From The Globe and Mail – James Mirtle
Lou Lamoriello is going to work.
The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager has been heavy on the phone in recent days, calling teams around the NHL to weigh the trade market and let other executives know what he has to offer.
With a little more than a month until the trade deadline and 36 games left to play, the deconstruction of the 2015-16 Leafs has begun.
For the most part, the names in play aren’t surprising. Lamoriello has been gauging teams’ interest in rental players Roman Polak, P.A. Parenteau and Shawn Matthias, veterans who are all in the final year of their contract.
But at least two Leafs with some term are also available.
The first, Dan Winnik, signed a two-year, $4.5-million (U.S.) deal in the summer after a strong showing last season that landed Toronto two draft picks (a second- and a fourth-rounder) from Pittsburgh at last year’s trade deadline.
The other name out there is goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who has another year left on his contract at $4.15-million.
Neither has had a good season. Winnik’s production and ice time are down, and he’s played through a nagging injury that has affected his skating and ability to fore-check.
Bernier, meanwhile, had a disastrous start to the year, with no wins and an .883 save percentage in his first 11 games. He is 6-4-0 with a .915 save percentage since mid-December, but Leafs coach Mike Babcock has obviously lost a degree of confidence in him.
With James Reimer unsigned, the Leafs’ goaltending situation next season is uncertain. At this point, it appears they will either get an extension done with Reimer – who has considerable bargaining power, given his play – or turn the crease over to someone new.
That’s assuming they’re able to move Bernier. The goalie market is complicated right now – it includes intriguing names such as Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen – and what’s kept deals from happening is the asking prices are relatively high.
A big reason Leafs president Brendan Shanahan brought in Lamoriello was for his experience at this time of year and ability to make difficult deals. The next five weeks are going to be pivotal for the franchise on that front, and Lamoriello will need a strong sense of where the market is going.
According to executives from other teams, it’s tough to swing a trade right now, for a variety of reasons.
One is that so many teams are still in the playoff race and unwilling to concede they’re done. That could be a small advantage for the Leafs, as they’re one of the few confirmed sellers.
While a team such as the Oilers is on the fence as to whether they want to ship out rentals, there’s no ambiguity in Toronto.
That lack of supply elsewhere may mean the return for some of the Leafs’ middling talents such as Polak and Matthias is increased, with the draft pick coming back improving by a round or two.
The other factor limiting the trade market is the salary cap. Most playoff-bound teams are capped out, and waiting another month for more space to open up will be imperative.
Don’t expect a team such as Carolina, for example, to be able to move Eric Staal’s massive $8.25-million salary until right near the Feb. 29 deadline.
That’s the other difficult reality for the Leafs: They’ll be working in the shadow of some of the bigger deals that could happen.
Some teams are waiting on what the Lightning will do with Jonathan Drouin, for example. Staal and Steven Stamkos are also huge names who could suddenly end up on the market, if they choose to waive their no-trade and/or no-move clauses at the last minute.
Andrew Ladd in Winnipeg might be another, as it sounds more and more like the Jets are leaning toward keeping Dustin Byfuglien instead. Then there are others such as Radim Vrbata (in Vancouver), Loui Eriksson (Boston), Jiri Hudler (Calgary) and Brandon Pirri (Florida) who are expected to be available.
Minnesota, Nashville, the Rangers and a few other teams are looking for scoring going into the postseason, but the Leafs hardly have the sexiest options given their players on the block have low point totals. Unless they start shopping Leo Komarov, Parenteau (23 points in 46 games) is the most enticing name, and he likely only fetches a second-round pick.
The Leafs will also be in tough to move bigger contracts – i.e. Joffrey Lupul or Dion Phaneuf – in this environment, which could be why their names aren’t coming up in preliminary talks.
Even if those contracts stay, Toronto’s sell-off may mean as many as eight players are dealt. The organization is already preparing for that hole by adding players at the AHL level in recent days, as they don’t want to gut the first-place Marlies after the deadline.
The Leafs? That’s a different story.
After losing to Montreal in a shootout on Saturday, they are 1-5-2 in their past eight games and well out of the Eastern Conference playoff race. If Lamoriello clears out all the rentals, the Leafs will likely limp to the finish and wind up among the bottom four or five teams in the league.
But they’ll have a lot of picks to show for it – including one right near the top.
Which was the plan all along.