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From the Press Box: Turmoil in Toronto

Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno is the co-host of the new RotoWire fantasy hockey podcast, The Great Ones. He has been an accredited member of the Toronto sports media for more than 20 years. Follow him on twitter: @statsman22

Today, From the Press Box:

Topping the NHL storylines…The Third Straight annual meltdown in Toronto, coupled with the equally stunning turnaround, against all odds, in Detroit. How have these stories unfolded down the stretch?

Turmoil in Toronto

In the last decade, the Maple Leafs have only made the playoffs twice. Three years ago they lost 19 of their last 24 games to fall outside the playoff race. Last year, they coughed up a three-goal lead in the third period of Game 7 against Boston - the only time in NHL history such a deficit has ever been overturned in a Game 7. This year, the Leafs had a virtual lock on a playoff spot before their current eight-game losing streak, which has likely sealed another non-playoff fate. Finally, they have ended that slide with a narrow 3-2 over Calgary on Tuesday night.

Against this backdrop of futility, we ought to look at some possible player evaluations, past and present that will impact on a busy summer of activity on Toronto. These moves may mirror, or impact, those of fantasy owners, too.

The Leafs have a number of long-term contracts in place for top players such as forwards Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and David Clarkson, who are locked up until at least 2017-2018. In addition, captain Dion Phaneuf has a multi-year pact in place up to the 2020-21 season. Of these, the Clarkson deal looks the worst right now as the rugged winger has only produced 10 points in a season marred by injuries and suspensions that prevented him from a smooth transition.

In the Salary Cap Era, just as in rotisserie leagues, you cannot afford to make a big mistake when spending your limited (by a salary cap or fantasy dollars) resources.

Now, the Leafs have the unenviable task of either trying to deal away the Clarkson pact, but the nagging issue is who will want him based on this season.

Alternatively, the Leafs also have to look at a number of younger players who are soon to be making their own longer-term demands.

Nazim Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson and James Reimer fit into this category.

Kadri was a former first round pick in 2009 and has a year remaining on a two-year pact (with an annual cap hit of $2.9M). Even though he has 48 points and is third in team scoring, he is viewed as something of a disappointment in some quarters, largely on the basis of missing the opportunity when he was given a lengthy stint on the first line early this season and the fact that he carries a -11 rating through his 72 games played. He has displayed flashes of vast offensive capabilities. The Leafs need to upgrade their defense and he may be the piece that needs to be offered to fill that glaring need on the back end.

Jake Gardiner has rewarded fantasy owners with a number of goals in recent weeks, totaling 10 for the season, while notching half of them in the last month. He has tons of offensive skills and is a tremendous skater, but he also has failed to overcome a maddening inconsistency in his own end, marked by a large number of turnovers due to poor decision-making. The Leafs face a real decision with him, because he is only 23 years old and he may well mature into less of a risk-taker. His upside remains high simply because of his obvious skills, but management has to wonder if he really has the hockey IQ between the ears.

Cody Franson settled for a one-year deal prior to this season and while he has set a personal career high with 30 points, that is offset by a career-low -17 rating. He has been most effective on the club's power play, mostly because of an uncanny ability to be very accurate with his point shot. Suspect work in his defensive end is disappointing because he has great size and does lead the team in hits, but he, too, is prone to a high number of irresponsible giveaways.

James Reimer lost his number one goalie assignment to Jonathan Bernier and likely sealed his fate when was recently given five straight starts (all losses) while Bernier was out with injuries. The pending RFA struggled with his confidence all season and reported differences with Head Coach Randy Carlyle have not helped matters. The likeable backstop has not gotten a fair share of the net this season and has obviously shouldered much of the blame for the shocking end to last season. Too bad for him and the Leafs, that his marketability is at an all-time low and they cannot expect to get much value for a guy who still has what it takes to be a number one goalie in this league.

Domination by Detroit

Diametrically opposed to the Leafs, the Red Wings have continued to overcome a long injury list, including their offensive leaders Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. This list of missing players was the key in a sub-par season that threatened the Wings 22-year consecutive playoff streak.

Instead a pack of lesser-known players have all stepped up and the Wings have completed a stunning turnaround of their fortunes with a 12-7-3 mark in their last 22 games.

Before we highlight some of those key young contributors, the leadership skills of long-time NHL veteran Daniel Alfredsson are also to be lauded. We certainly can account for a leadership void in Ottawa, which is considered a big reason for the failure of the Sens to make noise this year. At the same time, Alfie has stepped up in Motown to show his younger mates that there is a way to be focused and committed even though the odds and a long injury list were giant obstacles for the Red Wings. Alfredsson has also chipped in with eight points in his last 10 games to spark this offense.

We have also highlighted 24-year Gustav Nyquist, who continues to lead all goal scorers with 10 goals in his last 11 games. He is yet another European import who caught the watchful eye of Detroit's super-scout Hakan Andersson. The Wings selected him in the 6th round of the 2008 Draft, encouraged him to compete at the University of Maine, then hone his skills at their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids and apparently have another budding star on their hands. It's this plan and a real patience from the front office, which has nurtured a winning tradition and smooth transition for many prospects to learn the "Red Wings way."

To prove that the Nyquist situation is no fluke, we also highlight the development of Tomas Tatar, though he was a second round draft in 2009, he too, was subjected to the Grand Rapids learning curve where played for three years, before cracking the Wings lineup, on a full-time basis this year. The net result is 18 goals and 16 assists in 66 games, with eight points (4 g, 4 a) and a +7 rating in his last 10 games.

Even their first-rounders get a taste of the AHL, and that's why we haven't seen Riley Sheahan, drafted 21st overall in 2010, until this season. He has chipped in with 21 points in 35 games. Once again, his best efforts have been in the last 10 games, where he has added seven points and a +8 rating.

Another area where the Wings have done it differently than most teams, including the Maple Leafs, is their split of goaltending duties. Jimmy Howard has had injury troubles, but the Wings felt they had a capable backup in Jonas Gustavsson. He has appeared in 25 games and posted a 16-4-3 mark based on a 2.52 gaa. Howard has surely seen the bulk of the work, appearing in 47 games, with a 2.71 gaa, but the Wings needed both netminders and have gotten solid production from both of them.

The recent fortunes of these teams reflect a difference in philosophy and planning. Clearly, one path has proven better than the other and the message to fantasy owners is to have your own clearly defined plan of action rather than an unorganized approach in fantasy sports.

You will be rewarded for putting in the time if you do it the right way. Look at the rosters of those teams who are regularly among the contenders before you consider other options.