LEAFS SHOULD SEIZE OPPORTUNITY
Toronto can win Stanley Cup now if GM makes right moves at trade deadline
The question for general manager Lou Lamoriello heading into next week’s trade deadline isn’t whether the Toronto Maple Leafs are buyers or sellers. It’s whether the last two weeks have convinced him the team should be considered a Stanley Cup contender.
The Leafs, who entered Wednesday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, have won eight of their last nine games. During that span, they have defeated the best team in the NHL (Tampa Bay) and last year’s Stanley Cup runner-up (Nashville), with the only loss coming against the mighty Boston Bruins, who Toronto could meet in the first round of the playoffs.
With one of the league’s hottest goalies, a healthy back end that is clicking and three forward lines that are deadly, you could make the argument Toronto is one or two pieces away (a third-pairing defenceman and a third- or fourth-line centre) from potentially going all the way.
“Has the team put pressure on Lou?” asked head coach Mike Babcock, when questioned about the trade deadline. “If you think anything we do is affecting the way Lou sleeps, it’s not — unless we don’t play well without the puck.”
Here’s the conundrum: The Leafs might be ahead of the curve, but they are still in a rebuilding mode. Their best players are under the age of 21 and still on entry-level contracts. There’s a belief that you let this group take you as far as they can and then build on it for next year.
And yet, one look at the Oilers’ fall from grace after losing in Game 7 of the second round tells you the window of opportunity can shut pretty quickly, especially when your top young players start getting new contracts.
Toronto is a year away from that, which is why I believe the Leafs should strike while the iron’s hot and get the pieces they need to try to win a Stanley Cup today — as long as they aren’t giving up the farm (i.e. 2017 first-rounder Timothy Liljegren) in the process. Next year, you probably won’t have James van Riemsdyk or Tyler Bozak or Leo Komarov, who become unrestricted free agents.
Then again, there could be kids coming up (Nikita Soshnikov and Josh Leivo) ready to take those players’ places anyway.
“No one’s lost sight of anything that’s gone on,” Babcock said. “The standings don’t affect our plan. Our plan is to build a product here that we can be proud of, to give ourselves a chance to knock on the door every year so when you arrive at training camp you know you’re in the playoffs. We’re not at that stage yet. That’s the focus of our plan.
“Do we want to win today? One hundred per cent.”
Another thing that might be affecting Lamoriello’s decision to make a deal is the standings.
As with last year, when the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins were forced to play the thirdplace Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs, it’s beyond silly that the Leafs will likely get the Bruins or Lightning in the opening round.
If the format were 1-versus-8, like it was before 2014, Toronto’s first-round opponent would be the sixth-place Philadelphia Flyers.
The best trades are usually described as a win-win for both teams. The four-player trade that sent Dion Phaneuf to Los Angeles and Marian Gaborik to Ottawa is what you would call a lose-lose.
At US$7 million per year, Phaneuf was overpaid as a second-pairing defenceman in Ottawa. Even with the Senators retaining 25 per cent of his contract, he is still overpaid as a second-pairing defenceman in Los Angeles.
Of course, Gaborik is nowhere near worth $4.875 million.
It’s unfair to question or criticize Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman for signing Jonathan Toews ($10.5 million) and Brent Seabrook ($6 million) to contracts that no longer make financial sense. After all, those players did win three Stanley Cups for the organization.
But Bowman doesn’t get a pass on trading Artemi Panarin (15 goals and 46 points) to Columbus for Brandon Saad (13 goals and 24 points). That could be the reason the team misses the playoffs.
Meanwhile, I don’t know what’s more surprising: that Duncan Keith is still without a goal or that he’s a minus-13. The latter stat might not mean as much these days, but this is uncharted territory for Keith, who hasn’t been near this bad since he was minus-11 as a rookie.
If you think the Matt Duchene trade looks bad for the Senators today, just wait until this year’s NHL draft, when the team has to decide whether to send its firstround pick from 2018 or 2019 to the Colorado Avalanche as part of the deal. Luckily for Ottawa, the team put in that provision. But based on where the Senators are heading, next year’s pick could be even lower.
On paper, Evander Kane should be at the top of the list when it comes to trade deadline rentals. The problem is, hockey is about more than just stats.
While the 26-year-old winger has 18 goals and 38 points for a poor Sabres team, there is still the perception that Kane comes with baggage. I’m confident someone will trade for him, but like Pittsburgh acquiring Phil Kessel, it will have to be a team with a strong dressing room. Who knows, it could be the move that pushes a team over the edge.
STRONG DRAFT CLASS
That the New York Rangers decided to pack it in had a lot to do with this year’s draft, which is being hailed as one of the strongest in years. The chance to select Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, a generational talent, could cause other teams to take a chance in the draft lottery rather than as an eighth seed.
But it’s not just Dahlin who has everyone excited. The three players considered next in the draft order — forwards Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina — are all capable of jumping to the NHL next season.
If you think anything we do is affecting the way Lou sleeps, it’s not — unless we don’t play well without the puck.
Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello has a playoff team already, but now he has to decide whether this bunch has reached the fringe of Stanley Cup contention a few years early and act accordingly at the upcoming NHL trade deadline.