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Thursday, January 5, 2012

JML: Sign, Trade, or Walk?

john michael liles leafs
Within the past calendar year, Tomas Kaberle has played for four teams and six coaches. After leaving Toronto, he was generally pretty ineffective in Boston, failing to ignite their powerplay. But he still managed to help the Bruins win a Stanley Cup (however inconsequential his contribution may have been). This season he continued his disappointing play in Carolina before finding himself in Montreal. It has been as rough as any year highlighted by a championship ring could be.

There has definitely been no seller’s regret in Toronto.

Kaberle’s replacement in Toronto, John-Michael Liles, a player who in a way was a part of the initial trade with Boston (the conditional second rounder Boston sent the Leafs was shipped to Colorado for Liles) has integrated into the Leafs lineup and filled the role vacated by Kaberle seamlessly.

Liles forms the first defensive pairing on the Leafs’ powerplay and has helped ignite a once dormant unit that was 22nd in the league last season. With Liles quarterbacking the man-advantage, Toronto sits 3rd in league, helping propel the Leafs to a top-10 offense.

Liles has 21 points on the year, which before sustaining a concussion was one more than Phaneuf, and has accumulated 10 of those on the powerplay. He was advertised as a Kaberle-lite when the Leafs acquired him, but considering the way Kaberle has played recently you wonder who the knockoff really is.

As a bonus, the Indianapolis native has provided a steady influence on the back-end, playing a pretty solid game and rarely showing the defensive deficiencies that Kaberle frequently did during his later “I don’t give a shit” years.

But these positives mean the Leafs have a dilemma.

Liles is in the final year of a contract that pays him $4.2 million, after which he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Liles has been everything the Leafs wanted when they acquired him. Of course, his current injury is of a concern, especially since he hasn't started skating with the team, but Toronto must still decide whether he is in their long-term plans.

If he is in their long-term plans they must sign him to an extension - provided he is able to recover from his injury and return to form. If he isn’t in the team’s long-term plans do the Leafs trade him at the deadline or let him walk away for nothing at season’s end?

Signing him to an extension would cost at least what he’s making now, likely something closer to $5 million a season. If Kaberle can negotiate a three-year deal worth $4.25 a season after a dreadful stint in Boston, then Liles can surely receive at least a modest increase on his current salary.

The problem is the Leafs don’t have a lot of money coming off the books next season. Technically, they have close to $15 million, but Nikolai Kulemin, Matt Frattin, Keith Aulie and Cody Franson are all restricted free agents looking for raises. More importantly, Mikhail Grabovski becomes an unrestricted free agent, and with the lack of quality centres on the market can probably command a figure between $4-5 million a season.

Re-signing Liles might mean Grabovski is let go in favour of a younger, cheaper option, such as Joe Colborne who would only come with a cap hit of $1.1 million.

Or do the Leafs let go of Liles and hand his role to a younger player such as Jake Gardiner? Giving the role of the primary powerplay quarterback to a sophomore would be a gamble, but Gardiner has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations this season. The Leafs could also slot Tim Connolly on the point, which he has played at times this season and previously in Buffalo.

If the option is between keeping Liles or Grabovski, the Leafs would be better served keeping the latter. Both quality centres and puck-moving defenceman are hard to find, but the Leafs have more depth on the backend, making Liles’ hypothetical departure more palatable.

And if Liles is not part of the Leafs long-term plan, it’s important the Leafs try to supplement their rebuild by trading Liles at this year’s deadline.

It would be a gutsy move to make. The Leafs are likely a team that will fight for the final few playoff spots for most of the season. Trading an integral part of the team’s immediate success would be a blow to the team’s playoff chances, but a return for Liles, who would potentially walk for nothing at the end of the season, would be the better move long-term.

Last season the Leafs did not miss a beat after trading both Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle. They called up Keith Aulie and played even better down the stretch without the two veterans. Expecting a similar return as the haul Burke received for Beauchemin is unrealistic, especially considering Liles is a UFA at season’s end, but the demand is always there for puck-moving defenceman.

But the Leafs were bad with Beauchemin, so even if they got worse it wouldn’t have really mattered. The Leafs are doing well with Liles. Wouldn’t trading him be the equivalent to waiving a white flag on the season?

Well, the Leafs once again have a deep blueline and could reasonably expect to remain competitive even without Liles. Once Mike Komisarek returns the Leafs will have two excess NHL-level defencemen sitting on the sidelines (or in the case of Keith Aulie, the AHL). Plus, Dave Nonis recently stated that AHL defenceman Jesse Blacker is close to NHL ready.

Of course, none of the excess defencemen have the puck-moving abilities of Liles (and really, Komisarek was only really passable playing with Liles), and handing Liles’ duties to a player like Gardiner would be a lot considering Gardiner is already playing much more than he is accustomed to coming from college hockey.

However, the Leafs’ course of action may be determined by the trade market. If Burke has grander plans, such as packaging a younger defenceman and other prospects for an impact forward (Ryan Getzlaf alert), then Liles may have a long-term future in Toronto and the Leafs may explore an extension. On the other hand, this could also mean Liles is priced out of Toronto depending on the salary any potential incoming player is owed. 

Or if the trade market is tepid towards Liles, offering merely something akin to a second-round pick, the Leafs would probably be better served keeping Liles, making a push for the playoffs, regardless of whether he is in the team’s long-term plans.

The Leafs are still a rebuilding club and every effort must be made to think through that lens. The long-term future is more important than the short-term gain and must be placed ahead of it accordingly. However, the club needs to make meaningful strides towards the playoffs, and ending the long-standing drought with a playoff berth would be a positive for the team with potential long-term benefits as well.

John-Michael Liles’ tenure in Toronto has been nothing but positive, which only makes his future in the hockey hotbed even less certain.

What should the Leafs do with Liles?

12 comments:

TML__fan said...

Liles has experience and is a great playmaking defencemen. However, he gets caught up ice too many times and is not strong enough to take on the larger forwards in this league. He can sometimes make up for the deficiencies with speed, but I think they have a couple D who will be able to fulfill his playmaking role (i.e. Gardiner, Gunnarsson, and later on Blacker).

I'd hold onto him for the rest of the season as you need his experience until Gardiner has a full year of NHL. Not sure you'd get a lot in return in a trade unless you packaged him. His hefty salary may limit the options as to who you could trade with. If he could be beneficial to a good trade sure, otherwise hold onto him. If you make the playoffs you'll need him on your PP.

Raymond8505 said...

if trading him means we get Getzlaf, then do it

Matt Horner said...

I don't think JML would be a part of any sort of Getzlaf package considering he's over 30 and a UFA at season's end.

Anonymous said...

Matt,

Great overview, finally someone recognizing Liles contributions...

The leafs are still the third youngest club in the league, or thereabouts as it changes daily. The quality that Liles as a person and individual is defined by his play on and off the ice. Leadership is one of his strongest attributes that this club lacks which Kaberle never posessed, no question Kaberle could skate but he is not as confident a puck carrier as Liles. Further to that Liles is not afraid to shoot the puck where as Kaberle never did, easy to defend against on PK when you only have to cover one offensive threat on D...... Liles is a professional that can teach our young guns the important things in life, on and off the ice. He has more then impressed me and I would be disappointed if we didn't resign him to a long term contract. You can't teach what Liles has as a person!!



Rock

Matt Horner said...

Thanks for the comment, Rock. All great points as to why to keep Liles. It'll be very interesting to see what he wants in terms of compensation and whether the Leafs can make it work!

Anonymous said...

Matt,

The Leafs have to make it work, kids need to be developed and led, outside of the coaching and management staff. I like what I see, he brings much more to the table then any other current player on the roster. Colby Armstrong is another solid individual. I look forward to reading more by you on this subject, hopefully all involved will get a deal done

Matt Horner said...

I think a lot will be answered if Burke makes other trades - i.e. ships out a few defenceman for a forward, then Liles is even more important and there is probably even more urgency to re-sign him.

I definitely agree that with a team as young as the Leafs you need a few solid veterans to help in their development and Liles has fit the bill perfectly this season. That alone is reason to keep him.

Willie said...

I would trade Grabovski for sure. The Leafs need more size at centre and that means bringing up Joe Colborne. I'm undecided on Liles. Certainly I would include him in a package for an impact player.

Anonymous said...

so Liles is not an impact player come on Willie, he's quarterbacked the powerplay from worst to the top in the league. All I ever hear from Leafs Nation is how our specialty teams suck, now you're willing to get rid of that. I guess my comments about other intangibles have fallen once again on deaf ears. Would you trade for a Sean Avery type player if he had size but his attitude, yes if you wanted to destroy chemistry, there has to be a fit attitude wise that comes with experience and born leadership

Great game last night over a very good hockey team

Coach Willie said...

I would consider trading anyone if it makes sense and improves the team. Cody Frason is doing a decent job filing in for Liles on the powerplay. Brian Burke has not be successful in finding a centre to play with Kessel so if Liles can help secure that then sure. The Leafs have depth on defense but centre is still in need for upgrading.

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