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Cap and Capability

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When Brian Burke added Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin to an established Leafs cast of Luke Schenn, Tomas Kaberle, Ian White and Jeff Finger it looked to all that the Toronto GM had built himself an enviable problem. A premium blueline, arguably one of the finest in the Eastern Conference, that also came with a premium price tag.

Of course, what began an enviable problem on paper quickly devolved into an actual problem when the new additions failed to mesh into a cohesive unit with defensive and special team frailties more apparent than those of an comparatively budget offense.

With White, the cheapest and arguably best of the five, used as bait in a trade with Calgary that secured Dion Phaneuf, the Leafs ditched 950k of cap on the backend to shoehorn in the fallen star’s 6.5 million contract. Paying nearly 3 million alone last season for the 26 appearances of Phaneuf, the former EA Sports cover athlete, was a considerable upgrade from White who entered arbitration as an RFA this summer, but also provided another expensive addition to anchor a defence that had cost 34 million dollars to assemble months earlier.

While few would have been disappointed to see 6-7 d-man flop Garnet Exelby released at the close of a yearlong glorified trial, many were saddened that Mike Van Ryn was unable to overcome a career threatening knee injury to resume his talismanic role on the Leafs defence. Either way, with both cast adrift the Leafs effectively scrubbed 3.3 million dollars worth of contracts off their defence from last season, but also narrowed their depth chart.

Subsequently adding Brett Lebda this past week as a solid bridge to the well of inexperience the Leafs will likely count upon pending trades and injuries, this year’s Leafs defence stands to cost 27.775 million alone, up from the final 26.874 million cap hit at the close of last season. Factoring in minutia such as Van Ryn’s LTIR discount, Beauchemin’s contracted decrease, Komisarek’s contracted increase and the full cost of Dion Phaneuf who is due 7mill (up 500k from last season), and the net increase is small beans, but considering the figure 27.775 million constitutes 46.75% of this seasons cap and the cost of Toronto’s eight man backend is actually quite startling.

Indeed, compared to the past three Stanley Cup champions, the Leafs blueline is positively cost-excessive.

The recently crowned champion’s of Chicago not only exacerbated the drought in Toronto, it managed to do so with a D that cost a budget 19.567 million, or about 34.45% of last season’s cap. Meanwhile Sidney and co. lifted the mug with a backline that checked out at 20.548 million or 36.24% of 2008-’09’s cap.

With quality youth, solid cheap grinders and a front-loaded contract such as Duncan Keith’s helping both teams balance the books prior to their cup runs, Detroit muscled their way to the cup with a defence that was more comparable to the Leafs owing to its make-up of experience plus February trade in Brad Stuart and a smattering of cheap, internally developed and impressive youngsters.

At a cost of 20.781 million, back when the cap limit was a mere 50.3 million, the Red Wings defence comprised 41.31% of contractual costs.  However, the differences between the Leafs and the Red Wings are considerably more profound than the mere make-up of the roster. For one, unlike Chicago and Pittsburgh who largely utilized their goal scoring prowess to minimize the weaknesses of their D, Detroit’s game was founded on a transitional puck moving defence that could play a stifling puck possession game when guarding a lead. By comparison the Leafs defence has proved little more than the sum of its parts whilst Wilson’s game plan is tailored to an attacking style the Kessel trade and Kadri pick hinted at. Also, Phaneuf, Komisarek and Beauchemin are a long-way from providing the type of backbone Lidstrom, Rafalski and Stuart did in the Spring of ‘08 and the likes of Schenn and Gunnarson are considerably younger and far less travelled than the AHL tuned players Detroit are always able to rely on to fill roster spots.

And this Leafs defence is considerably more expensive, without factoring in the combined 7.35 million dollars of Gustavsson and Giguere.

Naturally, there is no need to worry. With Kaberle on the way out and Finger buried there is no cap crunch in defence. Combined the two contracts are worth 7.75 million and scrubbed, the Leafs D is a paltry 20.025 million, a mere 33.7% of next seasons cap… right.

Well the problem is two-fold, firstly depending on the return for Kaberle the Leafs are going to be without an offensively minded premier puck-moving defender on a blueline sorely lacking transitional talent while burying Finger removes another, highly capable – if bloated, contract from the books leaving 6 players to fill 6 spots and an abyss of unproven youngsters and minor leaguers below.

Toronto is also in a tight spot with Kaberle’s contract if they fail to find a suitor. Unlikely to give the Leafs a hometown discount after suffering three mentally tortuous years at the center of trade talk, the Leafs will either have to choose losing him for nothing at the conclusion of next year (a possibility if the Leafs are in playoff shape) or trade him at a grossly reduced value when the trading deadline arrives next February.

Re-signing Kaberle would not only entail a tremendous amount of cap juggling, but would also constitute a step backwards as Burke tries to distance the franchise from the corrosive country club days of JFJ. With that in mind, the Kaberle saga is a win-win, lose-lose situation considering the tremendous upside the Leafs stand to lose.

Meanwhile as of July 9th, the Leafs remain one of only two teams above next season’s salary cap ceiling, and the costliest to boot. Tabled at -212k and with two roster spots still to be filled, the Leafs reliance on the domino effect smacks of Anaheim’s cap woes following Burke’s defection, the only difference being a failure to deliver a cup, or even cup run.

Call it doom-saying but either Burke slashes the defence and tries to supplement the backline with AHL calibre player’s ala Carolina last season, a resolution that will prove detrimental to both defence and Wilson’s offensively tilted systems, or Burke stands pat and tries to get by with a weakened forward line. For that to work the Leafs will have to witness a precipitous dollar-for-dollar improvement from its big name defenders and a tremendous improvement from its special teams.

Of course, this would all have been moot if the D had lived up to expectations, but with Leafs fans looking for more goals and more offense, Burke is going to have to restructure, retool or rebuild his supply lines in a way that transcends the simplicities of trading Kaberle and burying Finger.

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