Friday, December 2, 2011

Leafs Trade Deadline Preview

The NHL trade deadline is set for February 27, 2012.  This day is easily one of my favourite days of the year, along with the day that free agency begins. On these days teams make acquisitions that affect the future of their franchise, both short and long term. This day has spawned the terms "rental player" and "pump and dump" into the hockey lexicon. Leafs GM Brian Burke has made significant gains through these methods, but the Leafs have been out of the playoff picture for the entirety of Burke's tenure, and find their fortunes reversed this year. The Leafs brass must continuously be contemplating if this team can contend for the Cup, and though the Leafs rank highly in the standings, they should still be considered relative underdogs.

The Leafs continue to struggle with goaltending. Keeper James Reimer has been injured, and has yet to prove himself beyond his breakout year. It's one thing to excel when your team has no hopes of post-season action, entirely another when each game carries significant gravitas, never mind the post-season. Jonas Gustavsson has proven that he is inconsistent and requires further development. The lack of speed of certain defencemen and the inexperience of others at times is cause for concern. The forward corps delivers feasts or famines, depending on the evening.

Further concerning is the inability to beat divisional opponents with reliability. The defending champion Boston Bruins have the team's number, and the Sabres have imposed themselves upon the Leafs for the last few years. The common thread there is stellar opposition goaltending. Even the Ottawa Senators are currently leading the battle of Ontario series this year.

Boston and Buffalo are truly contenders in the East, as are the Rangers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Burke and company must find a way to purchase players to improve the team to approximate parity with these opponents, or continue to sell whatever assets that have demand and value in order to improve the team for the future. The playoff picture is still relatively opaque, and will become more translucent the closer we get to the deadline. We can, however, look at the team and see what pieces may become commodities.

Maple Leaf unrestricted free agents at the end of this year include Mikhail Grabovski, Joey Crabb, Philippe Dupuis, John-Michael Liles and Jonas Gustavsson, with Finger, Boyce, Zigomanis and Hamilton in similar positions with the Marlies. Amongst restricted free agents are Nikolai Kulemin, Matt Frattin, Jay Rosehill, Cody Franson and Keith Aulie, with Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, Marcel Mueller, Simon Gysbers, Dale Mitchell, Korbinian Holzer, Matt Lashoff, Juraj Mikus, Richard Greenop and Luca Caputi rounding out a sizeable list for the Marlies.

Typically, the players moved on deadline day tend to be UFA's at the end of the season, but it is important to note the Leafs RFA's due to the amount of players on the list, and the names.Teams looking to solidify their rosters may find potential additions like Grabovski, Liles and Dupuis tantalizing, and for the right returns Burke might deal them. Burke may also find useful pieces or draft picks by packaging some excess depth to an organization in need of prospects.

If Brian Burke is not able to make a move prior to the trade deadline, it's likely he will try to make a couple on that day. He cannot renew every expiring contract, nor should he. He also has a crop of players that will be coming out of junior, like Brad Ross, Greg McKegg and Sam Carrick. It will certainly be nice to see the Leafs in the playoffs this year, but Burke must avoid temptation to spend too much to try to contend this year, and damage the team's ability to remain in contention for the future.

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