Burke is back, and Rielly is here.
Little bit o' this, little bit o' that today,
as I'm subbing in for our regular guy who is battling through some minor health issues... I'll start by sharing my thoughts on Burke's new appointment as President and Grand Poobah of Hockey Ops in Calgary.
A shiny new gig in a shiny new town with a shiny new lower bowl after that terrible flood. Good for Burke, good for Flames fans, not so good for Feaster...probably. Burke may not be the GM but it's all on him to restructure that franchise. He'll draw up a blueprint, roll out a game plan, and Feaster will either make trades in accordance with that blueprint, or he'll be out of a gig. Simple, really, and it won't take long to find out if the fit makes sense. Suffice to say the battle of Alberta just became a hell of a lot more interesting.
Now, on to other issues…How about those rookies, huh? We'll get into the Morgan Rielly stuff soon enough, but I want to take a minute and talk about Tyler Biggs. In Biggs you have a pretty skilled, very physical character-first player who may one day carry the torch lit by celebrated Leaf heroes like Tucker, Roberts, and – dare I say- future Leaf hero David Clarkson. Biggs has a nice enough mix of physical tools, stature, puck-sense and hockey skills to justify being a first-round selection, and if his early performance to date is any indicator, he's really a man among boys out there. During the rookie tourney he's demonstrating excellent puck protection instincts, and a crafty set of mitts that are capable of much more than punching faces. He's got some nice setup skills and he can also finish. The wheels don't look half-bad, either. I submit to you that if he has a strong enough camp, making him Clarkson's understudy at the NHL level does more for his development than letting him toil at the AHL level. What he needs are NHL opponents to test his strength and his tenacity against. Controlling his exposure in a third line capacity makes sense, provided he separates himself from the pack at camp.
Morgan Rielly, like Biggs, has likely outgrown the competition he's accustomed to facing. He's just too fast, too strong, too smart, and too skilled to learn anything more from playing in the WHL. As he's ineligible for AHL action because of his age, if he overachieves at camp, you simply have to reward him with an NHL job. It means burning a year off his ELC (entry level contract) but it also means living up to the promise that excellent performance equates to opportunity. The question here on both counts is how you go about making room for them on the roster if their play warrants the decision. The answers are not altogether obvious in the case of Rielly, but as far as Biggs is concerned, I think the answer is clear. You simply follow through with the philosophy that bottom 6 roles need to be made available to the best and brightest of the young guys who can handle those gigs without costing you 3 million a season.
This isn't easy to admit, as I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Kulemin fan. His was the last jersey I paid for, and I really like what he brings to the team. He does so many little things well that unless you know what to look for, go unnoticed. His positioning on the ice is testament to his vision, and his training. He knows how to be where the puck is heading, whether in the attacking zone, in his own end, or when grinding it out down low. He's freakishly strong, and very capable of slowing down the opposition without taking penalties. His deft stick work to break up a passing attempt or disarm his opponent is world class. In short, he's a low-maintenance, coachable utility player who makes your third line effective. He's also sucking up almost 3 million in cap playing a role that Biggs could very possibly handle almost as well. Yes, this remains to be seen, but if the former first rounder acquits himself, what justification is there for keeping Kulemin on the books, knowing that he's no longer a top 6 option, and that the cap space he takes up is needed elsewhere? Sounds eerily similar to comrade Grabovski's situation to me, minus the part about his value.
The list of teams immediately interested in Kuley the minute he goes on the block probably include PITT (obviously, due to the Malkin connection), STL, and EDM. The latter two have both expressed interest at various times, as they require a mentor for their young Russian stars being Tarasenko and Yakupov respectively. Who better than Kulemin? Unloading that salary in favour of a more cost effective piece capable of providing a similar service frees up cap needed to lock in the two remaining RFAs who both happen to be key pieces. If Kadri isn’t considered a core guy by now, he soon will be. Show me who the other bona fide 1C candidates are...rhetorical question, by the way. Franson is the one guy at this time who can be trusted to take on some of Phaneuf's long list of responsibilities.
Any time you stumble upon a young, 6'5'' right-shot powerplay specialist who happens to lead your D corps in points, you find a way to get him signed, and if stabilizing your group comes at the cost of recycling a former top 6 guy with no term left, you do the needful and move forward. Love me some Kuley, but not at the expense of locking up Franson and Kadri. Besides, as an RFA, it is within his rights to accept an offer sheet and force Nonis' hand. Dirty pool, you say? How respected do you think Kadri feels right now? While Burke hates offer sheets, I wouldn’t be shocked if he had Feaster inform Nonis that the Flames would like to trade for the rights of either Kadri or Franson, with the intention of knocking at the back door if Nonis refuses to deal. That's sort of exactly how the Leafs acquired Kessel, for those among you still trying to block that one out. And tell me the thought hasn't crossed Bryan Murray's mind, especially after the somewhat frosty exchange with Burke on the draft floor in 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kzgalcl3tD8
Ottawa certainly has the cash resources, and it would obviously delight Ottawa fans to rub salt, kick sand, or whatever figure of speech you like, by either picking up a highly skilled former Leaf, or, at the very least, forcing their hand into stroking a cheque they really don't want to write.
If Nonis has to match an offer for 4.5 million for Kadri, Franson, another player they could afford to tender an offer for, could be had for the 4 million a copy his camp is reportedly demanding. Bottom line is, unlike with the Kessel (non) negotiation, Nonis needs to take a proactive approach and get something done before his options become even more limited. Just as Keith Aulie made Beauchemin redundant, if Biggs proves he is able to hang, you simply have to look at your options, and replacing a soon to be free agent whose best friend was recently kicked curbside with a cheaper alternative may make more sense than your alternatives. If Biggs isn't ready, the next question needs to be: "how about Colborne"? He looked pretty good at times last season when he was called up. Re: Morgan Rielly, I hate to say this, but if he proves that he is beyond a shadow of a doubt ready, you may just have to look at moving one of Carl Gunnarsson or Jake Gardiner in order to accommodate him. There's pros and cons to either scenario. Gunnarsson leaving frees up cap. He's also the Kulemin of Toronto's blue line group: smart, low maintenance, and unspectacular but steady. He also makes Phaneuf better, somehow. Gardiner fetches you more in terms of quality of your return. He and Rielly play a similar puck-rushing style. Both are left shots. He is likely the centrepiece of a deal that nets you a highly rated forward piece; something sorely missing in the system with the graduation of messieurs Kadri and Frattin.
Part of the whole BPA (best player available) asset accumulation strategy is to allow you to deal from a position of strength when negotiating in order to achieve overall organizational equity. If you need to trade for a winger, the top defenseman in your prospect pool will always fetch a higher return than the eight or ninth best forward that you drafted out of positional necessity. So, the Leafs can probably afford to parlay a Gardiner into a top forward prospect or young player like a Strome, Couturier, Johansen, or similar. If you're looking for cap room, maybe you look for a deal for Gunner. You can probably find a taker out of the Eastern Conference for his services in exchange for a 2nd and a middling prospect or a cheap depth guy. What you don't do is kid yourself for a nanosecond that anyone is rubbing their hands together, giving John-Michael Liles the Bugs-Bunny-steaming-chicken-on-a-platter gaze. Liles simply hasn't logged enough ice over the last two years to warrant interest, especially for the dollars and term that come part-and-parcel with that riverboat gamble. If Carlyle uses him this season, maybe he gets dealt at the deadline, but that's light years away at this point. To summarize, something needs to be done, and soon. There are just too many loose ends, and too many wolves potentially waiting at the door to sit on your hands and just let the chips fall. I'm not calling for panic at this point; that comes in three or four weeks when you need to fill holes in the roster once occupied by two of your best point-producers from 2013, but it is time to be proactive and start thinking about the very near future.