Friday, March 15, 2013

Leafs Update

Since my last post:

- Kostka gets a break in the press box and Liles plays (called it)
- Lupul back Saturday
- Steckel traded to Anaheim for Ryan Lasch and a 7th rounder in 2014 (I'll take a "called it" on that too)
- 4th loss in a row, unbelievably key game against Winnipeg on Saturday

Doesn't look like Lupul will start on the 1st line. No surprise there. 3rd with Kadri and Kulemin looking likely, with Frattin and MacArthur on the 2nd with Grabo. 1st unchanged with Bozak, Kessel, and JVR.

Know what? That's a helluva set of lines there. I really like Kadri between Lupul and Kulemin. Kulemin can't score to save his life (not bad on assists though), but he's a great defensive forward, which gives Kadri and Lupul more freedom to take a chance or two, knowing there are essentially 2.5 defensemen behind them. Of course, this requires either Lupul or Kulemin playing on the wrong wing. One would hope Carlyle learned his lesson in Anaheim and LEAVES LUPUL ON THE LEFT. Kulemin can't be offensively worse on his off wing.

Grabo's speed and creativity might finally see the expected dividends with Frattin and Mac alongside him. 1st line speaks for itself right now.

At last Carlyle has, at least temporarily, dropped the "keep the Russians together" concept. Of course, all this could change by game time tomorrow.

Now, if these lines take off, don't expect much movement. Otherwise, Lupul will inevitably be on the 1st line again (where he belongs), with JVR and MacArthur being somewhere on the 2nd and 3rd.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Inn is Full

Long Leafs post. You've been warned.

I was going to write this yesterday, but opted to lose some bar poker instead. Still, the idea doesn't change that much on the heels of a 3-game losing streak for my boys in blue & white.

The Leafs have a roster problem. Too many players.

There are two noticeable absences in the line-up at the moment - Joffery Lupul and Jake Gardiner. Lupul was our number two scorer last year, and the top line of him and Kessel was unstoppable - and one of the only bright spots of the season. Three games in this year he took a Dion Phaneuf shot off the forearm and has been out ever since waiting for the fracture to heal. There seems to be a perpetual "1-2 week" period until he's ready to play these days. He skated with the team on Monday, but is still not 100%. This hasn't been a problem to date because others have picked up the slack. Van Riemsdyk  has worked well with Kessel on the top line. MacArthur and Kadri have chemistry on the 3rd. Frattin was shooting out the lights before he went down for a couple weeks, but he's back now and showing some good hustle. Still, Lupul's presence is missed - the guy has speed, power, finesse, is hard to move, and offered plenty of options when skating down the ice with Kessel on the the other side. Either could score with ease. Not to mention he constantly comes off as the most articulate and intelligent of the Leafs in interviews and is a leader in the dressing room.

Gardiner is our rookie phenom on D. With lots of speed and stick-handling ability he's got skills that our largely stay-at-home defense is lacking. He came back to the team too quickly after a concussion in the minors, and was sent back down to finish getting up to speed. He's been proving that he's ready to come back ever since.

So what's the hold up? Waivers.

The Leafs have a full roster and only 3 players who can be sent down to the minors without having to clear waivers - Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, and Korbinian Holzer. Kadri ain't going anywhere, being tied for the team lead with 25 points. Komarov is a hitting machine and the irritant every team loves to have. That leaves Holzer, another rookie D-man, who just got a 2-year extension. He's had a rough week, and was never good enough to justify staying in the lineup game-in and game-out with someone like Gardiner waiting in the wings. Until you look deeper.

Up in the press box sits John-Michael Liles and Mike Komisarek.  Two veteran Ds who haven't seen the ice in over a month. Komi is a failed acquisition who will be bought out once the season is done if he's not traded first. He COULD be sent down without fear of clearing waivers (because nobody would take him, and if they did, we'd be fine with it), except for his no-movement clause. Whoops. I've never been sure why Liles hasn't been given another shot on the ice though. He's got good speed, and good offensive production, but perhaps doesn't have a strong enough defensive game for Carlyle.

So, 1 player that can be easily moved down, 2 players that should be on the ice. That math doesn't add up.

There are a few things in play here that may not be obvious. First, Gardiner has 3 games to play in the big leagues before he can't go back down. So if he's brought up, he's up for good. Throw in an already jammed-up defense (8 D on the 23-man roster right now), and this complicates matters. Franson, Phaneuf, and Fraser aren't coming off the ice. Gunnarsson and Kostka COULD see time in the press box for a break if the coach had any faith in the $8.4 million in players already there. That leaves Holzer. I'll get to that in a second. Point being - there isn't room for the guy without a move.

So why not Holzer? Because Lupul HAS to come back, and Holzer is the insurance for that. Gardiner CAN stay with Marlies this season if need be. It sucks for him, but them's the breaks from a contract perspective. I'm sure Nonis and company are letting him know how much they want to bring him up, but just can't. Lupul doesn't have a choice. They're taking their time with his recovery (a lot of times, this sort of injury would see a guy back at 80-90% with a soft cast or something. But they're going for the full 100% here) because it takes pressure off the roster situation, and the team is doing fine so far. If a trade can't be made, then Holzer goes down to clear up space for Lupul, with Liles coming down from the press box to fill the spot on the blue line. If Holzer goes down now for Gardiner, then the Leafs are in a bad spot trade-wise. They'll HAVE to make a trade, and that shifts the advantage to the other side of the deal. Every GM will know that the Leafs have to clear roster space, so they'll offer less for more. That's not acceptable. So Holzer stays up... as leverage.

Ideally, the Leafs would love to trade Komisarek, or possiibly Liles. The fans would like to see Kulemin gone, despite him being a solid defensive forward (he's paid too much for that role, based off one offensively productive season). Any of those would go for reasonable draft picks or prospects, but we could potentially get an overpaid roster player if the fit is right. Someone like a Bozak, MacArthur, or Franson are also possibilities. The first two because they're UFAs at the end of the season and worth something now, the last because he's worth more than he's ever been and we're heavy on defense with Gardiner waiting and Morgan Reilly coming up quickly. Although the pressure to make the playoffs this year could prevent some of those trades from happening (do you trade your top faceoff guy, who takes EVERY defensive-zone faceoff? Do you trade one of your best playmakers? Or your top offensive defenseman?) Will anybody offer anything worthwhile for Komi, Liles, or Kulemin and their contracts? Will the Leafs have to carry salary for those trades to happen?

Also, how does Lupul's return change things? He goes on the top line sooner rather than later (maybe not game 1, but by game 4). JVR to the second? Where does that put Kulemin? JVR to 3rd and MacArthur to where?  The lineup shakes up significantly on Lupul's return. Only after that disturbance will the Leafs really know what they need and who they don't. So it's yet another reason to hold off bringing up Gardiner. Lupul returns and you get 1 or 2 weeks to assess your full team before the trade deadline.

So my call? Barring some unexpected trade (ie.- David Steckel for a 5th rounder, or someone comes calling for Komisarek, or Kostka is even an outside possibility), or this losing streak carrying on (creating panic moves), Holzer stays on the team until Lupul is ready to return. Then Holzer goes down, then trades happen, then maybe Gardiner comes up - if Carlyle can figure out how to use him.