The Toronto Maple Leafs looked like they were headed for the postseason, owning a 28-19-6 record on February 6, before the proverbial wheels fell off and they won two of the next 17 games to fall out of the playoff race.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Maple Leafs team that hasn't reached the playoffs since 2003-2004 and ought to show a little more urgency to get there.
This isn't to suggest that the best plan of attack for the Maple Leafs is to surrender all their prospects for one-year fixes so that they can reach the playoffs, but this is a team that tried to rebuild on the fly and, thus far, have been unsuccessful.
At the same time, there is enough talent in the organization that the playoffs shouldn't be some distant pipe dream year after year.
When GM Brian Burke fired head coach Ron Wilson late in the year, deciding to go with Randy Carlyle, who won a Cup with Burke in Anaheim, the implication was that the Maple Leafs were going to build a tougher, more physical team that corresponded with the ideals of both the coach and general manager.
While moves to add size and toughness may fill in around the edges, they aren't the moves that would make the biggest difference for the Maple Leafs next season. The two areas of greatest concern are improving the goaltending and finding a number one playmaking centre.
Neither of those will be easy to achieve, since few teams are going to surrender such valuable commodities, but if Burke has shown anything in his time with Toronto, it's that he's willing to make aggressive moves on the trade front and, given a relatively shallow free agent pool this summer, that figures to be the way for Toronto to address their most pressing needs.
When it comes to goaltending, the Leafs may very well be interested in Roberto Luongo, who is expected to get moved out of Vancouver. They should be. But if it's not Luongo, there has to be some upgrade, because all the progress in the world with the rest of the roster isn't going to matter if the Leafs have goalies stopping 90% of the shots they face (rather than, say, the 92% that Luongo stops).
In the search for bigger bodies up front and a number one centre, expect the Leafs to kick over a lot of boulders and maybe something can squeeze out, but teams aren't often inclined to deal number one centres.
The Leafs have been linked in the past with big scoring wingers like Rick Nash and James van Riemsdyk and they probably have interest, like every other team, in Zach Parise, but those are wingers (unless Parise moves to the middle). To get a legitimate centre, the Leafs will have to be creative and probably have to take some risk, either in the calibre of player they target or in the quality of players they send in exchange.
Given Burke and Carlyle's Anaheim connections, Ryan Getzlaf would seem a natural choice, but he will be an unrestricted free agent in 2013, which complicates any deals. Perhaps Colorado's Matt Duchene, coming off an injury-marred season, could be pried away. He wouldn't come cheaply, but if the Avalanche already have Ryan O'Reilly and Paul Stastny down the middle (or could the more expensive Stastny be available?), maybe there is a fit that could involve the Leafs sending some wingers and defencemen to the Avalanche.
It's spit-balling, but without an aggressive move on the trade front, the Maple Leafs could go into next season with Mikhail Grabovski, Tim Connolly and Tyler Bozak down the middle there's not much evidence to suggest that's the path to long-term success.
As a team with deep pockets, the Maple Leafs are going to be fascinating to watch this summer; how they pursue trades and free agents and whether they are successful in upgrading the club could be fun or downright torturous. Enjoy the ride.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Brian Burke/Randy Carlyle
Coming into the 2011-2012 season, expectations weren't particularly high for Joffrey Lupul, coming off two seasons shortened by injuries, but he scored better than a point-per-game for the first time in his career. The 28-year-old has always been offensively talented, and is a four-time 20-goal scorer but, given his track record, it's reasonable to wonder if he just had the most productive season of his career; one that he might not be able to duplicate.
He may not have the most complete game, but Phil Kessel is asked to score goals and he does that, scoring a career-high 37 goals and 82 points last season. He's one of seven players to score at least 30 goals in each of the last four seasons and that should be the focus when evaluating Kessel's game, rather than getting concerned with ineffective defensive play.
Mikhail Grabovski has back-to-back seasons with at least 20 goals and 50 points, but that doesn't tell the entire tale of his contributions. Grabovski was the only Maple Leafs forward that played at least 40 games to have a positive shot differential and he consistently faces high quality competition, so he's a valuable two-way competitor.
Following a miserable 2010-2011 season, Tyler Bozak bounced back with a career-high 18 goals and 47 points. He is still miscast in the number one centre role, but he wouldn't have been playing those minutes in the first place if Tim Connolly lived up to expectations.
Connolly played in 70 games last season, a total he had surpassed once in the previous six seasons, but even staying relatively healthy couldn't help his production and the player that was ostensibly signed to be the club's first line centre ended the year with 36 points and a minus-14 rating.
While Clarke MacArthur couldn't match his career-high production from 2010-2011 (21 G, 41 A), he did score 20 goals and his assist total was hindered by Nikolai Kulemin's lack of goal-scoring on the right wing.
Matthew Lombardi surprised by starting the season healthy, but he's a far cry from the speedster who scored 19 goals and 53 points in 2009-2010. If he can't fill a scoring role, it's not easy to justify his salary under the cap, so he could end up bought out or demoted to the AHL.
Colton Orr only managed to dress for five games before he was sent to the AHL last season, a heavyweight fighter without a dance partner on too many nights, but he had 88 fights in the five years previous (www.hockeyfights.com) and his style may have more appeal with Randy Carlyle behind the bench.
Brought in to be a more reliable faceoff man and checking centre, David Steckel filled the role admirably, but has yet to crack the 20-point plateau in any of his five full NHL seasons, so he's heavily slanted towards the defensive side of the game.
While Orr was having trouble finding someone to go with, Mike Brown hasn't run into such difficulty since there are more in his weight class. Brown has 52 fights over the last four seasons (www.hockeyfights.com), and has 24 points in 242 career games. His relentless style of play isn't easy on the body and it's fair to wonder how long Brown will be able to hold up after playing 50 games in each of the last two seasons.
At his best, Colby Armstrong is an effective two-way winger who can kill penalties, play a physical game and even chip in offensively (he scored 37 goals over his last two seasons in Atlanta), but Armstrong has been limited to 79 games in two seasons with Toronto and he hasn't been very effective when he's been in the lineup. Playing a career-low 9:19 in just 29 games last season made the year a virtual washout.
A 30-goal scorer in 2010-2011, Nikolai Kulemin plummeted to just seven goals and 28 points in 70 games last season. He's a responsible enough defensive player so he can always fit into the lineup, but Kulemin is skilled enough to be a top-six forward and the Leafs could certainly use a return to form, assuming (for the moment anyway) that he's not a trade chip to be used this summer.
It's not as though Matt Frattin burst onto the scene as a rookie, scoring 15 points in 56 games, but the 24-year-old winger has shown offensive inclinations, from his 36-goal senior season at the University of North Dakota, to scoring 14 goals and 18 points in 23 AHL games, so there is some possibility that he may be able to score in the NHL.
While there are some assets up front, the Maple Leafs are surely going to look for upgrades. The first objective is finding a legitimate number one centre, as difficult as that may be, but Toronto will make changes, whether that's giving Nazem Kadri a full-time job, signing free agents or dipping into the trade market. Somewhere along the way, there are moves that can make the Leafs more stable up front.
Free Agent Defence
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
He comes under a lot of criticism, but 27-year-old Dion Phaneuf doesn't have to apologize for taking on the toughest assignments night after night and handling 25 minutes per game. While Phaneuf was minus-10, the second-worst rating of his career, he ranked second among Maple Leafs defencemen in shot differential (plus-0.7, per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, www.behindthenet.ca), so he's not quite the liability that he's painted to be in some places.
It was a tale of two seasons for John-Michael Liles, who had 21 points and a plus-2 rating in 34 games before suffering a concussion. After he returned, Liles had six points and a minus-16 rating in 32 games. Getting further away from his concussion should help and the Leafs had better hope so because he's only worth his contract extension if he's a bona fide puck-moving defenceman that can play at least 20 minutes per game.
In a season that was ultimately full of disappointment, the Maple Leafs were pleasantly surprised by rookie D Jake Gardiner, who earned a spot on the team and played more than 21 minutes per game from November on. He's a smooth skater, good with the puck and, generally, makes good decisions, so Gardiner could be a fixture on the Leafs' blueline (or, he could be very appealing if included in an effort to land a first-line centre).
Four years into his NHL career, 22-year-old Luke Schenn is a mess. Even though he tied his career-best with 22 points, Schenn played a career-low 16:02 per game last season and had the worst shot differential among Leafs defencemen, despite not playing the most challenging minutes. He's still young enough that there is time to salvage his game, but it's no longer a sure thing that he'll be a shutdown defenceman in the league.
25-year-old Carl Gunnarsson plays a quiet game and it works for him. His steadiness makes Gunnarsson a fine complement to Phaneuf and he comes at a very reasonable cost for a top-four defenceman.
With a big contract weighing him down, Mike Komisarek has struggled (to say the least) in Toronto. He's minus-30 in three years and has been reduced to a part-time role, spending much time in the press box while playing 16:39 in the 45 games that he did dress. If the Leafs could find a taker in the offseason, surely Komisarek could use a fresh start somewhere else, but if he's still on the roster next season, he has to find his niche as a physical defensive defenceman.
Cody Franson also struggled to get into the lineup consistently after last summer's trade from Nashville, but he is skilled with the puck and even if he doesn't use his size as effectively as he could, there should be a steady role for him that includes work on the third pairing along with power play time.
Next year's defence could have a very different look, depending on how active the Leafs are in the trade market. If any of Schenn, Gardiner, Gunnarsson or Franson move, those are holes that will need to be filled. While a prospect like Korbinian Holzer may be ready for a depth role, the Leafs can investigate free agents like Ryan Suter (same as every other team), Matt Carle, Barret Jackman and Jason Garrison.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
Goaltending was a major problem for the Maple Leafs in 2011-2012, but it didn't start that way. James Reimer had a 2.58 goals against average and .912 save percentage before suffering a concussion in his sixth game of the season. Once he returned, he wasn't the same goaltender and it ended up being a long, frustrating season for the 24-year-old who was supposed to be Toronto's starter for years to come.
Jonas Gustavsson had moments, particularly in January (2.08 GAA, .926 SV% in 11 GP), but couldn't maintain that level over the long haul. The Leafs obviously can't return the same tandem in goal and expect to get better results, so Gustavsson figures to be playing elsewhere next season.
While the Leafs have a decent netminding prospect in Ben Scrivens, there will be an appetite for a more established goaltender to come in and either take over the number one job or at least provide an alternative to Reimer, if Reimer can't recapture his form.
Vancouver's Roberto Luongo will be at the front of the line, when considering veteran puckstoppers and free agents Tomas Vokoun and Josh Harding could hold some allure as well. If the Leafs can't secure Luongo and want to consider other trade possibilities: Philadelphia's Sergei Bobrovsky, Los Angeles' Jonathan Bernier, Edmonton's Nikolai Khabibulin and Nashville's Anders Lindback may all garner varying degrees of interest.
||18-22-40, +2, 48 GP
||16-23-39, even, 65 GP
||1-15-16, +8, 58 GP
||5-20-25, +18, 34 GP
||21-17-38, +5, 63 GP
||31-44-75, -34, 65 GP
||9-8-17, +4, 37 GP
||42-40-82, +15, 63 GP
||1-19-20, +7, 67 GP
||22-15-1, 2.04 GAA, .926 SV%, 39 GP
It seems like the Leafs have been waiting a long time on Nazem Kadri, since he was drafted seventh overall in 2009 and he has 19 points in 51 NHL games since. However, with 81 points in 92 games at the AHL level, 21-year-old Kadri is due for a long look in the NHL, where he should get a chance to sink or swim as a scoring forward.
Lanky pivot Joe Colborne started the year great, scoring a point-per-game for his first 24 games, but he faded as the season went along, finishing with two points in his last 15 games and not scoring a goal in 24 games after February 17. He didn't look out of place in 10 games with the Maple Leafs, contributing a goal and five points, but he should be more productive at the AHL level before he's asked to handle offensive responsibility in the NHL.
Jesse Blacker is a feisty puck-moving defenceman, who can skate and may not be too far away from challenging for a spot with the Maple Leafs. He could use another year of seasoning in the AHL, handling more responsibility, but the 21-year-old shows promise.
A first-round pick last summer, Stuart Percy is a heady defender who makes a good first passm, but also missed nearly half of last season with a knee injury and then a concussion, so he could use a full year of dominating OHL competition before he starts down the pro path.
Acquired from Tampa Bay in a deal that sent Keith Aulie to the Lightning, Carter Ashton started the season ablaze (11 goals, five assists in his first 13 games) but, like Colborne, his production faded. Ashton was also scoreless, with a minus-10 rating, in 15 games with the Leafs, so while he may have power forward potential, the 21-year-old needs more seasoning before he gets another shot.
Greg McKegg toiled for half the season with an overmatched Erie Otters team, resulting in a minus-39 rating in his first 35 games, but he has shown in previous years and did with London after a midseason deal that he can put the puck in the net. His offence is his calling card, but will need time in the AHL to round out his game before he's ready to compete for an NHL job.
Drafted in the first round last summer, Tyler Biggs is a powerfully-built winger who has yet to show much offensively. The 19-year-old has left college and should have an opportunity to play an offensive role with Oshawa in the Ontario Hockey League next season.
Brad Ross has been a disturber of some renown in the Western Hockey League, compiling 537 penalty minutes in the last three seasons, but he's also skilled enough to contribute offensively. He may not be a scorer in the NHL, but could be an agitating third liner who can chip in a few goals from time to time.
24-year-old German blueliner Korbinian Holzer has finished two seasons of development in the AHL and could be knocking on the door for a spot with the Maple Leafs. He's strong, steady and plays a no-frills game.
Goaltender Ben Scrivens will be 26 by the time next season starts, so he's closing in on his prime years sooner than some other prospects, but he's been fantastic in the AHL (.926 SV%) and if the Leafs didn't struggle with a relatively inexperienced tandem last season, it would be conceivable that Scrivens might get a shot with next year's team. As it is, however, he still looks like the number three option in the crease.
To their credit, the Maple Leafs have a deeper crop of prospects than they have previously, so even beyond the Top 10, players like RW Jerry D'Amigo, LW Nicolas Deschamps, C Spencer Abbott, LW Marcel Mueller and G Mark Owuya may have opportunities to challenge for jobs in the future.
5th - Matthew Dumba, Alex Galchenyuk, Ryan Murray.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Maple Leafs have approximately $56.7M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 17 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Maple Leafs roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: First-line centre, starting goaltender.
What I said the Maple Leafs needed last year: First-line centre, three checking forwards, top four defenceman.
They added: Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, Matt Frattin, David Steckel, John-Michael Liles, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson.
TRADE MARKET Joffrey Lupul, Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, Clarke MacArthur, Colby Armstrong, Nikolai Kulemin, Tyler Bozak, Mike Komisarek, Luke Schenn, Jake Gardiner, prospects.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.