The NHL is a better place when the Maple Leafs are competitive.
We saw this last year when the Leafs took the Bruins to seven. The Air Canada Centre revs up its money-printing press. Fans fill the streets to watch road games.
Montreal is the heart of hockey, but Toronto is its revenue driver. It is no coincidence that the Hockey Hall of Fame is on the corner of Yonge and Front, and that the NHL has one of its two offices in Toronto.
So it can only be a good thing that one of the NHL’s most-respected executives is now the Leafs’ big boss. Credibility and imagination were two elusive elements for the Leafs in 2013-14. Brendan Shanahan brings both to the ACC.
“The potential in Toronto, if we get it right, is unbelievable,” said Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, during Shanahan’s introductory news conference on Monday. “But we have a lot to do.”
Shanahan made his bones as the NHL’s disciplinarian. He was at the center of some hard calls, including Shawn Thornton’s 15-game suspension and Patrick Kaleta’s 10-gamer.
But Shanahan’s strength is learning and applying that knowledge. His presence is strongly felt in the 30 NHL arenas. It was under Shanahan’s watch that the NHL initiated its summer research and development camps at the Leafs’ practice rink.
Some of the league’s stewards were OK with the status quo. Shanahan approached the game with an open mind. The results of the camps: hybrid icing, shallower nets, curved glass next to the benches.
The Leafs need this kind of thinking.They’ve buried themselves with some questionable personnel decisions. Last summer, general manager Dave Nonis burned both of the club’s compliance buyouts on Mike Komisarek and Mikhail Grabovski. The Leafs could have used one of those get-out-of-jail-free cards this summer on Tim Gleason, on the books for two more years at $4 million annually.
Last summer, they handed David Clarkson a seven-year, $36.75 million blockbuster. It’s an anchor unless Clarkson finds his game. He scored five goals and six assists in 60 games this season. Because Clarkson’s contract includes major bonuses, the Leafs would not receive significant cap relief if they bought out the ex-Devil.
Another deadweight is the seven-year, $49 million extension the Leafs gave Dion Phaneuf. That’s a whole lot of cash for a defenseman who regularly roams out of position, tries to throw ill-advised hits, and plays too much (23:33 average) against elite players. On a championship team such as Chicago, Phaneuf would be the No. 4 defenseman behind Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson. On the Leafs, he’s the clear-cut No. 1. That’s not a good thing.
Phaneuf probably would have gotten that deal on the open market. But the Leafs couldn’t afford to let him walk. As many shortcomings as Phaneuf has, the Leafs had nobody who could replace his shifts. That falls on hockey operations for not stocking the defense with assets.
“We’re not deep enough,” Nonis said. “Our reserve list has to get stronger. We have to draft better. We have to develop better.”
Nonis calls Randy Carlyle a good coach. The results say otherwise. Whatever Carlyle’s system was, it didn’t work.
The Leafs never had the puck. Their forwards didn’t backcheck aggressively or wisely. Their defensemen didn’t keep tight gaps. Everybody scurried in the defensive zone.
Carlyle didn’t help himself during exit interviews. He didn’t name Jake Gardiner, but he made the former University of Wisconsin player’s identity quite clear when speaking about a young defenseman who played rover hockey. Carlyle revealed he was shocked by the comparables the player mentioned during the interview.
That’s closed-door stuff. Carlyle’s treatment of his players is almost as bad as his misuse of them. Shanahan must act promptly to find a replacement with a clearer vision and a more modern approach to communication.
The Leafs have good assets. Phil Kessel (37 goals) is a difference-making right wing. The ex-Bruin backs up defenses, goes to the hard areas, and makes opposing coaches change their game plans. He’s worth the $8 million annually he’ll start making next season. Linemate James van Riemsdyk (30 goals) is a dangerous left wing. The former University of New Hampshire standout isn’t finished improving.
Jonathan Bernier (26-19-7, 2.68 goals-against average, .923 save percentage) is an ace. Assuming Bernier recovers from groin surgery, he will be the workhorse next season at a reasonable $2.9 million salary, according to www.capgeek.com.
Kessel, van Riemsdyk, and Bernier are cornerstones. It will be up to Shanahan and Nonis to surround them with better talent. That will take time. It isn’t prudent to tap into the free agent market to round out a roster. The Leafs must build through drafting, developing, and trading. To do the third, they must master the first two.
“You have to put yourself in a position where you’re one of the teams, year after year, that has the potential to win,” Shanahan said. “You need all the things that go into place: breaks, luck, health. But what you have to do is build an organization and team that is at least in position to be one of the teams contending.”
Gaudreau, Arnold squeeze in appearance
It was an up-and-down week for Johnny Gaudreau. The electric left wing and the Boston College Eagles lost to Union in the Frozen Four semifinals April 10. One day later, Gaudreau won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey. Last Sunday, Gaudreau and linemate Bill Arnold were on the ice at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena for their NHL debuts. Gaudreau scored his first goal on his first shot. Arnold played 13:35, winning five of nine faceoffs.
It was just one game. But dressing the ex-Eagles made sense.
For Gaudreau and Arnold, they got the experience of NHL intensity, albeit in Game No. 82 featuring two non-playoff teams. It will help as they prepare for their first NHL training camp in September.
The game also burns a year off both players’ entry-level contracts. Gaudreau will have two years remaining on his deal before he’s eligible for his second contract. Arnold will reach restricted free agency after 2014-15. Players like to get off their entry-level deals quickly.
Bringing Gaudreau and Arnold into the fold was also critical for the Flames. Both Gaudreau and Arnold would have had to play 10 professional games (for Calgary or Abbotsford, the Flames’ AHL affiliate) to have the year count toward unrestricted free agency or arbitration rights. Neither can accumulate the necessary games in Abbotsford this season because they signed after the trade deadline and played in the NHL.
Also, Gaudreau and Arnold had bargaining power. In four months, Arnold could have become unrestricted and signed with any team. Gaudreau could have returned to BC for his senior season. Like Arnold, Gaudreau could have gone the UFA route by waiting until Aug. 15, 2015.
The Flames are rebuilding. They can’t afford to let any of their young assets go. Especially players who’ve won college championships.
Devils correct to make goaltending change
A week ago, Bruins goalie Chad Johnson was thrilled to be in the opposing net at the Prudential Center. Johnson’s counterpart was making likely his final appearance as a Devil.
“Probably the best goalie of all time,” said Johnson of Martin Brodeur. “To get this start here tonight was definitely special. It’s something I’ll always remember.”
To the end, Brodeur competed. In the third period, he robbed Alexander Khokhlachev from scoring his first career goal with one of his trademark glove saves.
Brodeur showed many skills in New Jersey, ranging from athleticism, stickhandling, and old-school technique. But competitiveness was Brodeur’s greatest asset. He believed he was the best. Even this year.
Brodeur started 39 games, going 19-14-6 with a 2.51 goals-against average and .901 save percentage. Cory Schneider started only four games more than Brodeur. The Marblehead native went 16-15-12 with a 1.97 GAA and a .921 save percentage. Those are numbers of an ace, which is how the Devils projected Schneider when they stole him from Vancouver at last year’s draft.
The Devils finished the season with 88 points, five fewer than eighth-place Detroit. Had the Devils tabbed Schneider as the outright starter, it’s possible they could have gained a playoff spot. The Devils were a very good puck-possession team.
But Brodeur’s workload, as well as New Jersey’s 0-13 shootout record, worked against them. The Devils were in the uncomfortable position of playing one of the best players ever at his position in his final season.
New Jersey should be in good shape next season. Coach Peter DeBoer will be back. The Devils have enough cap space to bring back Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky, two important UFAs-to-be. And they won’t have to defer to Brodeur in 2014-15. Schneider will carry the mail, as he deserves.
Johnson executed everything the Bruins wanted him to. As Tuukka Rask’s backup, Johnson started 23 games and went 17-4-3 with a 2.10 GAA and .925 save percentage. Johnson’s numbers were better than Anton Khudobin’s in 2012-13, when the current Hurricane went 9-4-1 with a 2.32 GAA and .920 save percentage. Khudobin turned that production into a one-year, $800,000 deal from Carolina and won the No. 1 job from Cam Ward, the overpaid and oft-injured starter. Johnson could try the same thing next season, with Winnipeg being a possible landing spot. The Jets plan on entering 2014-15 with Ondrej Pavelec as their No. 1 goalie. Al Montoya, Pavelec’s backup this season, will be unrestricted. Pavelec (22-26-7, 3.01 GAA, .901 save percentage) is a trick-or-treat goalie. He makes saves he shouldn’t. Then he torpedoes his team by letting in pucks that every goalie stops. The 26-year-old Pavelec is under contract for three more seasons at $3.9 million annually, according to www.capgeek.com. Johnson isn’t as quick or flashy as Pavelec. But he’s more dependable. The Jets need reliability in goal.
This Shark never more dangerous
If there is a model of consistency in the NHL, it’s Joe Thornton. The former Boston captain was his usual playmaking self, finishing second in the league with 65 assists (Sidney Crosby was the leader with 68). The 34-year-old Thornton has been the centerpiece of San Jose’s attack since his arrival from Boston in 2005-06. But in this current career segment, Thornton’s game has evolved to fit the Sharks’ up-tempo attack. There was a time when Thornton liked to hold the puck and slow the pace. Now, the puck isn’t on his stick as long. Thornton uses his eyes and hands to distribute it to his teammates. Thornton was especially effective in even-strength situations. He scored only 19 of his 76 points on the power play (25 percent). It’s Thornton’s lowest percentage of power-play production since 2003-04, when he scored 16 of 73 points on the power play (21.9 percent). “Joe’s become a three-zone player,” said San Jose GM Doug Wilson. “He’s really trained extremely hard. Winning the gold medal in Vancouver, being part of that team, was a great part of his journey into becoming a team player. He does things the right way — the little things that really matter. He can play all situations. He’s playing as good as he’s ever played.”
Blue Jacket a top-notch blue-liner
Had Ryan Murray been healthy for the start of last year’s lockout-shortened season, it’s possible he could have made the Columbus roster. But Murray, the second overall pick in 2012, suffered a major shoulder injury while playing for Everett, his junior team. Thus, Murray was never under consideration for varsity status when the NHL reopened for business. In hindsight, delaying Murray’s NHL debut by one year hasn’t hurt the player or the organization. Murray is the real deal. The 20-year-old, playing mostly with James Wisniewski, drew the assignment of shadowing Chris Kunitz, Crosby, and Brian Gibbons in his first playoff game. The top line’s only point in Game 1 came when Crosby assisted on Matt Niskanen’s power-play goal. Murray projects to be Columbus’s version of Ryan McDonagh: a smart, mobile, and physical left-shot defenseman who can play in all situations. Murray has two years remaining on his entry-level contract. He’s only going to improve. Edmonton could have landed Murray with the first overall pick. Instead, the Oilers added to their ballooning skilled-but-small forward corps by selecting Nail Yakupov.
MacDonald makes a big hit
Andrew MacDonald was the best bargain in the league. The ex-Islander, once united with Travis Hamonic on New York’s first pairing, was working under a four-year, $2.2 million contract — spare change for a player logging big minutes. Starting next season, the $550,000-per-year man will bring down a cool $5 million annually, thanks to the six-year extension he signed with the Flyers. MacDonald will be part of a group that already includes Braydon Coburn, Mark Streit, Luke Schenn, and Nicklas Grossmann. This defense will be even better if UFA-to-be Kimmo Timonen, who’s showing no signs of dropoff at age 39, decides to return for one more season. It’s a big price to pay for the 27-year-old MacDonald. He’ll be earning the same or more than Paul Martin, McDonagh, and Niklas Kronwall, who are all better players. But it’s market price. Had MacDonald reached UFA, teams would have liked him better than Niskanen, Kyle Quincey, and Andrej Meszaros, who fit the same profile as late-20s, two-way defensemen.
Jonas Hiller, unrestricted at season’s end, isn’t making a good case for a re-up with Anaheim. Hiller’s game and confidence plummeted at the end of the regular season. He was so unreliable that Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau tabbed Frederik Andersen (zero playoff experience) to start Game 1 against Dallas. It’s possible that Anaheim lets Hiller walk. While young and untested, Andersen and John Gibson would be a cheaper and possibly better tandem . . . Andersen was originally Carolina’s seventh-round pick in 2010. But the Hurricanes couldn’t sign Andersen, who reentered the 2012 draft. Prior to being picked 87th overall by Anaheim, Andersen played for Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League, where he was teammates with P.J. Axelsson, now a scout with the Bruins . . . I admit to pulling for the Lightning to advance to June. The only reason is to see the family of robins that will make their home in Radko Gudas’s playoff beard.