TSN’s Scott Cullen breaks down the Leafs’ offseason game plan

We’ve begun slowly rolling out our offseason game plans. Last year, we concentrated on specific players and dedicated a post for each of them, but both the free agent and trade markets appear to be so thin right now. They will become a bit more interesting at the conclusion of the first buy-out window which I believe is 48 hours after the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Finals until July 4 at 5:00 p.m.

TSN’s Scott Cullen, an excellent columnist, had a very good breakdown for the Leafs’ offseason game plan and generally came to the same conclusions we often do at The Leafs Nation: the Leafs still have some holes to fill and they can’t assume they’ll make the playoffs in an 82-game season based off last season’s success.

As always there will be personnel decisions to address, but the first order of business for the Maple Leafs is understanding that they overachieved last season. That is, their place in the standings was not supported by sustainable underlying statistics, so they can’t rest on their playoff laurels thinking that they are simply a playoff team going forward.

Bolded the fun bit that will surely draw lots of agreement in the TSN comment section. Read past the jump.

Cullen starts off by mentioning the offensive success of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk. You’d have to think that the Maple Leafs are pretty much set at wing, and could even potentially make a trade out of an area of organizational strength. I’m not convinced that Lupul’s scoring is sustainable, but the first two years of his contract he will at least be somewhat productive offensively, although likely not at the rate he’s currently scoring since moving to Toronto.

An interesting take on Nik Kulemin: 

His 30-goal season in 2010-2011 may forever ruin expectations, since he’s come nowhere close since, but Nikolai Kulemin is a reliable two-way winger who was thrust into a very difficult role last season, playing the toughest matchups and starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone with less than ideal results. However, as a top nine forward with some offensive upside, Kulemin is an asset, if not quite what the Leafs might have thought they had a couple of seasons ago.

Cullen lists Kulemin as trade bait among the forwards, although given he’s a career 12% shooter that has shot 6.5% and 9.7% in the last two seasons, perhaps it isn’t the best time to get good assets for him. Other teams would be buying low on him, and a lot of teams probably wouldn’t subscribe to the metrics that indicate Kulemin is a very good physical defensive winger. I think Kulemin makes sense on a lot of teams, but that includes the Leafs. His cap hit is pretty low and he can bounce between the second and third lines with ease. He looked great with van Riemsdyk and Mikhail Grabovski in the playoffs.

One name Cullen doesn’t mention at all is MacArthur, which is a shame. Our stance is that he’s a versatile player that ought to be re-signed. I think it’s fairly obvious that Mac won’t be back. He had a tough time landing a regular spot in the lineup this past season.

Finally, he adds that “If the Maple Leafs decide to invest in Tyler Bozak as an unrestricted free agent, that will come at the expense of potentially adding somewhere else.” He then lists a few UFAs including David Clarkson, Ryane Clowe, Nathan Horton, Matt Cullen and Stephen Weiss, but ultimately I’d think that the Leafs’ best shot to replace Bozak’s roster spot will come through the trade market.

Talking about the defence, Cullen went through a rigorous defence of Dion Phaneuf and says that Jake Gardiner will improve next year, but this is interesting talking about John-Michael Liles:

A mobile defenceman who fell out of favour and sat in the press box for about a month, John-Michael Liles is more than capable of handling a regular role on the blueline. He’s not physical, never has been, so if that’s a specific need, then he won’t be the one to fill it, but Liles might be of interest to another team that could use his puck skills in a more advantageous manner.

I’ve been pretty alone in my belief that Liles can still contribute with the Leafs, although you’d need a big right shot defenceman to help him out and those are limited. Does Liles have trade value? Cullen seems to think yes, and generally I’d agree. Liles will make $4.2-million, which is a hefty amount, but not handcuff dollars. If the Leafs retained a bit of salary they could receive a nice piece in return.

Anyway, he also calls Mike Komisarek a likely buy-out candidate (I think it will be difficult for Komisarek to land an NHL gig, even for a much cheaper price) and cites Carl Gunnarsson’s injury as a reason for his and Phaneuf’s struggles this year, which is fair. It would suck if Gunnarsson is still not 100% next season, especially given how thin the Leafs are with good defensive defencemen on the left side. The free agents listed though… Dougie Murray, Rob Scuderi, Toni Lydman and Ian White don’t necessarily make me think that a fix to the defence can come via UFA. White’s the only right shooter of the four, and it takes just a quick glance at the WOWY numbers to show that much of White’s success both offensively and defensively came thanks to playing next to Nick Lidstrom.

His note on the goaltending:

Coming into the 2013 season, goaltending was a massive question mark for the Leafs, with James Reimer coming off a 2011-2012 season in which he posted a .900 save percentage. To be fair, that was a season during which he missed a bunch of time with a concussion, so it would be understandable if his game wasn’t at 100%, even when he did come back, but that didn’t guarantee that he would automatically be in peak form for 2013.

The only concerns I had with Reimer going into last year was his health, and it appears that even counting the “James scramblebrains” period, Reimer is a very, very good NHL goaltender. The focus shifts to Ben Scrivens, who Cullen thinks can shoulder the backup load cheaply and effectively, but I’m not as convinced. In a 48-game season it works, but considering Reimer’s health issues, you have to find a backup who can give you 30 games and 15 quality starts or you’re burnt toast. Maybe that is Scrivens, but the Leafs should dip into the veteran goalie market and see what options exist.

Again, a weak free agent market (Jose Theodore appears to be the closest match, and he put up a league average save percentage in shot-counting haven Florida for two years) means that the Leafs may be forced to settle with Scrivens again and you wouldn’t be able to blame the organization for once again not spending dollars on goaltending. For all you know at the price, Scrivens is just as good as any goaltender you can get on the wire for under $1-million.

Anyway, you should read the full piece. It’s nice to get intelligent mainstream analysis. Cullen provides that regularly with his online columns.

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  • Back in Black

    100% agree the leafs overachieved.

    But I’m at a loss to those that think the eliminating facepunchers and staged fighting is all that it takes to make the leafs a positive shot differential team. I’ve yet to see anyone come up with a realistic plan to address the defecencies on defence and at center. Yes I hate staged fighting and Colton Orr sucks at hockey but it just seems off to claim that his 5 minutes a game is the primary problem of why the leafs are a negative shot differetial team.

  • From Oilersnation:

    How will they improve the defense? MacT has already added the Russian Belov and I believe the club will be active during the summer, too. We’ve already heard rumors about Paul Ranger, and I believe Edmonton will add Russian defenseman Fedor Tyutin in a blockbuster deal. He’ll help form a top 6D that might go Tyutin-Petry, Smid-J Schultz, N Schultz-Belov and Paul Ranger.

    What’s the deal with Ranger? Does anyone know if he’s an option going forward around here?