The Leafs And Free Agency: My Take

By HOWARD BERGER

 

TORONTO (June 30) – There is good news for the half-dozen or so fans of the Maple Leafs that approach the NHL’s open market pragmatically: the hysteria endemic to these few days will hardly be noticeable next year.

 

If you think there are slim pickings in free agency this summer, get a load of the potential list for 2012 – headed by none other than Mr. January, himself, Alex Semin of the Washington Capitals. It’s difficult to imagine teams clearing cap space and waging all-out war for the league’s playoff equivalent of Sodium Pentathol (those that have experienced general anesthesia may recognize the so-called “truth serum” – an agent for inducing loss of consciousness).

 

If Semin isn’t your cup of tea, you may get a shot at 35-year-old Shane Doan; perhaps Philadelphia defenseman Braydon Coburn, or maybe even Toronto’s own Mikhail Grabovski. Also on the market could be Patrick Sharp (Chicago), Ryan Suter (Nashville) and Barret Jackman (St. Louis). You can fully expect Pekka Rinne to be swallowed up, long-term, by the Predators many weeks before the advent of free agency next summer.

 

This should serve – minimally – as an interlude to the multi-color dreaming that becomes epidemic in these parts during the latter half of June. Rick Nash was a sure bet to land in Toronto two years ago. Last summer, it was Ilya Kovalchuk weighing all offers against his insatiable desire to play for the Blue & White. This year, Brad Richards is undoubtedly clamoring for the hockey mania in our city. Failing that, we all know Tampa Bay will never come to terms with that bum, Steven Stamkos, and the offer sheet is already sitting in the main FAX machine at Leaf headquarters (apparently, Kevin Lowe has arranged a media conference-call for the moment after Brian Burke hits the SEND button). All that remains to be determined is whether Burke can preserve enough cap space to lure a salivating Drew Doughty away from Los Angeles.

 

Look, folks, in spite of my teasing, one of these years the dream is going to become reality. The Maple Leafs, as I’ve written several times since April, are smartly building toward a return to prominence – not only competitively; also as a preferred destination for top-level free agents. But, they aren’t there yet. Even if Burke was predisposed to offering a “wonky” deal (as he put it last week in Minneapolis), Brad Richards would almost certainly find an equivalent package with a team that is closer to Stanley Cup contention; in a city in which he prefers to live, or both. Given those likely circumstances, why would Richards choose to join the Maple Leafs (because you want him to isn’t good enough)?

 

BRAD RICHARDS MAY EYE THE LEAFS FOR A MOMENT OR TWO, BUT IS ALMOST CERTAIN TO WIND UP ELSEWHERE – WITH A TEAM CLOSER TO CONTENTION.

 

Of course, if there’s a GM in the NHL capable of talking a thirsty man into the desert, it’s Burke – so I’m not entirely ruling out the unimaginable on Friday. But, neither would I bet a plug-nickel of your money on it, let alone mine.

 

My hunch is that Richards will either end up back in Tampa Bay, where his Conn Smythe Trophy performance helped the Lightning win the 2004 championship; with his Cup-winning coach, John Tortorella, in New York, or perhaps among contenders in Philadelphia or Detroit. The Sabres are also a decent bet to throw silly money at the Prince Edward Island native, but I think he’ll look elsewhere for the same reason he wouldn’t sign with the Leafs.

 

It is hardly coincidental that only one marquee name has landed here since the advent of unrestricted free agency after the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season; moreover, that lone signing was happenstance. Curtis Joseph left Edmonton and joined the Leafs in mid-July 1998 several days after his agent, Don Meehan, ran into the club’s president and GM, Ken Dryden, at the Hasty Depot convenience outlet on Davenport Road – both men clamoring for ice cream on a hot, muggy night. Under the ownership of Steve Stavro, the Leafs were in frugality mode at the time and Meehan recognized an opportunity when he saw it; the agent understood a) how the club was taking a pounding in the media for its lack of activity and commitment on the open market, and b) that it required a substantial upgrade in goal (as with the team in front of him, Felix Potvin had foundered the previous two campaigns). It was the “perfect storm” for Dryden, who instructed associate GM Mike Smith to feverishly pursue Joseph.

 

CURTIS JOSEPH REMAINS THE LONE MARQUEE NAME TO HAVE SIGNED WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS SINCE THE ADVENT OF UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENCY IN 1995.

 

Otherwise, the Leafs have cornered the market on second and third-tier free agents. In the years of unrestricted movement prior to the lost season of 2004-05 – when the club often found itself in contention under Pat Quinn – it chose not to spent with the “big boys”. In the post-lockout NHL, when it has elected to spend toward the cap figure, the team has been in playoff oblivion. What the rabid fans in this city need is a combination of the two: a legitimately upward-moving team that is willing to dole out whatever it takes to land a big fish on July 1. Given the Leafs performance in the final third of the 2010-11 season (and providing James Reimer is as competent as he appeared) that day is coming. It just isn’t here yet.

 

The good news for Leaf fans is that Burke no longer has to overhaul the roster. Once Luke Schenn is re-signed as an RFA (and that will happen very soon), the club will move forward with an enviable trio of defense towers: Schenn, Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie. Reimer will be given every opportunity in 2011-12 to show that his excellent rookie performance was no fluke, and he’ll likely be supported by a veteran figure acquired in free agency or via trade. Barring the unthinkable (Richards choosing the Leafs over multiple other offers), the club’s chief deficit – a front-line centre – will have to be dealt for, and there’s no guarantee it will happen before training camp in September. On the plus-side in that endeavor, Burke should have between $11 and $15 million to dangle on the trade market after his restricted free agents are signed.

 

Though other teams have to spent just to attain the cap floor, there is always the chance (heaven forbid) of an actual hockey trade being consummated, and that’s why I still believe Burke will hotly pursue the likes of Paul Stastny (Colorado) and Stephen Weiss (Florida) to shore up the No. 1 pivot role (Stastny would fill the requirement; Weiss provide a decent upgrade). Colorado, in particular, will find that a $6.6-million No. 2 centre is hardly a worthwhile investment after Matt Duchene comes off entry-level restriction next summer, and given how other areas of the non-playoff team require attention. Avs’ GM Greg Sherman may wait until then to move Stastny, but he should be listening to all offers in the meantime. If Burke comes up with something worthwhile, Sherman could bite.

 

Paul Stastny and Yan Stastny - St. Louis Blues v Colorado Avalanche

IT WOULD BE NO LAUGHING MATTER IF BRIAN BURKE COULD LAND PAUL STASTNY (LEFT) IN A TRADE WITH COLORADO; HIS SEARCH FOR A FRONT-LINE CENTRE WOULD COME TO AN IMPRESSIVE END.

 

Beyond such a circumstance, the Leafs will again try to upgrade second and third-level needs in free agency. As mentioned the other day, look for Burke to replace one of Tim BrentDarryl Boyce or Joey Crabb in his bottom-six forward arrangement with a bigger body such as Mike Rupp. He could also be looking at Islanders’ roughneck Zenon Konopka. A decent stop-gap in the top-six brigade (depending on cost) could be lanky veteran Michal Handzus of the Kings; the 6-foot-5 centre had a mediocre 2010-11 campaign with 12 goals and 30 points but he did score 20 goals for L.A. two years ago. Another example of same is Jason Arnott – 36 years of age – but with tons of savvy and size. Burke may also be eyeing Tomas Fleischmann of the Avalanche but he’ll likely have to over-pay for a forward that missed a huge chunk of last season with a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung). Fleischmann did have 31 points in 45 games after returning, but his age (27) will inflate his value on the market.

 

Burke will venture to add a defenseman for depth. If he wants to spend a bit more on the position, he might vie for veteran Ed Jovanovski, who would contribute even more poise and leadership to the blue-line. After trading for John-Michael Liles at the draft last week, it’s unlikely Burke will pursue the top offensive rearguard still available – James Wisniewski – whose negotiating rights were traded by Montreal to Columbus. A player I kind of like in the unheralded category is Jack Hillen of the Islanders, a restricted free agent. If Hillen isn’t re-signed, Burke could make a minor trade for his rights.

 

On the sentimental side, would Burke take a short-term run at one of his favorite all-time players – Teemu Selanne – a major contributor to his 2007 Stanley Cup team in Anaheim? Selanne is older than Moses, but he’s coming off a superb season with the Ducks (31 goals, 80 points in 73 games) and has the perfect temperament and disposition for any club.

 

Many of these questions will be answered starting tomorrow. Have fun, as always, Leafers.

 

WHO WOULDN’T LOVE THIS GUY FOR A YEAR OR TWO? TEEMU SELANNE, AT 40, IS COMING OFF A SPLENDID SEASON IN ANAHEIM.

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