Who Ya Got? The Leafs’ New Five-Man Core

By: Dan Grant

Last week, a report surfaced that the board of governors for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had given team president Brendan Shanahan permission to strip the Maple Leafs down to the wood. He was allowed, if he so chose, to start fresh. To begin anew.

The general reaction from fans was somewhat positive.

In fact, the sullen Maple Leafs fan base has sounded something like this: BURN THE MOTHER DOWN! SALT THE EARTH SO NOTHING EVER GROWS AGAIN!

My name is Shanahan, destroyer of worlds.

My name is Shanahan, destroyer of worlds.

Woo! That felt good! …I imagine. ANYWAY, catharsis notwithstanding, it begs the question: just who will Shanahan hang on to? For many, it doesn’t seem like there are even five players that can be kept, not without retaining some of the stink currently on this team. For others, it still seems like this team has some top level talent, and just needs to add key pieces. The trade of Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli this past weekend confirmed that the Leafs are indeed looking for young talent and draft picks in return for their outgoing veterans, hardly shocking. Those on short term deals are likely to be gone by deadline day, if not sooner. The first round pick and solid prospect acquired bode well for the market for the Leafs current roster. The team supposedly isn’t going to move anyone out without getting an ‘appropriate return’. It becomes a question of prudence. Do you rebuild at all costs and give away a player like Dion Phaneuf or Phil Kessel, simply to unload their contract? Or do you hold out for the best deal possible, whether that’s at this trade deadline, the draft or sometime next season, even?

The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. The Leafs won’t be giving anyone anyway (except you, David Clarkson), especially not players of the stature of Phaneuf and Kessel. However, that doesn’t mean they’re a part of the new team core, either.

Who is? I’m glad you asked!

Morgan Rielly

I haven’t included young blueliners like Stuart Percy and Jake Gardiner on this list, because Percy has played the majority of the year in the AHL and I have to imagine Gardiner is available in the right trade. That said, the three of them form an interesting half of a six man defensive unit, if the Leafs can complement them with the right assets. All three can really skate, a necessity in today’s NHL, and Rielly especially has elite level talent on both ends. Improved play in the defensive zone has Rielly’s ice time up from his rookie season overall, and he’s shouldering a heavier load since Randy Carlyle’s dismissal, up to nearly 23 minutes per game. There have been some growing pains of course, but he’s already scored seven goals this year, as compared to just two in his rookie season and he generally appears more confident in his play. At just 20 years old, the consensus is that Rielly is a future All-Star, and potential Norris trophy candidate. He may even be a candidate to wear the ‘C’ at some point. Those kinds of players don’t grow on trees. Neither do plays like this, from 20 year old defensemen.

 

Yowzer. Rielly stays.

James van Riemsdyk

Now this one is a personal hope. JVR is my favourite current Leaf, both in terms of his playing style and his potential for the future. He can’t be your best player, at least not in his current incarnation, but could he be the third best player on your top line? Sure. That or the best player on your second line. He’s still just 25 years old, and has a very favourable contract that’s got him locked up until 2017-18 with just a 4.25 million dollar cap hit per season. As the cap rises, that deal is going to look better and better. He’s a horrendous -23 this season, but I’m basically throwing this year out. A new coach and system should see improved play in his own zone. Twenty-five year old 30 goal scoring power forwards aren’t easy to find either. If you’ve got JVR in your top six, you’re doing just fine. Keep him around, Shanahan! Teach him to play like you!

Jonathan Bernier

I don’t have a ton to say about this one, except that Bernier was great last season until he got hurt, and just like the team, he’s had a rocky 2014-15. That rockiness should actually help the club in terms of negotiations, as Bernier is a restricted free agent after the season. With James Reimer signed for another season to fill the back-up role capably, bringing Bernier back at a reasonable number makes sense. Do I think we can commit to him on a five or six year deal at this point? I should sure as hell hope not. But a two or three year deal around 10-12 million total? That I could see working nicely. All I know is that if you deal Jonathan Bernier, you create a hole that you’re going to have use assets and money to fill. I’d rather give him a chance to play in front of the revamped club, to see if he can recreate his excellent play from last season. But for God’s sake, somebody enroll him in a modern history class.

Nazem Kadri

This one will come down to some hard negotiating. After breaking out offensively during the lock-out shortened 2012-13 season, Kadri has come back to earth somewhat the past two seasons. He expected a big payday on his first go around with negotiations after that shortened season and he didn’t get it, instead opting for a two year bridge contract that has been signed by other notable players from his draft, such as P.K. Subban. Kadri however, hasn’t pushed himself to the elite level that Subban did and certainly won’t be receiving nearly the same contract. He is a restricted free agent after the season and has established himself as a decent two-way player, with a reputation for working hard to improve his game at both ends of the ice. If the penny drops offensively at any point, he could be a really valuable commodity. Like JVR, he can’t be on your top line at this point, but if the pair of them are on your second scoring line, you’re doing something right. Kadri seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s still only 24 years old and just entering his prime. I have to think he’ll be around for the foreseeable future, unless a massive deal goes down. It might get a bit ugly in the off-season but he wants to be here and the kid has hands!

Phil Kessel (Yup, Phil Kessel. Just kidding! Or am I?)

Don’t worry, I am – mostly. I actually really struggled to come up with a fifth player. In a vacuum, I still believe Phil Kessel is an elite NHL player. He’s 27 years old, right in his prime and seemingly wants to be a Maple Leaf – he just re-signed here for eight years when he easily could have tested the open market and gotten almost equal money. However, the leaks (oh those blessed/cursed leaks!) from the Leafs front office have repeatedly said that both he and Phaneuf are not in Shanahan’s plans. I can see why. If you can get a king’s ransom for Kessel, an elite scorer locked up long term, then I guess you should do it. You free up cap space and ideally, land key pieces for your rebuild. It’s just that I’ll be really interested to see what you can get for a guy who shows up out of shape and dogs it consistently on his least favourite side of the ice. That said, the grass is always greener and there has to be a team out there willing to take a chance on a guy who’s top five in NHL scoring over the past five seasons.

Want to see a really unfair video of Kessel plays next to statistics comparing him to Tyler Seguin? OK, here you go:

 

Tough one, Phil. Maybe next time don’t trade yourself for a burgeoning young superstar, buddy! Use your head!

Anyway, I feel very comfortable with the top four that I mentioned and the other names have been sprinkled in throughout. Stuart Percy, Jake Gardiner and James Reimer should stick around for this season and next. Prospects like William Nylander, Josh Leivo, Connor Brown and the newly acquired Brendan Leipsic (among others) will be given the opportunity to prove themselves. Daniel Winnik should not renew the lease on his condo. Neither should the newly acquired Olli Jokinen. David Booth could find a new home as well, though for minimal return. I have to think the team would love to find new homes for Clarkson and Joffrey Lupul, but their contracts are onerous, and both have underachieved, albeit for different reasons. Many of these moves may not be made until the summer.

Bold prediction? I think Phaneuf moves by the deadline, if he’s healthy. There are a tonne of teams that could use him and the chance to move out that contract might prove too tantalizing for the Leafs front office to resist.

Regardless, I think I’ve found my fifth core piece. The last time the Leafs picked in the top two in the NHL draft was 1985, when they took Wendel Clark 1st overall. Inserting Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel makes this rebuild look a hell of a lot better. The Leafs have lost plenty in recent years, but never at the rate needed to secure a sure-fire franchise changing player. For the first time in a long time, that appears to be the goal.

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