Byte-ing The Berger


Yesterday, Howard Berger did something that he hasn’t done in a very long time. That, of course, is show relevance in the Toronto Hockey Media. Ever since Ron Wilson pretty much ended his mainstream media career, Berger has confined himself to his personal blog, where he posts occasional leafs thoughts mixed with photos of his jersey collection and North York Sunsets. Must be a sweet life.

Back to yesterday. Berger threw out major rumour, outlining a blockbuster trade that he feels could go down between the Leafs and the Florida Panthers. The issue, of course, is that this move makes no sense.

The first few paragraphs are about the failures of the Florida Panthers and how Dale Tallon isn’t opposed to give up the 1st overall pick in this years draft. Not necessary to quote, but it very quickly sets the reader up to know where this is headed. Lets get into the meat.

Here in Toronto, for a multitude of obvious reasons, the Leafs are less in need of a quick fix than the long-term development of young players – particularly on defense. 

I don’t know how much of this is necessarily true. Looking at “the core” the Leafs have arguably the best right winger in the planet in Phil Kessel (Patrick Kane and Corey Perry are the only other strong candidates), a steady first pairing defenceman who can log big minutes in Dion Phaneuf, two quality top six left wingers in James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul, two gifted young offensive defencemen in Morgan RIelly and Jake Gardiner, a dynamic top six centre in Nazem Kadri, and at least one number one goalie in Jonathan Bernier.

That’s only looking at non-upcoming Free Agents with 50+ games played.That’s without looking at question marks (for over or under achieving reasons) in Tyler Bozak and Cody Franson. That’s without including Carl Gunnarsson, who may be playing in a position over his head, and without David Clarkson, whoc an’t pssibly be as bad as he was last year.

The basic point I’m trying to make is that while the Leafs aren’t stacked, they have at least eight of the eleven “high priority” slots (top six forwards, top four D, starting goalie) in reasonable shape. None of these guys have hit 30 years old, and they range as young as 20. The team needs a top line centre or a number two defencemen (along with really, really needing Clarkson to step up and fill that 2RW slot), but they aren’t in “rebuild” territory, from a roster perspective. From a strategy sense? Sure.

And after another late-season flame-out, the club is absolutely screaming for a change in culture and leadership.

Never starting a sentence with “and” aside, I’m still not a fan of this ‘leadership was the problem’ excuse. The Leafs collapsed because giving up the most shots ever allowed in an 82 game season, getting out shot 65 times in those 82 games, and not scoring more than 3 regulation goals in any game after February isn’t a isn’t a successful model to win hockey at any level. The Leafs use a predictable breakout that allows teams into easily intercept early passes (which increases turnovers) and a still use a dump and chase system that they usually lose out on (giving up possession and potential opportunities to shoot). 

These are not things that could have been solved by “leadership”.

Berger then goes on to say how he’s heard this rumour twice, and while he’s not into the speculation industry, he feels its worth mentioning. I can’t say I believe that a man who worked in sports radio for decades and wrote for Eklund on HockeyBuzz for years is anti-rumour, but sure, just give me the guts.

Maple Leafs would trade Dion Phaneuf, Nazem Kadri and their first-round pick – eighth overall – to Florida for veteran Ed Jovanovski and the No. 1 overall selection. It would enable Toronto to draft potential franchise blue-liner Aaron Ekblad of the Ontario Hockey League Barrie Colts. Ekblad would ultimately join Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Finn to form a young, potentially superb defense unit for the Maple Leafs.

Where do I begin? Oh wait, Howard wrote an analysis! Lets just comment on that…

Phaneuf’s name has surfaced on a number of occasions since Brendan Shanahan became president of the Leafs, Apr. 11. Given the decision to retain coach Randy Carlyle and the extreme unlikelihood that Phil Kessel will be traded, Phaneuf provides the Blue and White its lone opportunity to alter a failed nucleus.

The Leafs haven’t been an established nucleus for very long. Many will point to 2009/10, Kessel and Phaneuf’s first year, and say that they’ve had five years to do this. The reality? Nikolai Kulemin is the only opening night player or coach left from that team, and he’s likely testing the market. You likely have to look at 2011/12  as the first year of this “nucleus”.  Kessel has his big breakout, Lupul and Gardiner play their first full seasons for the team, Bozak recovers from a horrendus sophomore slump, Phaneuf plays through the season for the first time in blue and white, and Carlyle comes in. Realistically, it’s a three year nucleus that still hasn’t over-ripened in age and has supplementary players available to fill out the non-core areas. Chunks are missing, but it’s not “tear apart” time.

Phaneuf has limited movement restriction in the contract he signed with Maple Leafs in late-December, though he might have enough authority to require approval for a trade to Florida. My NHL contacts don’t believe that would be much of an issue. They feel Phaneuf would likely welcome a change of scenery and a leadership role in a far-less-maniacal hockey market.

Which is why he signed this mammoth deal to remain the Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and protect his ability to stay here six months ago, when he could have hit the open market and probably earned more. Whether you like his style of play or not, Phaneuf instantaneously becomes the most sought-after defenceman on the market if he walks.

Sadly for the Maple Leafs, Kadri and Carlyle mix like gasoline and fire. It’s a player/coach relationship with very limited upside. Given that only Buffalo scored fewer goals than Florida this season, Kadri would help boost a flagging offense. And, the Panthers would still get a good prospect with the No. 8 selection in the draft. Though there is risk in trading a young, gifted player, the Maple Leafs do have enough firepower to relinquish Kadri, who might blossom under new direction.

“Carlyle doesn’t mesh with player” is the one of the biggest tropes in the hockey world. We’ve heard it in Toronto and in Anaheim. At what point do you stop shipping out good players to appease the guy that’s angering them? 

As for the firepower, it’s worth noting that this move requires Tyler Bozak to keep up his numbers, something that will be hard to achieve after leading the league in on-ice shooting percentage and finishing second among individuals who played 25+ GP. It also means that you’re committing to one of Peter Holland or David Bolland to be your second line centre. Holland may or not be ready to play an offensive role, and Bolland put up just 1.27 points per 60 5-on-5 minutes with Patrick Kane on his wing for 92% of his shifts. Having three skilled wingers is awesome, but this guts the Leafs down the middle.

The Leafs have a more complicated cap situation with a number of players to contend with. Dave Bolland, Jay McClement, Nikolai Kulemin, Mason Raymond Troy Bodie, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, Paul Ranger and James Reimer were all deployed by the club this past season and are all either restricted or unrestricted free agents.

Several of these players are expected to be walking, Franson and Reimer are both expected to be shopped over the summer, and any cap move that allows the Leafs to be able to throw this much money at this man’s house is a bad idea. But hold on….

The rumored deal with Florida would slash nearly $2.9 million from the Leafs’ cap figure – that being the difference between Phaneuf and Jovanovski.

Has Berger considered that Ekblad’s contract (if he is indeed selected first), with rookie bonuses factored in, could be well over $2.9 million and closer to four? 

Turning 38 at the end of this month, Jovanovski has one year left on his $4.125-million contract and is not certain about coming back for an 18th NHL season. He appeared in 37 games for the Panthers after undergoing nearly a complete hip replacement and would like to play again – should his body cooperate. If that were to happen, the first overall draft pick in 1994 would lend size, savvy and experience to the young, developing Leafs on the blue-line.

Right, so through all of this the Leafs have to take on a 38 year old negative possession player (on a positive team, no less), who still has one moderately hefty year on his contract. He’s also unsure where his body stands, and may get hurt again. There’s also the whole matter of him being completely devoid of offensive talent at this stage of his career, putting up 33 points in his past 149 games. 

But hey, he brings size! Because, as we all know, there’s a huge difference between his huge 6’3, 221 pound frame, and Phaneuf’s puny 6’3, 214 pound build. 

To summarize, this is a deal that could help both teams. In Phaneuf, Florida would add another horse on defense and a player with a refreshed outlook. Kadri would entertain fans in Sunrise and generate much-needed offense for the Panthers. By trading Phaneuf, Leafs would form a new identity and partially dissolve the blundering Carlyle-Phaneuf-Kessel triumvirate. Toronto would add yet another terrific prospect on the blue-line. As always, a trade rumor has to be considered for what it is – pure speculation. But, this one makes a bit of sense.

No, Howard. This deal doesn’t help both teams. The allure of getting a guy like Aaron Ekblad is admittedly huge; the Leafs need another first pairing defenceman very badly. But at this stage in the game, you acquire a guy like him to learn from, play with, compliment, and take the pressure off of Phaneuf, not to replace him. Otherwise, he’s stuck trying to figure out the game from either Jovonovski, who’s best days were two lockouts ago, or Tim Gleason, who’s best days may have been just a hologram. Unless he goes to the coach, who has used his defensive wizardry to force his teams into the defensive zone to run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

We’re looking at a deal where a not-there-but-getting-there team fixes one position of weakness down the line by creating two more. That’s not a bit of sense; that’s nonsense. This wouldn’t even make sense if the Leafs weren’t throwing in the 8th overall pick in the process. Yes. They would do this to move seven spots up. 

An Alternative

I’m not much into speculation myself, but if the Leafs wants to trade up with Florida, it’s an interesting concept. Let’s say Berger is right about Tallon being in a “get this team decent fast” mentality, while still not wanting to destroy the cupboard.

Let’s say that Darren Dreger’s speculation was right today and that Tallon is interested in Bolland. Quite honestly, I don’t believe it either, seeing as he was supposedly interested in Randy Carlyle if the Leafs fired him. I wouldn’t be surprised if Florida just the team being used so the Leafs could say they had competition when they eventually end up retaining both (50% complete!).

If that’s the case, you offer up the 8th overall pick, David Bolland’s rights, Carl Gunnarsson (to help shore up that blue line and get them to the floor), and another pick and/or mid-range prospect for the number one spot. Draft Ekblad as the speculation says, pair him with Phaneuf, run Rielly/Gardiner next year as pair 2, and then have fun with the third pairing. See what happens and tweak as need be.

It’s probably not going to happen, but it at least makes a hell of a lot more sense.

Random photo of a Toronto sunset courtesy of Howard Berger’s Facebook. Did you think I was kidding about that?

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  • Dan

    Thank you!!

    I’ve been saying trade up, draft Ekblad, and play him with Dion for WEEKS!! This infatuation some people have with moving Phaneuf out of town baffles me… Maybe if he wasn’t playing with a guy that is a 5/6 D-man on a good team against some extremely stiff competition, he wouldn’t look quite as lost as some people think.

    • Dan

      I agree with you (and Jeffler for that matter), but I just don’t know what we’d give up to do this. Think about it from Florida’ s end…..would you take the 8th pick, Gunnarson, bolland’s rights, and a 3rd for the first overall? Probably not. If I were Florida, I’d want Kadri or Gardiner plus our 1st for it.
      Not to turn this discussion into a mimic of HFboards, but I think the leafs lack enough trade chips to move that high up without gutting key parts of our team. I’d be more inclined to stay patient and look for something that makes more sense.

  • Poluza

    Love your writing Jeffler, but your Bolland trade for Ekblad is just as absurd as the Phaneuf trade that Berger analyzed.

    Also, you have a touch of blue and white disease. This team is nowhere near as good as you think it. Phaneuf is not a #1D on most teams. Kessel is a wonderfully dynamic player, but he shouldn’t be in the same sentence as Kane or Perry.

    Those are your two best players. A strong case could be made that their depth is sufficient, and they still are a very young team which could develop into much more… but when your two cornerstones are Phaneuf and Kessel, you are doomed to be a bubble team at best. And that’s IF your goalie is a stud all season.

    • Leaf Fan in Mexico

      I agree and am not sure why everyone thing DP is so great. Like every time you hear his name, it is followed by the statement: he logs workhorse minutes…. So? That may be a characteristic of a great defense man but it doesn’t mean just because he plays lots he is great. He is just OK. Kessel too, always the same…. great winger, yea but lousy leader.

      We have no leadership. When you look symptoms and shout cause (i.e., too many shots against), you create a statistical fallacy of causation.

      Great leadership ensure players are accountable, and many say we have the talent or nucleous to move forward without dramatic change. If this is the case then why is this team not getting the number of shots down? Or playing hard both ends of the ice? Or crumbling when meeting teams of lesser or similar talent (aka March melt down 2014).

      If a team can beat Anaheim one day and loose to Nashville the next you have to know leadership is the problem other wise they would bring the A game every day. If its not leadership its talent. Trade Kessel and Phaneuf.

  • Poluza

    I think it’s a bit absurd that anyone would trade their best defenceman and centre as well as the 8th pick for the first pick and a useless salary dump player.

    As much as I believe that Ekblad will be a stud/star dman, Toronto needs to win while Kessel is in his prime. They can’t do that with a blueline consisting of rookies, Gleason, and Jovanovski.

  • Back in Black

    I think it’s hilarious to simultaneously claim that “there is no quick fix” and “the problem is leadership”.

    If “leadership” were really the problem, it could be fixed quickly and easily.

    • Leaf Fan in Mexico

      Leadership can be fixed two ways….

      1. find one of the rare players that just brings it to the dressing room. I am the first to admit these types of guys are far and few between

      2. build it out through team culture. This relies on a combination of guys in the room and coaching (and to an extent a steady hand on the wheel in management)

      I thought we were getting somewhere two seasons ago and the first part of last (this) season, that is, until around late November when all the other teams started getting their act together and TO’s fast relatively talented team hit the other-teams-are-at-least-as-talented-as-TO-wall…. then we started loosing too many games we could/should have won….leadership at the player and coaching level took a crap.

  • Leaf Fan in Mexico

    Here lies a big problem – too much money locked into too few. The Clarkson deal was brutal for our cap. For slightly more, 6 million roughly, you could have probably kept Kulemin and Raymond next season.

    The Leafs need to stop paying for intangibles and pay to win. Leafs fans don’t care about PR signings like Clarkson especially when it cripples the ability to ice a playoff roster.