Leafs Hope Additions Equal Longer Playoff Run
NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis went on a spending spree this summer. It's time to find out if he made the right purchases.
"We have to go out and prove it," Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle told NHL.com. "Just because we've added some people it doesn't make the statement that it's this type of club or that type of club."
The type of club Nonis is trying to build and Carlyle wants to coach is one that can push the pace and be aggressive in any building. The Maple Leafs started moving in that direction last season, when they snapped a nine-year Stanley Cup Playoff drought to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference with 57 points.
They couldn't close the deal in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Boston despite having a three-goal lead in the third period of Game 7.
That's partially why Nonis gave right wing David Clarkson a seven-year, $37 million contract July 5.
Nonis and Carlyle think Clarkson can get back to being a 30-goal scorer, which he was two seasons ago for the New Jersey Devils, but he's going to start the season on the sidelines, serving a 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join an on-ice altercation during a preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres on Sept. 22.
He's not eligible to return until Oct. 25, when the Maple Leafs visit the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I think Dave Clarkson made a mistake," Carlyle told reporters in Toronto. "Now we pay for it."
Dave Bolland should be on the ice to start the season despite a nagging groin injury. He was acquired in a draft-day trade from the Chicago Blackhawks.
Bolland has thrived in the big moment, winning the Stanley Cup twice with the Blackhawks and scoring the Cup-clinching goal in June. He's also been one of the League's top checking centers.
"We think both of these players, Clarkson and Bolland, bring elements to the game that are important for our young players," Carlyle said. "They're veteran guys. They've scored big goals in playoff games."
Nonis didn't want to mess with what he thinks is a good thing, so he re-signed center Tyler Bozak to a five-year, $21 million contract.
Bozak is Phil Kessel's center and close friend. Kessel, who is suspended for the rest of the preseason as a result of the altercation that led to Clarkson's automatic suspension, is a four-time 30-goal scorer and was on a 30-goal pace last season (20 goals in 48 games). He's in a contract year and the Maple Leafs want to keep him. Signing his center should help.
After a long negotiation, Nonis signed center Nazem Kadri to a two-year, $5.8 million contract after Kadri had 44 points in 48 games last season.
Nonis worked on the defense by avoiding salary arbitration hearings with Carl Gunnarsson and Mark Fraser. Gunnarsson got a three-year, $9.45 million contract and Fraser a one-year, $1.275 million contract. Nonis also signed defenseman Paul Ranger, who had a solid return to the ice last season after a nearly three-season absence, to a one-year, $1 million contract.
Then, on Thursday, Nonis finally was able to make a deal with restricted free agent Cody Franson, who was the team's highest-scoring defenseman last season. According to reports, Franson signed a one-year, $2 million deal.
Signing Franson, Gunnarsson and Fraser and signing Ranger were important moves in trying to put together a club that limits chances and goals-against, areas that were problematic last season; Toronto was 17th in goals-against per game (2.67) and 27th in shots-against per game (32.3).
A healthy goaltending battle also should help lower those numbers, which is why the Maple Leafs acquired Jonathan Bernier in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings. The hope is that Bernier and incumbent No. 1 James Reimer can deliver Toronto a season-long, Grade-A goaltending competition.
Nonis later signed Bernier, who was a restricted free agent, to a two-year, $5.8 million contract.
He also gave a one-year, $1 million contract to forward Mason Raymond.
"A lot has been made of the grit and toughness and obviously that's a big part of how Randy likes his team to play, but we want to make sure that we're not one-dimensional, that we have the ability to play a skill game, a grinding game," Nonis said. "We want to be able to play regardless of the opposition.
"Are we there? No. Are we closer? I think we're closer."
How close remains to be seen, but here is a more in-depth look at the players Nonis and Carlyle are putting their faith into this season:
Prior to Clarkson's suspension, the likely scenario for Toronto's top two lines to start the season had Bozak with Kessel and James van Riemsdyk on the top line and Kadri with Clarkson and Joffrey Lupul on the second line.
However, Clarkson's early-season absence means Carlyle will have to adjust. He can use Nikolai Kulemin in Clarkson's spot or potentially Mason Raymond, who earned his one-year contract after coming to training camp on a professional tryout agreement.
Even though Carlyle and Nonis think Bolland has an offensive upside that he hasn't shown on a consistent basis in his NHL career, he figures to center the third line. It won't necessarily be a checking line, though, because when the Maple Leafs are whole again with Clarkson back, Bolland could have Kulemin on his right wing and Raymond on his left.
"Obviously he's had success at the NHL level in a checking role, but he also scored a lot of points in his junior career playing with Corey Perry," Carlyle said of Bolland. "He has some crazy stats. The one thing we feel is if you put him with skill players he can get them the puck and he's around the net, involved. We don't just deem him a checker; that's not how we view him at all."
Nor do the Maple Leafs see Kulemin as a checker, but his offense has tapered dramatically the past two seasons after he scored 30 goals in 2010-11. He had seven goals in 2011-12 and seven in 48 games last season.
A serious back injury has limited Raymond the past two seasons, but he has shown no ill-effects in training camp.
"Based on Mason's play in the preseason, we feel he fits in well with our group and will have a significant role on our team," Nonis said.
Even the Maple Leafs' fourth line can be dangerous if Joe Colborne proves he can make the jump. He's 6-foot-5, 213 pounds and more of a center than a wing, but Colborne will have to make the team as a winger because Jay McClement isn't moving positions. He's too important to the team in the middle, especially because Carlyle uses him for defensive-zone faceoffs and as the lead forward on the penalty kill.
"[Colborne] has had ebbs and flows and some of them are related to injury, some of them are related to growing into a big body and some are related to just getting used to playing at a high level on a consistent basis," Maple Leafs vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin told NHL.com. "We've seen the flashes of it, but at this level it has to be all the time."
Dion Phaneuf and Gunnarsson should start the season as Toronto's top defense pair.
They were the top per-game ice-time earners among Toronto's defensemen last season and are expected to be again. Carlyle leans heavily on them, especially Phaneuf, who routinely averages more than 25 minutes per game. He's also in a contract year and said he would be willing to negotiate throughout the season to stay in Toronto.
"I really like where our team is at and where we're going," Phaneuf told NHL.com. "We made some real good additions this year and obviously we played some real good hockey last year. I love playing in Toronto. We've got unbelievable fans. Ever since I got here I've really enjoyed the city and playing in front of the fans here."
Nonis appears to have further bolstered his blue line as reports emerged Thursday that he inked restricted free agent Cody Franson to a one-year deal worth $2 miillion.Franson, 26, is coming off the best season of his career, when he had 29 points, including 25 assists. He's a natural second-pair partner for Jake Gardiner, who could be primed for a breakout season.
Ranger has the most interesting story of all players in Toronto's training camp. He left the NHL for personal reasons early in the 2009-10 season and is trying to make a comeback. He played well enough last season with the Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leafs' American Hockey League affiliate, to earn another chance in the NHL.
Ranger formerly was a top defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It would be a coup for the Maple Leafs if he could regain the form he had from 2006-08, when he combined for 59 points in 144 games.
"He's a big guy that skates very well and moves the puck well," Phaneuf said. "He sees the ice extremely well. He's got a real good stick defensively and he's just a well-rounded defensemen. He has a real good offensive side to him, a real heavy slap shot. He shoots the puck hard, but he's a real good defender as well. He's a big addition."
Franson's absence briefly opened the door for 19-year-old prospect Morgan Rielly, Toronto's first-round pick in 2011 (No. 5). It's possible the Maple Leafs keep Rielly at the start of the season to give them more time to evaluate him before deciding if he should return to the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League.
Just when Reimer thought he might have some assurances after a successful season as Toronto's No. 1 goalie, Nonis acquired Bernier to compete for the No. 1 job.
Reimer helped the Maple Leafs get to the playoffs last season with 19 wins, a 2.46 goals-against average and .924 save percentage, but now he has to win back his job from a goalie who finally is getting a legitimate shot to show he can also be a No. 1 in the NHL.
Bernier wasn't going to get that in Los Angeles, where Jonathan Quick is entrenched as the starting goalie. He has the chance in Toronto and the Maple Leafs are hoping it sets up as a promising situation and the exact type of dilemma Carlyle wants to have.
"Reims [Reimer] had a pretty solid year, but it was only half a season," Carlyle said. "He's a young goaltender still cutting his teeth, finding a way to become a No. 1. The addition of Bernier solidifies our position. If we can create a competition between the two of them, if you win you're in, we think that's healthy for our group."
Drew MacIntyre, a 30-year-old AHL veteran, is behind Bernier and Reimer. The Maple Leafs would love it if he played the entire season with the Marlies.