To buy or not to buy?
That’s the question facing Toronto Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis right now as the days count down to next Wednesday’s trade deadline, and it doesn’t have an easy answer.
The Leafs look like they’re going to be a playoff team – sportsclubstats.com gives them a better than 70 per cent chance of making it with 22 games to go – but not really a contender, meaning buying big on the rental market doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Last year, Nonis’s only play was to bring in defenceman Ryan O’Byrne from Colorado for a fourth-round pick, a move that didn’t prove wise when he wasn’t able to play at an NHL level.
The management team learned a lesson and will now likely avoid burning an asset for a short term gain. Instead, what the Leafs are hoping for, is to dip a toe in the market and only complete a deal if it can benefit them beyond this spring.
Those types of trades can be hard to make in the week before the deadline, but they’re not impossible. The Minnesota Wild, for one, landed winger Jason Pominville at the deadline last April with a season remaining on his contract and then extended him on a new five-year deal in the fall.
It was a trade that made sense both at the time and down the road.
What Nonis will be looking for comes back to how his roster is shaping up for next season, especially with several unrestricted free agents to take care of. Nonis will need to make key decisions on at least three top nine forwards, one defenceman and what to do with restricted free agent netminder James Reimer.
After accounting for a few re-signings and the salary cap rising into the $71-million range, the Leafs will have roughly $15-million to fill those five holes, a process that can begin this week if there’s a move that’s a fit. That’s not an awful lot of wiggle room, but it does allow them to change the composition of the roster by allocating dollars in different areas.
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at six Leafs players that could be in play in the next few days, if Nonis does pull the trigger on a trade.
LEAFS POTENTIALLY ON THE BLOCK
Contract talks with the injured centre have not progressed well, to the point that the terms are leaking out in the media. And they’re eye-opening.
According to multiple reports, Bolland is seeking a seven– or eight-year deal in the neighbourhood of $5-million a season to stay in Toronto, a contract on par with the behemoth one David Clarkson signed last July.
That’s too rich for management’s tastes, but moving Bolland will also be very difficult given he hasn’t played in four months and remains day-to-day with an ankle injury that could affect him the rest of the way.
This is a stalemate that likely lasts for quite a while, with how Bolland plays upon his return having a significant impact on how talks progress. The Leafs like what he brings to the lineup and believe he will help with a playoff run, but there’s a limit to what they’re willing to spend on a player who slots somewhere between a second– or third-line centre.
Stuck in a backup role with how well Jonathan Bernier has played, Reimer will have arbitration rights this summer and will be due a raise from his $1.8-million cap hit.
Nonis has said repeatedly he wants to keep both goaltenders in the fold this season, but Reimer can still be had for the right offer. One problem is there are numerous veteran starters available this deadline, with Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas two examples of goalies expected to be moved.
It’s unlikely, however, that Reimer is a Leaf beyond this summer.
Nikolai Kulemin and Mason Raymond
Two UFAs that have given the Leafs some solid forward depth, Kulemin and Raymond will both be seeking raises in the off-season, and that makes it unlikely both will be back in Toronto.
It’s easy to look at their point totals and pick out Raymond as the keeper, but Kulemin has played in a more defensive role and his production is similar to Raymond’s at even strength. Kulemin has also shown some versatility in playing well at centre of late.
The tough part about getting him re-signed is it’s probable his agent, Gary Greenstin, looks for a big payday. This will be Kulemin’s first taste of unrestricted free agency, and if history is any indicator, Greenstin will push the envelope just as he did two years ago with another Leafs client, Mikhail Grabovski. Another team might well see more value in Kulemin, too, given he has produced offensively in the past and would be a good fit on the wing with an elite centre like old friend Evgeni Malkin.
For that reason, Kulemin is probably the most available Leaf in the next week.
Nonis isn’t averse to holding onto UFAs and waiting until the summer to get something done – as he did with Tyler Bozak a year ago – but these are two chips the Leafs can possibly play before the deadline.
“I don’t believe you have to have a player signed,” Nonis explained on TSN Radio on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m perfectly content to let the UFAs play it out and see where we are.”
Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri
It’s a long shot they go anywhere, but their names continue to surface in the rumour mill, primarily because they can bring back the most in return. There has also been some tension at times between the two young players and coach Randy Carlyle, although the team’s improved play leading up to the Olympic break has alleviated that to some extent.
Nonis would need to land quite an asset to justify trading either player, as they are two of only four Leafs that are under age 25 and playing a significant role. They’re also cost controlled, with Kadri under contract at a reasonable number for another season and Gardiner coming out of his entry level deal and without much leverage.
Either being moved would be a blockbuster, and there’s little indication that’s coming in the next seven days in Leaf land.
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