TORONTO (July 4) — In their quest to obtain a legitimate No. 1 defenseman, the Toronto Maple Leafs may not find a better candidate than 24–year–old Tyson Barrie. But, the question remains: Why would the Colorado Avalanche not move heaven and earth to re–sign its most talented blue–liner?
Apparently, general manager Joe Sakic already has.
Sakic told the Denver Post that he tendered a “long–term proposal” to Barrie’s agent, Don Meehan, at the National Hockey League draft gathering last week in Buffalo. Barrie is a restricted free agent coming off a two–year, $5.2–million contract. Though rather undersized for a defenseman (listed at 5–foot–10, 190 pounds), he’s developed into a formidable puck–handler and point–producer. If Meehan cannot agree with Sakic on an extension, Barrie will go through contract arbitration — a process teams generally prefer to avoid. As such, rumblings of a trade have intensified in the past few weeks, with rumors persisting that the Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks (among other teams) have been on Sakic’s tail.
In a perfect world, the Leafs would acquire a bigger, more rangy defenseman with Barrie’s puck–moving skill. Problem is, no–such commodity exists. Rare jewels like Victor Hedman, Aaron Ekblad, Ryan Suter, Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith, Kris Letang and Norris Trophy–winner Drew Doughty are locked into lucrative, multi–year deals. As are P.K. Subban and Shea Weber — swapped for one another in the Montreal–Nashville blockbuster. The potential availability, therefore, of such an adroit, young blue–liner as Barrie will become increasingly uncommon. It provides a splendid opportunity for a team on the upswing.
ARE THE LEAFS LOOKING TO UNITE TYSON BARRIE AND LEO KOMAROV AS TEAMMATES?
Some may suggest, with reason, that the Leafs already have two versions of Barrie in Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. With, perhaps, another on the way in Nikita Zaitzev — also 24 years old and procured by Toronto as a free agent from CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League. To obtain Barrie, the Leafs would have to relinquish Gardiner (Sakic may even request Rielly); likely another young blue–liner (Connor Carrick, Viktor Loov, Rinat Valiev?) and one more accomplished skater (James van Riemsdyk has popped up in speculation, though he would have to waive a no–trade clause in his contract). Would such an exchange help guide the Leafs into playoff contention? Or, would it amount to a sideways maneuver?
Both possibilities must be considered by general manager Lou Lamoriello.
Here’s how I see it: Gardiner would clearly be expendable in a trade for Barrie — Toronto getting an upgrade. The Leafs have enough defense prospects that losing Carrick, Loov or Valiev would be nominal. Van Riemsdyk, when healthy, can score 30 goals; such forwards are not plentiful. And, JVR, still only 27, has a manageable cap–hit of $5 million for the next two years. So, Colorado would obtain reasonable value.
Toronto, meantime, could move ahead with a young defense core of Barrie, Rielly and Zaitzev — providing the latter can transfer his skill to the NHL. In a league, today, that is less about size; more about puck–movement and possession, this could become an elite unit. With William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the immediate horizon, one would suspect the Leafs can compensate for van Riemsdyk. Neither is the Blue and White aiming to rocket through the NHL standings in the next year or two — by which time JVR will be nearing 30. Barrie’s next contract will likely consume in the range of $5.5 million of cap space, so he won’t be a cheap add–on. And, the Leafs probably want to maintain some cap maneuverability in the event forward Jimmy Vesey becomes a free agent this summer. The Buffalo Sabres have until Aug. 15 to sign the coveted Harvard University grad.
As of now, the Leafs cannot afford Barrie and Vesey without performing intricate roster surgery. Apparent non–factors Joffrey Lupul ($5.25 million cap hit), Stephane Robidas ($3 million) and Jared Cowan ($2.15 million) are on the books, along with Phil Kessel ($1.2 million) and Tim Gleason ($1.33 million). That’s $12.93 million in essential waste. Defensemen Frank Corrado and Martin Marincin remain un–signed (though qualified for next season) as restricted free agents. So, Lamoriello isn’t exactly swimming in cap space.
Still, they don’t call him “Loophole Lou” for nothing. If the veteran GM has interest in acquiring Barrie and Vesey, he’ll likely find a way to do it. And, the Maple Leafs will be closer to their ultimate objective.
REMEMBER THESE BIRDS?
While covering a Leafs game at Philips Arena in Atlanta during the Thrashers’ first NHL season (1999–2000), I bought this replica goalie mask for my son, Shane. The Thrashers had a clever logo and color–scheme, but not enough fans to sustain the franchise, which moved to Winnipeg in 2011–12. Yet, I always enjoyed visiting Atlanta for hockey. Philips Arena is attached to the world headquarters of CNN and located just west of Centennial Olympic Park — the grassy, downtown sprawl that was focal point of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games (which I attended for The FAN–590). While in Atlanta with the Maple Leafs, I stayed at an Embassy Suites hotel in the park, just a 10–minute walk from the arena. It was all very convenient.
Philips Arena was built on the site of Atlanta’s first hockey/basketball facility — the Omni — which opened in 1972 and was home to the Atlanta (now Calgary) Flames until 1980. I remember covering a volleyball match at the Omni during the ’96 Olympics. Shortly after the Games, it was demolished to create ground for the current arena. Trivia buffs might be interested to know the Omni was the site of Wayne Gretzky’s eighth NHL game. A crowd of 8,420 witnessed Edmonton’s 7–3 romp over the Flames on Oct. 26, 1979.
Gretzky never played at Philips Arena. He retired in April 1999, six months before the Thrashers made their NHL debut with such players as current TSN analyst Ray Ferraro and ex–Leafs goalie Damian Rhodes.
I also covered the 2008 NHL All–Star Game in Atlanta. Ron Wilson, then with San Jose, coached the Western Conference team and I vividly remember him telling a scrum of reporters how he could never imagine holding the same job in such a hockey–crazed market as Toronto (even though he played defense for the Maple Leafs between 1978 and 1980). Five months later — in June 2008 — Cliff Fletcher hired Ron to replace Paul Maurice behind the Toronto bench. If you ask Wilson today, he’ll quickly confess that he should have heeded his own warning. This souvenir puck was given to reporters during the Atlanta All–Star Game: