Analyzing the Leafs’ options for improvement moving forward

Posted by Richard Pollock in Columns,Editorials,Toronto Maple Leafs on November 25, 2009 — 8 Comments
There is much talk these days about what the Toronto Maple Leafs will do this season to turn things around.  Sure the team is due to play better than it has (or also play the same and get a bit of luck), but what about past this season?  The Leafs are unlikely to make the post-season in 2009/10 and with the team’s first round pick for 2010 sitting in Boston, fans are wondering what alternatives this team has moving forward.

Before examining the Leafs’ options for eventual improvement, let’s take a look at the team’s cap situation.

The Leafs will have the following players under contract for 2010/2011 season (numbers courtesy of nhlnumbers.com):

Forwards:

Phil Kessel—$5.4 million ($5.4 million cap hit)

Jason Blake–$3 million ($4.00 million cap hit)              

Niklas Hagman–$3 million ($3.00 million cap hit)

Mikael Grabovski–$2.975 million ($2.9 million cap hit)

Colton Orr–$1.00 million ($1.00 million cap hit)

Jay Rosehill–$0.525 million ($0.512 million cap hit)

Viktor Stalberg–$0.785 million ($0.123 million cap hit)

Defensemen:

Mike Komisarek–$4.625 million ($4.5 million cap hit)

Tomas Kaberle–$4.25 million ($4.25 million cap hit)

Francois Beauchemin–$3.6 million ($3.8 million cap hit)

Jeff Finger–$3.5 million ($3.5 million cap hit)

Luke Schenn–$0.875 million ($2.975 million cap hit)

Carl Gunnarsson–$0.630 million ($0.626 million cap hit)

Buyouts

Darcy Tucker–$1.00 million cap hit

Andrew Raycroft–$0.733 million cap hit

Total Cap Hit

So, for the 2010/11 season, the Leafs are slated to have $37.638 million dollars tied up.  This season, the salary cap is set at $56.8 million, so taking into account the struggling economy and expected dropping of the cap, let’s hypothetically set the salary cap at $55.00 million.

With that in mind, let’s see how the Leafs can turn the ship around for next season.

Keeping Own Free Agents

Before moving onto external options, there are probably a number of restricted free agents and unrestricted free agents that the Leafs will look to bring back to Toronto.

Own UFAs

We should first examine which unrestricted free agents will almost certainly be goners from Toronto either during this season via trade, or over the summer. 

Lee Stempniak: Stempniak may play a responsible game but he is highly overpaid at his current contract of $3.5 million.  With unrestricted free agency upcoming, Stempniak will be lucky to earn over $2.0 million on the open market.  I don’t see the former Blues forward re-signing in Toronto.

Matt Stajan: Matt Stajan is only 25, although it feels like he’s been around for 100 years.  For a while Stajan’s name has been bandied about in trade rumors and it appears that he will be moved prior to this season’s trade deadline—probably for draft picks.

Matt Stajan seems to be on his way out of the GTA. (Picture courtesy of Yahoo!)

Matt Stajan seems to be on his way out of the GTA. (Picture courtesy of Yahoo!)

Alexei Ponikarovsky:  The big Russian forward is underrated by many, and continues to quietly produce offensively in Toronto.  Last season he was the team’s second leading scorer with 61 points and only received 15:47 minutes of ice-time per game.  I could see the Leafs offering him a $3.00 million deal for the next two or three years, but he may look to play elsewhere. 

Wayne Primeau: If Primeau is brought back to Toronto, it won’t be at his current $1.4 million salary.  Rather, it would probably be at the league minimum.

Jamal Mayers: See Wayne Primeau.

Rickard Wallin: Wallin has found himself in the press box this season and seems like more of a stopgap option than anything.  I don’t expect him to return next season.

Mike Van Ryn: If Van Ryn was not injury prone he would have been a pretty solid defenseman in the NHL for a long time but the right-handed shooting rear-guard just cannot stay healthy.  The Leafs have enough bodies on defense, so this is clearly his last season in Toronto.

Garnet Exelby: Exelby provides the Leafs with toughness but the Leafs aren’t lacking in that regard, so I’d be surprised to see the mammoth defensemen return.

Vesa Toskala: At $4 million per season, Leafs management will be happy to have Toskala off the books.  I’d be surprised if he wasn’t dealt before the trade deadline this season, but if not, I don’t see him returning in the summer anyhow.

Own RFAs

Nikolai Kulemin: Kulemin is only 22 years old and did show some flashes of skill last season.  This season he has found himself in the press box and hasn’t been able to fully establish himself.  Even so, he is young and has potential, so expect him to be back at just around $1.00 million next season.

John Mitchell: John Mitchell is a speedster who has been miscast as a scorer at certain times in Toronto.  The 24 year old worked his way up from the Marlies last season and could be a nice third line center for the Leafs.  This season Mitchell is making $500,000, so a slight pay raise is in order but nothing substantial.

Ian White: White has been the Leafs’ best defenseman this season but when you look at the above defenseman salaries, how is this team going to fit him under the cap?  Well, there are a number of possibilities: 1) Trading of Tomas Kaberle; 2) Buyout/AHL demotion for Jeff Finger (more on this below); 3) Trade White this season.  This will be an interesting situation to monitor, and is also examined more below.

Jonas Gustavsson: The Monster is expected to be the Leafs’ netminder of the future; however, unless he plays amazingly over the final three quarters of the season he will probably want to sign a short-term contract in order to re-estimate his value in a year or two.

Unrestricted Free Agency

There are obviously going to be plenty of UFAs next summer, but here are some names that either have been mentioned or probably will be mentioned as possible Leafs targets (Note: The lack of defensemen on this list is due to the team having much of its salary cap  allocated to defense at this current time):

Ilya Kovalchuk: There was some talk over the weekend that Kovalchuk does not want to play in a market where the media pressure will be intense.  If that is not true, it is certainly possible Kovalchuk could hit the free agent market this summer and hold out for a max-offer from a big time team.  You would have to think the Leafs would be interested, but the Atlanta brass seems fairly confident that the organization has a good shot at re-signing the sniper.

Marc Savard: By all accounts the Bruins are close to re-signing their best playmaker.  Savard is from Southern Ontario but his future seems to be in Boston.

Ray Whitney: Whitney doesn’t seem like a Burke type player but he does provide instant offense and wouldn’t require a long term (Burke doesn’t like long term deals), big-time contract.

Olli Jokinen: Jokinen fits the size model for Burke but he has not been the effective player he was in Florida.  In fact, for the past two seasons he has been very poor offensively—and he isn’t exactly a defensive dynamo.  Leafs fans would grow tired of Jokinen quickly.

Rene Bourque: Now here is a player that would be an asset to the Leafs, but does anyone think the Flames will let him get away?  He has arguably been Calgary’s best forward this season and only seems to be flourishing under Brent Sutter.  So, expect Darryl Sutter to do what he can to get a deal done prior to July 1.

Raffi Torres:  Now this would make total sense for the Leafs.  Torres is an Ontario boy, but cannot squeeze top-six duty in Columbus.  He has size, is tough and when he has confidence he can be a good scorer.  Torres could play a bigger role in Toronto and seems to be the perfect type of fit for the Buds.

 

Raffi Torres could be a good fit for the Maple Leafs. (Picture courtesy of Yahoo!)

Raffi Torres could be a good fit for the Maple Leafs. (Picture courtesy of Yahoo!)

Alexander Frolov: Frolov is actually a good two-way player with a high skill level but there may not be a worse fit for a Brian Burke team than a player of his caliber who lacks intensity from time to time.

Tomas Plekanec: Plekanec has had a very good start to the season in Montreal and is probably the team’s best playmaker along with Scott Gomez.  Considering the Habs’ need for top-end talent, expect the Habs to put the full press on to re-sign the Czech center.

Chris Higgins: Higgins is a NY native but has had a difficult time getting accustomed to Broadway.  The former Hab winger/center is a big boy and goes to the net—both traits Burke likes.  If he cannot seem to find his way in New York, he could be a target.

Matthew Lombardi:  Lombardi would make some sense for Toronto, as he is only 27 and skates like the wind.  He could provide the Leafs with more skill up the middle and possibly replace the production of an outgoing player like Matt Stajan. 

Matt Cooke: Cooke played for Brian Burke in Vancouver and is just the type of high energy, gritty player that Burke likes on his team.  Unfortunately for Toronto, Cooke seems to have found a home in Pittsburgh and will probably opt to stay in Steeltown.

Patrick Marleau: If Ron Wilson is around, don’t expect Marleau to show up anywhere near Toronto, as they were not exactly best of friends in the Bay Area.

Brendan Morrison:  Another player with Burke history, Morrison is having a bounce back season in Washington, partly due to the team’s style of play and offensive talent level, but he is generally healthy and could be a nice offensive weapon on the relatively cheap.

Restricted Free Agency

Any talk about possible significant offer sheets being tendered by the Maple Leafs should be put to rest.  The Leafs do not own either of their two first picks over the next two seasons which precludes the team from tendering any kind of offer sheet to another team’s top restricted free agent. 

Trades

When trade talk is brought up around Leafland, the name that always surfaces is Tomas Kaberle.  Kaberle, while certainly not the greatest defensive defenseman, is a tremendous puck distributor and easily the Leafs’ best offensive rearguard.  For all the talk about him being on his way out of town, Brian Burke has recently said he won’t ask him to waive his no-trade clause.

Next on the trade talk list is generally Matt Stajan.  Stajan, unlike Kaberle, seems poised to be headed elsewhere this season.  If the Leafs can add draft picks for the young centerman, look for the team to jump at that opportunity.

Aside from Ian White, no other Leafs player seems to carry much value on the trade market.  White, as touched on above, has been the Leafs’ best blueliner.  Does the team really want to trade its best defenseman? Or will Burke find room for the Manitoba native?  He will certainly generate interest, but with Schenn struggling, and White adding a nice offensive element to the blue line, he may re-sign with the club instead of being dealt.

Sending Players to the AHL, buyouts and waivers

The Leafs have two prime candidates for this category.  The first candidate for being sent down to the minors is Jeff Finger.  Finger has certainly not lived up to the massive contract he signed seemingly out of nowhere two summers ago and the team could opt to send him to the Marlies.  If the Leafs were to do this, Finger would come off the salary hit but MLSE would still have to pay his salary in full.  If the Leafs did do this and were to attempt to bring him back up to the big club, then Toronto would be on the hook for half the remainder of his deal (if he was claimed by another team).  If Burke does opt to send Finger to the minors, do not expect him to bring the big defenseman back up to the big club soon thereafter.

If the Leafs want to clear cap space, Jeff Finger is a prime candidate for a demotion.  (Picture courtesy of Yahoo!)

If the Leafs want to clear cap space, Jeff Finger is a prime candidate for a demotion. (Picture courtesy of Yahoo!)

The top candidate for a buyout would be former UND Sioux forward Jason Blake.  Blake was signed by Burke’s predecessor John Ferguson Jr. and still has $3.00 million on his contract (dollar wise) for next season and the season after that.  Blake was productive offensively last season and actually hasn’t been that bad this season but he is a veteran player and tends to hold onto the puck too long and look for his shot first and foremost.   If the Leafs were to buyout Blake’s deal, the team would be on the hook for two-thirds of the contract spread out over a four year term ($900,000 per season against the cap).

The Leafs also have the option of waiving the above contracts, however, Finger would assuredly go unclaimed.  It is possible, but unlikely, that some team would claim Blake.

Own Prospects

We have already included Viktor Stalberg above, so here are the other Leafs prospects that may crack the team’s lineup either later this season but almost assuredly (at least in the first three cases) next season.

Tyler Bozak: Bozak was arguably the most-coveted college free agent available last summer and Leafs apparently hit the jackpot with that signing.  So far this season in the AHL, Bozak has dealt with the flu but is back in the lineup now and has posted nine points in sixteen regular season contests.  His talent level is high and he will almost certainly start next season in Toronto.

Christian Hanson:  Hanson isn’t said to have as much offensive talent as Bozak but his performance in the AHL this season should give the Leafs brass confidence.  Thus far, Hanson is playing at a point-per-game rate, is a plus player and leads the team in goals with eight.  Like Bozak, expect Hanson to become a regular in Toronto sooner rather than later.  In fact, he was just called up to replace the injured John Mitchell.

The Leafs are going to need youngsters like Christian Hanson to step up sooner rather than later. (Picture courtesy of Canoe)
The Leafs are going to need youngsters like Christian Hanson to step up sooner rather than later. (Picture courtesy of Canoe)

 

Jiri Tlusty:  When he isn’t posing in naked pictures, Tlusty can actually play a little bit.  With maybe more sheer talent than the players listed above, Tlusty cannot seem to put it together at the NHL level.  The competitive flow of the NHL game has not suited Tlusty well but he is still posting solid offensive totals in the AHL and will most likely get another chance to prove his worth.

Nazem Kadri: Kadri impressed all at Leafs training camp and was very good in the exhibition season too.  Having said that, the youngster hasn’t posted mind-blowing totals in London of the OHL this season (24 points in 21 games) and his offensive game seems to be suffering with the loss of the likes of John Tavares to the NHL.  If he is ready next fall, he will make the club, but don’t expect Toronto’s management to rush him. 

Draft

This is the thorn in the side of Toronto fans.  If the team finishes in the lottery this season, Brian Burke may never hear the end of his trade for Phil Kessel.  That is because the Leafs do not possess a first round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft as a result of the deal that brought  the young sniper Kessel to Toronto.

The Leafs re-acquired the team’s second round pick for 2010 but are without the aforementioned first round pick and are also without the team’s fourth round pick in 2010 as a result of the Bryan McCabe for Mike Van Ryn trade.

The Leafs are also without the team’s first round pick in 2011 and the team’s third round pick in 2011.

Conclusion

What does this all mean?  Well, aside from trades, the Leafs do not exactly have many avenues to improve their team.  In free agency, it does not appear that any superstars will hit the free agent market (and if they do hit they do not appear likely to land in Toronto). 

Additionally, being without their next two first draft picks will not allow for the Leafs to use the prospect of an offer sheet as a motivating factor in working a trade.

Combine that with the team’s lack of significant draft picks for the next two seasons and the Leafs will have to build from within and augment that talent through trade and mid-level free agent deals.

Prior to next season, the Leafs already have $37.638 million locked up as the team’s salary cap hit.  If the team re-signs its four fairly talented RFAs listed above (Kulemin, Mitchell, White and Gustavasson), that would account for approximately $5.00 million more on the cap. 

This would leave Toronto with a cap hit of $42.638 million accounting for nine forwards, seven defensemen and one goaltender.  If we estimate the salary cap to slot in at about $55 million, the Leafs would still have a fair bit of room to manoeuvre via free agency or trade.  Of course if the team wanted even more room, it could buyout/waive/send down to the AHL players like Jeff Finger or Jason Blake—as touched on above.

Looking at forwards such as Raffi Torres and Matthew Lombardi, along with bringing up prospects like Bozak and Hanson could give the Leafs nice depth throughout the lineup.  As well, the team will almost certainly look to add a veteran backup to complement Jonas Gustavsson between the pipes.

All in all, the Leafs are not as bad as people think this season and there is room to improve over the next few seasons.  Unfortunately, it seems less and less likely that the Leafs will improve via big free agent splash.  Instead, this team looks like it will be built from the inside out with some Brian Burke type younger free agents added in to create depth, competition and added offense and leadership to this club.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com dave

    Great in-depth assessment Richard. My biggest question for the Leafs moving forward is goaltending. When will this team get themselves a world class tender?

  • http://hockeyunderground.net Chris O’Brien

    Who’s to say that they already don’t have one in the making?

    I put my money on Gustavsson – it will take a year or two for him to become a top notch goalie, but I do believe it is in him.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com rusty

    Great post Richard. Check out my follow up post in today’s Afternoon Analysis.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com dave

    @ Chris – You are right. Gustavsson could very well be a diamond in the rough.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com Richard

    I think Gustavsson is an answer more than a question, but the team still has many question marks moving forward. At the end of the day, they have a fair amount of cap room but the players they’d prefer to spend it on probably aren’t interested in Toronto. If they opt for a trade, do they have the assets to make a significant deal for an impact player? If so, do they have the assets to be able to do so without taking away from the young assets (draft picks, prospects) more than they already have?

  • Pingback: IllegalCurve.com » Blog Archive » Afternoon Analysis: Trade Rumours

  • http://www.thenhlarena.com TML4ever

    as requested, reposted from thenhlarena.com

    One thing which is pretty evident is the list of players on the hook for next year are pretty much on par for cap space with their actual salary except Schenn (bonus). Well how about getting some players and front loading some of their contracts? If any team can afford to do that it would be the Leafs right? I’m actually very against this practice but I would chalk it up as to what they should have done prior to the salary cap, buy their way up since they can, Yankees style.

    I’m not impressed with any of the players that need to be resigned but I would keep Poni for about the same money if he’d be willing to take that. Everybody else on the UFA list? No sentiment really… even Stajan. If he would stay for relatively the same money then perhaps. Poni is Ukranian actually… whatever.

    As far as the RFAs go, Kulemin is an off and on sort of guy. He hasn’t been really given a chance but has he really shown he deserves the chances? It’s a tough call for him for me.
    Mitchell I’d keep but not for a great raise. White is definitely a keeper simply because he earns his time like no other player on the team while Gustavsson is a must keep IMO. To me that is based on the fact that I don’t want to see Vesa Toskala back. So as far as the RFAs go keep them all.

    So here we come to the UFA market… I see names such as Kovalchuk and Savard who basically can be picky about who they play for or where they go. They have choices. Would either even want to play on the Leafs regardless of the money? They are going to demand large dollars anyway… As much as I’d like to see either since they are legitimate star players I can’t see either actually wanting to play on Toronto. Who’d think that going from the Thrashers to the Leafs would not even be a lateral move.

    I’ve always like Frolov but would Burke? I mean his name ends in OV. I don’t see any game left in Morrison. Higgins… well he is American he has that going for him and he could team up again with his buddy Komi but he is home. I’m assuming he’d want to stay there. Plekanec? Another former Hab would be good just so they wouldn’t have him. Poaching old Habs doesn’t seem to do it though. Gainey just replaces them anyway :) What are we left with… Torres? For a year that the Leafs need to practically feed from the free agency market, the pickings are slim or not in their favor in any way really. The team has definitely slipped away from one of the desirable teams to play for unless you are looking to make big money like Kessel.

    I still see the Leafs’ only advantage at this point being money. They can offer more of it than most teams out there. The only way to take advantage of that right now is to use it to your advantage IF MLSE is on board. There’s always them to contend with too.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com Richard

    @TML4ever,

    Great comment. Money being an asset is key but as we both mentioned they need players to give that money to. I think Higgins may be an option just because I’m not so sure the Rangers will even want to re-sign him.

    The reality is, it is going to be tough to take that next step up. I just don’t see where the team finds the pieces to make that step with the true contenders.