The NHL season is quickly approaching and it’s at this time of the year when general managers have to decide what to do before the next season begins. Will the Toronto Maple Leafs chase Roberto Luongo? Should they let their young prospects grow or fast-track them into the big-leagues?
In this article, we answer those questions and more, in our countdown of the top five moves the Leafs must make before the 2012-2013 NHL season begins.
1) Bring Nazem Kadri Up To The NHL
Nazem Kadri was supposed to be a stud, but so far he’s been a dud. The former seventh overall pick is one of only two players taken in the top 10 at the 2009 Entry Draft who have yet to make it to full-time player status with their organizations’ professional teams – the other being Scott Glennie.
Kadri’s been solid with the Marlies, tallying 53 points in 65 games. Though, while he’s most certainly underachieved, it’s time to give the 21-year-old a shot with the Maple Leafs, after three years of competing for a job in the minors. And by shot I mean more than 41 games worth, which is all he’s been given so far.
Nicknamed ‘Nifty Mittens’ because of his quick hands, the former 7th overall pick has competed hard despite receiving harsh criticism from former head coach Ron Wilson. Either trade him or send him up to the big club, with sending him up being the better of those two options because he’s got potential as a gifted goal scorer. His lack of self-discipline and suffered injuries have kept him behind a year or two, but he’s probably got an NHL spot on a team like the Maple Leafs. Just like Wilson, Burke has stated that Kadri has not lived up to his potential, which is true, but at least give him a reasonable shot at proving himself for half a season.
Make a decision on Kadri already. Don’t let a former first-rounder fade away in the minors!
2) Move James Van Riemsdyk To Centre
There’s been a lot of discussion around this topic recently, but I say that the Leafs’ brass should move James Van Riemsdyk (JVR) to the centre position. The Maple Leafs need a first-line centre man and JVR is the perfect candidate.
Look, the Leafs have a void hole down the middle, and it’s been there ever since Mats Sundin left in 2008. Admittedly, JVR would have to learn how to master the art of the face-off (in three seasons, he’s taken exactly 10 and only won two of those.) However, aside from that bleek statistic, he’s a great candidate.
What makes the 23-year-old a good fit is that he fits the physical guideline in that he’s tall and strong. By playing on the first-line he’d join fellow Team USA member Phil Kessel, and you’d have to think that adding a skilled player to an already dangerous line would propel the Maple Leafs’ offense to that next level.
Everyone knows that the former second overall draft pick has ceiling-high potential. Add his big size into the picture and JVR could be exactly what the Maple Leafs have been looking for. This way, the team won’t have to buy or trade for a first line centreman, which is something that every contender needs in order to be a real force.
3)Move Nikolai Kulemin To The Third Line
Kulemin was a bust last year for the Blue-and-White, scoring less than half the points he accumulated in 2010/2011. For that reason alone, he ought to be demoted to the third line.
He’s a hard-working two-way forward but he’s not exactly a goal scorer, per say. If the Maple Leafs were to move JVR to the first line and add Kadri to the second-line (a move worth doing, in my opinion), then they’d have no room for Kulemin amongst their top six group of forwards.
Also, by putting the 25-year-old Russian down a line, you add more balance to the team; Kadri is a scoring threat up-front at right wing and Kulemin, while having the ability to score as a bottom six forward, also adds some hustle and bustle defence, which is what teams look for in a third line player.
Kulemin is a sub-par skater who works really hard to get back in his own defensive zone. Although he’s about average height at 6’1, he can also check – ranking sixth in hits amongst 18 Maple Leaf forwards who qualified last year – and was third in blocked shots amongst forwards, with 43 in 70 games played. Moving Kulemin to the third line would add balance to the entire forward unit and would shore up room for a pure offensive player like Kadri to move in amongst the top six.
4) Keep The Team The Same
With Brian Burke at the helm, there’s always going to be a lot of discussion around potential trade rumours or big free agent signings. However, the last thing the Maple Leafs need to do right now is to go after a Roberto Luongo or a Rick Nash, because they’re simply not ready to compete.
While Luongo would look pretty nice wearing the Maple Leaf on his chest, you’ve got to be realistic, and a rebuilding team like the Toronto Maple Leafs shouldn’t be trading away future assets for a past-his-prime player.
The Maple Leafs are better off improving through the draft, just like the Pittsburgh Penguins did and as the Edmonton Oilers have done over the last decade or so. That way, you don’t have to sacrifice anything (albeit, a bad season) to get top-talent franchise players; no lopsided trades or hasty UFA signings.
The Maple Leafs aren’t just ne player away like the New York Rangers seemed to be before adding Brad Richards last year. If they were then it would be a different story, but right now they’re nowhere near the top and shouldn’t rush to get there. This is the same team that finished twenty-sixth overall last year, so I think we can all agree that one big free agent splash won’t guarantee them playoff success.
5) Send Morgan Rielly Down To Juniors
The Maple Leafs’ fifth-overall draft selection at this year’s Entry Draft has already turned heads after just a week of development camp. Though, with that being said, there’s no need to rush the 18-year-old’s development, and it’s better to send him down to the WHL so that he can play there for a year before being called up.
Based on what happened to Luke Schenn - a former first-round defenceman whose development with the Maple Leafs was rushed – they shouldn’t be hesitant to do the same with their current top prospect.
In NHL terms, Rielly is a baby. The recently-drafted defenceman needs time to grow as a player and time to blossom as a player. Let him play with the Moose Jaw Warriors for a year, then give him the big-league call-up. Burke seems to be on board with that plan, as he told the Toronto Sun that the Maple Leafs aren’t expecting Rielly to be on their team this year. That’s comfortable to hear from the man rolling the dice.
The reasons for my decisions are very logical. I am looking out for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best interest and telling you the moves they should or should not make, based both on the short-term and long-term.
Adding a player like Roberto Luongo, who is old, somewhat costly and past his prime, makes zero sense for a team that is not one player away. Nabbing the former Canadian Olympic netminder won’t make them a contender in itself. If there’s any indication based on last year’s finish, they’re still a few good players away.
They key here is Morgan Rielly, as he’s their mantlepice. He’s the new face of the franchise, meaning his development will impact the Maple Leafs greater than that of any other player. Not mentioned in the article is Rielly’s classiness and humility, both of which are important qualities. If the Maple Leafs have any hope in three years’ time, it’s this 18-year-old, so they have to develop him properly.
Lastly, it’s also in their interest to move JVR to centre, a change that will help them now, but more importantly down the road. If the 23-year-old can learn to master hockey’s toughest forward position, he could be that number one centreman that the Maple Leafs have been looking for.
If all five moves are abided by, the Maple Leafs could be a significantly improved team this year and for years to come.