NHL

Off-Season Game Plan: Toronto Maple Leafs

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Scott Cullen
5/12/2014 9:19:00 AM
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The Toronto Maple Leafs collapsed down the stretch, earning one regulation win in the final 14 games to fall out of playoff position, and the first reaction after the season was to bring in a new President of Hockey Operations, Brendan Shanahan.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Maple Leafs could do this summer to right the ship, though the early returns aren't promising.

Shanahan promised to review the organization before making any decisions and, as announced Thursday, the Maple Leafs decided that general manager Dave Nonis and head coach Randy Carlyle would be returning. Not only that, but Carlyle would be getting a contract extension (one year plus a team option for another, beyond next season).

Oh, the Leafs fired three assistant coaches, so there will be organizational changes, but that's putting a lot of responsibility/blame on assistants. If the lesson to the players is supposed to be accountability, the Maple Leafs' decision to fire underlings rather than decision makers didn't drive that message home.

Nevertheless, it doesn't much matter what kind of message was trying to be sent. What matters is whether the Maple Leafs are likely to be a better (ie. playoff) team next season. Right now, it doesn't look promising and a big reason for that is Carlyle's track record.

Under Carlyle, Toronto's possession stats are abysmal and the trend for Carlyle, going back to Anaheim, is a huge red flag. It doesn't mean that it can't be fixed. There is plenty of analytical work being done that reveals ways in which a team can improve possession, but there has not seemed to be any grasp from the Maple Leafs brass. When a team is mystified by their poor possession numbers, after pushing two of their best possession players out the door, the problems run deep.

Carlyle didn't have any real concrete answers for what happened to the Maple Leafs last season, though he did recognize, early on, that the Leafs' record was built on sand. It's one thing to recognize that there is a problem. That's the first part. But fixing the problem is where coaching and management have to take responsibility.

I suppose this is the point at which I could note that a team that bothered to spend the money it had budgeted for analytics might have some ideas about what went wrong with the team. Something more than mind-boggling because that doesn't offer even the slightest reason to be optimistic that they will be able to fix their problems going forward.

It will be interesting to see which assistant coaches the Leafs target, and how they might improve those possession issues, but there will need to be a fundamental change in how the team plays or disappointment is sure to follow. When a team rides unsustainable percentages, that's asking for trouble. Maybe it holds long enough to get a team to the playoffs in a shortened 48-game schedule, or maybe the Leafs could have done it for another month and made it through the regular season finish line in 2013-2014, but that's a high-wire act.

The teams that win consistently aren't spending most of the game in their own end and steps need to be taken in order to change the Maple Leafs' approach. The question for the Leafs in this offseason is whether those calling the shots are going to point those steps in the right direction.

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) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.

GM/COACH
Dave Nonis/Randy Carlyle

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Phil Kessel 81.16 82 37 43 80 44.1% $8.0M
James van Riemsdyk 74.57 80 30 31 61 44.2% $4.25M
Tyler Bozak 74.32 58 19 30 49 42.9% $4.2M
Joffrey Lupul 70.73 69 22 22 44 42.5% $5.25M
Nazem Kadri 69.83 78 20 30 50 45.3% $2.9M
David Clarkson 59.31 60 5 6 11 42.4% $5.25M
Colton Orr 52.21 54 0 0 0 39.1% $925K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Dave Bolland 70.29 23 8 4 12 44.1% UFA $3.375M
Mason Raymond 67.35 82 19 26 45 44.2% UFA $1.0M
Nikolai Kulemin 61.78 70 9 11 20 41.3% UFA $2.8M
Peter Holland 59.31 39 5 5 10 42.9% RFA $870K
Troy Bodie 58.49 47 3 7 10 43.0% UFA $600K
Jay McClement 57.26 81 4 6 10 38.7% UFA $1.5M
Carter Ashton 54.66 32 0 3 3 43.8% RFA $840K

Over the past three seasons, Phil Kessel is tied for second in points, with 214, and fourth in goals, with 94. Sure, his game isn't the most well-rounded, but when seeking out problems with the Leafs, the play of one of the game's elite offensive players ought to be way down the list. Furthermore, while his raw possession numbers are poor (he plays for Toronto, after all), his relative possession stats have been positive for six of the past seven seasons.

James van Riemsdyk has taken a jump, at least in role, with Toronto, playing more than 20 minutes per game over the past two seasons. His 48 goals over the past two years ranks 16th and he's a 25-year-old signed to a very reasonable contract for the next four seasons. With Kessel and JvR anchoring the first line, the Leafs have their cornerstone pieces offensively.

When the Leafs re-signed Tyler Bozak to a five-year, $21-million contract, there was plenty of criticism that followed and Bozak answered those critics with a career-best 19 goals and 49 points, despite missing 24 games with a couple of injuries.

The bigger issue, however, is that Bozak's production was fueled by an unsustainably high on-ice shooting percentage, the kind of thing that frequently regresses; sometimes dramatically. Considering that Bozak is logging more than 20 minutes per game, he needs to be productive, but if those percentages dry up, what's left?

Bozak scored 40 of his points at even-strength last year -- the same as Andrew Ladd, one more than Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Voracek -- but if that on-ice shooting percentage even falls to 9%, from 11.60% last season, then 40 even-strength points could turn into 30 without much else changing. Worse, if Kessel should somehow get hurt or see his own performance drop for any reason, there isn't much reason to believe that Bozak is a bona fide point producer without Kessel to carry him.

In 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, Joffrey Lupul went on a tear, scoring 36 goals and 85 points in 82 games, a dramatic improvement on any previous numbers, then regression came back to bite him last season. It's not that 44 points in 69 games (0.69 per game) was somehow disappointing based on career norms or reasonable expectations for a second-line winger, but it was a pretty clear indication that Lupul's new norm isn't scoring better than a point-per-game. If the Leafs are prepared to make changes in the offseason, perhaps Lupul would be an appealing asset to for them to shop.

For any Leafs that don't buy into the concept of regression, Nazem Kadri stands as a good recent example. After scoring 44 points in 48 games in 2012-2013 on the back of absurdly high on-ice shooting percentage, as a 22-year-old, Kadri drifted back to reality last season. There's nothing inherently wrong with Kadri's 50-point season in 2013-2014, only it serves to show how fickle percentages can be from one season to the next. The way to maximize Kadri's production may be to have him centre Kessel and van Riemsdyk, but it's also possible he may not yet be ready for that.

It's hard to imagine a big-ticket free agent signing going wrong quicker than David Clarkson did for Toronto. Suspended for 10 games at the start of the season for coming off the bench to get a piece of Buffalo Sabres enforcer John Scott, Clarkson never caught up and his game disintegrated -- he finished the year with one goal and no assists in his last 22 games.

Saddled with a contact that pays him more than $5-million per season through 2020, the Maple Leafs might as well figure out how to make Clarkson a useful player. He banged enough pucks in the net for New Jersey to generate all that free agent interest, but Clarkson pretty much has to wipe the slate clean and start fresh next season.

Colton Orr is part of a dying breed, the one-dimensional heavyweight enforcer. Some of that can be seen in his waning pugilistic activity last season, fighting six times in 54 games -- half of the bouts coming against Montreal's George Parros. In five seasons with the Leafs, Orr has eight goals and 13 points in 231 games, with bottom-of-the-barrel possession numbers. The only way to justify his spot is holding the belief that a traditional face-puncher on the fourth line is necessary in the NHL today.

When he was pressed into more significant minutes, in December, 23-year-old Peter Holland was productive enough to warrant a spot in the lineup, but he was effectively buried. Even in a fourth-line role, though, Holland adds skill that may fit as more and more teams seek higher skill players further down the depth chart.

23-year-old winger Carter Ashton has yet to score a goal in 47 NHL games, but he played sparingly in 32 games with the Leafs last season, and was very productive (16 goals, seven assists) in 24 games with the Marlies. He's still on the roster bubble, but could give them an inexpensive option on the fourth line.

The thing about the Leafs is that they are going to have holes to fill up front. With Dave Bolland, Nikolai Kulemin and Mason Raymond heading for free agency, that's three spots in the top nine to be accounted for. Considering that the Leafs brought back Nonis and Carlyle, it would be something of a surprise if they didn't find a way to bring back Bolland, whose value to the team was trumpeted all season, especially while he was recovering from his ankle tendon injury.

There are so many different directions that the Leafs could go to make the group better. Paul Stastny would be a big-ticket item, but Matt Moulson, Dustin Penner, Ales Hemsky are all scoring wingers that could fit. If they are seeking a bargain, like Raymond last season, perhaps Pierre-Marc Bouchard would be a viable option.

Even if the Maple Leafs focus on their own young forwards to round out the forward lines, it would come as no surprise if the Leafs went for veteran grit.

 

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Dion Phaneuf 67.75 80 8 23 31 40.8% $7.0M
Morgan Rielly 65.35 73 2 25 27 44.5% $894K
Carl Gunnarsson 61.01 80 3 14 17 40.1% $3.15M
Tim Gleason 57.92 56 1 5 6 42.2% $4.0M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Jake Gardiner 68.37 80 10 21 31 46.4% RFA $875K
Cody Franson 67.31 79 5 28 33 44.9% RFA $2.0M
Paul Ranger 65.97 53 6 8 14 42.3% UFA $1.0M

Team captain Dion Phaneuf received a contract extenson that will pay him $7-million per season through 2020-2021, signed during a season in which he finished with a career-low scoring rate (31 points in 80 games, 0.39 ppg) to go along with possession stats that put him and partner Carl Gunnarsson in range with a couple of Sabres defencemen as the four regular blueliners with fewer than 41.0% of the 5-on-5 shot attempts when they were on the ice.

Mitigating the situation for Phaneuf and Gunnarsson is that they faced the toughest assignments every night and, on a team with terrible possesion numbers, did so while starting a heavy percentage of shifts in the defensive zone. Basically, Phaneuf is getting overwhelmed and needs help.

One of the great hopes for the future of the Maple Leafs' blueline, Morgan Rielly, had a nice rookie season, showing flashes of brilliance and outstanding skating ability while being sheltered in his usage. The fifth overall pick in 2012, Rielly has a chance to take a big step forward, taking on more responsibility, provided that the coaching staff is willing to live with his defensive gaffes, recognizing that taking the lumps with young defencemen is part of the process.

Carl Gunnarsson is surely an NHL defenceman. Whether he's a top-pair defenceman is an entirely different matter. He's certainly on the low-end of possession metrics for defencemen playing big minutes over the past three seasons. To get better results, the first order of business could be to ease Gunnarsson's quality of competition because he could not handle the assignments he faced last season.

Brought in from Carolina to provide toughness and steady play on the back end, Tim Gleason didn't deliver appreciably better results and, after a bit of a surge in ice time in January and February, he was back down to 15 minutes per game by season's end. With two years and $8-million left on his contract, Gleason is a buyout candidate, though it would come as no surprise if he returned in a depth role.

A wonderful skater who can make some highlight-worthy blunders, Jake Gardiner seems to get considered as high-risk, rather than very effective. He has the best possession percentages among Toronto blueliners over the past three seasons, yet invariably does so against lesser competition. It's entirely possible that Gardiner isn't up to taking on tough defensive assignments, but given that Toronto's top pair has been under siege, it might be time to thrust more responsibility upon Gardiner. Either that, or move him out, because that's the kind of esteem with which he's held in at least some corners of this organization.

Cody Franson did score a career-high 33 points last season, but it wasn't nearly as impressive as 29 points in 45 games during 2012-2013, with more even strength points in 2012-2013. While Franson has typically not faced the toughest matchups, he's another who has tended towards positive possession numbers, at least in relative terms. If he's not part of the solution going forward, though, there is likely a bustling market for a 6-foot-5, 26-year-old, right-handed defenceman who can work the power play and log 20 minutes a night.

Bringing in a bona fide top pair defenceman, to take some heat off Phaneuf, should be a priority, but it's one thing to make that a priority and another to get it done. Teams don't surrender top-pair defencemen easily. Among free agents, Tom Gilbert, Anton Stralman, Matt Niskanen and Mark Fayne would all be upgrades on the current group (not saying much for a team that allowed 35.9 shots per game, but still).

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Jonathan Bernier 78.69 55 26 19 7 2.69 .923 $2.9M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
James Reimer 73.23 36 12 16 1 3.29 .911 RFA $1.8M

The Maple Leafs made a bold move last summer, trading for Jonathan Bernier to be their goaltender, even though James Reimer and Ben Scrivens had both been very good in 2012-2013. Bernier responded well, taking on a starter's workload for the first time in his career, posting a .922 save percentage.

(Incidentally, that was the same as Scrivens and .002 below what Reimer's save percentage was in 2012-2013.)

When a 25-year-old posts a strong goaltending season, like Bernier, there is hope that it's going to be the beginning of big things, but goaltenders -- even the best ones -- tend to fluctuate from season to season, so it's going to be hard for Bernier to duplicate this relative success next season. If the Maple Leafs can improve their possession numbers, then that may help offset some anticipated regression in Bernier's performance.

Not surprisingly, with Bernier on the roster, James Reimer was eventually shuffled aside and figures to be a trade chip for the offseason. There's no guarantee that Reimer is going to be a legit starting goaltender, but his .914 save percentage over the past four seasons puts him on the same level as Corey Crawford and Jonas Hiller, both of whom are likely to be starters next season.

If Reimer is moved out, the Leafs would most likely focus on a clear backup, which should come relatively inexpensively. Justin Peters and Al Montoya are a couple options that were good in 2013-2014, would likely be inexpensive and not have expectations for significant playing time.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Matt Finn D Guelph (OHL) 14-47-61, +57, 66 GP
Frederik Gauthier C Rimouski (QMJHL) 18-34-52, +19, 54 GP
Andreas Johnson RW Frolunda (SHL) 15-9-24, -1, 44 GP
Connor Brown RW Erie (OHL) 45-83-128, +44, 68 GP
Petter Granberg D Toronto (AHL) 2-5-7, +19, 73 GP
Josh Leivo LW Toronto (AHL) 23-19-42, +6, 59 GP
Stuart Percy D Toronto (AHL) 4-21-25, +4, 71 GP
Jerry D'Amigo LW Toronto (AHL) 20-13-33, +10, 51 GP
Greg McKegg C Toronto (AHL) 19-28-47, even, 65 GP
Carter Verhaeghe C Niagara (OHL) 28-5482, -19, 65 GP
Andrew MacWilliam D Toronto (AHL) 0-9-9, +3, 57 GP

He'll likely need some time in the AHL, but puck-moving defenceman Matt Finn has enjoyed a dominant season on a powerhouse team. The second-round pick from 2012 does give another blueline power play option in the pipeline.

The 21st overall pick in 2013, Frederik Gauthier is a big pivot who is considered to be a third-line centre in the making; the unspoken part of that projection is that Gauthier doesn't have the offensive upside to climb higher on the depth chart.

The Leafs may have struck oil with their selection of Andreas Johnson, drafted in the seventh round last summer. He's small, skilled and won the Rookie of the Year award in the Swedish League.

Coming off a monster season in the OHL, Connor Brown was a sixth-round pick in 2012, and was able to produce even when he wasn't paired with Connor McDavid in Erie. He'll get a chance next season to see if his offence can carry to the American Hockey League.

His offensive contributions are non-existent, but Petter Granberg has been working in a shutdown role and has been mentioned by Marlies coach Steve Spott as a prospect likely to be ready for the NHL next season.

A third-round pick in 2011, Josh Leivo made a smooth transition to the pro game, Leivo didn't look out of place in a seven-game trial with the Leafs early in the season and could be a complementary scorer with the Leafs.

Drafted 25th overall in 2011, Stuart Percy doesn't offer much sizzle, but is a heady defensive defenceman who may not be far off from challenging for a spot with the Leafs. Maybe after another year in the AHL.

23-year-old Jerry D'Amigo has already logged 240 games in the AHL and while he scored more in 2013-2014, he's been used strictly as a checker and penalty-killer when called up to the NHL. It's easy enough to see that being his calling card if he's going to crack an NHL lineup.

After a mediocre start to the year, Greg McKegg picked up the pace, scoring 37 points in his last 45 games of the year and getting a one-game reward in the NHL. The third-round pick in 2010 doesn't figure to be at the forefront among prospects for next season, but with strong AHL production, could earn a promotion.

A third-round pick last summer, Carter Verhaeghe's production took off, going from 44 to 82 points and making the 18-year-old one to keep tabs on for the future.

Picked in the seventh round in 2008, 24-year-old Andrew MacWilliam is a bruising hitter, which likely endears him to the organization, but improved puck skills would help in his bid to climb the ladder.

Maple Leafs advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
8th - Kasperi Kapanen, Nick Ritchie, Nikolaj Ehlers.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Maple Leafs have approximately $48.7M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 12 players.

Check out my possible Maple Leafs lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Three top nine forwards, depth forwards, one top pair defenceman.

What I said the Maple Leafs needed last year: One top six forward, one top nine forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman.

They added: Mason Raymond, David Clarkson, Dave Bolland, Troy Bodie, Morgan Rielly, Paul Ranger.

TRADE MARKET
Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, James Reimer.

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.

Toronto Maple Leafs Celebrate (Photo: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
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