TORONTO – Maple Leafs general Dave Nonis touched base with his coach Randy Carlyle on the eve of the NHL's free agent frenzy with a general game-plan for the hours ahead.
"Randy's not the most talkative guy," Nonis joked afterward, "I didn't need too much time to get through it."
By the time the dust had cleared from the annual spending extravaganza on Friday evening, Nonis had in fact altered his roster, once more, to better suit the needs and wants of Carlyle.
David Clarkson, a one-time 30-goal man and pesky Toronto native in the gutsy Carlyle mold was brought in from New Jersey on a whopping seven-year deal. He was joined by Tyler Bozak, the Leafs incumbent first-line centre and leading minute man at forward, the 27-year-old inking a lengthy five-year contract, which seemed to oust Mikhail Grabovski, not a Carlyle enthusiast in any sense, from the picture.
Those moves capped the draft-day acquisition of Dave Bolland, a scrappy pivot chock-full of Carlyle qualities, and the earlier addition of Jonathan Bernier, who offers security beyond James Reimer.
"I can tell you our coach is happy with the options that we have right now in a lot of different areas," Nonis said, citing increased flexibility on both the penalty kill and power-play, Bolland filling the former, Clarkson the latter.
In Clarkson, the Leafs get a "truculent" irritant with a knack for finding the back of the net in recent years, the 29-year-old sniping 30 goals a season ago before adding 15 more in 2013 (but only five in the final 28 games). While an upgrade on the wing with a straight-line abrasive style, capable of playing both in the top six and bottom six and certainly on the power-play, Clarkson came at a considerable price, especially over those that he effectively replaced in Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin, landing $5.25 million over the stretched term of seven years.
Whether he can make good on the hefty investment is a legitimate question, especially given the unlikelihood of another 30-goal season. Nonis, rather, is banking that under the pugnacious leadership of Carlyle, the brash and intensely physical Clarkson will thrive once more, adding an increased element of chippiness to the Toronto lineup.
"If David Clarkson doesn't score 30 goals in a Leaf uniform," Nonis stated, "but provides all the other things that we know he's going to provide, we're pretty comfortable we're a better team."
And of the price and term, Nonis said it was simply the cost of playing the high stakes game of free agency.
"If we wanted to get in on a player like David Clarkson, that was the price-tag for us to pay," he conceded, just days after Grabovski and Mike Komisarek were bought out by the organization. "I'm not worried about [years] six and seven right now. I'm worried about one [year] and year one I know we're going to have a very good player."
In the case of their positioning down the middle, the Leafs ultimately chose Bozak over Grabovski, in a move that, again, aligns with Carlyle. Save for a trade, Toronto could not have kept Grabovski at the inflated price of $5.5 million, retained Bozak at $4.2 million annually and also added Clarkson for the weighty price he was sure to demand and did, in fact, receive. So they opted for Bozak, a player whom Carlyle trusts fervently in every situation and one who is closely linked to Phil Kessel, a free agent after next season.
"How Randy uses him you can easily draw that conclusion," Nonis agreed of deeming Bozak a better fit for the club than Grabovski, denying however that their choice came down to one player over the other. "Not that Grabo isn't a great player, it's just for us, Bozie is a better fit; plays more minutes. But it wasn't about Grabo or Bozak."
It's obvious why they opted for Bozak over Grabovski given Carlyle's preference, but there's a real question as to whether Bozak is the better option, even in spite of Grabovski's obvious struggles in 2013.
Bozak posted 18 even-strength points in 2013 in 700-plus minutes, only marginally ahead of Grabovski, who totaled 13 with a far more defensive lean and far fewer opportunities. Of repute for his acumen on the draw, Bozak posted a 52.6 per cent rate, again only slightly better than Grabovski at 50.6 per cent. Bozak, shooting a sizzling 20 per cent, totaled 12 goals to nine for Grabovski, this in spite of substantially more power-play opportunity.
Additionally, over the two seasons prior to 2013, Bozak tallied 33 goals and 79 points, vastly inferior to Grabovski, who had 52 markers and 109 points.
But in the case of their decision at centre, the Leafs opted for the player who fit more suitably under the graces of the head coach and his strategy. Carlyle employed Grabovski in mostly defensive situations in his first full season behind the bench in Toronto, his checking line centre more often than not. Bozak in contrast, lined up with Kessel and James van Riemsdyk on the top line all season, garnering first duty on both the power-play and penalty kill and additionally on every key draw.
Nonis said he exercised the buyout option on Grabovski without knowledge that Bozak would in fact commit to remaining with the Leafs, describing the move as one demanded by the cap crunch this summer.
"Which made for a very uncomfortable sleep last night," he grinned.
The money for Bozak, while a significant raise that nearly triples his previous salary, was not a huge stretch considering the wealth of duties he does assume and was, according to Nonis, the max his team would pay.
"It wasn't out of any disrespect to Tyler, but it was a number that topped out for the Toronto Maple Leafs," Nonis indicated. "To his credit, I think that Bozie wanted to stay here."
Securing Bozak for a continued presence in a first-line role, the acquisition of Bolland at the draft this past Sunday works to additionally solve a need that Carlyle struggled to fill all season, that of the checking line centre.
As noted above, Grabovski assumed the role almost by default with Bozak entrenched alongside Kessel and Nazem Kadri bursting on the scene as a viable offensive option in training camp. With Bolland now in the fold, Carlyle can employ a scrappier, more defensive-minded element against opposing top lines while additionally employing Jay McClement in a secondary role.
Adding to Carlyle's options in the crease, the Leafs swung a trade for Bernier during the Stanley Cup Final, inking the 24-year-old to a two-year deal worth $5.8 million late on Friday evening.
After acquiring Bolland and signing Bozak, Clarkson and Bernier, Nonis now has upwards of $10 million to spend as his team draws down to the $64 million cap, still with restricted free agents Kadri, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson, and Mark Fraser to sign.
That would seem to leave little room to dramatically upgrade a defence that was often over-matched last season, T.J. Brennan, who played with Buffalo and Florida last season, the lone addition to the group thus far.
Nonis was asked early in his administration as Leafs general manager whether or not the group assembled fit under the style of Carlyle – who had assumed control from Ron Wilson as the Toronto coach in the final stages of the 2011-2012 campaign. He replied toward the negative before an ultimately successful 2013 campaign.
"We need to alter that a little bit," Nonis said of the team's construction in early January. "We need to make a couple of changes to play that style."
And while his group unquestionably veered toward the Carlyle brand of smash-mouth hockey, Nonis moved toward adjusting the group further to fit the needs of his head coach as the offseason kicked into gear on July 5th.
"The good news for me is, it's not my problem any more, that's up to Randy," Nonis quipped when questioned on the breakdown of his forward complement with the Clarkson addition. "I've done what I could do."