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October 7, 2011
Zamboni Tracks
Dotting The T's And Crossing The I's

by Ryan Wagman

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Toronto Maple Leafs

Placed D Matt Lashoff, RW/LW Joey Crabb, and C/LW Darryl Boyce on waivers (Oct. 3, 2011)

Assigned D Keith Aulie to AHL-Toronto (Oct. 3, 2011)

Acquired C David Steckel from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a 2012 fourth round draft pick (Oct. 4, 2011)

Not mentioned above is that the demotions mean that the Maple Leafs begin the season with two rookies in prominent positions in the lineup, as LW Matt Frattin and D Jake Gardiner have both made the opening day lineup. While both freshmen had very impressive camps, Frattin's spot may be just temporary, with fellow LWs Clarke MacArthur (suspended for the first two games of the regular season) and Nazem Kadri (out for an expected four weeks with a knee injury) both inactive to start the season. Furthermore, Gardiner may not be long for the NHL (for now), as Cody Franson is currently penciled in as the Leafs' seventh defenseman.

Leafs' manager Ron Wilson has let on that he took advantage of the preseason to play Gardiner in situations that he would be unlikely to play in during the real games, and the former Wisconsin Badger never failed to impress. A stellar preseason has earned him the spot, even though GM Brian Burke has repeatedly pointed out that he feels that all prospects should marinate in the AHL before playing significant minutes in the NHL. The 21-year-old will be on a short leash. The move came as a mild surprise in Toronto, as many armchair pundits had fully expected Keith Aulie to get the job, as he looked impressive, big, tough, and surprisingly mobile in 40 games as a rookie last season. VUKOTA expects little from 6'5", 217-pound product from the Prairies this year, projecting seven points and 1.4 GVT in just over half a season's worth of games. Franson, who will open the season in the press box, is projected for 7.9 GVT in just over 70 games, more than Luke Schenn and behind only Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles among the Maple Leaf rearguard. Gardiner, without any prior NHL experience, was not projected by VUKOTA.

As discussed recently regarding the Buffalo Sabres, one sign of a team committed to winning is the willingness to cut their losses on sunken costs. The Leafs have shown that willingness in the past (and continue to do so) with Jeff Finger and his $3.5 million dollar contract toiling for the Marlies. Mike Komisarek, with a cap hit of $4.5 million and scheduled to earn Finger money both this season and next, is projected for a per-game GVT lower than that of the demoted Aulie. He has been barely above replacement since signing on with the Leafs, but, for now at least, with on 'A' on his jersey, his spot in the NHL seems secure.

While Komisarek should be expected to trade places with Franson in the early part of the season, there have been long-simmering rumors hinting at another defender losing his spot in the near future. Many sources have reported that Burke has been shopping both D Carl Gunnarsson and C Tyler Bozak, hoping that the package would bring back a top-six forward, preferably a center. More on the forward aspect in a moment, but a trade of the young Swedish defenseman would open up a full-time spot for Franson, without pushing Komisarek to the press box, while opening up a spot for Aulie, or even potentially Matt Lashoff, as the seventh defenseman.

Which brings us to the recent trade for faceoff specialist David Steckel. The Maple Leafs have been a middle-of-the-road team in terms of faceoff percentage for the past few seasons, hovering between 50.5-50.8% as a team. Although, as Timo Seppa's advanced faceoff metric (you really should buy this year's Hockey Prospectus annual) tells us, Steckel may not have been the best faceoff man in the game last year, as his raw faceoff numbers indicate, but there is no shame in coming in 13th. The oversized 6'6", 215-pound former first round pick is a prototypical fourth-line center, but his arrival does not address the Leafs' need for an offensive pivot. In fact, the acquisition simply crowds the bottom of the team's forward corps. Tim Connolly (when healthy) looks to be the Buds' first line center. Mikhail Grabovski is a lock for the second line (many believe that to be the true first line) and Matthew Lombardi played the Leafs' final preseason game, an amazing comeback from a concussion that kept him out of all but two games last season. Bozak, another plus faceoff guy, was already mentioned, and the Leafs made a quiet free agent acquisition last July, in the form of Philippe Dupuis, a spare forward if there ever was one. Steckel makes six. Dupuis, who is signed to a two-way contract, could easily be farmed out, or moved to the wing*, but this move, coupled with the decision to keep Gardiner to start the season, lends a lot of credence to the aforementioned rumors involving Bozak and Gunnarsson. The regular season is just under way, but the Maple Leafs roster is still in flux.

*It seems that the Leafs will begin the season with Steckel centering their fourth line between the wing-ed Dupuis and Colby Armstrong.

Chicago Blackhawks

Signed G Ray Emery to a one-year contract valued at $600,000 (Oct. 3, 2011)

Assigned G Alexander Salak to Rockford (AHL) (Oct. 3, 2011)

"Razor" Ray Emery made good on the invitation to training camp given to him by the Blackhawks back on July 27, beating out the relatively untested Alexander Salak for the job of backing up Corey Crawford in the United Center net. As recently as two days prior, Emery was shelled in an exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, allowing three goals on the first 13 shots he faced, including at least one stinker. Speculation was rife that the Czech Salak would win the position.

While the 'Hawks are not pushing the salary cap to the extent they were after winning the Stanley Cup, forcing the trade of many championship contributors, they have less than $5 million leeway at this stage and one of the factors that may have played into this decision was the $25,000 difference in cap hit between the former Cup finalist and the younger European.

Likely more pressing in the decision tree is the Blackhawks braintrust not wanting to force their sophomore starter to be a 70-game goalie. While Salak was great with Farjestad of the SEL last season, posting a 1.97 GAA and a .926 save percentage*, the 24-year-old was only decent in his one season of North American hockey, with a 2.89 GAA and a .910 save percentage in 2009-10 for AHL-Rochester. He also allowed six goals in 67 minutes between the pipes in a cameo for the Florida Panthers.

*As a point of reference, the Maple Leafs signed Jonas Gustavsson out of Farjestad two summers ago. The Monster's numbers were eerily similar to Salak's, with a 1.96 GAA and a .932 save percentage. Gustavsson has not been all he was cracked up to be in the NHL.

Emery's career has been dotted with injuries and off-ice incidents that caused the same Ottawa Senators franchise to waive him and buy out the remainder of his three-year deal only one season after leading the team to the Finals. Poor play in his follow-up season contributed to that decision, but the Hamilton native has spent the past three seasons making professional amends. Emery spent his 2008-09 season playing for Atlant Mytischi of the KHL, saving the same percentage of shots as Salak did last year in the SEL. That earned him a gig with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009-10. He started off adequately enough, contributing 1.8 GVT on the back of a .905 save percentage (.930 at even strength) and 2.64 GAA in 29 games. Unfortunately, a torn abdomen turned into a diagnosis of avascular necrosis, a crippling joint condition from which few athletes have ever returned. While Emery did return, he missed out on the Flyers' run to the Eastern Conference finals and the first half of the 2010-11 season, finally signing on with the Anaheim Ducks as an insurance policy. When the Ducks had to cash in after starter Jonas Hiller went down with vertigo, the 29-year-old Emery showed a full recovery, beating all expectations and playing a stellar goal, contributing 4.2 GVT in only 10 games, all with the Ducks clawing for a playoff spot. VUKOTA does not expect him to continue his heroics from the stretch last year, but a .908 save percentage and 2.2 GVT over 22.8 games is more than acceptable from a backup goalie on a contending team. It should be enough to provide confidence that Crawford has an able backup so that he does not need to exceed (by much) the 57 games he played last season.

Author's Note

As the season starts, transactions will range from the roster shaking (trades) to the mundane (depth demotions and callups, short term injuries). This column will attempt to pick out what I feel is relevant and will lead to interesting analysis, but if there is a move—whether on your favorite team, or affecting your fantasy team, that you want to know more about, please leave a comment in the articles, email (address provided below) or drop me a line on twitter (@RAWagman) and I will try to touch on it in a future column.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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