The Toronto Maple Leafs arrive at the July 1 opening of the free agency period in an all-too-familiar position: as a team looking to be active, but with precious few appealing free agent options and even fewer coveted trade assets.
GM Brian Burke has already demonstrated through his draft day acquisition of John-Michael Liles that he is firmly set in a win-now mentality. But, as the Leafs have shown in their past six seasons of playoff futility, ‘win-now’ is easier said than done, particularly with a weak class of unrestricted free agents.
Now, with much of their 85-point club from last season returning, they certainly have some pieces in place. But what else do they need to get over the hump and into the postseason? And how easy will it be to get what they need? The Leafs already have approximately $45.5 million in financial commitments for next season, meaning that Burke has about $18.7 million to work with under the cap.
Is there any NHL team thinner down the middle than the Leafs? The club’s depth chart currently shows Joffrey Lupul (playing out of position) and Nazem Kadri (still not a guaranteed member of the Buds) as the top two centres on the roster. Brad Richards is obviously the big prize in free agency and would offer a desperately needed boost, but has already come off lukewarm on playing in Toronto and would command a multi-year deal in the $6 million per range (which may seem steep for a 31-year old, but might also be worth it. If Burke can’t convince Richards to come aboard (and rest assured he will try), Tim Connolly and Brooks Laich would be the best of an underwhelming set of free agent options.
Fortunately for Toronto, the wings are considerably more set. Phil Kessel’s around for the long haul, with Mikhail Grabovsky, Nikolai Kulemin and Colby Armstrong joining him among the team’s top six forwards. Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak loom as restricted free agents and while MacArthur can be expected to come to terms via arbitration, Bozak’s negotiation could offer an interesting glimpse into just how highly regarded – or not – he is within the organization.
There doesn’t appear to be much room for turnover among the top six forwards (although you never know with Burke), but the same can’t be said for the bottom six. Freddy Sjostrom, Tim Brent, Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb and Jay Rosehill are all unrestricted free agents, with none being guaranteed to come back (Brent is probably the most likely of the group). That leaves Mike Brown, Colton Orr and a bunch of question marks. Expect at least one spot to be filled internally, with Matt Frattin and Marcel Mueller among the chief candidates, while free agent options could include Jarkko Ruutu, Zenon Konopka or even playoff hero Sean Bergenheim.
Phil Kessel Tim Connolly Joffrey Lupul
Clarke MacArthur Mikhail Grabovsky Nikolai Kulemin
Matt Frattin Tyler Bozak Colby Armstrong
Mike Brown Tim Brent Jarkko Ruutu
Extra: Colton Orr, Nazem Kadri
The Leafs’ blue line may not be quite as complete as it seems, even with six rearguards under contract and Luke Schenn all-but-assured of being in blue and white next season. In terms of stability, you could do worse than a unit that includes Schenn, Liles, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson, Keith Aulie and Brett Lebda.
But Komisarek is available for anyone willing to absorb the $13.5 million remaining on his contract (and he may have suitors, given the numerous teams struggling to even reach the cap floor) and Burke may want to add more depth to a unit lacking two of its three leading minutes-loggers from a season ago (Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle). Lebda simply wasn’t the player they thought they were getting last season, so there might be room for a cheap veteran like Steve Montador to come on board.
Luke Schenn Dion Phaneuf
John-Michael Liles Keith Aulie
Carl Gunnarsson Steve Montador
Extra: Brett Lebda
The Leafs find themselves in a bit of a tricky situation when it comes to their personnel between the pipes. The newly re-upped James Reimer heads into the 2011-12 season as the starter – that much we know. After that, though, there remain plenty of questions.
One season does not a career make, so even with Reimer’s standout 2010-11 campaign, the team needs some insurance in the event of a sophomore slump. And as was proven last season, Jonas Gustavsson is hardly that insurance. The obvious answer would be to bring in a veteran goaltender who can serve as both a back-up and mentor while taking on added work wherever necessary, but that does – at best – delay the development of club netminders, from Gustasvsson right on down the line to Jussi Rynnas, Ben Scrivens and Mark Owuya.
If the team opts to go the free agent route for a veteran goalie, Tomas Vokoun, Pascal Leclaire and Dwayne Roloson make up the best of an underwhelming class. If the price is right, they could actually be well-served to talk figures with the camp of their own free agent, Jean-Sebastien Giguere. That being said, count me among those who are prepared to enter the season with Reimer and Gustavsson as the primary options in goal.
Current Payroll ($45.5 million): Kessel, Lupul, Grabovsky, Kulemin, Armstrong, Orr, Brown, Kadri, Frattin, Phaneuf, Komisarek, Liles, Gunnarsson, Aulie, Lebda, Reimer, Gustavsson.
Other Commitment ($1 million): Darcy Tucker buyout.
Free Agents (estimated $18.0): Schenn ($4.5 million), Connolly ($4 million), MacArthur ($3.5 million), Bozak ($2.0 million), Ruutu ($1.5 million), Montador ($1.5 million), Brent ($1 million).
Trade Candidates: Kulemin, Kadri, Komisarek, Lebda, Gustavsson.
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Written by Ben Fisher