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Ulmer: Leafs Four Players Away

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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I think the Leafs need four players to be a radically different team than they are right now.

Four players.

First, my Public Service Announcement:

I am not one to pee on your leg and tell you that it’s raining.

I have to be honest. With the Leafs engaged in such a difficult season, with the playoffs a very, very distant possibility, encouraging news seems to strain credibility. My credibility.

After all, I am employed by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and while I have leveled gently buffered criticism over my four years, it isn’t my job to tell you how stupid everyone above me is.

My job is to tell the truth. My job is easier if some measure of the truth is palatable, even encouraging, to the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people, who have given their allegiance so hopefully and so faithfully.

There. Thank you for staying through the pre-amble. Having said that…

It’s going to get better.

By the end of the month, what has become the constant re-engineering of the Maple Leafs should have entered another stage via the NHL trade deadline.

Monday’s solid performance from J.S. Giguere for now at least adds his name to a list of trade candidates that also includes, as far as we can guess, Francois Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle and perhaps Kristopher Versteeg. It’s the most material the Leafs have had to offer in years and the trade route has been well-mined by GM Brian Burke.

Let’s go up the lineup. James Reimer appears the heir apparent for the Leafs’ netminding job.

That he was playing in the East Coast league two years ago is a lovely bit of trivia but the fact is, he is the best they have. Reimer turned in a 2.24 goals against average and a .933 save percentage in nine games with the Maple Leafs this season. Besides the 22-year-old-Reimer, 26-year-old Jonas Gustavsson is Old Man Winter.

This is the young goaltending tandem forecast since, well, November, but all Reimer does is win and despite Gustavsson’s struggles, he retains major upside. You could do a lot worse.

Ride the goaltending as it is.

The season has put the lie to the notion that the Leafs had one of the best blue-line corps in the NHL. But after stumbling through the first half season, Dion Phaneuf is rekindling his game. Luke Schenn will soon begin a decade-long run as an All-Star contender and Carl Gunnarsson is a legitimate top six-defender.

It seems Mike Komisarek will struggle to be a top four minute-eater, but his size and eagerness fit nicely into role of forth-fifth-or sixth defender. Never mind what he makes. If he is better, it will be determined by his play, not his T-4 slip.

The Marlie’s Keith Aulie can and will play. At six-foot five, he will give the blue line more size, a steady countenance and a dose of mean. He is ready now and getting better.

That’s four players on the roster. So on defence, the Leafs need two more seaworthy defenceman.

Now, the forwards.

From bottom up, the Leafs have solid fourth line material in the oft-hurt, always eager and freshly re-signed Mike Brown. They have a bottom of the lineup guy in Tim Brent and a slugger in Colton Orr.

Far more importantly, the Leafs have a terrific second line in the Clarke MacArthur-Nikolai Kulemin-Mikhail Grabovski unit. There are pieces that can be spread around on the third line, Colby Armstrong, Versteeg if he stays. Tyler Bozak, whose defence outstrips his offence, would be welcome there.

Don’t forget the Marlies. As mentioned, Aulie is ready now. Next up would probably be Marcel Mueller. The Berlin native did not score until late November but has scored eight times in his last 29 contests. At six-four and farmer strong, he can score off the rush, in a scrum or from the slot.

Nazem Kadri has a point a game contest in him. There are defensive elements and questions of consistency he must address. He is 20. He has time. Christian Hanson will supply energy and size to the big team next season.

The Leafs need a big, physical winger. Given time, Mueller is that guy.

What the Maple Leafs also need lack is a stud, a go-to centreman, someone who can occupy the top spot and boost Phil Kessel from a 30 goal-scorer to a 40 or even a 45-goal scorer. I know this comes as a surprise.

Now, in the past I have proposed Marc Savard for that spot. I think we saw how that worked out which goes to prove that as long as you manufacture teams with sinew and bones, stuff is going to happen.

The Leafs have one obvious option: sign 30-year-old Dallas Stars kingpin Brad Richards to a free agent contract July 1.

But with Richards the only big-time Group 1 free agent available and Burke’s long-held scorn for signing other team’s Group II (imagine defenceman Shea Weber or winger Zach Parise for a first, second and third rounder as well as $6 million in salary), the trade route is the only one open.

So to gain a pretty fair NHL team out of this bunch, you need two defencemen. You might need a veteran goalie and you need that guy up front.

The only way it seems to get them is via trade.

Good luck with that. There is a rebuilding going on in Ottawa. At 7 million a season, is the soft but talented Jason Spezza someone who will be around to see that?  If you think that’s a reach, look around. Crickets.

Still, that’s four players, two defenceman, a goalie and a first-line centre you need badly.

The 20 players you have now are playing to the maximum of their abilities. They just need four new guys.

That part may take the longest.

It’s the toughest part.

But when you do it, the skies will open.

There. How’s your leg?
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