Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports
In part eight of our continuing look at the Toronto Maple Leafs season we’re looking at the state of the Marlies and who can step up to fill gaps in the Leafs lineup, as well as looking at potential free agents.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have $49,569,167 committed for next year on 12 players with avg. bonuses. That gives the Leafs $22,380,833 to fill out the rest of their roster. Without counting on any promotions from the Marlies, restricted free agents or unrestricted free agents here is what the Leafs currently have set for next year.
Obviously that’s a lot of holes. You can fill in a bunch of those holes though with restricted free agents, who are easier to control in terms of contracts.
For the sake of argument we’re adding back in key restricted free agents Jake Gardiner, Peter Holland and Jerry D’Amigo/Carter Ashton. We’re not adding in Franson or Reimer, under the basis that they both may end up traded.
Gardiner is due a raise to the $2-2.5-million range so let’s split the difference, while Holland and Ashton or D’Amigo could be back at similar prices. That’s leaves us with a roster looking like this.
Now let’s turn our attention to unrestricted free agents. Troy Bodie can be brought back at the league minimum, while Mason Raymond is due a raise. T.J. Brennan, the AHL defencemen of the year, can be retained on the cheap. If we demote Colton Orr that frees up almost $16-million to bring in a centre, a winger and a backup goalie.
In Paul Stastny the Leafs would have a true top flight centre. He has 458 points in 538 career NHL games and has broken the 20 goal plateau six of the his eight years in the league. Playing him with Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk would create a more dynamic first line than the one the Leafs currently posses. However his true value may be in playing on the second line with Joffrey Lupul, helping to increase secondary scoring. That would free up Kadri to play on the third line, ostensibly against the weaker third line of the opposition. Overall it gives the Leafs more options to change up lines and find chemistry.
In Radim Vrbata the Leafs would acquire a cheap and effective scorer. Vrbata had 51 points this year, which would have been good enough for third on the Leafs. He’s proven, with 464 career NHL points and while on the wrong side of 30, he’d only be 33 at the start of next season.
Matt Niskanen may be the most desirably defencemen available this off-season. At 27, he’s still in his prime, and is coming off a career high in goals, assists and points. He’s a solid defender and a veteran with almost 500 NHL games and 46 playoffs games under his belt. Defence is the area most in need of an upgrade for the Leafs, and Niskanen is one of only a few unrestricted free agent defencemen on the right side of 30. Of the free agent defencemen, Niskanen is first in points, first in +/-, fifth in average time on ice, is young and will be cheaper than older defencemen like Dan Boyle, Andrei Markov, Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky.
Justin Peters is part of the three headed goalie tandem in Carolina this year. Despite playing on a poor team, he managed a 2.50 gaa and .919 sv% in 21 games at a $537,000 cap hit. Cheap and still young at 27, Peters could be a good backup for Bernier playing in about 20 games at less than a million dollars.
Those moves would leave us at $704,8333 in cap space, without buying out Tim Gleason which would create more. Gleason can easily be replaced by Stuart Percy, Petter Granberg or Andrew MacWilliam, all of whom earn between $800,000-$875,000. Gleason’s buyout hit would be $833,333, meaning playing one of those prospects on defence with a Gleason buyout would free up another $2-million if needed.
Improving the Leafs this season is very possible, but money is tight in the salary cap era and good deals need to be handed out. Looking at that roster just accentuates how bad a deal the Clarkson contract is, or how baffling it is to trade John-Michael Liles for Tim Gleason, who will be used little and costs more against the cap. If the Leafs want to truly improve by adding strong pieces like Stastny, Niskanen and Vrbata, they need to be willing to play a cheap fourth line, which means the Jay McClements of the world aren’t going to fit.
STATE OF THE FARM
So while that’s one possible Leaf lineup, just who is ready to contribute from the Marlies? Let’s start from the net and work our way out.
Drew MacIntyre had an excellent season for the Marlies and may be a possible cheap NHL backup. That being said, the difference between MacIntyre, who has played in six NHL games in his career, and a younger proven backup like Justin Peters is probably only $300,000. That seem’s like money well spent to insure better depth and keep MacIntyre in the minors.
On defence, Andrew MacWilliam made waves last year at training camp and almost snatched a job. Stuart Percy, Petter Granberg and T.J. Brennan all appear ready to at least get a shot at the NHL. Brennan, despite being the AHL defencemen of the year, will probably come in the cheapest. The other three are all signed in the $850,000 range. Either way, promoting one of them may be necessary in order to free up cap room to sign a defencemen to help the Leafs improve.
Of the four, Brennan is the most offensive, having been a point a game player in the AHL last year. Granberg is probably the most defensive, which may be what the Leafs need in a call-up. MacWilliam is the most physical, willing to take the body and fight on occasion. He had five this year in 57 games. Percy, a former first round pick, has the highest upside of the four. He’s only 20 though, and can easily use another year or more at the AHL level.
On offense, the top five scoring forwards for the Marlies were Specner Abbott, Greg McKegg, Brandon Kozun, Josh Leivo and Sam Carrick. McKegg, 21, and Carrick, 22, are both centres and aren’t going to beat out Peter Holland for a possible fourth line role. They can also use more AHL experience to round into form. Kozun is five-foot-seven, and while gifted offensively may be a career AHL forward due to his size.
Just days from turning 26, Abbott’s time is now or never. He’ll get a real look at training camp and may be one of the first called up if he doesn’t make the team.
Leivo got a brief tryout for the Leafs this year over seven games, but as a LW would probably have to beat out the more physical and cheaper Troy Bodie for a fourth line role. Leivo has more offensive talent, but the Leafs tend to look for grinders on their fourth line. Leivo will also only be 21 next season and another year in the AHL won’t hurt him.
Outside of those top five scorers, the obvious choices are Jerry D’Amigo, a defensive forward who can kill penalties and was sixth on the Marlies in scoring by a forward. The other possibility is Trevor Smith, who was seventh on the Marlies despite playing only 24 games, spending the rest of the season injured or with the Leafs.
Other big name Marlies are far from a jump. Tyler Biggs, the first round pick in 2011 (22nd overall), was expected to be a big power forward at the NHL level. While hopes were high, he managed only nine points in 57 games and looks to be years away. There were big question marks for Biggs when he was drafted and those appear to be validated, as Ty Rattie appears to be a far better winger who went bellow him and with Joe Morrow, a stud defensemen in the Bruins system, taken a pick after him.
Frederik Gauthier is another former first round pick of the Leafs that’s raising question marks. Turning 19 tomorrow, Gauthier is a six-foot-five centremen expected to translate into a solid two way player. While far from the most offensive player in the world, he was expected to be a player who still racks up his fair share of points. Thus far that’s not the case, as he actually scored fewer points in the QMJHL this year compared to last year. Considering he’s a year older than the previous year and older than many of his opponents, that’s a red flag. He now looks more likely to be a defensive shutdown centre.
Matt Finn, the 35th overall pick in 2012, had 61 points in 66 games as a defencemen for the Guelph Storm in the OHL. His +/- rating of +57 is eye-popping and shows he’s ready to take a spot on the Marlies next year.
Carter Verhaeghe is another who impressed in the OHL this year. 82 points in 65 games has the six-foot-one centremen looking like a good choice for the third round of the 2012 draft. He’ll be playing for the Marlies next year as well.
While he may never play in the NHL but Andreas Johnson is quickly looking like a seventh round steal for the Leafs in last year’s draft. Johnson was named rookie of the year in the Swedish Hockey League. A fast winger with good hands and vision, the 202nd pick in 2013 has re-signed with his team for next season but may have an opt out clause. The rookie of the year award in the SHL has been won by NHLers Patric Honqvist, Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Victor Hedman and Loui Eriksson, so a precedent for success is set.
Only time will tell who among those players will reach the next level, but the Leafs do have depth in the AHL and further down the farm system, particularly at defence. It’ll be interesting to see who emerges ready to play at the NHL level over the coming years.
That’s it for the Leafs After Season Reports. If this is your first after season report, you can read about the top six forwards here, the bottom six forwards here, the defence here, the goaltending here, Head Coach Randy Carlyle here, General Manager Dave Nonis here and the Leafs unrestricted and restricted free agents here.