NHL

Off-Season Game Plan: Toronto Maple Leafs

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Scott Cullen
6/14/2013 10:46:07 AM
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The Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and took the heavily-favoured Boston Bruins to the seventh game, yet the season ended with disappointment when the Leafs surrendered a three-goal third-period lead.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Leafs team that has much work to do if they are going to continue along the playoff road.

As always there will be personnel decisions to address, but the first order of business for the Maple Leafs is understanding that they overachieved last season. That is, their place in the standings was not supported by sustainable underlying statistics, so they can't rest on their playoff laurels thinking that they are simply a playoff team going forward.

Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis recognizes that the Leafs have work to do. "We took some significant steps," he told the Toronto Star after the Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs. "There's room for improvement. We need to get better. We need to add more pieces. We've taken some significant steps. But we're not there. We're not playing tonight."

Tied with Edmonton for the league's worst shot differential, with terrible possession metrics, the Maple Leafs had to rely on exceptional percentages (first in shooting percentage, ninth in save percentage) to earn a playoff berth. It worked, but maintaining those exceptional percentages is extremely difficult.

Looking ahead, to build a team that has long-term sustainable success, the Maple Leafs have to improve their puck possession and that means they can improve at both ends of the rink, finding forwards that control play as well as defencemen that can reduce the number of chances against.

These objectives aren't easily achieved in a year with a relatively thin free agent market and with a decreasing salary cap. The Leafs have the financial might to use compliance buyouts to give them the most advantageous position possible, and the Leafs are likely going to need to be aggressive in order to make the moves necessary to remain a playoff contender.

This isn't meant to rain on the Leafs' playoff parade, merely to serve as fair warning that the work is just beginning.

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, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.

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

GM/COACH
Dave Nonis/Randy Carlyle

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Joffrey Lupul 85.38 16 11 7 18 +8 $5.25M
Phil Kessel 79.16 48 20 32 52 -3 $5.4M
James van Riemsdyk 72.76 48 18 14 32 -7 $4.25M
Matt Frattin 67.55 25 7 6 13 +6 $925K
Nikolai Kulemin 64.99 48 7 16 23 -5 $2.8M
Jay McClement 61.78 48 8 9 17 0 $1.5M
Mikhail Grabovski 59.56 48 9 7 16 -10 $5.5M
Colton Orr 53.39 44 1 3 4 +4 $925K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Nazem Kadri 76.83 48 18 26 44 +15 RFA $1.72M
Tyler Bozak 67.32 46 12 16 28 -1 UFA $1.5M
Clarke MacArthur 65.41 40 8 12 20 +3 UFA $3.25M
Leo Komarov 58.86 42 4 5 9 -1 RFA $1.2M
Frazer McLaren 54.71 36 3 2 5 0 RFA $633K

Maple Leafs Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

Injuries limited Joffrey Lupul to just 16 games last season and, while his production was terrific in that small sample, it's worth noting that he generated more shots per game in each of the previous two seasons. It just so happened that, in the few games that he did play in 2013, Lupul scored on a preposterous 26.2% of his shots.

His career average is 11.5%, so it's possible that Lupul isn't really a 56-goal scorer (pro-rating his 11 goals in 16 games over an 82-game season), but credit where it's due: he has 85 points in 82 games over the last two seasons. Only six others (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Martin St. Louis and Jason Spezza) have more than Lupul's 1.04 points per game in that span.

The real game-breaking scorer for the Leafs, however, is Phil Kessel, who plays well with Lupul when they are on the same line, but has accumulated 110 even-strength goals over the last five seasons, ranking fifth in the league in that time, behind only Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuk. On top of that, Kessel's first-round performance against the Bruins (four goals, six points, plus-3 in seven games) helped alleviate any concerns that his game wouldn't translate in a physical playoff series.

James van Riemsdyk was a nice addition to the Leafs' lineup, showing the soft hands that helped him get drafted second overall in 2007. In Toronto, van Riemsdyk was given more responsibility, playing a career-high 19:12 per game, and he delivered the best goal and point-scoring rates of his career.

In 82 career games, Matt Frattin has tallied 15 goals and 28 points, while playing 13:13 per game; relatively modest totals, but enough to indicate that he's worthy of a regular spot on the roster. At his best, Frattin uses his speed to forecheck, create turnovers and generate offence. He's also sturdy enough to play a physical game, which makes him a fine fit for the third line.

His 30-goal season in 2010-2011 may forever ruin expectations, since he's come nowhere close since, but Nikolai Kulemin is a reliable two-way winger who was thrust into a very difficult role last season, playing the toughest matchups and starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone with less than ideal results. However, as a top nine forward with some offensive upside, Kulemin is an asset, if not quite what the Leafs might have thought they had a couple of seasons ago.

Veteran checking centre Jay McClement had a solid first season in Toronto, scoring at a career-best (0.17 gpg) pace, but he does the heaviest lifting when it comes to matchups and zone starts. He has a niche and that's defensive play and penalty-killing.

Coming into 2013, Mikhail Grabovski had back-to-back seasons with at least 20 goals and 50 points, but with Nazem Kadri emerging as a scorer, Grabovski was pressed into a defensive role that didn't necessarily mesh with skills that he had shown previously. With Tyler Bozak approaching free agency, the Leafs may be less inclined to shed Grabovski's contract through a compliance buyout, but either that or a trade would have to be a consideration if he's still third on the centre depth chart because a $5.5-million cap hit is very pricey for a bottom six role.

It should be noted that, on the heels of such a down season, Grabovski still ranked third among Maple Leafs forwards in ice time in the first round of the playoffs against Boston. He somehow managed to finish minus-10 in seven games, despite ranking among the Leafs' best in puck possession for the series.

After several years of up and down and not quite ready, Nazem Kadri was given a chance to play last season and made the most of it, scoring nearly a point per game despite modest ice time. Among players with at least 40 points last season, Kadri easily has the lowest ice time at 16:03 per game; he was the only one under 17 minutes per game.

Now, for as terrific as Kadri's 2013 season was, it's imperative to note that he's ripe for regression next season. For one thing, he scored on 16.8% of his shots and that's awfully difficult to repeat. Since 2000-2001, there are 13 players to shoot 16.0% with at least 200 shots on goal and few, if any, profile to be a similar player to Kadri; it's more of a crease-crashing crowd with a few sharpshooters mixed in.

Aside from that, though related, is that the rest of those on the ice with Kadri scored at unnaturally high rates (14.4% at 5-on-5, when league average hovers around 8.0% and a decent playmaker named Sidney Crosby has exceeded 14.0% once in in the last six seasons). None of this guarantees that Kadri's production will decline next season, as an increase in ice time or better linemates could certainly stem the regression tide somewhat, but the point is that it's extremely unlikely that he can duplicate his rate of production without either more ice time, more shots on goal or, preferably, both.

It appears that Leo Komarov is headed back to the KHL, which would be a notable loss even though he didn't score much. He plays an in-your-face game and was solid in possession terms relative to his teammates.

Picked up on waivers, Frazer McLaren made the most of his opportunity with the Maple Leafs, fighting a dozen times, and playing most nights. He has 11 points and 187 penalty minutes in 75 career games, playing a little over five minutes per game, so there is no secret to McLaren's game and he gives the Leafs a double-heavyweight tandem with Colton Orr, for whatever that might be worth.

Orr just inked a two-year contract extension, with the Leafs talking about how much he improved his skating, and while that may be true, his impact on the game still remains in the heavyweight battles he undertakes.

If the Maple Leafs decide to invest in Tyler Bozak as an unrestricted free agent, that will come at the expense of potentially adding somewhere else. Some free agents that might appeal to Toronto's brass, offering some offensive ability and toughness, include David Clarkson, Ryane Clowe or Nathan Horton. For fun, they could always take a trip on the Jaromir Jagr twilight tour but, really, a forward that can contribute in the top six is a fair objective. At the same time, adding insurance down the middle (Matt Cullen, Stephen Weiss) would be necessary if Bozak departs.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Dion Phaneuf 73.68 48 9 19 28 -4 $6.5M
Jake Gardiner 73.46 12 0 4 4 0 $1.117M
John-Michael Liles 68.31 32 2 9 11 -1 $3.875M
Mike Komisarek 62.61 4 0 0 0 +2 $4.5M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Cody Franson 77.34 45 4 25 29 +4 RFA $1.2M
Carl Gunnarsson 68.95 37 1 14 15 +5 RFA $1.325M
Mark Fraser 66.65 45 0 8 8 +18 RFA $600K
Ryan O'Byrne 63.08 42 2 4 6 -4 UFA $1.8M
Mike Kostka 62.85 35 0 8 8 -7 UFA $600K

Maple Leafs Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

Often maligned for his errors, Dion Phaneuf isn't nearly as bad as his critics might want to believe. He makes his mistakes, still getting caught out of position for a big hit, but he ranks 11th among defencemen in points (72) and tied for fourth in goals (21) over the last two seasons, so there are positives that can't be overlooked.

Additionally, Phaneuf was charged with taking on the opposition's best on a nightly basis and, for a Leafs team that had terrible possession numbers, that meant a lot of heavy lifting. It's entirely reasonable to think that there might be other defencemen who could handle the shutdown role more effectively, but it's not fair to malign Phaneuf for not being the ideal shutdown defenceman when he's one of the league's better offensive contributors from the blueline because the list of defencemen who excel at both is very small.

It's difficult to fathom just how the Maple Leafs handled Jake Gardiner last season. He was quite possibly their second best defenceman as a rookie in 2011-2012, playing 75 NHL games, and was a lock to make the team last season before he suffered a concussion while playing in the AHL.

Gardiner returned to action and struggled in his first two NHL games (after being sidelined for six weeks) and was demoted to the AHL, where he remained for much of the year, allowing some to talk about him as though he was still a prospect on the way up and not a bona fide NHL defenceman.

Then, after Gardiner rolled through the AHL, with 31 points and a plus-1 rating in 43 games, he was called up and despite putting up the best possession numbers on the team, was relegated to the press box late in the year, only to be freed in the second game of the playoffs at which point he showed he was more than ready to handle NHL competition.

None of this is meant to suggest that Gardiner doesn't have flaws -- he often makes mistakes, either turnovers or positioning, that he can often outskate because he is such a tremendous skater. The trouble arises when he doesn't have the time to catch-up, so improved decision-making will make Gardiner a better player, but he's easily worthy of top-four minutes now, especially for a team of this calibre.

A mobile defenceman who fell out of favour and sat in the press box for about a month, John-Michael Liles is more than capable of handling a regular role on the blueline. He's not physical, never has been, so if that's a specific need, then he won't be the one to fill it, but Liles might be of interest to another team that could use his puck skills in a more advantageous manner.

Mike Komisarek is due for a fresh start somewhere else and, with the possibility of a compliance buyout this summer, perhaps he'll have that chance. He has undeniably struggled in Toronto, but that's only been exacerbated by his salary, so it's probably best for all if he gets a chance to play again, without the financial obligation hanging over his head.

25-year-old Cody Franson was finally given a real opportunity to play last season and he performed well, tying his career-high with 29 points, despite playing 45 games in a shortened season. He doesn't use his 6-foot-5 frame to his advantage as much as he could, but Franson is smart with the puck and has a heavy shot from the point. Franson also played more as the season progressed, increasing each month, from 13:01 per game in January to 22:49 per game in the playoffs against Boston, so he's due for a sizeable raise as a restricted free agent.

2013 wasn't the best season for Carl Gunnarsson, though he was playing through a hip problem that affected him for much of the season. He's a steady, calming influence, which is a nice counter-balance to his frequent partner, Phaneuf, who has higher highs and lower lows.

After spending most of 2011-2012 in the American Hockey League, Mark Fraser returned to the NHL last season, playing 45 of 48 games and a career-high 16:57 per game. Fraser's game is limited, but he is a big, tough defensive-minded blueliner. As long as he's not asked to do too much, he can be a useful part of the defensive unit.

While the Leafs have quite a few young puck-moving defencemen in the pipeline, they could use a veteran with a defensive focus. Free agents like Douglas Murray, Rob Scuderi, Toni Lydman or even ex-Leaf Ian White could help steady the group.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
James Reimer 77.13 33 19 8 5 2.46 .924 $1.8M
Ben Scrivens 70.62 20 7 9 0 2.69 .915 $613K

Coming into the 2013 season, goaltending was a massive question mark for the Leafs, with James Reimer coming off a 2011-2012 season in which he posted a .900 save percentage. To be fair, that was a season during which he missed a bunch of time with a concussion, so it would be understandable if his game wasn't at 100%, even when he did come back, but that didn't guarantee that he would automatically be in peak form for 2013.

Turns out that, yes, Reimer was back on top of his game last season, with his .924 save percentage ranking eighth among qualified goaltenders. That didn't stop the Maple Leafs from looking for alternatives (Miikka Kiprusoff?!?!?) at the trade deadline but, given the Leafs' shot deficits all season long, they could just thank Reimer for playing at such a level that they could still make the playoffs because average goaltending wouldn't have been nearly enough.

Ben Scrivens saw quite a bit of action early in the season, particularly in February (when he had a 2.25 GAA and .932 SV% in 10 GP), before Reimer wrested control of the starting job. Now, Scrivens is a quality backup at a bargain price, which is an enviable situation for the team.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Morgan Rielly D Moose Jaw (WHL) 12-42-54, -8, 60 GP
Matt Finn D Guelph (OHL) 11-20-31, +2, 41 GP
Joe Colborne C Toronto (AHL) 14-28-42, +13, 65 GP
Stuart Percy D Mississauga (OHL) 13-32-45, -8, 68 GP
Josh Leivo LW Kitchener (OHL) 29-44-73, +20, 63 GP
Jesse Blacker D Toronto (AHL) 4-7-11, -4, 61 GP
Tyler Biggs RW Oshawa (OHL) 26-27-53, +1, 60 GP
Greg McKegg C Toronto (AHL) 8-15-23, +4, 61 GP
Brad Ross LW Toronto (AHL) 8-3-11, +4, 40 GP
Tony Cameranesi C Minnesota-Duluth (WCHA) 14-20-34, +1, 38 GP

A brilliant puck-rushing defenceman, Morgan Rielly was the fifth pick in last summer's draft and he could challenge for a spot as soon as next season, but may be better served with another year of development before he tackles the pro game.

After getting Rielly in Round One last year, the Leafs picked up another puck-moving defenceman, Matt Finn, in the second round. Finn will need time to round out his game, like most young defencemen, but he's quality asset to have in the organization.

A first-round pick of the Bruins in 2008, Joe Colborne hasn't had a smooth developmental path, and he's not likely to be a big scorer, but he hasn't looked out of place in 18 call-up games over the past three seasons, including two games against the Bruins in the playoffs.

Certainly improving their defence has been a priority for the Leafs, using last year's first two picks on Rielly and Finn, a year after grabbing Stuart Percy with their second first-round pick in the 2011 draft. He's a smart puck-mover who got into four games with the Marlies (1 G, 2 A, minus-1) late in the season.

A winger with decent size and some offensive upside, Josh Leivo was a third-round pick in 2011 and should have at least a season or two in the AHL to continue improving his game before he's ready for his shot in the NHL.

A second-round pick in 2009, Jesse Blacker has played a couple of AHL seasons and hasn't shown the offensive promise that was there in junior, but that doesn't preclude him from being an NHL-calibre defenceman altogether; it merely lowers the ceiling on what he might contribute.

Drafted in the first round in 2011, Tyler Biggs is a big winger who, at the most optimistic projection, could be a power forward as a pro; otherwise, he should have the physical game to at least fit into a bottom six role at some point.

A scoring forward who took some time to adjust to pro hockey, Greg McKegg finished his season better than he started. If he can continue that development next season, the 21-year-old could put himself in position for a call-up.

Brad Ross didn't stir the pot in his first pro season the same way he did in junior, but given some time, he has a chance to agitate and chip in some offensively.

Taken in the fifth round in 2011, Tony Cameranesi may not have been the most highly-touted prospect at that time but, after 34 points in 38 WCHA games as a freshman, the speedster is worth tracking.

A couple other prospects that have been toiling in the AHL for a few seasons, Carter Ashton and Jerry D'Amigo, could be closer to call-ups, but there is some sense that their progress has stagnated.

DRAFT
21st - Anthony Mantha, Kerby Rychel, Nicolas Petan

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Maple Leafs have approximately $46.0M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 13 players.

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

Needs: One top six forward, one top nine forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman.

What I said the Maple Leafs needed last year: First-line centre, starting goaltender.

They added: Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Jay McClement, Leo Komarov, Mike Kostka, Mark Fraser.

TRADE MARKET
Nikolai Kulemin, John-Michael Liles, Carl Gunnarsson.

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.

Leafs celebrate (Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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