TORONTO – The wound was far from healed, the sting of a devastating collapse in Game 7 still painful for Randy Carlyle and the Maple Leafs.
“The feeling is frustration,” said Carlyle, upon the dismissal of his hockey club on Thursday morning, “at times you feel you were hit between the eyes with a hammer.”
“You go to dinner and people are congratulating you,” he continued, “but [then they ask] what happened? And I don't have an answer. I don't have an answer for it, I wish I did.”
Had they not collapsed in the final moments of regulation at the TD Garden on Monday evening before falling in overtime, the Leafs would have been hosting the opening game of a second round series with the New York Rangers. Instead, they were left to contemplate how a three-goal lead could disintegrate in such horrifying fashion.
“We play that game 100 times, I don't think it happens again,” Dave Nonis, the Leafs general manager stated. “We have to find a way of flushing that memory out of our system [though] because if we dwell on that for the next three months we're not going to be prepared for October.”
In final exit meetings on Thursday morning, Carlyle and the Toronto coaching staff delivered a similar message, a need to absorb the sting of heart-wrenching reality before moving forward and beyond the late-game failure.
“The only thing that I said to them is I said that it'll take some time,” Carlyle relayed of his conversations with the group. “Time will heal this, but we can never forget it. And that's one of the things that we will and I'm sure [the media] will be bringing this up on a regular basis when we start next year. How can you ignore it? You can't. It's the reality.”
James Reimer relived the experience just a day after. “It was tough to watch,” he said of the carnage, which saw the Bruins score twice in the final two minutes before Patrice Bergeron sealed the series with his second of the game in overtime.
“The way we lost definitely eats at you quite a bit,” added James van Riemsdyk, who led the team with seven points in the playoffs.
Bitter disappointment of the defeat aside, the Leafs nonetheless managed to have an improbably successful season, reaching the post-season for the first time in nine years. Additionally, they were able to align and confirm various building blocks of the organization: Cody Franson emerged as capable two-way defender; Nazem Kadri demonstrated his worth as an NHL regular; James Reimer proved himself a capable starter; Phil Kessel solidified his status as a bona-fide star; van Riemsdyk offered prominent flashes of power forward potential.
Despite their finish as the unlikely fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, however, Nonis and the Leafs management team are unlikely to buy into the notion that their roster is just a piece or two away from regular contending status. While he would not outline specific off-season needs, other than to say upgrades across the roster would be desired, the Leafs roster would certainly stand to benefit from aid on defence, specifically an established presence in the top-four, some added stability and size on the wing – David Clarkson perhaps? – and further clarity down the middle with uncertainty surrounding the likes of Tyler Bozak and perhaps Mikhail Grabovski, who struggled mightily (until the post-season) under Carlyle.
“We need to get better,” Nonis said. “We need to add more pieces. We've taken some significant steps but we're not there. We're not playing tonight. And I think there's a lot of good things that happened. Randy, myself, our staff, we feel the same way about how our team needs to play and the pieces that we need to acquire or develop and we're going to go about our jobs to try and do that.”
Unlike his predecessor, Brian Burke, who made July 1 an annual day for vigorous pursuit of improvement, Nonis didn't anticipate the free agent route as a prominent source for upgrades. “Great players and good players aren't readily available in free agency,” he said. “So we're going to have to either develop those players, and be patient with the guys we have coming, or we're going to have to try to add pieces. But if there's nothing available to us, are we content with bringing a similar group back? No question. These guys have worked hard and they've done a good job. But we're going to look to improve our franchise if we can.”
A number of questions need answering.
BOZAK & CENTRE STRENGTH
Will the price-tag for the 27-year-old prove too high? While he capably assumed the array of responsibilities the position entails, Tyler Bozak's true value likely will not align with what he may be able to fetch on the free agent marketplace.
“If there's a contract that makes sense for us and makes sense for Tyler then we'll sign him,” Nonis declared. “I believe, I always have believed, that if a player wants to stay with your team, you find a way to make it happen if you want to have him as well … But the cap is going down. How we allocate our dollars is going to be very important if we're going to remain competitive.”
The obvious question if Bozak departs is where the Leafs go to replace those minutes and production. Nazem Kadri emerged in the first three months of the regular season, but tailed off down the stretch and may not be ready or suited to assume such a hefty load as Toronto's top centre. Mikhail Grabovski is a different type of question mark. The 29-year-old endured the worst season of his career before re-emerging in the post-season. Predicting his contributions is a difficult task at this point. Beyond Grabovski, further opportunity for Kadri, and perhaps an NHL job for Joe Colborne in a lesser capacity, options on the free agent market are thin, topped by Derek Roy (age 30) and Mike Ribeiro (33), each of whom is likely to out-price Bozak.
Formerly of the University of Denver, the choice may just come down to Bozak and the inherent question of whether extra dollars elsewhere outweigh the comforts and security of what he's established in Toronto, that is a considerable role alongside a premium talent and good friend in Phil Kessel.
“I think that stuff weighs in a lot,” he said Thursday, a torn triceps ending his season prematurely after Game 5 against the Bruins. “I think whenever you're comfortable somewhere it means a lot. I have the ability to play with really good players here that I think I connect well with on and off the ice. I have trust with the coaching staff which is huge. If you go somewhere else you never know what they're going to think of you when you get there or how much you're going to play or what's going to happen, it means a lot.”
James Reimer finished the regular season amongst the top-10 in save percentage, helping his team swipe Games 5 and 6 against the Bruins in the post-season. But has he demonstrated enough, notably in a 48-game season, to fully clarify the Leafs goaltending situation moving forward into next season?
“At this point, I'd say he'll be back as No. 1,” said Nonis of the 25-year-old, who managed a .924 save mark in 2013, the highest ever for a Toronto goaltender in a single season. “He did a very good job for us. I think his mental makeup and mental strength is something that was a question last year and I think it's clear that a lot of his issues a year ago were based upon his health. When we needed quality goaltending, for the most part… James was very good. I don't think anybody can point to goaltending as an issue with our team.”
It was only in early April, however, that Nonis and the Leafs delegation sought Miikka Kiprusoff as a veteran security blanket for Reimer. Whether they'll pursue a similar course, or even an upgrade, this summer will be worth monitoring. Ben Scrivens remains under contract for one more season with potential veteran backups including Evgeni Nabakov (age 37), Niklas Backstrom (35), Nikolai Khabibulin (40), Ray Emery (30), and Jose Theodore (36).
INTERNAL FREE AGENTS
The Leafs project to have upwards of $19 million in cap space available this summer with the cap itself trimming down to $64 million next season.
“We are in fairly good position cap wise," Nonis noted. "We have some players we have to re-sign, so that's going to eat into that cap space a little bit. But we're not in a position where we have to shed money, which some teams clearly are."
Outside of the potential Bozak quandary, Nazem Kadri could prove the most challenging of the internal free agent lot for the Leafs. A restricted free agent, the 22-year-old emerged with 18 goals and 44 points in his first bit of sustained NHL action, a considerable increase in value for a player whose future with the organization prior to the season seemed wholly in doubt. Assigning worth for his second contract may be a challenge though considering the uniqueness of his late rise and lack of true comparables. Helping to tame his worth perhaps was a late slowdown, just one goal and five points in April.
Also due to be signed in the restricted class are Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson, Mark Fraser, Frazer McLaren and Leo Komarov. Franson ($1.2 million this season) and Gunnarsson ($1.35) will, in particular, be due considerable raises. Mike Kostka, Colton Orr, and Clarke MacArthur figure among the less certain unrestricted commodities, though Kostka and Orr especially, figure to return at the right price. MacArthur would seem less certain. Though he had a resurgent playoff, the 28-year-old endured an inconsistent regular season and would seemingly require a pay cut from the $3.25 million hit he garnered in 2013 to return next season.
KESSEL & PHANEUF
The questions of their future with the organization were far more pertinent prior to the 2013 campaign than they are presently. Both Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel have a year left on their respective contracts, but after successful campaigns for each, Kessel especially, the debate on their status as fundamental pieces of the roster moving forward seems less pertinent.
Quite simply, the matter is not urgent. If Nonis and his team – Claude Loiselle specifically – can find an agreeable number and term with one or both parties, then they are likely to move in that direction. If not, the matter can be resolved and further debated in the summer of 2014.
UPGRADES ON DEFENCE
The Leafs figure to be set with at least five certain options on their back-end for next season – Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner and Mark Fraser – provided none are moved via trade.
In question for Nonis is whether an option to improve in the top-four is available, specifically a player who can step in and provide difficult minutes on either a first or second pair. Franson and Fraser were forced into such duty out of necessity in 2013, but had by far their best success as a third pair and are probably better suited in that role together moving forward. If Phaneuf and Gunnarsson remain as the top duo, no certainty if the right option can be had, then perhaps the course for Nonis would be to find a defender to play alongside Gardiner on a potential second pairing.
The top-6 would look as such:
Carl Gunnarsson-Dion Phaneuf
Mark Fraser-Cody Franson
Or if a suitable defender can't be had – the free agent market is thin with Andrew Ference, Rob Scuderi and Ron Hainsey among the top options – the Leafs could bump Franson up alongside Gardiner, thus in need of a depth player or players for their third pair. Internally, Korbinian Holzer and Jesse Blacker may be candidates to move up. And while a full season with Dallas Eakins in the American League may be the proper course, there is also every chance Morgan Rielly challenges for a job in the fall of 2014.
Of additional intrigue will be the futures of Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles. A Toronto Marlie in the final months of the season, Komisarek is an almost certain compliance buyout, Liles status more up in the air. The 32-year-old has three years remaining at a cap hit of $3.8 million, the steady veteran bouncing in and out of the lineup this season, not exactly an ideal fit under Carlyle's brute style. A trade seems the likeliest of scenarios for Liles, though the dollar figures and term (especially with the cap falling in 2014) may make that a difficult pursuit.