By: Chris Dagonas
Wednesday, March 5th, 2014. 3:oo PM Eastern Time. The National Hockey League’s trade deadline came and went, amid a (what’s the opposite of flurry? Dearth?) of moves. Some teams made themselves better, in anticipation of a Stanley Cup run. The New York Rangers added winger Martin St. Louis (Mini-Mart!), and the Montreal Canadiens added Thomas Vanek. In the days before the deadline, a couple of stalwart goaltenders switched cities, with Ryan Miller
being released from goalie hell moving to the St. Louis Blues, and Roberto Luongo returning to the Florida Panthers. The Blues and Rangers perhaps made the most important moves, while the Canadiens and Minnesota Wild added goalscoring with the aforementioned Vanek and Matt Moulson, respectively.
Other teams made themselves worse in the short term, in preparation for a rebuild. Most notable of these were the Buffalo Sabres, who dumped Miller and Moulson, and are left with a scrap heap of a hockey team to finish the season. The Nashville Predators can also be counted among the rebuilders, by virtue of sending Predator legend David Legwand to the Detroit Red Wings.
And, sure enough, the Maple Leafs made no trades. While it is easy to toss out who they could have got, Ryan Kesler being the most popular, standing pat was the best move for the Leafs this season.
Players involved in trade deadline moves have earned the nickname “rental players” among GM’s and the media, and rightfully so. Most are on expiring contracts, and almost all of those move to new teams in the summer after they are traded. The cost for such a player is usually a prospect and a draft pick. These are commodities, useful building blocks that are better kept, if used wisely, than traded for a rental player.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, by the way, are not yet in a position to be one player away from a Stanley Cup contender, the way the New York Rangers or St. Louis Blues appear to be. Teams like the Leafs, which are far better than cellar-dwellers, and not quite championship contenders, have little to gain by making costly deadline moves.
Among the stock of rental players, there was no one that would have been worth trading for anyway. The Maple Leafs have been hampered all season by a lack of defensive organization and discipline. While goal-scoring forwards and top-notch goaltenders made all the headlines, the Leafs’ biggest need was on the blue line. Sadly, or maybe luckily, there were no defensemen for sale that were worth buying.
One year ago, the Maple Leafs made exactly one trade deadline move. They added defenseman Ryan O’Byrne from the Colorado Avalanche, for a fourth-round pick. It was called a “depth trade” at the time, and Colorado fans were glad to see him gone. O’Byrne played in only 8 games for the Leafs over the rest of the season, and was not re-signed. He currently plays in Russia. Some might say that a fourth-round pick is not really worth all that much, but its potential is worth far more than what O’Byrne was for the Leafs.
Dave Nonis, apparently, learned from that mistake this season, by avoiding a tempting “depth trade”. Nonis did not have much cap space to work with anyway, and Tim Gleason already counts as the middling defender addition of the season. The defense needs work, yes, but adding a middling defender would not have helped. The Leafs will push toward the playoffs with the roster as is. So what can be said about that roster?
In goal, Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer are both young and capable options. Reimer has been red-hot at times, but often matches that with an ugly game every now and then. Bernier is the more steady, consistent of the two, and will likely receive the majority of starts from here on out. Bernier ranks 24th in the league in Goals Against Average, but is in the top 10 in save percentage. The Leafs can be confident in their goaltending.
Goal-scoring has not been an issue for the run-and-gun Leafs this season. Phil Kessel sits second in the league in points, and third in goals, while winger James van Riemsdyk also sits in the top 20. Centre Tyler Bozak has come on strong since returning from injury, and is producing at almost a point-per-game rate. Beyond those three, Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri have both contributed at their expected levels. Only free-agent acquisition David Clarkson has disappointed, notching only 10 points and a minus-7 in 43 games this year. But the Leafs have had little trouble scoring goals, despite Clarkson, as they currently sit 8th in goals scored in the league.
Now, let’s take a good, hard look at this defensive corps. Captain Dion Phaneuf has always been a decent source of points, but this season seems to have righted the ship regarding plus/minus. He sits 11th in the league in that category among defensemen (plus-19), tied with Canadian stalwart Drew Doughty, while Carl Gunnarsson is not far behind with a plus-17.
Beyond the top two, the Leafs’ defenders are either too young and inexperienced (Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner) or fringe NHL players (Tim Gleason and Paul Ranger). Cody Franson is the exception, as he is a steady hand on the blue line and a decent offensive piece, but won’t dazzle anyone with his play.
If a patient approach is taken with Rielly and Gardiner, and they are allowed to grow into the top-4 defenders they can become, Leaf fans won’t have to worry about defensive zone chaos for much longer. I’d be happy to see them land somewhere in the 4th-8th spot in the East, play a tough first-round matchup, win or lose, and call that a successful season. And I will keep some things in perspective.
Remember that most of the Leafs’ key players are under the age of 30. Remember that they own almost all of their draft picks over the next couple of years. Remember that their farm system includes two of the AHL’s top 6 point scorers, and the defensive-zone monster that is Petter Granberg.
Remember that, back in the spring of 2003, then-Leafs GM Pat Quinn tried to take a mediocre defensive team and power them into the playoffs, by adding veteran defensemen Phil Housley and Glen Wesley, winger Owen Nolan, and centre Doug Gilmour. In a week-long spree of craziness, Quinn sent away five draft picks and prospects Alyn McCauley and Brad Boyes. We all remember Gilmour’s knee injury in his first game back. Housley, Wesley and Nolan were also duds.
One year later, remember that John Ferguson Jr. (Leaf fans shudder) made EXACTLY THE SAME MISTAKES! He added Brian Leetch’s corpse and Ron Francis’ ghost, and sent away THREE MORE DRAFT PICKS! Those seasons were so costly it took the team a decade to recover enough to just get into the playoffs.
Patience is a virtue, and one not practiced nearly enough in the sports world. Short-term gains are almost never worth the long-term costs of a depleted farm system and aged roster. So, while the Maple Leafs made no moves on Wednesday, they might have made their smartest decision of the whole season.