Expectations are high for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.
It’s believed that the addition of David Clarkson, Dave Bolland and Jonathan Bernier, the continued improvement of Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, and the dependable play of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf will help the team exceed last season’s surprise playoff run.
Such hope is well founded. The Leafs have improved at virtually every position during the off-season and they boast an army of young players who are only now approaching their true potential. Kadri and Gardiner are likely candidates to further improve their play this season and the same can be said for Tyler Bozak, James Reimer and James van Riemsdyk.
As well, the core of the team – Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Phaneuf, Kadri, JVR – is composed of actual or potential all-stars, which never hurts.
In other words, the team is high on talent and short on doubt.
What this account of the Leafs’ current lineup fails to acknowledge, however, is the mess of unhealthy contracts underlying it – contracts that could easily zap the team of its strength in one or two short years.
I say these contracts are unhealthy mainly due to their variable size and length.
Aside from Clarkson, I don’t think the Leafs have grossly overpaid for the services of any one player on the team, but I feel they have been a little too generous towards the John-Michael Liles and Carl Gunnarssons of the team. These are dependable, not exceptional, defenders who make considerably more than some of the team’s top talent. In this sense, their contracts may prevent the Leafs from retaining more talented players.
Here the situation of Cody Franson serves as the perfect example. Few fans (and even critics) would doubt that he means more to the team than Liles and Gunnarsson, especially in terms of offence, but there’s simply not enough money to keep his services in the lineup. It now appears that the restricted free agent will spend the season in Europe, having turned down the Leafs’ latest offer.
(You may doubt how much Franson is due in terms of a raise, but you cannot really deny that he’s worth more than the $1-2 million offered by the Leafs. He emerged last season as the team’s top offensive defenceman with 29 points (4 goals, 25 assists) and one of its better defensive defenceman at +4.)
A similar situation confronts Mason Raymond. He’s been easily one of the team’s best players in preseason action, but he may have already played himself out of the Leafs’ price range. Thus, he could be auditioning for other teams right now at the Leafs’ expense and embarrassment.
Money (or the lack of it) is one problem. Uneven contract lengths is the other (and arguably greater) problem.
When Dave Nonis took over as general manager from Brian Burke, he inherited a number of expiring or soon-to-expire contracts. Instead of addressing this problem, he’s only added to it, signing Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser to one-year deals and Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Bernier to two-year deals. On the back of these deals, sit the long-term deals of Clarkson, Lupul and Bozak, giving the Leafs little leeway in between.
This leaves the Leafs in a difficult position. The contracts of ten everyday players, including Kessel, Phaneuf, Gardiner and Reimer, will expire after the current season. In turn, Kadri, Bernier and three other everyday players will see their contracts expire after the 2014-2015 season.
It won’t be easy for Nonis to escape this mess. Players whose contracts expire after this season won’t command a lot on the trade market, which says absolutely nothing about their current value to the Leafs.
The Leafs wouldn’t have made the playoffs last season without the help of Kessel, Phaneuf and Reimer, and these players may prove equally important to the team’s success this season, which makes it difficult to move them.
Unless the Leafs can get something definitively better in return, there’s little point in trading these players because the team will likely depend on them down the stretch again. Unfortunately, this means the Leafs risk losing them to free agency during the off-season without any substantial reward (they’ll get something in return for any restricted free agents who leave town) – a risk that the team might simply be unable to avoid.
(If you’re Reimer, do you really want to return on a one- or two-year deal? Despite his heroics, management has shown little faith in Reimer. He could easily find a better deal somewhere else.)
Regarding these players, three scenarios are imaginable:
1) Worst case scenario: all of them over perform, making it impossible for the Leafs to keep everyone.
2) Best case scenario: all of them under perform, which might make it possible for the Leafs to keep everyone (but this would almost certainly involve the team missing the playoffs as well).
3) Probable scenario: some of them over perform while others under perform, leaving the team in a difficult position.
Under the last scenario, one or two over performing players could prove enough to squeeze the others out. Kessel, for instance, is due a huge pay increase and this will inevitably comeback to hurt some of his current teammates in their own contract negotiations. The same situation will repeat itself the following off-season when Kadri comes looking for a raise.
Although I’m a die-hard Leafs fan, I don’t have any sympathy for Nonis. He’s created this mess for himself by treating the players like meat. What respect has been shown towards Reimer and Franson for all their contributions to the Leafs over the past few seasons? Reimer has been essentially pushed out of his job for no intelligible reason (after all, he has the edge on Bernier in the stats department despite playing for a weaker team throughout his career) and Franson remains in contract limbo.
There’s been a lack of respect shown by management towards the players since Nonis took over the top job, which will likely see the Leafs lineup continue to morph in the immediate years ahead. Hopefully, there will be a corresponding change in management at some point.
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