The Other Free Agent Market
During his first full year at the helm in Toronto, you could make the case that Brian Burke was the league’s most active general manager. There was the Kessel summer blockbuster with Boston and then the mega-deals on January 31st that brought in Phaneuf and Giguere. It’s quite obvious that he’s willing to expend assets to target any top notch premium young talent when it’s made available. Both of those trades were opportunities: Kessel was a restricted free agent on a team with cap issues. Burke often spoke of inquiring on Phaneuf several times throughout the year until the “pressure points” of the cap and the struggles of the Flames pushed Sutter into making a bold move. This summer should be no different. Let’s take a look at some of the young RFA’s that might potentially attract Burke’s interest.
For reference, here were the restricted free agent compensation boundaries for the 2009 offseason, courtesy of NHL.com:
|$994,433 or below||None|
|Over $994,433 to $1,506,716||Third-round choice|
|Over $1,506,716 to $3,013,434||Second-round choice|
|Over $3,013,434 to $4,520,150||First-round and third-round choice|
|Over $4,520,150 to $6,026,867||First-round, second-round and third-round choice|
|Over $6,026,867 to $7,533,584||Two first-round choices, one second- and one third-round choice|
|Over $7,533,584||Four first-round choices|
And without any further ado:
Blake Wheeler: Wheeler has already left a team once in his career over contract disputes when he declined to sign with Phoenix after they took him 5th overall back in 2004. He’s a big kid at 6’3 with a power forward’s build but plays more of a finesse game. He’s only 23 years old and has scored 21 and 18 goals during his first two seasons in the NHL, so there is some offensive upside there.Boston has only $8M in cap space as it stands with 16 players under contract, so some decisions will have to be made. If Toronto wanted to throw a $3M offer sheet Wheeler’s way for example, then the compensation would likely yield only a 2nd round draft pick while also making it tough for the Bruins to match.
Wojtek Wolski: If you want a big, talented winger who flies under the radar then Wolski could be your guy. Wolski is another 6’3 product who has been one of the game’s most promising young players for some time. He seems to have finally put together all those skills this season, producing an impressive 65 point campaign. He is primarily a playmaker and would look very good alongside some of Toronto’s smaller skill players on the top line. He was a point-a-game player during his brief stint in Phoenix so they may be willing to pony up quite a price to maintain his services.
Nicklas Backstrom: Probably shouldn’t have bothered putting his name on this list, but what the hey. Washington will do whatever they can to keep him, and word around the block is that they’re closing in a 6 year deal in the neighborhood of $6M+ per season, which would be quite a steal for the Capitals.
Bobby Ryan: Now this connection is obvious. Burke has shown during his tenure that he loves targeting players that are familiar to him: Beauchemin/Giguere from Anaheim and Kessel/Komisarek from Team USA. In an ideal world, Burke manages to parlay several assets including Kaberle into this premium young power forward talent who will be amongst the league’s elite for the next decade. There were reported rumors from the trade deadline two years ago that Fletcher was nearing a deal with Anaheim to bring Ryan and a salary dump to Toronto for a protected 1st round pick and prospects.Â He really would be the ideal player for the style the Leafs wish to play: big, strong, skilled and with an edge to his game. You can bet your bottom dollar that Burke will make a run at his former 2nd overall selection with everything he’s got. Alas, the Ducks are in the midst of retooling their roster, with a good young core and a pair of 1st round draft picks. It would make little sense for them to let arguably their franchise talent switch teams.
Peter Mueller: Once again, another recently acquired player, so Mueller would prove tough to pry away. However, there is some history of success playing alongside Kessel. Mueller had seemed to hit a bit of a wall over the past couple years after a fantastic rookie campaign, but regained his stride during his brief stint in Colorado. Mueller scored 20 points in 15 games and appears to be on the verge of breaking out in a big way. Still barely 22 years of age and possessing a strong 6’2 frame, he would be an intriguing fit on the wing of the Leafs’ top line.
Darren Helm: Hah, I wish. The next Kris Draper? Good luck getting him out of Detroit.
Joe Pavelski: The Sharks appear poised to let Marleau walk via free agency, so Pavelski will have to be the one stepping it up and becoming a bonafide scoring option for them. Burke is quite familiar with Pavelski, having named him to that gutsy American Olympic team a few months ago. Joe has done nothing but seen his stock soar during these playoffs, and you can bet the Sharks will do everything in their power to keep him. The Leafs are also quite deep at centre, so this is likely not going to be a fit.
David Clarkson: There’s a ton of skill present when you look up and down this list, and this particular name just doesn’t seem to fit, does it? Clarkson doesn’t have the same kind of offensive ability that the rest of the players on this list do, but the kind of character, toughness, physicality, and pure heart he brings are just so damn valuable. Clarkson’s a 26 year old undrafted free agent who scored 17 goals last year and 11 this year in 46 games played. He embodies the type of qualities that Lou has built his Devils dynasty around during the past two decades, so it’s tough to imagine a scenario where they would let this kid go. Would’ve been nice to bring David closer to his hometown of Mimico, Ontario.
Devin Setoguchi: Now if you want an interesting buy-low option, this could be the bargain of the summer. The Sharks are going to be in cap hell this summer, with roughly $36M committed to only 12 players. That leaves them only $20M to re-sign Nabokov, Pavelski, Setoguchi, along with several roster fillers and this is already under the assumption that Marleau is as good as gone. Setoguchi is a pure goal scorer in a bit of a slight frame, and can be wildly inconsistent. However, the upside there is huge. He scored 31 goals last year as a 21 year old, and had 20 goals this year in an injury-shortened campaign. This former 8th overall pick could be a consistent 30+ goal man someday, and might be available at a reduced price.
James Neal: Here’s an Ontario kid who’s just 22 years of age, coming off an excellent 27 goal campaign. He’ s fast, he’s strong, he’s skilled and he’s got character. He does a lot of his damage on the rush or going to the net picking up rebounds and one-time passes. This kid would wreck havoc playing alongside Bozak or Kadri, and would be a nice complement to the Leafs’ current powerplay unit as he excels playing off the puck instead of with it on his stick. This is the kind of player championship teams are made of.
Andrew Ladd: Here’s another of those traditional power forward types that the team could potentially use. Ladd is not the greatest skater in the world, but he offers a little bit of grit and the ability to be a disruptive presence in front of the opposing net. He is a former 4th overall pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, and has had a bit of a tough time finding his niche in the NHL so far. However, he is still only 24 years of age and has 15 and 17 goals to his name over the past 2 seasons.The Blackhawks cap difficulties have been well documented, so here’s another opportunity to snag a quality young player.
Jack Skille: Yep, still not done with Chicago. Skille’s another of those high draft picks, 7th overall in 2005, who has yet to establish himself as a successful full-time NHL’er. He is still very young, even by RFA comparison, at just 22 years of age. He is a tough, two-way winger with some speed and has shown a good offensive touch in the AHL over the past couple seasons. He’s likely not a future top six forward, but may find himself becoming a valuable third line player someday.
Martin Hanzal: Now here’s a kid I’ve liked for quite some time. Hanzal is a big guy at 6’4, 200 lbs and plays with a gritty game at both ends of the ice. These Phoenix kids are extremely well coached and all seem to play a strong positional game. Hanzal has flirted with an offensive breakout, hovering around the mid 30′s in points in each of his first three seasons in the NHL. However, he’s a lot like Kulemin in that he brings a lot of other intangibles to his game beyond the offensive prowess. He is a centre, so it may be tough to find room for him on the current roster, but boy would he look good crashing the boards with Kulemin at his side.
David Perron: Think the winger version of Tyler Bozak. Smart, speedy player who contributes well at both ends of the ice. He’s a former 1st round pick and is a big part of the great young core they’re building over in St. Louis. He’s scored 50 and 47 points over the past two seasons, and is still only 21 years of age. He’s primed for a breakout season very soon, and would be a nice fit as a playmaking winger alongside Kessel. The downside to this scenario is that Perron is another smallish kid, and Toronto’s needs for a power forward trump that of another playmaker. Also, St. Louis has plenty of cap space to retain its marquee young players.
Eric Fehr: The Capitals are going to have some tough decisions to make this upcoming summer with a lot of pending restricted free agents, but likely not enough dollars to go around. Fehr finally enjoyed a much anticipated breakout season, scoring 21 goals in an injury shortened season. He’s of the power forward build, standing at 6’4 212 lbs, and has a penchant for scoring the dirty goals in front of the net. The question will obviously arise regarding whether his offensive productivity is a result of development or simply from an up-tempo all-offense style employed by Bruce Boudreau’s Capitals. Fehr has always been a prolific scorer since his time lighting up the junior ranks and injuries have slowed him down his career trajectory, but he was once one of Washington’s most prized young prospects for a reason.
Chris Stewart: Here’s another faovurite of mine and a Toronto kid to boot. Stewart had a breakout campaign in a big way, scoring 28 goals and 64 points during the 2009-2010 season. He’s a a big kid and is built like a fricking linebacker at 6’2 230 lbs. He’s excellent along the boards, using his body well to shield the puck and would fit in very well in an aggressive forecheck style of play.Â He’s a good player on the rush with quick hands and an accurate release. Only 22 years of age, this former 18th overall pick figures to be a perennial 30-40 goal machine alongisde Matt Duchene for years to come. That is, unless Burke can find a way to pry him away.
Daniel Carcillo: Just kidding.
Bottom Line: When Burke and Nonis decided that they wanted a premium defenseman, they made a list of the top 5-10 names they could think of that could potentially be available around the NHL, then they called up each of those teams to see if there was a glimmer of hope. Eventually, Dion Phaneuf landed in their laps. Heading into the offseason, it seems that the next Leaf target might be a premium young forward. If that’s the case, who are the top 5 names on your target list?