Changes are coming. But what can one expect?


There is little doubt among observers that the Leafs will attempt to make some moves at the trade deadline a month from now, and with the team’s leadership meeting in Florida to plot strategy, many feel there could be a shakeup coming prior to the annual auction at the end of February.

The question is, what sort of a shakeup will GM Brian Burke be able to pull off? With the team in a rut, and several core players not playing up to expectation, can the Leafs be realistically expected to put together a major deal which could turn the franchise around?

The problem the Leafs face is the very players who would return decent value via trade are the same players the team would prefer to build around with an eye to the future.  For example, the Kulemin-Grabovski-MacArthur line has been the team’s most consistent all season, and appears to have the makings of an excellent scoring unit for years to come.  With Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin both signed through next season, and Clarke MacArthur indicating a willingness to work out a new contract with the Leafs, how can they break that unit up?

It’s hard to imagine the return for any of the three to be of greater benefit to the team than the functioning unit as a whole; it’s quite possible the team end up worse off for disrupting their only consistent source of offence. As the old saying goes, you don’t mess with great chemistry, as true value lies in the sum of the parts rather than the individual parts themselves.

Phil Kessel is another good example of a player who may generate interest, but would be of little benefit to trade. For all his struggles with consistency, Kessel is putting up better numbers at age 23 than many of the NHL’s top players did at the same age. With his prime still several years away, he remains a core piece of the future moving forward. Besides, given the king’s ransom Burke traded to acquire him in the first place, there is little doubt that he will be staying put.

Similarly, Luke Schenn has been the team’s best defender this season, and one of its few first round picks in the last two decades to actually show signs of fulfilling his potential in a Leafs‘ uniform. He’s a cornerstone. And with Dion Phaneuf handed the team’s captaincy just this season, it’s difficult to imagine any sort of a move involving him, either.

Beyond those six, the pickings get much more slim in terms of players the Leafs would be able to move for the sort of immediate help Burke seeks:

Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who suggested he may be willing to waive his NTC, could help a playoff-bound team in need of an experienced goaltender, but one would imagine the bidding price for a goaltender in his 30s with a recent history of groin troubles could not be all that high.

Francois Beauchemin’s name has been kicked around the rumour mill a ton lately, but he has been more valuable to the blueline than many believe and also happens to carry a limited NTC (which requires him to submit a 12-team trade list each year). That said, he could certainly be an asset to any team looking for defensive help, and might be able to fetch a useful addition up front in a one-for-one swap.

Kris Versteeg could also draw some interest with the season he is having, but would the return bring the team anything more than what he has already provided or would it simply be a lateral move? One has to remember that Versteeg brings far more to the table than simply offense; indeed, in his case the basic stat line is quite misleading. Simply, to say it’s difficult to replace a player who has yet to reach his prime, who scores at an above 20-goal pace, can play all three forward positions and both special teams unit with an upgrade in any sort of a one-for-one swap is a profound understatement.

Similarly, Tyler Bozak could draw some interest, but given the team’s lack of depth at the centre position, and Bozak’s ever-improving two-way play, it would seem the Leafs have on their hands an ideal 3rd-line centre for years to come. With Bozak yet to prove himself a consistent offensive threat at the NHL level, one cannot imagine he would generate any more than a lateral return — in which case, what would be the point?

And, of course, there is always Tomas Kaberle. In his case, the numbers don’t mean much as a defender’s points are dependant largely upon the production of the team’s forwards. Opposing teams know exactly what he can do and what he is worth, and he could still return significant value in a trade.  The question is (as always) will he waive his no-trade clause?  Although Kaberle wants to stay in Toronto, he is in the final year of his contract and could decide to waive if he feels the team would not be interested in bringing him back.  Chances are he stays — and re-ups this summer — but given his current contract status his situation is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Another, less popular option than the one-for-one approach would be for the Leafs to turn toward their prospect pool to try to increase value in a deal. There is much depth in goal and on the blueline, and trade scenarios are as much a part of the reason for stockpiling said depth as anything else.  It is not difficult to imagine there would be significant interest in the likes of Jussi Rynnas, Ben Scrivens, Keith Aulie, Korbinian Holzer, or Simon Gysbers … or even Nazem Kadri, should a tempting enough offer emerge.  While it would be painful to see the team part with any of its prospects after giving up multiple draft picks in the Phil Kessel trade, the reality is, to land an impact player who can help both now and in the future, dipping into the prospect pool to help formulate a package deal may be one of the Leafs’ few options.

The other option, of course, would be for the Leafs to use their available cap space to take on another team’s salary burden, in exchange for added value to a deal.  In essence, Burke could look to assist a budget team by taking a large contract off their hands as a condition of acquiring another player from that club at less than market value, which is the NHL’s version of including money in a transaction.  Putting a package together to create this type of a deal (the salary dump) would be the best type of move for the Leafs to pursue if they are seeking immediate help. And Burke certainly does have a history of making this sort of deal – the trades with Anaheim and Calgary last season were as much about those teams off-loading large contracts as they were about anything else.

Whether Burke can pull another rabbit out of his hat with a Phaneuf/Gigeure type of return remains to be seen, but no matter which type of deal the team attempts pursue (one-for-one, package or salary dump), fans should not expect a star player in return; the team’s assets simply aren’t of the ilk that such a deal would require.  With Burke seeking help for both now and the near future, fans should not expect draft picks to be targeted either.

Rather, the sorts of moves I would expect to see would be those which would either bring in (a) an expensive (though not necessarily “old”) veteran from a budget team, along with perhaps a prospect or young player; or (b) a reclamation project who has yet to reach his prime years and may just be in need a change of scenery to rejuvenate his career.

Either scenario is far more realistic than the starry-eyed dreams of established top-line players waiving their NTCs to come to a team that is likely to miss the playoffs for a sixth straight season.  It’s not too often the reality of a trade scenario matches up with what can be done in the EA Sports games, and fans would be well-advised to assume it certainly won’t here as trade rumours begin to heat up over the next month leading up to the deadline.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,