Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Lineup questions for Toronto
By Victoria Matiash
Looking to improve on a moderately successful 2012-13, the Toronto Maple Leafs have made a few significant changes this offseason. While jettisoning forwards Mikhail Grabovski (compliance buyout), Matt Frattin (trade), Clarke MacArthur (free agency), Leo Komarov (free agency), goalie Ben Scrivens (trade), blueliner Mike Kostka (free agency), and rarely used defenseman Mike Komisarek (compliance buyout), the Maple Leafs added forwards David Clarkson (free agency), Dave Bolland (trade), and goalie Jonathan Bernier (trade). With less than $5 million in salary cap space (as per Capgeek.com) and a couple of key restricted free agents still to re-sign, the club isn't likely to make any other major additions ahead of opening night (Oct. 1). As side dish to Hockey Prospectus' preview, here's what Toronto's squad looks like three weeks ahead of training camp.
The preferred top forward line of Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and Phil Kessel is pegged to remain intact, as long as everyone (ahem, Lupul) stays healthy. Beyond that trio, you can probably pencil in Clarkson (formerly with the New Jersey Devils) on the second line alongside center Nazem Kadri and winger James van Riemsdyk. The third line is expected to consist of Bolland (coming off another Stanley Cup win with the Chicago Blackhawks) centering Nikolai Kulemin and Jay McClement -- leaving three of Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren, young center Joe Colborne, and Trevor Smith to round out the bottom six. Rookie wingers Tyler Biggs, Carter Ashton, and Jerry D'Amigo merit watching as they fight to steal a roster spot in camp.
Of course, this projected outline falls to shards if Kadri is a contract holdout to start the season. As discussed earlier, the 22-year-old restricted free agent remains un-signed, and the two camps are believed to be far apart in negotiating a new deal. Although there's no reason to get antsy yet, one side will likely have to concede when it comes to term. It's believed Kadri's people are looking to commit long-term while the organization is far more interested in what's often referred to as a two-year "bridge" deal. Of any leftover off-season drama, this potential standoff is primed to offer up the biggest headaches.
On defense, the Leafs appear relatively spoiled for choice. Once restricted free agent Cody Franson is re-signed, head coach Randy Carlyle will have at least nine blueliners with NHL experience from which to choose. Beyond the perceived top-five blueliners -- Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Mark Fraser, Jake Gardiner, and Franson -- Korbinian Holzer, Paul Ranger, and T.J. Brennan are poised to battle for playing time. And that's without bringing Morgan Rielly into the mix. There's word the Leafs aren't thrilled with the idea of the talented teen spending another season with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League (he's too young to play full-time in the AHL). However, you slice it, John-Michael Liles appears to be the odd-man out. Don't be surprised to see the veteran, puck-moving defenseman, and his $3.875-million cap hit, moved before the puck drops this autumn.
However, the most dynamic battle for playing time through 2013-14 may go down between the pipes. With Bernier on board, James Reimer is no longer recognized as the Leafs' be-all-end-all No. 1. By sending Frattin, Scrivens, and a conditional draft pick to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for the former backup to Jonathan Quick, GM Dave Nonis made it clear he has designs on using Bernier as more than just a part-time fill-in. At last check, Leafs' management appeared fully willing to let Reimer and Bernier fight it out for starts. Whether that results in a clear hierarchy of a No. 1 and 2, or a more egalitarian, tandem-styled approach, could be one of the juicier stories to unfold in T.O. this season.