After a disturbing loss to the post trade deadline AHL Florida Panthers last Thursday night, the Leafs season unfortunately all but ended. While this has been an expected outcome, even with the late push the team has made the last twenty games, it is still crushing to us playoffs crazed fans. Nevertheless, there still is work to do over the next ten games. The Leafs must still compete if only to ensure that Boston, who will be a contending team for a while, ends up with a lower first round pick this season. Also, the next ten games provide an opportunity to evaluate which players are key building blocks for the establishment of a championship team.
The Leafs have 24 million dollars in cap space to spend on filling out their roster for next season. While for the previous few seasons Leafs fans have grown accustomed to the big money being spent on Niklas Hagman, Mike Komisarek, Jeff Finger and Jason Blake, hope still remains that money can be spent wisely in the future. While not all of these significant mishaps can be attributed to Burke, I think he has realized after the Beauchemin, Komisarek disaster that it is not worth overpaying for free agents to expedite the process. That being said, the money needs to go somewhere, and I personally hope that the majority of it does not get spent in this very very weak free agent class. A weak free agency class, breeds panic amongst GMs and they make foolish signing decisions, just ask Glen Sather about Gomez and Drury......(And no, they should not trade for a contractual disaster like Lecavalier either.) Before discussing free agency it is imperative that the Leafs understand the value of the players on their current roster that will become free agents on July 1.
The biggest component of the roster that needs to be re-signed is the defensive pairing of Gunnarsson and Schenn. Both are restricted free agents, and have shown enough talent and work ethic to be re-signed. While Schenn will command top dollar (and I think every Leaf fan will be happy to give it to him), Gunarsson will probably command a 1.5 million dollar per season number. To put that in perspective Lebda's cap number is a ratio of 1:1.45 million per goal he has scored as a Leaf. ( Hint: He has one goal. In other words he sucks for an offensive defenceman.) The most important thing to keep in mind, is that even though Schenn is only making 875K at the moment, his cap hit is 2.975 because of his signing bonus as a rookie. So while his salary may rise to approximately 4.5 million, the hit to the cap, which is the only number that any Leafs fan should actually care about, does not go up too dramatically.
Burke is going to have to make some tough decisions between the pipes for next season. First things first: Giggy must go. With Gustavsson under contract, and Reimer playing like Felix the Cat, there is no room for him on the roster, Gustavsson cannot be sent down to the minors without clearing waivers (which he most definitely will not) and imagine the uproar that the Leafs fans would make if Reimer did not start with the team?!? You thought the anger directed at Wilson for sitting him in Florida was bad........ Also, there seems to be a new trend in the cap era of the NHL, that it is not worth it to invest significant money in the goalie position, rather that money should be used to improve the rest of the team. Aside from Luongo , and I am not sure that the Canucks would not rather have Schneider in net and use his 7 mil elsewhere, none of the other top five teams in the NHL standings have a top ten paid goaltender. Rather, they use young salary controlled prospects, and incorporate them into a system with an absolutely stacked defence. (Look at Detroit and Philly for perfect examples). Burke may be smart to follow suit and use the money saved in Giggy's contract and attract an Ehrhoffesque player and a rugged dman, you know, the sorta player we expected Komisarek to be.
When it comes to the offence, the situation becomes murky. Macarthur and Bozak (and his crippling 3.75 mil cap hit), are the two biggest names that come off of the books. I think these two players both fall under the category of what I would call the Stephen Weiss problem. The theory goes like this: Neither player has the skillset to be the rugged and defensively responsible third line players that they should be, but at the same time, their offence is not up to standard of a championship calibre top six forward. Essentially, they can only have a key role, with the money that comes with it, on a bad team. No team with Macarthur and Bozak in their top six will win a championship, and neither player will ever embrace a Colby Armstrong role on a Leafs team. The only player less impressive than Bozak's -26 while playing with Kessel first line minutes in the NHL is Simon Gagne, how is he a -21 in only 54 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning? I think that Yzerman may wish he had Meszaros after all. I know that Grabovski and Kulemin have played well with Clarkie this season, but I think in the long run it may be best for the Leafs to convert Kadri to the wing and have him play on a line with those two, and hopefully create a dynamic second line for many years to come.
I know this dampens the exciting Kessel-Kadri duo that all Leafs fans have been waiting for, but be realistic neither of them have any idea how to play a legitimate two way game. Unless Jere Lehtinen is joining them on that line, your looking at two goals given up a game. While I am a huge fan of Kessel, I think that he really needs to work on his defensive responsibilities. The addition of Lupul to his line has really helped him improve in that area. Over the last 17 games, Kessel is a +1, comparing that to a -21 number the previous 56, it is a truly remarkable turnaround. This is why I believe that the Leafs need to keep those two together, and have Kadri play with Kuly and Grabo to create a deeper top six. Sorry Clarke, you were a solid piece to the team this year, but I think this is a case where you peaked with talented linemates and can now only hinder the future success of the team. And to you Bozak, sorry but you definitely had your chance. Nobody would be happier if you showed your worth over the next 9 games than me. Good Luck!
The rest of the free agents on the current Leafs roster are Crabb, Boyce, Rosehill, Sjostrom and everyone's favorite Leaf, Tim Brent. Rosehill should sign a minor league contract and prove to be a sufficient backup should we lose Orr again. Crabb and Boyce have been nice filll-ins on the......... first line (sounds retarded I know) and at the right price would be great on a two way contract. They do deserve it. Tim Brent on the other hand, fully deserves a new contract. He has played the point on the power play, has been our best penalty killer at times this season, and has done an exemplary job in the third line role. Sjostrom, a similar player to Brent, is probably going to be shown the door.
So what do the Leafs do with their desperate need for a first line center? There are two distinct approaches that can be taken; each with their own upside. The first option is to make a serious pitch at a long term fixture. Without speculating too much, Brad Richards is a name that will always pop up in discussion. He would most likely command a 5/40 million dollar deal to come to Toronto. The Leafs can most definitely fit him under the salary cap next season and he will provide for them some much needed leadership amongst the forwards as well. Another option that is much less Brian Burke style (and won't go over well with the fans), is to find a stop gap player for the likes of Joe Colborne to make it to the big league team. The gain with this approach is that when the team is finally ready to compete for a championship, they will not be tied to long contracts and they will be able to fill their needs at a more appropriate time. The reason I am inclined to the second approach is because I do not think that Richards puts the Leafs into the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, and it is a significant risk for a player of that age to invest a five year deal.
Of course the Leafs can chase after RFA's Stamkos and Parise, but after the Kessel trade and Leafs nation foolishly being frustrated with Burke, do you think he may try and pull one off again? Burke is notorious for being anti-offer sheet on someone else's RFA, so if he does go after these superstars expect a sign and trade.
Whatever happens, I think all Leafs fans are just hoping that Burke can avoid the business model of all his predecessors: "I will take an incredibly stupid risk, because if I do not, I will lose my job" With that logic in mind, I would just like to thank JFJ again for sending Tuuka Rask for Andrew Raycroft. Haunting us forever.
Hope you enjoyed!
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