff Finger, Curtis Joseph.

TRADE MARKET
Pavel Kubina, Tomas Kaberle, Mike Van Ryn, Jason Blake, Matt Stajan.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca 



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