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More Than Ever, The Marlies Matter

Friday, 16.12.2011 / 2:33 PM / Mike Ulmer's Blog
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator




If you want to watch the player destined to markedly improve the Maple Leafs, you might consider heading to the Ricoh Coliseum.

That’s because the Leafs are in a unique position in the life of the franchise. The key for getting to the next level, whatever that is, can be found a few kilometres west of Air Canada Centre.

Quick, what commodity did the Leafs’ management team use to retool the roster?

Trades?

No. I asked what commodity.  The Leafs did indeed trade for Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel, Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson but the players were the cargo.

No one trades those players for what turned out to be a windfall second overall in the Kessel deal, Brett Lebda, Robert Slaney, Francois Beauchemin, ect.

The real commodity brokered was cap space and salary.

From the beginning of this season until the last deal expires in 2013-2014 the Leafs are committed to just over $50 million for Phaneuf, Lupul, Matt Lombardi and Kessel.

Put that in perspective. The league’s six lightest spenders, Ottawa, Dallas, the New York Islanders, Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators will each spend about that much on their entire roster this season.

With a farm system not yet ready to make a meaningful contribution, GM Brian Burke leveraged the one thing he had: a commitment from ownership to spend to the cap. When teams with a tighter rein on payroll (but not necessarily results, the Stanley Cup winning Bruins sit 12th) needed to move money and were willing to sacrifice talent, they found a willing taker in the Maple Leafs.

But that ship has sailed. About $400,000 under the limit (thank-you CapGeek), Burke's cap-space has been spent.

Now the Leafs are dealing in a different commodity.

Time.

You win when you maximize the number of compatible players in the peak years of their productivity. Excellent players who have fallen out of step with the demographic of their teams are often dealt for talent intertwined with time: players whose total value should mature along with the rest of the core.

For what it’s worth, Bobby Ryan, Eric Staal and Zach Parise have seen their names bandied about as first-rate talents who could be in play. That’s because Carolina and New Jersey are years away from their best before dates or because looming contract obligations (consider the Ducks with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry coming due) oblige a team to go cheaper.

To get a premier forward, the Leafs would need to trade either a top six forward or a top four defenceman. Now add a premier prospect and a young player who is a little further from maturity.

And that’s why this era is so fascinating. The Maple Leafs have surplus on the blueline and in goal. More importantly, they have the essential element…first-rate prospects playing in the American League.

The Marlies are 15-7-3. They are tied for fourth in the 30-team AHL with a greenish roster. 
Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Jesse Blacker are 21. Korbinian Holzer is 23. Ben Scrivens is 25. All but Blacker has played in the NHL and he is regarded as an excellent prospect.

Colborne and Kadri have already taken home AHL player of the month honours. Kadri is building his game and has collected 22 points in 19 games.  Both players are nicely groomed and NHL-ready. So is Aulie who looked ready in a recent injury callup. Holzer would max out as a complimentary player who could solidify a pairing in which he is teamed with an offensively-oriented partner.

For the first time in memory, the Leafs have the raw material they need to land a pivotal player, not by taking on salary, but by dealing young players who will mature along with their trading partners.

Need a big, playmaking centre with good vision and a nice reach?   Colborne is your man. How about a forward with top-drawer skating and playmaking abilities? Then you want Kadri. Got a hankering for a young forward who plays a strong overall game and is near impossible to knock off his skates?  Consider soon to be Marlie, Matt Frattin.

All are young, talented and compared to the player coming back to Toronto, economical.
The cap space the Leafs dealt earlier will be in short supply so any deal would involve some remarkable financial juggling.

Naturally enough, the Leafs reserve the right to stay the course and wait for their young players to directly contribute to the big club.

But the newfound success of the organization’s top prospects means now more than ever the Marlies matter.

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