They still need to get better.
But whether that comes from within or via off-season additions, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis wasn’t giving specifics when he met with the media on Thursday as the final act of the 2012-13 season.
With his team still reeling from Monday’s heart-breaking 5-4 overtime loss in Game 7, the Leafs top exec said that he believes in the players on his roster despite the letdown of the disastrous final 20 minutes of their season, noting that even if the lineup looks similar come the start of next season, he will be okay with that status quo.
Overall, Toronto’s brass was encouraged more than disappointed after a season in which they surprisingly finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and took the Boston Bruins to the limit before bowing out in the first round.
That said, Nonis doesn’t plan to sit back and simply hope it will happen again.
“We took some significant steps,” Nonis said. “But there’s room for improvement. We need to get better. We need to add more pieces. We’ve taken some significant steps but we’re not there. We’re not playing tonight.
“[Coach] Randy [Carlyle], myself, our staff, we feel the same way about how our team needs to play, and the pieces that we need to acquire or develop, and we’re going to go about our jobs to try and do that.”
Just where those additions and improvements will come will be a point of debate all off-season in Toronto.
Here’s a closer look at the Leafs by position and where Nonis could look for improvements in the off-season:
Goaltending: All eyes on James Reimer
“At this point, I’d say he’ll be back as No. 1,” Nonis said.” I don’t think anybody can point to goaltending as an issue with our team.”
He, of course, being James Reimer, the 25-year-old starter who emerged as the Leafs most valuable player during the regular season and was excellent in Games 5 and 6 in the postseason to get his team to a seventh game.
Even that performance and subsequent endorsement from his GM won’t be enough, however, for Reimer to fully quiet every question about how set the Leafs are in goal. Especially when the last five months have been consumed with rumours and speculation about Toronto upgrading the position.
There was plenty of talk during the season, for example, that the Leafs would look to bring Reimer some help, as they were in talks for both Miikka Kiprusoff and Roberto Luongo leading up to the trade deadline.
While they expressed confidence in Reimer, neither Nonis or Carlyle would entirely rule out adding a goaltender in the off-season.
“I think the strength of all hockey clubs are built from the net out: You start with your goaltending, then you go through your defence, go through your centres,” Carlyle said. “And if we can improve on any of those positions, I would think if there’s a possibility, like any other hockey club, that we would be looking to do that.”
Carlyle then bristled when asked specifically if the team’s goaltending needed an upgrade.
“I’ll let [the media] make those decisions and those assessments on what we need and what we don’t need,” he said. “I said that if we have the opportunity, we’re not any different than any other hockey club. If you had the chance to get the best goaltender in the world what would you do?”
Ultimately, the Leafs will likely have only between $10– and $12-million to address their holes after signing all of their key restricted free agents, and that cash can likely be better spent on a more pressing need than goaltending depth.
If Toronto adds in goal, it would likely only be at the backup position, replacing youngster Ben Scrivens with someone more experienced who can help Reimer along.
Defence: Depth required
“Great players aren’t readily available in free agency,” Nonis said. “So we’re going to have to either develop those players, and be patient with the guys we have coming, or we’re going to have to try to add pieces.”
Nowhere could the Leafs use a better free agent crop than on the blueline.
As it is, the only big minute defencemen available in unrestricted free agency at this point are the likes of Sergei Gonchar, Mark Streit, Ron Hainsey and Rob Scuderi, which is hardly a star-studded crop to choose from.
While the Leafs received good news this season on defence in terms of an emergence from Cody Franson and strong play from Jake Gardiner in the postseason, this is an organization without enough depth on the back end and which is still left relying too heavily on captain Dion Phaneuf most nights.
(Phaneuf played more minutes than all but four players in the league this season, which may help explain why he didn’t have a great postseason.)
Three key blueliners are restricted free agents, too – Franson, Carl Gunnarsson and Mark Fraser – and their new contracts will eat into available cap space.
Finding another top four defenceman, however, stands as Nonis’s toughest task this summer.
Centres: What to do with Tyler Bozak?
“If there’s a contract that makes sense for us and makes sense for Tyler then we’ll sign him,” Nonis said. “It’s not a situation where we have to sign Tyler Bozak because there are numbers that make sense for the team. And there’s numbers that make sense for Bozie. I always have believed that if a player wants to stay with your team you find a way to make it happen if you want to have him as well.”
Nonis also remarked on Thursday that cap space will be at a premium leaguewide, with the salary cap dropping for the first time since it was implemented in 2005.
That’s why getting Bozak in at the right price is imperative.
“How we allocate our dollars is going to be very important if we’re going to remain competitive,” Nonis said.
What the Leafs do at centre ice remains a key question mark overall. In addition to Bozak being an unrestricted free agent, Mikhail Grabovski is coming off a down year and Nazem Kadri is a restricted free agent due a sizable raise.
Here Nonis will have his work cut out as Bozak is believed to be seeking up to $5-million annually, Grabovski already makes $5.5-million and Kadri will be asking for something likely in the $3-million range.
If those commitments are all made or kept on the books, that will leave the Leafs will only minimal cash to spend elsewhere, which would mean most improvements would have to come from within.
If Nonis doesn’t re-sign Bozak, he has options elsewhere, with the likes of Derek Roy, Stephen Weiss, Valtteri Filppula, Mike Ribeiro and Matt Cullen all set to potentially be available.
His other decision up front will be whether or not to sign winger Clarke MacArthur, who will likely come much cheaper than Bozak, but who, like Grabovski, didn’t have an overly productive season and appears to have fallen out of favour with Carlyle.
The buyout question
It’s widely assumed the Leafs will reserve one of their two compliance buyouts for defenceman Mike Komisarek, who is set to earn $4.5-million against the cap for one more season and spent this year in the minors.
Where Nonis uses his other buyout remains to be seen, however. The best candidate beyond Komisarek would be veteran defenceman John-Michael Liles, who is signed for three more years at $3.875-million a season, but the Leafs could also simply save it for the summer of 2014.
(Teams were given two compliance buyouts to use in the next two summers as a result of the last round of CBA negotiations. They are like a get-out-of-jail-free card in that the salary no longer counts against the cap.)
“The thinking there will be cap space,” Nonis said of the mechanism, without naming specific buyout candidates. “Is there a better way of using cap space or can we create some more?
“But creating cap space and then spending it foolishly doesn’t help us. The notion that we should spend every penny we have and then get up to $64-million and that’s going to make us a better team, we don’t ascribe to that at all. But if there’s a way to spend that money better, then we may look to create more cap space.”
Leafs projected 2013-14 lineup (with RFAs signed)
Van Riemsdyk – [unknown] – Kessel
Lupul – Kadri – Kulemin
[unknown] – Grabovski – Frattin
[unknown] – McClement – Komarov
extra: McLaren, Colborne
Gunnarsson – Phaneuf
Gardiner – [unknown]
Fraser – Franson
Estimated cap space with RFAs re-signed: $11-million