Any Leafs fan with a pulse knows that the number one priority for the summer of 2011 is to find a number one center. The team simply cannot afford to waste another year of Phil Kesselâ€™s talent by pairing him with inadequate and inexperienced pivots. In no way should that read as a shot at Tyler Bozak, who is a talented player with an above average hockey IQ. However, he is not ready to be the man, front stage center, for the most scrutinized team in the sport.
Naturally, a lot of attention has been drawn to the various options at center ice that might be pursued by manager Brian Burke. It could not be any clearer that the plan is to offer Brad Richards an enormous chunk of change to sign with the blue and white on July 1st. However, Burke is obviously already working on a backup plan as rumors of Jeff Carter and Paul Stastny are running rampant. Fans are right to be concerned with the acquisition of what will be such a huge piece of the puzzle, but the excitement has drawn attention away from the back end, where Burke has traditionally upgraded in each off-season.
His efforts in Toronto have brought in the likes of Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Brett Lebda, Danny Richmond and Simon Gysbers. In Anaheim, even after winning the Stanley Cup, he turned around and signed an aging Mathieu Schneider to a deal that paid him 5.75 million dollars annually. Similar to Niedermayerâ€™s prolonged leave of absence while he pondered retirement; Kaberleâ€™s departure has left a massive crater right next to Luke Schenn.
Burke adding to the defence is pretty much a guarantee. That said, the kind of player he pursues, and the price range he is looking at, will likely be directly affected by what kind of center the team is able to acquire. For example, if the Leafs end up with their number one choice, and sign Brad Richards for nothing but cash, that signing would eliminate the need to spend significant dollars on a defenceman. This is because Richards plays the point on the powerplay, and would assume the position normally occupied by Tomas Kaberle. In this situation, a more modest, third pairing type defencemen would fill in just fine. On the other hand, if Burke is only able to acquire a mediocre center or even a star like Jeff Carter (who does not play the point on the powerplay), then he will almost certainly need to add a player capable of entering the zone and taking charge of the Leafsâ€™ special teams.
So who might Brian Burke be looking at? Well, it depends on the situation, but no matter what happens, you know the team is preparing for all possibilities. That means looking at all types of defenders in all ranges of salary. That group could include unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents, or potential trade targets. Short term deals will be preferable, as the Leafs have at least two up-and-comers in Jake Gardiner and Jesse Blacker, and theyâ€™ll want to make room for them sooner rather than later. So without further ado, here is a list of the top 5 unrestricted free agent defencemen on Brian Burkeâ€™s shopping list (in my opinion):
5.) Andrei Markov
Andrei Markov is everything Tomas Kaberle is, but without having to face the scrutiny for the weak parts of his game. He has formed a great tandem with Mike Komisarek in the past, and would drastically improve the Leafs powerplay. He is familiar with the division and would need little time to adjust to the market in Toronto after having played in the equally crazy Montreal market. While back-to-back season ending injuries would be a concern for most teams, that is actually part of the attraction for the Maple Leafs. Markov’s free agent value is diminished, and he could look for a 1 or 2 year deal in order to re-establish himself before looking for his final payday. With Blacker and Gardiner on the way, that works out just fine for the Leafs. Sticking it to the Habs a little won’t hurt either.
4.) Jonathan Ericsson
Although plucking a mid-aged defender out of the Detroit system didn’t work out so well with Brett Lebad Lebda, there is reason to believe that Ericsson would not follow the same story arc. For starters, Ericsson has the size that Burke looks for in a defender. At 6’4″ and 220 pounds, even if his offense never blooms as hoped for, he has the frame to be a sturdy shutdown defender. Even though Lebda was a miniature disaster in his first year in Toronto, the logic behind grabbing players who’ve been mentored by Nik Lidstrom is still solid. It worked for the Kings when they nabbed Kyle Quincey off waivers and watched him put up 38 points in 72 games.
3.) Tomas Kaberle
Would Burke consider bringing back the man who made it possible for him to even out the Kessel deal and set Leaf Nation at ease? At first glance, the answer appears to be a solid ‘no’. He was a great partner for Schenn, and a true mentor offensively for a lot of the younger guys on the team, but his time in Toronto may be past. The team may not consider him just on the grounds of moving in a new direction. Still, if Kaberle were to lower his demands after a belittling playoff run (however undeservedly), would Leaf brass coldly turn their backs? I’m not so sure.
2.) Kevin Bieksa
This is a player who Leaf management have been following for a long time. Bieksa played under Brian Burke when he was the general manager of the Canucks. He then played under Dave Nonis when he took over for Burke. Both managers really liked Bieksa and saw great things coming from him. Injuries delayed that, but the fruit of their labor is now being enjoyed by Mike Gillis, who for some reason is going to get a nod for GM of the year. They should consider retro-actively giving the award to Burke and Nonis for constructing the whole team top to bottom – including standing by Bieksa. Regardless, Gillis is going to be faced with some minor cap issues, and Bieksa’s performance in this year’s playoffs means he’ll likely test the market and force Vancouver to match. Burke could definitely take a look at his old project and at least see what it would cost to put him in the blue and white.
1.) Anton Babchuk
An under the radar defender who put up solid points in Calgary this year after being dealt by Carolina. Babchuk would add so many little things to the Leafs roster that it’s hard to fully state what a perfect fit he might be. His lack of notoriety makes it likely that he’ll slip through the cracks on a July 1st that is crowded with free agent defencemen. In that situation, Babchuk’s demands could be significantly reduced. It’s possible he could be attained in the 1.5-2.5 million range, which would be very affordable for a guy that put up 11 goals and 35 points this year. Not only did he put up fantastic numbers, but he did it in a reduced role. Often players will see their numbers inflated if they play inflated minutes. Babchuk played third pairing minutes, and put up the bulk of his points at even strength. He’s a big guy at 6’5 205 pounds, and he owns a booming point shot. Finally, he is a Russian, and would complement our small Russian core quite nicely. I’m sure Grabovski and Kulemin would appreciate the addition.
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