Wednesday Morning Mashup: Cap Considerations

Wednesday Morning Mashup: Cap Considerations

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While the off season has been relatively quiet, something is becoming very clear about Brian Burke’s reconstruction of the storied Toronto Maple Leafs, especially as it pertains to the salary cap.  He’s perhaps more aware of it than any other GM, using the Leafs financial strength to broker trades of a magnitude rarely replicated.  Soon after taking the helm of the franchise, he began shedding the worst of the Leafs bloated contracts to underperforming veterans (Hagman, Kubina, McCabe, Toskala, the list could go on forever).  Since then he has fostered a group that consists of young guys (be they blue chip prospects, late blooming college guys, re-treads or bonafide stars) that have a lot reasons to push each other towards respectability on the ice.  What’s more? He might have given us a pretty big tell about how close this team is to being a contender and how soon the next group of prospects will be ready for prime time.

As it stands today, no Leaf on the roster is signed beyond the 2013 – 2014 season.  About a 3rd of the team has a contract set to expire next July, another 3rd in July 2013, and another 3rd in july 2014. In an era where players can get 15 year deals for absolutely no good reason, Brian Burke has eschewed the route to signing players in favour of fair value and reasonable term.  Maybe it means that the Maple Leafs can’t have the hottest free agents every year.  He’s not afraid of commitment, he’s just very aware of the volatility and randomness that surround his human assets, and especially those acquired on July 1st.

Say what you will, but look at it this way: The Leafs worst contract – whoever it is – will only burn for three more seasons.  Daniel Briere still has 4 years remaining in Philly.  Burke’s created competition for jobs at every spot, with a plethora of prospects pushing a lotta veterans coming up on contract years.  And these vets know Burke’s not afraid to ship out underperforming veterans.

Another feature is the relatively low ceiling to the cap hits on many of the contracts.  Only one guy above 6 million, one above 5.  The team as a whole will need to rely on scoring by committee this season, based on the acquisitions and the current stock.  As such, the cap hits of the Lombardi’s, Grabovski’s, Kulemin’s and MacArthur’s reflect their relatively equal status as contributors on this Maple Leafs franchise.  The manageable cap hits and terms of several Leaf players will only be a major asset in future trade scenarios.

As a brief aside, look at Vancouver, who has a great goalie in Cory Schneider, but one who will have to be traded, since Roberto Luongo’s contract is ungainly.  Ditto Cody Hodgson, who has all world talent, and has to compete for 4th line ice due to the Canucks’ cap commitments down the middle.  Eventually something’s gonna have to give in Tampa, and they will have to contend with an earnest third of their cap tied up in Stamkos, St Louis and Lecavalier.

There will be some hurdles with Burke’s methodology though, with one of them just off the horizon. Heading into this season, the Leafs sit around 5.1 million under the cap.  Heading into free agency 2011 – 2012, the Leafs will be just around 20.1 million below the cap.  Under the current contract length cap set in place by Burke, the up and coming Leafs have a lot of up and coming players looking for new contracts with healthy raises.  The major impending free agents include (UFA) Mikhail Grabovski, John Michael Liles, Jonas Gustavsson; (RFA) Nik Kulemin, Cody Franson, Keith Aulie, and Matt Frattin and Lashoff.

The but – and I’ve read somewhere that there’s always a but – is of course that Luke Schenn needs to be re-signed in the next month, and will alter the above landscape.  Say that Luke receives a handsome, but not insane reward in re-signing, and carries a 3.1 cap hit.  That means the Leafs will have 17 million to re-sign the aforementioned players and dip into the free agency pool.  Kulemin and Grabovski together could easily eat up 8 – 9 million in space (Grabovski in particular worries me, he could look for a 5+ million pay day as one of the best potential UFAs out there).

It seems like there might not be a lot of money left over to attract free agents next season, or only enough to secure low-key role players.  Certainly, Burke could bury Komisarek in the minors, and there are the avenues of buyouts (something Burke isn’t big on) and trade to free up space.  But for the next two seasons, 2/3s of the Leafs line up looks spoken for.  Roster improvement for the foreseeable future will have to come from within.

With that said, and the structure above, it looks like Burke is earnest in his belief that this team will compete for a Stanley cup playoff berth on the strength of the core of players, while filtering in prospects slowly and surely over the next two seasons.  He’s proved that he thinks this squad can be good enough for the top 8.  But if things don’t go hunky dory, Burke can wipe away his mistakes in a far less costly and slow a fashion as before.  All because he understands, and is disciplined towards, the cap.

And now – finally – your links:

NHL

The Star with a controversial op ed about Cole Harbour’s pride and joy

OMG! A show about Figure skating is going to allow a girl to compete?

Panthers Fans? Pipe down. It could be so much worse

Steven Stamkos on Crosby’s condition

Leafs:

VLM asks the hard hitting questions about Mikhail Grabovski’s future

Shut up, I don’t always post PPP’s Tucker Fights

Leafs Nation Online looks at some very interesting potential Dark Horses for the Leafs

Man dies on Colby Armstrong’s property.  No, but like for reals

Michael Stephens has been writing for Maple Leafs Hotstove since 2010, and has featured in the 2010 and 2012 Maple Leaf Annuals. Former Editiorial Intern at The Hockey News. Undergraduate degree from the University of Windsor. Chat me up about all things hockey on twitter @MLHS_Mike

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