After a couple solid, albeit one nerve-racking, wins to start the season, the Maple Leafs appear to have some swagger that hasn’t been seen since Mats Sundin flanked Jonas Hoglund and Mikael Renberg a decade ago. Optimism is at an all time high throughout Leaf nation as the team gets through a relatively easy opening couple weeks of the season. The questions never seem to end, however, and with the Leafs quality depth (that’s not an oxymoron anymore!) as the Leafs get healthier and less-suspended there is a shortage of roster spots and ice time for players. It appears that amongst all speculation that Brian Burke is hovering around the trigger on a potential trade, but is it really necessary right now? Let’s break this down.
Up front is the primary concern as Clarke MacArthur comes back from his suspension, Nazem Kadri‘s knee is healing quicker than initially speculated, and it would be reasonable to assume we’ll see a Tim Connolly appearance sometime in the next week and a half. Combine that with the unexpected recovery and quality play from Matthew Lombardi and the Leafs have a shocking number of centres available. So where do you put them all? Firstly, Kadri has to start in the minors as Matt Frattin‘s solid two-way play has earned him the right to stay with Leafs for now. It can’t hurt Naz to get up to speed with the Marlies, get big time minutes, work on his defensive game and if he truly dominates the AHL then that will show he needs to be in the NHL. At that point, whether it be a few weeks or a few months, Burke has a better idea to get better trade value from other teams. Very rarely will teams make a substantial deal at this point in the season. This of course only goes with the assumption that the team isn’t struggling and in need of a shake-up, but with the team’s play thus far it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a combination of lines with this current group that can’t do well enough.
Let’s face it, Connolly likely won’t be the iron man once he heals up from his flavour of the month injury and it wouldn’t be smart to have Lombardi play in every game as the season wears on. Combine that with responsible play of Tyler Bozak, and you have three centres that are capable of playing the pivot between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul or Frattin and Colby Armstrong. Any combination of those sets of wingers with those centres has some offensive upside with defensive capability. It’s also important to recognize that the Leafs now have a quality fourth line in more of a Brian Burke mold. Jay Rosehill and Colton Orr are excellent for spot starts when toughness is needed, and a line of David Steckel – Philippe Dupuis - Mike Brown has an excellent balance. Since MacArthur counts towards a roster spot despite being suspended, that requires only one roster move to make room for Connolly when he’s healthy. When that happens, it would be smart to send down Rosehill and carry those extra centres. This gives good options to match up the line-up on a nightly basis depending on the opponent, as well as gives the opporunity for some more injury prone players to rest for a night if they’re banged up.
On the defensive side, it’s nice to see Toronto finally have a glut of NHL-ready defencemen. Keith Aulie was already sent down to the Marlies to make room for stand-out Jake Gardiner; Mike Komiserek for all purposes hasn’t been terrible; Cody Franson is a big mobile, puck mover who can run a secondary powerplay unit; and Carl Gunnarson has been nothing short of solid. While I agree Aulie deserves to be with the big club after a great debut last season, letting him earn his way back on to the Leafs roster is the best bet. It’s not a bad thing to let the likes of Komi and Gunnar play since it will only boost their trade value if they play well. If not, it’s good to know there are guys ready to answer the call if a shake up is needed. And let’s not forget injuries happen and when they strike the Leafs blue line, we’ll be thankful for this depth.
At this point, Ron Wilson has many options to put a line-up together that can compete with any team in the league on any given night. This capability injects some excitement that hasn’t been found in nearly a decade since the Leafs last made the playoffs.
Many questions still remain regarding Clarke MacArthur‘s contract status and future with the Leafs as this offseason progresses. One of the biggest steals in free agency last year, Clarke registered a career total points (62)while registering the first 20-goal campaign of his career. Arbitration seems likely for the 26 year old Alberta native, the second year in a row he’s gone this route to get fair-value in his contract. Last season the former Atlanta Thrashers franchise walked away from the arbitrators ruling of $2.4 million one-year deal which was a significant increase in pay from his previous contract, and given his point production to the Thrashers seemed too expensive. Mac remained a UFA late into the summer when Burke snatched him up at a modest $1.1 million dollar deal.
Being a MacArthur fan since his days in the World Junior tournament, I wasn’t entirely shocked to see Mac post career highs albeit I never expected 20 goals and 60+ points. The question remains what is his value? I presume Burke and Mac’s agent are having many discussions on this topic. Burke is never one to hand out huge contracts without some credibility on the players resume, therefore a contract value similar to Mikhail Grabovski or Nikolai Kulemin was probably offered. I would speculate a 2-year deal around $2.5 million per was the outstanding offer.
Mac probably wanted something in a 3-4 year deal around $3-3.5 million per given that he is just hitting is prime and that he is aware of his importance to his linemates. Keep in mind Mac’s chemistry with Grabo and Kule proved to show tremendous growth in all three players game. Following the UFA frenzy from over the weekend that has severely inflated values for bottom 6 players, Mac could almost be asking for $4 mill a year at this point. Clearly Burke won’t accept this, and will not let other GM’s influence on the UFA market dictate what Mac’s value is. An arbitrator may see this differently though and Burke is well aware of this.
A settlement will not likely be arriving any time soon, unless MacArthur wants to take a discount to remain with the Leafs. Given the inflated free agent market, this helps his case even, but I think this has been Burke’s plan all along. Or at least it is play out as he expected. While much has been made this summer about the Leafs needs at centre and Mac be dangled as bait in a package, at the end of the day Burke will want to retain Mac to reunite him with Grabo and Kule on the Leafs 1B line. Burke is playing it smart by not handing out a longer term deal in excess of what his linemates are making, due to the uncertainty of what production he can consistently bring to the team.
Therefore, Burke can capitalize on the arbitrators ruling of simply a 1-year deal likey around $3.5 mill as there is no doubt that the arbitrator will rule in Mac’s favour again. With the Leafs extra cap space, they can afford a 1-year hit like this while giving Mac a second season in Toronto to prove what he really can do. This also bides time for youngsters like Nazem Kadri to develop in a less demanding role as opposed to throwing him into the top 6 right away. It takes a certain type of person to be able to handle the Toronto hockey market and while Clarke should be retained to the benefit of the Leafs, the Leafs should not throw money and years at him just because they have the capacity right now. Burke realizes this and will not give in, but at the end of the day Clarke MacArthur should be expected to suit up for the Blue and White come October.