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On The Leafs Goaltending Situation

Since the end of the regular season we have already seen some significant player movement, with two notable netminders already switching cities in Anders Lindback and possibly the most desirable offseason option in Tomas Vokoun.  As well as the most recently resign UFA in Josh Harding.  All of a sudden, the list of available UFA options and trade targets between the pipes is significantly shortened heading into the draft this weekend.  So, where does that leave the Toronto Maple Leafs?

This is a team that has dressed question marks between the pipes since Eddie Belfour last strapped on the pads in April of 2006--and even then, the Eagle only held his own in 49 games, posting a .892 save % and a 3.29 GAA.  Not exactly stellar would be an obvious understatement.

However, heading into the 12-13 season, the Leafs netminding depth appears brighter than ever before.  The depth in goal built by Mr. Brain Burke and the rest of Leafs management is something that Toronto has never experienced before--and this might stand as a surprise to you considering the big club only managed to post a team GAA of 3.16 last season, good for 29th overall in the league.  That being said, when you look down the depth chart you see a load of potential and young tenders putting up solid numbers in the minors.  For one, Ben Scrivens led the entire AHL in GAA last season, allowing just over 2 goals per game (2.04 GAA) and posting a healthy .926 save %.  Rookie backup Mark Owuya even topped these numbers, despite only dressing for 19 games last season (1.94 GAA and .929 save %).  While Rynnas, the third member of the marlies netminding club, struggled last season to keep up with his two counterparts.

On the big club, fans know all too well about Reimer's up and down season, the unfortunate injury that seemed to plague his season and what turned out to be another all too familiar sophomore slump.

So, does Leafs management take a chance on Reimer bouncing back?  Let Gustavsson walk, and throw Scrivens in as a rookie backup to see if he can translate his AHL success to the big leagues?  Or do they opt to fish the free agent pool and test the trade waters?  With significant depth between the pipes, and yet a lack of success on the big club regarding the most important position in hockey, the answer seems almost too obvious.  This team needs top-tier talent, not necessarily depth at this position, to contend for a playoff position next season.

Whether this top-teir talent comes via internal development, or from a player transaction, I'm positive the guys in suits at MLSE are very aware that Toronto is missing the same position they have been missing for more than six years and counting--a true number one goaltender.  Is there a direct correlation between the lack of a number one goalie and the Leaf's current playoff drought?

You bet your ass there is.  So here is an almost-conclusive list of potential names and options that could be wearing the beloved Blue and White this October.

Internal Development

It seems that this possibility has split Leafs Nation in recent weeks, with Scrivens coming off his career year in the minors, followed up by a stellar post-season run that took the Marlies to the Calder Cup Finals.  However, I won't be the first pundit to argue that this would not only be a bad idea, but politically speaking, it is also most unlikely to happen.

Brian Burke is on the hot seat after his third consecutive year as GM of a non-playoff team, leaving his future in limbo.  Last season, instead of choosing to resign J.S. Giguere or add more experience in net, the leafs opted to take the internal development route, hoping that Reimer would be able to carry the Leafs over a solid 50-60 games and that the Monster would be able to step in if Reimer ever stumbled.  That dream turned to dust just 6 games into the season, when Reimer was unable to finish a game against the Montreal Canadiens after being sent to the dressing room with "concussion-like symptoms" and not returning until over a month later.

This year, the Leafs face a similar dilemma.  And this time, the stakes are raised.  The Leaf's failure to make the playoffs, and their league worst GAA indicate that Burke was wrong.  Unfortunately, in Toronto, there is no room for error; management decisions are criticized in hindsight and measured on wins.  This time, if Burke opts to go the same route and the team stumbles, he'll be shown the door, ending his legacy as a veteran GM without playoff action for almost a half-decade.

Therefore, it is unreasonable to assume that the Leafs won't at least pull in sub-par goaltending this summer.  Whether that means adding a guy like Dan Ellis, Antero Niitymakki or Cristobel Huet to the despise of most Leafs fans, it is likely somebody new will get his shot between the pipes at the ACC this season.

Via Free Agency

There are less than a handful of names hitting the free agent list on July 1st that would necessarily be an upgrade--if you could even call it that.  Two potential guys are Dan Ellis or Scott Clemmenson, considering Harding recently resigned in Minnesota.

Dan Ellis only played 10 games last season behind Jonas Hiller on another non-playoff team and it's tough to argue that he would be able to handle a 40-60 game season in the pressure cooker of Toronto.  In fact, the same could be said for all of the aforementioned UFA's, considering none have ever played a significant load of games for a big market franchise.

While Scott Clemmenson has a reputation as a very reliable backup option, his first stint in Toronto was the worst of his NHL career to date.  Other than that, Clemmenson has enjoyed stays in New Jersey and Florida, where the pressure is almost non-existent for a goalie playing 20-30 games per season.

Josh Harding was easily the best option if the Leafs were to pursue the free agent route.  His NHL statistics were second to none in comparison to the other free agent goalies this summer.  So, kiss that option goodbye.  Furthermore, various sources have been reiterating that the Harding resigning does not make Niklas Backstrom available

The Trade Route

Since the departure of Vokoun and Lindback, a few names have still been murmured among rumor mongers over the past few months.  Most fans may argue that the most enticing option would be Jonathan Bernier, who's stuck behind one of the best up-and-comers in the NHL.  Next would be Roberto Luongo, who holds a hefty contract which may or may not lower his trade value, and possesses questions on whether he can actually step up in big games.  Outside of these two possibilities would be a trade out of left field -- but given the importance of goaltending in today's NHL, it's unlikely the Leafs would make a transaction like this unless they were willing to part with significant assets.  In fact, Luongo and Bernier would more than likely also cost the team significant assets, especially in the latter case due to his potential and age.

Bernier was strongly linked to the Tampa Bay Lightning before Yzerman pulled off a transaction that saw Lindback head to the sunshine state.  Now that the Lightning have their guy, the list grows shorter for Bernier's potential suitors.  The former 1st-round pick has never played more than 25 games in a season, yet has put up some fairly desirable numbers on a defense-first team.  However, as a young goaltender, the Leafs would be wise to assess his character before taking him from palm trees and beaches and throwing him into Toronto as a number one.  The cost for Bernier wold also be quite high, especially given his lack of experience.  LA was second last in goals for this season, although they partially addressed this issue by bringing Jeff Carter to town at the deadline.  Therefore, the team would likely be looking for a solid #2 or 3 guy on the blueline, in case Voynov stumbles or Scuderi opts to retire in the near future.  This could cost the Leafs a centrepiece like Luke Schenn, Cody Franson or Carl Gunnarsson, plus either a draft pick or a scoring winger to add to the team's depth.  Or maybe GM Dean Lombardi would do a one-for-one trade to bring his son Matthew to the contending cup champs? (Just kidding--there is no relation.)  It's tough to say how LA's management will address their needs this summer given their young core, and early success.  But a package to the liking of Schenn and MacArthur would be roughly the trade value that Bernier warrants in return.

Finally, we have the most contentious option facing the Leafs this summer in Roberto Luongo.  In my opinion, adding Luongo makes the most sense for the team moving forward.

If you're still reading after that last statement, my reasoning may be a little unorthodox, as it goes beyond the fact that there are a lack of quality options at the Leafs helm right now.  In the end, I believe the addition of Luongo would help the Leafs develop best as a team.

Although Luongo possesses a massive cap hit and contract length (10 more years at $5.3-million), his contract lacks a No Movement Clause.  This means he can be sent to the AHL (through waivers) at any time to take his salary off of the cap, without him being able to block it.  Although he would likely retire before playing in the minors, this is what throws me in favor of a trade for Luongo.

Questions have been raised about Luongo's ability to step up in big games, and for good reason.  Yet, this is a player who has held the majority of starts for a large Canadian market for over the past six seasons, making playoff appearances in five of them.  His career worst in stats over those six seasons was in '09-'10 where he posted a 2.57 GAA and a .913 save % while dressing for a massive 68 games. Although he stumbled heavily in the Stanley Cup Finals last season, he did carry a team who was lacking production from their two offensive stars to the first 15 wins.  Also, Luongo's resume contains an Olympic Gold won on home soil and numerous division and conference championships over his tenure with the Canucks.  That, for me, is enough to argue that Luongo is no doubt a number one goaltender in this league--despite being the whipping boy for a large Canadian hockey club.

If there's one thing I can say for certain, it is this.  The Leafs are not going to win the Stanley Cup next season. In fact, it's highly unlikely they will win the Cup the following season and probably not the season after that, either.  In saying that, the Leafs dressed one of the youngest rosters in the NHL this season, so there's some obvious room for growth.  Luongo has proven he can carry a heavy NHL workload and take his team to the playoffs year after year in a heavy market with high expectations (sound familiar?).  So, as a fan, would you rather have your young up-and-comers--guys like Schenn, Gardiner, Kadri, and to a lesser extent Kulemin and Kessel-- developing in an environment that provides them with no more than 82 games per season? Or would they be better off in a situation getting experience in some NHL playoff action?

Signing Luongo would also allow the Leafs to buy more time with Reimer and Scrivens, possibly even turning one or two into a significant trade chip.  Imagine being LA right now, holding all the cards with their backup in Bernier--it's not out of the question that the team lands a first round pick with their young netminder trade chip.  If the Leafs allow their prospects to develop properly, it's not out of the question that in a few years time the Leafs will find themselves in a similarly beneficial position.  

Throwing two netminders in there to carry the reigns in the mecca of the hockey universe while they're early in their careers and in the first half of their 20's isn't exactly a full-proof development plan.  Adding Luongo would still give Reimer a shot at 20-40 games per season, depending on the type of numbers he's putting up, while simultaneously giving the Leafs a winning edge and playoff experience.  Furthermore, if all the hoop-la about Luongo not being able to step up in big games is true, then by the time the Leafs are a perennial playoff team and Cup contender, James Reimer or Ben Scrivens will be ready for big time playoff hockey.  By then, Luongo's lack of a NMC becomes his greatest asset to the Toronto Maple Leafs, allowing Reimer to officially carry the reigns when he's ready--and not simply because the Leafs lack top-tier talent in the most important position on the ice.

This brings us to the most important question regarding the possible acquisition of Roberto Luongo; what would the Leafs have to send the other way?  In my opinion, not as much as one would think for an Olympic goaltender.  His massive salary and long term contract would force the Canucks to take back significant salary in almost any trade.  Furthermore, the Canucks appear to lack what the Leafs have most of--stay at home defense and secondary scoring options.  I believe this, coupled with the fact that not too many teams appear to keen on Luongo (given from what I've heard from pundits and rumor  mongers), makes these teams ideal trade partners in a transaction that would bring Luongo to the Maple Leafs.  In saying that, the lack of alternative options and pressure on Mr. Burke is something that GM Mike Gillis is well aware of, consequentlythis could force the price up.  

In any transaction, I think sending Mike Komisarek would be desirable for both parties.  Not only would the Canucks be able to absorb salary in a mediocre bottom pairing defenseman, but this would inevitably force the Leafs to also package better and younger assets at the same time to enforce compliance with the salary cap.  I believe a deal involving Luongo would cost the Leafs Mike Komisarek, a 1st or 2nd round pick, a bluechip prospect or mid-level prospect if the Leafs opt to offer a 2nd rounder instead of a first.  I understand this offer sounds somewhat low for Luongo's services, but one must remember that Luongo has publicly announced his desire for a trade, which ties the hands of any management by forcing them to get a deal done (See: Heatley leaving Ottawa 2009).

The Hockey Tracker Team

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