I tried, Maple Leafs fans. God knows, I tried.
When I wrote last week’s post on the six most perplexing moves of the NHL offseason, I tried to be gentle with the Leafs. I only included one of their moves on the list, and mentioned a few others in passing.
And then I posted the link on Twitter, and immediately got a steady stream of replies from hockey fans like this and this and this. The message was clear: You’re letting the Leafs off too easy.
Toronto has had a busy offseason, and many of the moves have been, shall we say, divisive. On Twitter, call-in shows, comment sections, and anywhere else Leaf fans voice their opinions, there’s been a very vocal minority saying, essentially, “This team doesn’t know what it’s doing and its offseason has been a disaster.” To which a different vocal minority replies: “Shut up, you guys are always so negative, everything is going to be fine.” (As for the majority of Leaf fans, they’re still staring stoically at their televisions from the same seat in which they watched the third period of Game 7.)
So, you wanted a breakdown of the Leafs’ offseason so far — you’ve got it. Has Toronto’s decision-making really been as bizarre as the doom-and-gloom crowd would have us believe? Let’s grab a list of their most significant moves, fire up the trusty Bizarro-meter™, and figure this out.
June 13: Goalie Drew MacIntyre re-signed to a one-year contract
The rationale: He’s a solid minor league goalie who needed a new contract.
Yeah, but … He probably won’t see any NHL action in Toronto, which is fine since it’s a two-way deal.
How bizarre? It wasn’t. This is just a test run to make sure the Bizarro-meter is plugged in and ready to go.
Bizarro-meter reading: 0/10. Yep, it’s working. Let’s move on.
June 13: Colton Orr signs a two-year, $1.85 million deal
The rationale: Coach Randy Carlyle and the Maple Leafs love guys who fight, and Colton Orr is one of the best in the league at doing exactly that. He’s also one of the most popular guys on the team among both fans and players.
Yeah, but … When he’s not punching people, Orr’s value to the team is debatable. And while his extension wasn’t all that expensive, it was still a commitment of cap dollars and a roster space that could have been used in more productive ways.
How bizarre? Not all that bizarre. In Orr and Frazer McLaren, the Leafs had two top enforcers who both needed to be re-signed. You knew they were going to keep one of them, so they picked Orr. Sorry, Frazer, those are the breaks!
Bizarro-meter reading: 3/10. Cool — this thing makes a humming noise when it gets warmed up.
June 23: The Leafs acquire goalie Jonathan Bernier from the Kings for Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens, and a second-round pick
The rationale: Bernier is widely considered one of the best young goalies in the league, but was never going to get a chance to start in L.A. because he was stuck behind Jonathan Quick. Goaltending has been a weakness for the Leafs in every year since the 2005 lockout except for one. The price was reasonable, so they made the move.
Yeah, but … That one and only season of good goaltending the Leafs have had recently came last year, when James Reimer was excellent, so it was an odd time to finally decide to upgrade the position. Frattin and Scrivens weren’t stars, but they were cheap assets who could have filled a role or been used in other deals to address more pressing needs. And the Leafs even agreed to eat $500,000 in salary in the deal, which seemed strange in a year when the cap was coming down and every dollar of space was crucial.
How bizarre? This was the Leafs move I included in last week’s post, so you can probably already guess where I stand on it. Bernier is a very good young goalie who could be the league’s next breakout star. But you could say the same about Reimer, and there’s only room for one of them to play at a time.
Bizarro-meter reading: 8/10. That humming noise is getting kind of loud — should I be concerned about that?
June 29: The Leafs extend qualifying offers to every significant restricted free agent on the roster
The rationale: The Leafs had several restricted free agents, including Bernier, Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson, and Mark Fraser. By qualifying them, they retained their rights and prevented them from becoming unrestricted free agents who could sign elsewhere. It’s a pretty standard move.
Yeah, but … The downside of extending a qualifying offer is that in some cases the player will elect to take you to arbitration, which can result in you getting stuck paying more than you’d like to.
How bizarre? Not really all that bizarre. (By the way, you have that OMC song firmly stuck in your head right now, don’t you? I totally did that on purpose.)
Bizarro-meter reading: Only a 2/10, though the little “ironic foreshadowing” light is blinking for some reason.
June 30: The Leafs acquire center Dave Bolland from the Blackhawks for three draft picks
The rationale: Bolland was coming off a disappointing season, but had a strong playoff run that was highlighted by scoring the Stanley Cup–winning goal.
Yeah, but … While the Leafs have lacked a true no. 1 center for years, Bolland’s clearly not that guy. He struggled offensively last season while playing with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, so it’s hard to imagine him suddenly doing better in Toronto.
How bizarre? The price was a little high, both in terms of draft picks and salary. But Bolland’s acquisition meant the Leafs would almost certainly need to part ways with one of their centers. And since Tyler Bozak was an unrestricted free agent who could barely match Bolland’s offensive numbers despite playing with Phil Kessel, he was the obvious choice. Anything that would keep the Leafs from overpaying Bozak has to be a good thing, right?
Bizarro-meter reading: 4/10. The foreshadowing light was really blinking during that last section. I should probably get that fixed.
June 30: The Leafs take Frederik Gauthier with the 21st overall pick at the draft
The rationale: He’s a big, hardworking two-way center.
Yeah, but … He’s raw and probably years away from the NHL. Then again, so is everyone picked late in the first round.
How bizarre? Not at all. It was a solid pick.
Bizarro-meter reading: 1/10. It’s pronounced “biz-a-ROH-mett-er,” in case you were wondering.
July 2: The Leafs use one of their two compliance buyouts on defenseman Mike Komisarek
The rationale: Komisarek was a disaster in Toronto and had been sent to the minors last year. He had no future as a Maple Leaf.
Yeah, but … In theory, the Leafs could have kept him in the AHL for one more year and saved their compliance buyout to use on someone else. But Komisarek was a good soldier who deserved a chance to start fresh somewhere else.
How bizarre? The opposite of bizarre.
Bizarro-meter reading: -3/10. If you ask me, this offseason is going great. Wait, where did that ominous music suddenly come from?
July 4: The Leafs use their other compliance buyout on Mikhail Grabovski
The rationale: Um …
What the …
Hold on, just give me a second or two here to regroup …
OK, so let’s look at this from the Leafs’ perspective. Grabovski was coming off a bad year, an even worse playoff, and he still had four years left on a deal that carried a $5.5 million cap hit. Carlyle didn’t seem to like him, and so the team decided they could use that cap space more effectively somewhere else.
Yeah, but … Even factoring in his subpar 2013, Grabovski had easily been the Leafs’ most productive center over the past three years. And that one bad season could be partially explained by an ongoing illness and a new role as a defensive center, a job for which he wasn’t well suited but accepted without complaint. (Well, until they bought him out. Then he maybe complained a little.)
While his contract was probably on the high side, Grabovski was still a productive player who could play a two-way game (possession numbers!). Despite that, a team that’s been weak down the middle for years decided to give their best center $14 million to not play for them anymore.
How bizarre? This was a hard one to defend. But let’s wait and see what they do with all that cap space they freed up, right?
Bizarro-meter reading: 9/10. Um, is it supposed to be smoking like this?
July 5: Tyler Bozak re-signs in Toronto for five years and $21 million
The rationale: The Leafs obviously decided that Bozak was a better fit than Grabovski.
Yeah, but … Bozak is not remotely a better fit than Grabovski.
How bizarre? Bozak had fallen into a de facto no. 1 center’s role in Toronto because of his chemistry with Phil Kessel, which was fine except that said chemistry was more myth than fact. When he was playing with Kessel, Bozak’s numbers were disappointing — his 2013 pace would have left him under 50 points in a full season. When he wasn’t playing with Kessel, they were staggeringly awful.
And yet the Leafs chose him over Grabovski. This was … questionable.
Bizarro-meter reading:: 9/10. Seriously, guys, there are little sparks shooting out of it now — should we call customer support or something?
July 5: Frazer McLaren re-signs for two years and $1.4 million
The rationale: More face-punchers!
Yeah, but … Wait, didn’t they already re-sign Colton Orr?
How bizarre? In a league that’s largely moving away from employing enforcers, the Leafs are apparently planning on using two of them for the next two years. That said, signing a fourth-line player to fourth-line money isn’t the end of the world.
Bizarro-meter reading: 3/10. Phew, I think it has cooled down a little bit. I was getting worried there for a second.
July 5: The Leafs sign free agent David Clarkson to a seven-year contract worth $36.75 million
The rationale: Clarkson is a former 30-goal scorer who was arguably the most sought-after free agent in this year’s class. More importantly, he’s a prototypical Randy Carlyle player who fights almost as frequently as he scores.
Yeah, but … He’s 29, so his best years are likely already behind him. And his best years weren’t all that good — he has only topped 40 points once in his career. Did we mention the part where the Leafs gave him seven years? Although if it makes you feel any better, GM Dave Nonis is on record saying he doesn’t really care about the last few. (This should not make you feel better.)
How bizarre? Let’s go through some of the reviews for this one, movie-trailer style:
“ … if Toronto wasn’t happy with Grabovski making $5 million a year to produce the way he did, how long is it going to take for the city to turn on Clarkson when he’s making more than $5 million and scoring 15 goals for the next seven years?” —Adam Gretz, CBSSports.com
“Dave Nonis (will be) paying David Clarkson an exorbitant amount of money to play hockey for his team despite Clarkson not being all that great.” —Dave Lozo, Backhand Shelf
“The money is unnerving, but the term is absolutely frightening.” —Alan Muir, Sports Illustrated
“This has regret written all over it.” —Nicholas J. Cotsonika, Yahoo Sports
Bizarro-meter reading: [Stands amid smoking rubble where bizarro-meter used to be.]
July 5: The Leafs sign Bernier to a two-year deal worth $5.8 million
The rationale: Remember that new goalie they traded for even though they didn’t really need one? They had to sign him.
Yeah, but … They said they weren’t going to just hand Bernier the starting job, and a $2.9 million cap hit for a backup goalie would be awfully expensive.
How bizarre? Luckily, nobody actually believes them about that whole “open competition” thing, so it’s all good.
Bizarro-meter reading: [Opens box containing replacement Bizarro-meter, sadly begins assembling it with Allen wrench.]
July 10: Mark Fraser files for salary arbitration
The rationale: Fraser was a solid sixth defenseman for the Leafs in 2013. The team couldn’t come to terms with him on a new deal, so he opted to file for arbitration.
Yeah, but … Remember that part from earlier where we mentioned that giving everyone a qualifying offer means you might get stuck paying a player more than you wanted to?
How bizarre? Fraser apparently asked for $2 million, with the Leafs countering at $855,000. They ended up settling right before Tuesday morning’s hearing on a deal that paid Fraser $1.275 million. That’s not an awful number, but it makes an already tight salary cap situation all the more difficult.
Bizarro-meter reading: 2/10. [Stares at instructions, tries to figure out why he has all these extra screws left.]
July 15: New MLSE chief Tim Leiweke vows to remove evidence of past championships, announces he has already planned the Stanley Cup parade
The rationale: None.
Yeah, but … OK, technically this wasn’t an offseason move, but we still need to include it because it was completely ridiculous. In his very first interview since taking over Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (which owns the Leafs as well as the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and a peewee soccer team), Leiweke dutifully delivered the usual blustery corporate B.S. about changing the culture and building a winning environment.
But he also managed to make headlines by promising to tear down pictures of the Cup-winning Leafs teams of the 1960s from the hallways in the Air Canada Centre. Oh, and he’s already planned the parade route for the Leafs’ upcoming championship, which was great, because Leaf fans certainly weren’t sick of being on the receiving end of that clichéd punch line.
How bizarre? He has already had to issue an apology to the team’s alumni. Great start, Tim!
Bizarro-meter reading: 10/10. How is it already on fire — I haven’t even plugged it back in yet!
July 22: Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson re-signs for three years and $9.45 million
The rationale: Gunnarsson, arguably the team’s second-best defenseman, had been headed to arbitration before reaching an agreement on a three-year deal that carries a cap hit of $3.15 million.
Yeah, but … I don’t have one.
How bizarre? Seriously, this was a great deal.
Bizarro-meter reading: 1/10. Hey, I got it working again!
July 24: The Leafs sign Paul Ranger to a one-year deal worth $1 million
The rationale: Ranger’s a well-respected veteran who spent last season with the Leafs’ AHL farm club following an almost three-year hiatus from hockey for personal reasons.
Yeah, but … A million bucks seems like a lot for a player who hasn’t been in the NHL since 2009, although it’s pretty much the going rate for a depth defenseman.
How bizarre? Maybe it’s a few dollars more than you’d want to pay, but otherwise the move seems fine.
Bizarro-meter reading: 2/10. Hey, look, everyone, Dave Nonis finally made two moves in a row that we can all agree made sense. Let’s give that man an extension, am I right? (Ha ha … obviously I was just kidding about that last part.)
July 25: Dave Nonis is given a five-year extension
The rationale: Oh, for the love of …
Yes, after all the moves described above, Leiweke saw fit to tear up the three-year deal Nonis already had and hand him five years instead.
Yeah, but … The team didn’t need to do it. That previous sentence isn’t my opinion, it’s a direct quote from Dave Nonis himself, who was apparently just as confused about this whole thing as everyone else.
How bizarre? “Nonis told TSN Radio the negotiations took 15 minutes. Negotiations that take 15 minutes tend to involve someone negotiating against themselves.” Yes, yes, they certainly do.
Bizarro-meter reading: 10/10. The bizarro-meter has achieved self-awareness, and is currently wandering the streets of Toronto destroying orphanages and signing career third-liners to multiyear contracts.
So where does that leave things now?
The Toronto Maple Leafs still have two key RFAs unsigned — their second-leading scorer overall (Kadri) and their leading scorer among defensemen (Franson). Right now they have just under $5 million in cap room left, which is nowhere near enough to get both Franson and Kadri signed.
The most recent rumor is that they’ll end up having to trade Franson, a 25-year-old who tied for sixth in the entire NHL in blueline scoring last year. And as many have pointed out, the cap squeeze that could cost them Franson is basically the end result of a summer’s worth of moves in which the team always seemed to pay just a little too much on each transaction.
But did the Maple Leafs get any better? On the one hand, they’re a young team that should still be improving. They’ve added toughness, playoff experience, and a young goalie who many expect will become a star. Perhaps most important of all, for the first time their Stanley Cup–winning coach will have the kind of Maple Leafs roster he wants.
On the other, they still don’t have anything close to a no. 1 center. They haven’t improved the blueline. They spent $14 million to buy out one of their best forwards, then used that cap room on a deal everyone seems to hate. They haven’t re-signed their two most important players, Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, both of whom will become unrestricted free agents next year.
Oh, and did we mention that all the advanced stats guys think last year’s success was a fluke and the Leafs are destined to implode?
The bottom line, of course, is nobody knows whether the Leafs will regret their offseason moves. No, some of them don’t seem to make much sense right now. But once the season starts, maybe it all falls into place. Maybe the grand plan comes together. Maybe someday down the road, all the critics are left standing on the sidelines of Tim Leiweke’s meticulously planned parade route while Dave Nonis blows victory cigar smoke rings in their dumb faces.
But in the meantime, I just placed an Amazon order for the Debacle-meter 3000™. You know, just in case.