Saturday, March 30, 2013
While the Leafs are not yet solid enough contenders to be willing to give up high prospects or first-round picks for rental players, there are options for improving the team this season and beyond that shouldn't deplete the farm system.
After Jarome Iginla's merciful trade out of Calgary, the next most obvious Alberta trade chip is Jay Bouwmeester, the $6.68 million defenceman who hasn't lived up to expectations since signing with the Flames.
But just because Bouwmeester hasn't justified his monster contract doesn't mean he is a bad player. In fact, Bouwmeester is a certifiable top-pairing defenceman.
Much like Dion Phaneuf, Bouwmeester is almost exclusively given the tough defensive assignments for the Flames, and he's done a pretty good job, with the added bonus of still being able to put up a decent amount of points at even strength (per 60 minutes he's scoring at roughly the same rate as P.K. Subban). He is among the league leaders in short-handed time per game and would add a stabilizing defensive element to a sometimes disastrous Leafs backend. And at 29-years-old, there is still some good hockey left in his body.
Acquiring Bouwmeester would give the Leafs two solid options that would vastly improve the team's defence. First, the Leafs could pair Bouwmeester and Phaneuf, playing them the same type of minutes they are already receiving—almost exclusively against the opposition's top line and starting heavily in the defensive zone. That would give the Leafs a solid shutdown pairing, but might not necessarily be the best option.
Alternatively, Toronto could keep Phaneuf with Carl Gunnarsson, which has proved to be a far superior pairing than either Holzer-Phaneuf or Kostka-Phaneuf, although not as good a pair as last season as Gunnarsson still shows signs of a nagging hip injury. That would enable Randy Carlyle to slot Bouwmeester on the second pair, strengthening it defensively, while at the same time spreading around the defensive minutes both Phaneuf and Bouwmeester would have to play. Then, both Phaneuf and Bouwmeester wouldn't be as taxed as they currently are, and the Leafs could get a little extra out of both.
Bouwmeester's offensive game declined once he signed with the Flames (although he's on a 37-point pace right now), but Toronto wouldn't be bringing him in for his offense. There are already better offensive threats in Phaneuf, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, and perhaps Morgan Rielly next year. What Toronto lacks is true defensive acumen, especially in the top-4. When Phaneuf and Gunnarsson are paired together there really isn't another duo Carlyle can reliably depend upon defensively.
Bouwmeester is most certainly overpaid at $6.68 million. But it hardly matters. The Leafs have the cap space and there isn't anyone on the market to spend it on after Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry re-upped in Anaheim.
After the inevitable Mike Komisarek buyout this summer, the Leafs will have approximately $23.37 million to sign 10 players. A portion of that money will certainly go towards retaining Nazem Kadri, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson, and perhaps Clarke MacArthur (although as a UFA it depends on his contract demands). Other players like Mark Fraser, Mike Kostka, and Leo Komorov could be kept as well, although none are must signs and shouldn't prove overly expensive either.
Accordingly, even after taking care of their own, the Leafs will have enough money to take on a major contract.
Unless they are prepared to overpay for the likes of David Clarkson, Mike Ribeiro, Nathan Horton, or Ryane Clowe, none of whom they need, or Robyn Regehr, Mark Streit, or Marek Zidlicky, who are old and no longer good, the best use of the ample cap space opening up next year is Bouwmeester.
The benefits of acquiring Bouwmeester are numerous, however, the Leafs are not yet in a position to deal a top prospect (Morgan Rielly is obviously a non-starter in negotiations) and probably should hold next year's first-round pick tightly as well. Unfortunately, the reluctance to part with their most valuable assets could torpedo a deal because the Flames, despite what happened with Jarome Iginla, aren't likely to give Bouwmeester away for free.
According to Pierre LeBrun, the Flames are only going to trade Bouwmeester if they are "blown away by a really strong offer", and some sources have indicated the asking price from the Flyers would have been Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, or Matt Read AND MORE. That's Jay Feaster shooting for the moon because he read an inspirational poster and wanted to land amongst the stars. In reality, asking for that type of return has probably resulted in a lot of mean "LOL GTFO" texts.
Even with Feaster's high demands, there are teams kicking tires (and hoping for desperation). As many as six teams are interested in Bouwmeester, so the Leafs will have competition provided they are calling. But if Feaster hopes to deal Bouwmeester he will have to scale back his demands. The St. Louis Blues, one of the teams rumoured to be interested in Bouwmeester, already traded for Jordan Leopold, likely because the price for Bouwmeester was too high.
Hopefully other suitors pass, because as the cap drops next season, the Leafs are in a good position to take on salary, unlike many other teams, and shouldn't require the Flames to retain any salary in a Bouwmeester deal. That could make a trade more palatable for Feaster, and especially Flames owner Murray Edwards. So even if the Flames wait until the summer for a better market to develop, the Leafs will still be strong contenders.
This is a great opportunity for Dave Nonis to upgrade the Leafs at relatively little cost. Bouwmeester is an immediate upgrade to the roster and will make Toronto a much more difficult team to play in the post-season. And unlike most players acquired at the deadline, he would be around for next season as well. Unless Bouwmeester's playoff-less streak/voodoo curse infects the Leafs upon his arrival this is a deal the Leafs need to make.