After blowing the 2013 free agency period, it was hoped the Toronto Maple Leafs would perform better this year.
The team desperately needs a veteran player who can provide some extra offence up front. Someone who can change the dynamics of the team without breaking the bank or costing the Leafs future assets. In other words, they can’t afford to add another David Clarkson or Dave Bolland: “big ticket” players who make it difficult for the Leafs to act around free agency or the trade deadline.
Ultimately, the Leafs focussed on bolstering their defence, which is understandable but overlooks the gaping hole at center that has existed on the team since the departure of Mats Sundin (!). It’s wrong to think the Leafs’ problems rest squarely on the defence’s shoulders. There’s room for improvement at every position on the team and I’m not convinced general manager Dave Nonis recognizes this.
I look forward to the return of Leo Komarov, who’ll help strengthen the team up front while adding extra speed, but I’ll reserve judgement on Petri Kontiola. We’ve seen the Leafs add “hidden gems” in the past who never really live up to expectations (do Jonas Gustavsson and Paul Ranger come to anyone’s mind?).
Beyond this, I think the Leafs missed an excellent opportunity in Brad Richards. The veteran centerman signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks worth $2 million. He’s no longer an elite player in the NHL and was recently bought out by the New York Rangers, but he provides everything the Leafs need up the middle.
He brings Stanley Cup experience, having both won and loss the Cup. He also has enough skill to solidify the second line. Toronto could’ve probably singed Richards to a multi-year deal without breaking the bank and I think this would’ve been ideal with Richards serving as a “transitional” player on the team.
(For the sake of argument, let’s assume Richards would sign in Toronto for the right price. I don’t pretend to know his expectations or demands in signing a new contract. There appears some truth to the Cup argument, but it doesn’t sound like he went out of his way to land in Chicago. They approached him and made a convincing pitch. This is something the Leafs could’ve done as well. In fact, Brian Burke tried this approach in 2011. However, New York made the better offer. It may be the case that Toronto could never match Chicago’s offer this season, but we’ll never know because no real effort was made by Nonis to sign Richards based on what we know.)
For the upcoming season, Richards could’ve been placed at second on the team’s depth chart for center, but as he continued to age and Nazem Kadri continued to mature, they would naturally swap places. This would’ve allowed the Leafs to get the maximum return from Richards while affording Kadri the opportunity to develop even further without high expectations placed on him.
Unfortunately, this isn’t how things unfolded and the Leafs’ don’t appear to operate with such foresight under Nonis. He opted to sign untested options at center like Kontiola and Mike Santorelli to one-year deals. This means we might find ourselves in the exact same situation next summer.
Richards maybe available again at this time, but he’ll be one year older and this might limit his value to the Leafs going forward. Both him and the Leafs have a small window of opportunity to exploit here.
Did Nonis close this window? We’ll see.
There’s only one thing for certain: the team will be looking for another bargain centerman next year thanks to Clarkson.