From The Star
There will be a price at which keeping James Reimer makes sense.
The key for the Maple Leafs is to be disciplined, determine that price and stick to it.
Similarly, there will be a price at which it would make sense to part with forward Leo Komarov at the trade deadline.
The key, again, is for the Leafs to be disciplined and stick with that asking price.
The common ground between these two very different personnel decisions — and all the others the Leafs face over the next few months — is discipline.
You can give Reimer too much in salary and term just to avoid having him walk out the door, and in a different way you can accept too little in trade for Komarov just to add something in futures that goes with the rebuilding program.
Discipline. Not easy to have when emotions start running high.
Part of the reason Brendan Shanahan found Lou Lamoriello so appealing, while others found him to be a curious fit as general manager for the Toronto organization, is that Lamoriello is regarded as an executive who believes in structure and a team philosophy and never gets persuaded to do something in a moment of high emotion he wouldn’t otherwise do.
Since joining the club in August, the former New Jersey hockey czar has been almost invisible. Part of that is because Shanahan already was the front man for the organization and Mike Babcock the face of the hockey department when Lamoriello was hired. And part of it is because in a year in which there have been very few trades and transactions in the NHL, a lot of GMs have flown under the radar.
Internally, however, his presence has been very much felt, whether it’s clearing people off the team’s charter flights, bringing a cone of silence around ongoing talks over player contracts or plugging many of the leaks to the media that always made the Leafs a team around which there was oodles of juicy speculation.
Compare last year, with all the peculiar incidents and rampant rumours, to this year, in which the Leafs have become a much more businesslike operation with few distractions.
That’s just the way Lamoriello likes it.
Now, it’s time for the 73-year-old native of Rhode Island to step into the spotlight. The Leafs have some big decisions to make in the coming weeks, and while Shanahan likes a group approach in which many voices are heard, he didn’t hire Lamoriello to be part of the chorus. He hired the man who drafted him to lead the way and make sure the Leafs have the discipline to stick to the rebuilding project Shanahan began last season when he fired GM Dave Nonis, dismissed a large group of scouts, traded Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, drafted London Knight star Mitch Marner and hired Sheldon Keefe to coach the AHL’s Marlies.
Lamoriello, in turn, wasn’t ready to step back and be a senior consultant in New Jersey while new GM Ray Shero ran the team. He still wanted to be in the thick of the action, so much so he was willing to accept a position in which he reports to Shanahan, his former employee.
Now, he’s got work to do.
The decision on Reimer, for example, will be a fascinating one. The netminder is having a terrific season, and as an unrestricted free agent in July could leave the Leafs with nothing if he signs with another team. Calgary, with Brian Burke as president, looms as an interested suitor.
The easy answer is to pay Reimer whatever it takes to keep him and for as many years as he wants. But that would have major ramifications on the team’s cap picture for years to come for a goalie who has had lots of ups and downs. Lamoriello, who had his share of cap problems in New Jersey, will try to sign Reimer, but not at any cost.
With Komarov, Roman Polak, Shawn Matthias, P.A. Parenteau and other Leafs potentially available to teams prior to the Feb. 29 trade deadline, Lamoriello has to balance the value of those players as Leafs next season with their value in picks and/or prospects.
Komarov, in particular, has had a great season and has been the most consistent Leaf. You can expect the Leafs to set a high price — a first-round pick? — and to not lower that price when emotions start running high at the deadline just to make it appear like they are making things happen.
Beyond that, it’s going to take some cool heads around the Air Canada Centre in July if local lad Steven Stamkos ends up going all the way to unrestricted free agency. There is, like Reimer, a salary and a term that will make sense, even if Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment decides it is willing to pay a premium to land a marquee name at a time when television numbers are down and the ticket market has grown a little soft.
You can say the Leafs should pay anything to get Stamkos. But paying anything for one player could severely hinder their ability to grow a team that can, once it gets back into the Stanley Cup playoffs, sustain that level of competitiveness for years.
Lamoriello once signed Ilya Kovalchuk, a deal that helped his team get to a Cup final but also caused him major headaches. He knows what it’s like to have stars like Scott Niedermayer and Zach Parise and then lose them to other teams. He also had a knack for years in New Jersey of making players like Martin Brodeur understand the big picture and sometimes take a little less to allow the team to be stronger.
Dealing with Stamkos, if it comes to that, won’t make his knees buckle, and he’ll be able to say “no” if a bidding war does emerge and the numbers get too crazy, which is a massively important thing for any sports executive to be able to do.
There were those who said Lamoriello was past his prime in Jersey and needed to be replaced. You can bet he heard that, and while he’ll deny letting outside forces shape his actions, he’s a proud man who believes in certain principles and believes he can help make the Leafs a winner again.
He’s been a quiet, behind-the-scenes presence with the Leafs this season. He’s about to become much more prominent.
Damien Cox is a broadcaster with Rogers Sportsnet and a regular contributor to Hockey Night in Canada. He spent nearly 30 years covering a variety of sports for the Star, and his column appears here Saturdays. Follow him @DamoSpin.