After bolstering the franchise with a pair of new additions, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke was back at work on Friday bringing a pair of old faces back into the fold. Following the Colby Armstrong signing and the Kris Versteeg trade, forwards Nikolai Kulemin and John Mitchell returned to the Leafs after signing short-term contracts with the only NHL club that either has represented.
While neither signing should be considered surprising or even particularly impactful, they both represent the team’s emphasis on youthful depth up front and served to showcase the benefit of Burke’s blunt, aggressive approach towards free agency. Let’s take a closer look at each signing.
Signed for two years, $4.7 million
While so much of the Leafs’ off-season plans seemed to focus on opportunities to add talent, there was still the matter of their 23-year old restricted free agent winger coming off a solid, 16-goal campaign. In fact, negotiations appeared to be taking an ugly turn as Burke went public with his frustrations over the contract demands of Kulemin and his agent Gary Greenstin and opining that the physical Russian was only a first-liner by virtue of playing on a poor team.
However significant or insignificant the tension between the two sides was, they both came away with a deal that appears mutually beneficial. For Kulemin, his annual salary of $2.35 million represents a nice bump from the $850,000 he earned last season. Meanwhile, the Leafs did well to get Kulemin under contract at a figure well below the $3 million annual salary that the player’s camp had reportedly requested.
The length of the deal makes it somewhat motivation-based. Kulemin will surely be looking to work hard over the next two seasons with an eye towards securing a big money contract once he hits unrestricted free agency at age 25 after the 2011-12 season. That, of course, would suit the Leafs just find as they continue to seek more firepower up front and skilled linemates to pair with Phil Kessel. Even if, as Greenstin has claimed, the KHL came calling for Kulemin, this deal appears to be a win-win for both player and team.
Signed for one year, $725,000
From the perspective of a Toronto sports fan who is accustomed to seeing local teams forced to overpay for even their own players in attempts to compete with more appealing US markets (see Johnson, Amir), it is selfishly refreshing to see the Leafs get a potential contributor on the cheap.
The Leafs could have extended a qualifying offer to Mitchell, thereby making him a restricted free agent but also all but guaranteeing a higher salary and providing salary arbitration rights to a player coming off an uninspiring campaign (23 points in 60 games). Instead, Burke declined to extend a qualifying offer and opted to allow him to hit unrestricted free agency, whereby the Leafs GM felt he could be had for little money.
Sure enough, with no other offers coming his way, the Leafs secured the 25-year old on a six-figure deal, a bargain if he can stay healthy and improve on his totals from the past two seasons. And if he can’t? It’s hardly a major risk for a team that will pay him less than ¾ of a million dollars and can let him walk following the season.
With five forwards with NHL experience signed since the end of the season (Kulemin, Mitchell, Armstrong, Versteeg and Mike Brown), the Leafs have yet to acquire a bona fide top six forward, but have given themselves options for the top two lines as well as some additional supporting depth. But with a trade asset (Tomas Kaberle) still dangling and possibly more moves to come, it remains to be seen just what the 2010-11 Leafs will look like.
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Written by Ben Fisher