It’s the time of year when general managers can make their biggest impact, changing their roster dramatically in the span of a couple of weeks.
Sometimes for the better, as Jim Nill did in Dallas a year ago to help the Stars back into the playoffs in a difficult Western Conference. And sometimes not.
You can put the Toronto Maple Leafs in the latter camp. They didn’t have a great late-June and early-July a year ago, and that set them up for the failure that eventually came late in the regular season.
Useful players were let go for nothing, or were bought out. With money tight, David Clarkson was the only big-ticket free-agent addition, acquired on cap-killing seven-year deal.
And the Leafs two biggest weaknesses – on the blueline and at centre – weren’t properly addressed, even with the addition of veteran centreman Dave Bolland.
Those mistakes were so colossal and costly that they overshadowed what GM Dave Nonis did well, such as landing goaltender Jonathan Bernier and keeping the cost of his restricted free agents down.
The bad decisions outweigh the good pretty quickly when you’re dealing with a competitive market for players and the salary cap, especially when management’s vision for the roster is vague.
So here we are, 12 months later, and the Leafs’ needs are remarkably similar to what they were a year ago.
They’re not good enough down the middle, even if they somehow find a way to bring Bolland back at a reasonable number. (Don’t bet on that.)
They’re not deep enough on the blueline, even if rumours that Dion Phaneuf is being dangled as trade bait prove false.
The Leafs appear to be muddling along, stuck somewhere between being in contention or into a rebuild. New president Brendan Shanahan has stated multiple times he doesn’t view this as a tear-down rebuild, but if it’s not that, then what is it?
They could go young, rely on Morgan Rielly and others as the foundation, and aim to contend a couple years from now.
Or they might attempt to kick-start things right now, in these next two weeks – like the Stars did – and find a way to climb back into postseason contention.
Both are options. The key will be picking one.
One difference between this year and last is Toronto can create some cap space to pull off meaningful moves. If the Leafs pass on Bolland and fill their fourth line with inexpensive but useful players from the minor-league Marlies, the team could have roughly $13-million (all figures U.S.) to commit to a solid centre, a top-four defenceman, two depth forwards and a backup goaltender.
If they buy out veteran defenceman Tim Gleason, who has two years remaining on his deal and struggled to earn his $4-million cap hit down the stretch, that would give them up to $16-million to spend.
Add in potential trades of restricted free agents James Reimer and Cody Franson – likely the top two candidates to be moved – and this could be a substantially different team come the fall.
Will it be a better one?
That won’t be easy. It’ll require a change in style by head coach Randy Carlyle and his three yet-to-be-named assistants to rebuild the clearly dysfunctional system. It’ll also require that Bernier duplicate what was a dream first full season until his injury.
But a lot of this will also be on management, as this is a roster with glaring holes and they can’t afford to get bogged down by a search for intangibles when what the Leafs truly need is talent. Shanahan and company have to identify a path, make the right bets and address the problem areas, a great deal of which can be done in the next two weeks culminating with the beginning of free agency on July 1.
The Leafs whiffed on that front last year, in several keys ways, not the least of which was overrating the team they had coming off an unexpected playoff berth in a charmed half-season after the lockout.
That shouldn’t be an issue now, not after the disastrous way things ended in April. But the road to contention remains long and perilous for this group.
They can’t afford many more mistakes like those of 2013.