Notes + FanPosts

Notes + FanPosts

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- If the TSN reports that Frolov could sign a 1 year deal comparable to that of Afinogenov last season ($800,000) are true, then why weren’t the Maple Leafs heavily involved in discussions with Frolov’s agent? He’s a big guy who can win some pucks, plays a well-rounded game and would fit perfectly in the top line left wing role at a bargain basement price. Remember a few weeks ago when I talked about a deteriorating market? This potential signing may just be the beginning.

– The Toronto Sun reports that the Maple Leafs’ Rookie tournament will take place at the John Labatt Centre in London from September 11th-14th this year.

– The Hockey News makes the case for the Maple Leafs as a surprise playoff team this coming season.

– On to the FanPosts. Andrew Edwards (AKA Crazyaces) proposes a solution for these ridiculous long-term contracts, while Michael Cuttell continues his preseason synopsis by evaluating the Leafs’ current forward group.

Solving long term contracts that circumvent the salary cap

By: Andrew Edwards

As many are aware, Ilya Kovalchuk signed a 17 year contract that was rejected by the NHL, and has now been grieved by the NHLPA. This is in the wake of players like Hossa, Zetterberg, and Franzen all having 10+ year contracts that carry them into their 40s and beyond.

To state my position on the matter, I am not completely against these long term contracts per se, but let’s all be honest with each other here, none of the aforementioned players have any intention of fulfilling their contracts, nor do any of the teams expect them to do so.  This is especially obvious when the tail-end of the deal drops down to the league minimum.  And while I don’t think the NHL should completely regulate how much term a team can offer a player, since it hurts the flexibility in an already tight cap system, but there is considerable merit to signing a player on a cap friendly deal that pays him more dollars up front and less near the end.

Many have suggested implementing a seven year limit for NHL contracts – And I would agree that this is more than fair.

But this regulation unfortunately wouldn’t completely solve the problem.  The Chris Pronger deal is a perfect example of a player being signed just before aged 35 to a contract that will take him until he is 42.  And while it’s not unreasonable to think he could play for those seven years, I do not believe the player would honour the contract.  This scenario drives the NHL crazy since it presents a double-edged-sword.

One side shows a player set to make the league minimum in the final year(s) of his deal, but was designed for him to retire knowing he would not honour the entire contract. The other side shows a player that can still compete at aged 40, but will command far more than $525K, and thereby deter the player from fulfilling the contract.  This causes the league to question the merit of these long term deals, since it is an obvious attempt from an ethical standpoint to circumvent the salary cap, but doesn’t actually violate the current rules of the CBA.

Also setting a limit doesn’t identify the root of the problem, since this loophole really stems from the retirement rule.  This rule allows any contract signed before the age of 35 to be removed from the team’s salary cap column if and when such a player decides to retire after that age.

My answer is a hybrid approach, whereby you institute that seven year contract limit, and if any team should wish to go over this set limit, they may do so, but would forfeit being eligible to remove the player’s salary cap from the books if the player retires after the age of 35.  Basically, this means the team would be on the hook for the players cap hit for the duration of the contract, regardless if the player fulfills it or not.

If my rule were to be applied to the Kovalchuk situation, the 17 year contract would be allowable, but if Ilya retires say at the age of 38, New Jersey will be on the hook for a cap hit of $6M over the remaining six years. If that was the case, it is very unlikely the Devils would submit such a contract, nor structure a deal knowing that the player will retire well before his contract expires.

My new rule would also employ a conscience among GMs and Owners making them hesitant to hand out long term deals knowing they are accountable to the full term of the cap hit.  This would eliminate any circumvention on the team’s part, and would appease the NHL, since it put an end to these wink-wink type agreements.  This for the most part would also eliminate contracts that dip to the league minimum at the tail end of the deal, since a player will not actually play for $525K, and the team won’t sign conscionably players beyond what they think he will serve, since they’ll continue to incur the cap hit.

This rule would also make for an interesting strategy should a team wish to go over that seven year limit and sign say a 27 year old player to a 12 year contract, with a $6M cap hit.  This would create a situation where teams knowingly accept that the player may not fulfill the final year(s) of his deal, and suffer the future consequences of maintaining a $6M cap hit even after the player retires.

I really think there is a place for these long term deals that are structured to help lower the annual cap hit, we just need to regulate them properly and I believe by implementing my rule we achieve this.

Leafs Preseason Synopsis Part 2 – Forwards

By: Michael Cuttell

When Burke talks about the forward positions on his teams, he breaks them down into two groups: two top-six skilled scoring lines and two bottom-six “pick and axe” grinding lines. It is in their forward positions, particularly the top-six, that the Leafs have got the most question marks and the least organisational depth. That having been said, there are several reasons for great optimism.

The Big Guns:

Starting with the top-six, Tyler Bozak, Burke’s 2008-09 free agent coup, overcame early adversity and lived up to his billing late in the 09-10 season – offering Leafs fans several of the year’s biggest highlights – and is on pace to becoming a legitimate first or second line NHL center. Nik Kulemin, who was recently re-signed to a reasonable contract extension, had a breakout season that saw him finish 09-10 on the first line, in a power forward capacity. Kris Versteeg, who was managing 20 a season, with only third line minutes in Chicago, should be able to manage at least 20-25 getting top-six minutes in Toronto and can play all three forward positions. Phil Kessel should be counted on to challenge the 40 goal mark.

After that, however, it starts to get a little thin. Grabovski, who the Leafs had projected as a solid #2 center, had an injury plagued, forgettable season that saw him struggle both on and off the ice. The talent is there, but Grabo has some holes in his game, most notably his tendency to try to skate through the opposition all by himself, that have left his future in Toronto in question.

Grabo’s problems have been amplified by the emergence of Nazem Kadri, Toronto’s first round draft choice in 2009, who is set to hit the stage at training camp and is both talented and hungry for a top six center position. Grabovski will either have to prove himself the better player, or define a different role for himself as a shut down checking center. With the exception of his less than stellar faceoff skills, Grabo could be outstanding in a third line role, as he has proven to be a responsible defender (minus the offensive zone give-aways). The question could become: Can both he and the coaching staff accept the new role, or does Christian Hanson/John Mitchell make more sense/cents as a checking center?

Lastly, we should mention Colby Armstrong, who is currently penciled in as a top six winger. Given what the Leafs have in the cupboard now, that’s where he should be. Colby is the perfect second/third line utility man but he’s at his best when he can act as a physical presence on an energy line. The idea of putting him on a third line with Grabo or Hanson and one of Caputi/Sjostrom, should give Leaf fans a genuine reason to cheer loudly on more than one occasion.

The fourth line breakdown would seem fairly straight forward, with Mitchell or Hanson Centering Brown and Orr. Luca Caputi will be fighting hard to displace Brown and should have a legitimate shot it, given that he’s both young and projected to have a much better upside in the long run.

This leaves a third line that features shut down specialist Sjostrom, a premiere penalty killer who proved to be a very pleasant surprise benefit of the Phaneuf trade, and a committee of potential candidates. Sjostrom, though speedy, has never really put up any kind of offensive numbers and could find himself relegated to fourth line, first unit penalty kill, duties should a couple of the younger kids demonstrate a scoring touch.

Assuming the Leafs were to start the season today, this is what those lines might look like this:

Kulemin——–Bozak——Kessel

Versteeg——–Kadri——–Armstrong

Sjstrom——–Grabovski——-Hanson

Brown/Caputi/Irwin—Mitchell—Orr

The Depth:

Of course there are some dark horses to consider as well. The substantial statures of Brayden Irwin and Jay Rosehill are almost sure to see some limited action with the big club, while the German free-agent signing Marcel Mueller has a very good chance of playing his way onto the team, should he manage to put together a strong camp and/or a noteworthy showing in his first twenty or so AHL starts. Meanwhile, the signing of both Mike Zigomanis and Joey Crabb are clearly designed to garner organizational depth at the AHL level and guard the big club in the case of injuries. There are also some very exciting junior forward prospects in the system, such as Danny Ross or Jerry D’Amigo, but none are considered close enough to crack the line-up this year.

To be sure, this is going to be an interesting training camp to watch at the forward position. With so many young players, all with similar skill sets (and most with size to boot), you’re sure to see some fireworks. These kids are going to come out hitting, fighting, and diving in front of every shot like Supermen. That said, the top-six is simply too thin and has too many question marks.

So What’s Next:

It’s undeniable; the Leafs need another top-six forward. More pointedly, the Leafs need either a top-line left wing power forward or a top–line playmaking center. A trade must be made.

Kulemin is a far better player than his numbers last year would indicate, and Leafs fans should expect big things from him in 2010-11, but he hasn’t yet shown the tools it takes for top-line duty on a playoff contender. He was ferocious 2009-10. He finished checks, created turnovers, and harried the opposition in the neutral and defensive zones. He took impressive strides. His hands, however, are a little suspect, as many golden opportunities went astray rather than finding the back of the net. Kulemin may prove his detractors wrong (I, for one, hope he does), but the second line of an NHL club is great place to develop the skills to do so.

Some will argue that going into the season with Bozak and one of Grabovski or Kadri penciled in as your top two centers is even riskier than starting Kulemin as the top power forward, and they might well be right. Bozak sure seemed to be the real deal for the 37 NHL games he’s played. He was steadily good and often spectacular as a foil for both Kessel and Kulemin. On many nights, he was the Leafs’ best forward. Still, we must ask the question: What if he hits the sophomore jinx? Combine his total with Kadri’s and you’d be starting the season with a total of 38 games worth of experience in your top two center positions. Grabovski should be able to manage second line duty, should Kadri not live up to expectations just yet, but if both Bozak and Kadri struggle, there’s no one else in the organization that’s even close to being able to pick up the slack.

Which do we need? The answer is both, but a legit top center is by far the most important. The reasoning is simple: Kulemin may not be a top-line power forward yet, but he’d be adequate in the short run. Should he be injured, or fall on hard times, there are several others with the skill-sets to act as short-term replacements. However, should both of the untested combination of Bozak and Kadri fall short, we would be stuck with Versteeg and Grabovski as our top two centers. Versteeg was a third-line winger last season, albeit on a championship team, and Grabo had an injury plagued season to forget.

The Leafs still need a premiere left wing power forward to dig pucks, move bodies and distract goalies for Kessel, but the season is a wash if two young and unproven players tank or get injured at center. If both Bozak and Kadri deliver, Kadri could be moved to the wing or the two could be juggled between the 2nd and 3rd lines in an effort to spawn that all important internal competition. Depth gets teams to the playoffs and great depth wins championships.

As we mentioned, the Leafs primary trading chip is Tomas Kaberle; a well respected, fairly paid power play specialist with one year remaining on his contract. Brian Burke has publicly stated that he values Kaberle as at least a top-six forward and that he will not move on any deal involving Kabby that doesn’t “blow my socks off”. The trouble is that Kaberle has only one year left on his contract and few teams are that anxious to level a monster deal for a player that could easily walk away within a season; especially a player with a no-trade clause and a history of activating it.

As long as the return would include a top line center, Grabovski is also expendable. The Leafs have plenty of bodies at center, just none that are guaranteed to be what they hope for. Solving that in a trade would mean that someone has to go and though Grabo’s contract is not the most desirable, considering his season last year, he’s loaded with plenty of upside for a team looking for reasonably priced depth at their number 2/3 center spots.

Exceptional depth in young talented defence and goaltending, unprecedented in recent memory, could be called upon as a trade resource, but to do so would be a grave mistake that sacrifices the long term viability of the club. Let us hope that Burke sees it the same way and leaves these kids in the cupboard.

Lastly, the Leafs have got a glut of young and talented players, some with considerable size, none of whom have really broken out. What these players all have in common is intangibility; all with upsides that are still difficult to gauge. Among them are Hanson, Caputi, Irwin and Mueller. Particularly Hanson and Caputi, could draw some attention from other teams; potentially thrown-in to close a larger deal. While Leafs fans are in no hurry to see either of these players go, a young guaranteed performer coming the other way would likely be enough for Burke to pull the trigger on at least one of them.

Trade Possibilities:

People will ask why Burke didn’t make a better offer than Walker and a 4th for Simon Gagne. A 5.5 million dollar contract, and the remote chance of picking him up on wavers, is the answer. 2011-12 sees the Leafs looking to resign at least three major contributors (Bozak, Gunnarsson, and Schenn), so if Burke is going to fill his forward needs within the cap this year, he’s going to need to send some salary out in the process. Finger to the minors buys an easy 3.5 million; Kaberle leaving is another 4.5; and let’s assume that both Grabovski and either Hanson or Caputi are swapped out. That nets us almost 13 million in cap space, or two players averaging a bit over 5 million a piece.

If a two time 40 goal man like Gagne, who was well paid, but not highly overpaid, can move for a fifth defenseman and a fourth rounder, what can Chiarelli really expect to get for the very talented, and recently concussed, Marc Savard; especially considering that Savard has a no movement clause in his contract and has only ear-marked Toronto and Ottawa as locations he would accept? Savard’s contract runs for the next six years at a cap hit of 4.2 million. Given Savard’s typical production (90+ points as recently as 2008-09), that’s about as reasonable as it gets. There are, of course, some risks associated with Savard: He’s 33, at the beginning of a six year contract, and he’s now had a major head injury.

Some players are never the same after their first concussion, and all are more susceptible to future injuries of the same nature for the rest of their career. Will Savard be able to return to form and consistently play full seasons at his previous level of performance? If the answer is yes, putting him back together with Phil Kessel could prove to be deadly for opposition teams and wildly entertaining for Leafs fans. Given his cap hit, his past synergy with Kessel, and the low asking price on the deal, Savard – though it’s true he’s not the big and truculent type Burke pines for – could be the guy to round out the first line attack.

A deal like this could probably be done for as little as Grabovski and a mid/late pick. Yet, as tempting as it sounds, Burke won’t do it for two reasons: The first is that Savard’s contract is over the five year maximum that Burke has set as his internal limit, and the second is Savard’s questionable health. Should the trade go through, and Savard not be able to regain his previous form, Burke would be left with a six year salary cap albatross hanging around his neck. Savard would instantly become untradeable and his would cap hit would tie Burkes hands for years. Given no other options, the Leafs’ GM would much rather wait and try to capitalize instead on next year’s center-rich unrestricted free-agent market; which includes the likes of Brad Richards and Joe Thornton.

Since Jason Spezza is most certainly not going to be traded to Toronto; a move which would be tantamount to suicide for Murray, and there are essentially no other top-tear centers available on the market, Leafs fans should brace for the idea that their fortunes will rise and fall with the fates of two very young and inexperienced centers.

The commodity that Burke wants, and is available in great supply this year, is young and skilled RFA forwards. Many of these, as yet unsigned, players have surpassed the 20 goals plateau in one or more of their first two or three seasons, and more than one belongs to teams with serious cap or ownership issues. These conditions could leave a few of them vulnerable to trades if their contract demands are too high.

Therefore, patience has become the watch word for Burke and his camp. Everyone knows what Burke has. Everyone knows what he wants for it. If he just waits long enough, he believes it will all just come to him. For leafs fans, the watch word is faith…as it has been for many years.

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