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Since joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brian Burke has worked feverishly to distance the club from the atmosphere of mediocrity which pervaded during the years of mismanagement that came before.

While upgrading the playing staff and reducing the age demographic of the locker room are the two most apparent hallmarks Burke has placed upon the Leafs, his backstage upgrading of the administrative, coaching, scouting and medical departments have the potential to leave considerably longer legacies.

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Colby Armstrong’s shiny new 3-year, $9,000,000 contract with the Maple Leafs has been the focus of much debate over the past month. Leaving the contract argument aside, it would be prudent to take a look at Armstrong’s advanced statistics in 2009-10, so that we might better gauge our expectations for the coming season. Thanks to BehindtheNet.ca for these fantastic statistics.

Quality of Competition (QoC) and Quality of Teammates (QoT) were very important stats when analyzing the potential impact that Kris Versteeg could have for the Maple Leafs. In Versteeg’s case, the QoT stat helped us understand his modest offensive numbers and how they might be improved in Toronto. However, they can tell a different story, namely that of defensive responsibility. Armstrong’s QoT was an astoundingly low -0.119. These stats are calculated with advanced +/- statistics being compared between their linemates throughout the season. As before, it is important to note the linemates Armstrong had to work with (courtesy of DobberHockey.com):

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by Michael Cuttell

Put your hand up if you think the Leafs are only one or two pieces away from winning a Stanley Cup this year. OK, I admire your enthusiasm, but put your hands down! There’s actually a good reason I’ve posed this question and I’ll come to it again in just a minute. With the long awaited Kaberle trade still looming, many in Leafs Nation have asked the question: If he could be had so cheaply, why didn’t Burke sign Frolov? The answer is that he didn’t want him; and trust me Leafs’ fans, you don’t want him either!

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A former Leaf is about to sign with Los Angeles, as Alexei Ponikarovsky has agreed to join the Kings (although a deal has not yet been signed).  This ends some speculation that “Poni” would have to take his games overseas, as this summers UFA market has seen a lot of viable NHL players still without a job.  Ponikarovsky was shipped to the Penguins by Toronto at this year’s trade deadline, bringing back Luca Caputi in what was a very fair exchange of players.  However, Pittsburgh was expecting the Ukrainian to contribute at the level that saw him pour out 61 points for the Leafs in 2008-2009.  With a disappointing 9 points down the stretch for the recent champs and an awful showing in the playoffs, teams weren’t exactly lining up to sign the 30-year old.

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It was no less than two months ago that I was pondering this same question, that of captaincy, and examining the same factors. Thinking of all the tangibles – speed, talent and scoring – along with attributes that are harder to judge – the ability to command the respect of the team, lead with strength of character and handle the Toronto media through success and failure. The lone difference is that last time, it was the Leafs.

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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.

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    In my continuing statistical analysis of new and old Maple Leafs, I’ve decided to take a look at Matt Stajan in 2009-10. His play during his Leaf tenure was often a hot button discussion that somewhat divided the fan base. After all, he’s only 26 years old and he has scored over 50 points back to back now. Maybe Burke’s statisticians brought some of his more unknown negative characteristics to light, making the decision to move him a little easier. Thanks again to BehindtheNet.ca for having all of the forthcoming information readily available for the public.

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    Leafs Preseason Synopsis Part 1  – Defense and Goaltending

    By: Michael Cuttell

    With free agency cooling off and countless free-agent and team roster questions floating around, it’s time for Leafs fans to look at what they have, what they can afford to lose , what they need, and what they can realistically get to fill those needs. This is a step by step speculative analysis of those questions.

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    Kris Versteeg has undoubtedly been the prize pick up for the Maple Leafs thus far this offseason. You’ve heard all the basics by now. He’s great in the dressing room, he plays all three forward positions, he produces under pressure and he’s a back-to-back 20 goal scorer. At age 24, these are all impressive qualities, but now the real question is: how he will fare in the Maple Leafs’ system?

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    Why the Maple Leafs should make the playoffs in 2010-11‏

    By: Joe Cino

    Everything that could have gone wrong for the Maple Leafs in 2009-10 did. A combination of cold streaks, underperforming veterans, bad goaltending and a slew of injuries capped off a basement finish. The roster has been fine tuned, with additions like Giguere, Phaneuf and Versteeg chief among them, but by and large most of the roster is the same as last year’s iteration. With so many holdovers from the previous year, are the playoffs a realistic goal for the Maple Leafs? I believe that they are, with Corsi ratings, Goals versus Threshold and the realistic impact of the new Leafs taken into account.

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    Got some interesting feedback from a couple sources regarding Kovalchuk’s 17 year deal, and its potential impacts on future CBA negotiations.

    Source 1:

    “These long-term deals are getting ridiculous. How many teams can compete? Kovalchuk only had two suitors due to the number of years he wanted. The league is going to look at both capping contract term and moving toward non-guaranteed contracts in the next CBA.  Contracts signed 1-2 hrs after FA are also going to be looked at and hopefully resolved. The gloves will be off on both sides, but this stuff needs to be done.”

    Source 2:

    “Kovalchuk may have unwittingly screwed the escrow issue for a lot of players. As more players make more salary than cap hit, payroll figures get inflated and the players end up paying a higher percentage of their salaries back into escrow. Kovalchuk’s salary will be 5.5m beyond his cap hit for five years of the contract, 4.5m and 2.5m above for another two years after that. He’s not the only player whose contract does this, but is the most high-profile given his standing and the absurd length of his deal. It’s going to be interesting to see how this affects negotiations as players will inevitably find themselves fighting opposing fronts — for contract freedoms such as term and front-loading, but against the escrow payments that result from those very freedoms. Advantage: league.”

    The interesting part about the escrow concern is Kovalchuk’s salary doesn’t jump beyond his cap hit until the 2012-13 season — the same year it is anticipated a new CBA will be in effect (I believe the existing CBA has been or will be extended through the 2011-12 season). The contract was set up this way by design, and should be considered very telling as to what the focus of CBA negotiations will be from the NHLPA’s perspective.

    Update: Some have been asking in the comments why Kovalchuk’s contract doesn’t violate either of the so-called “100%” and “50%” rules. The reason for this is after the jump.

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    In case you haven’t already heard, the Maple Leafs have broken off negotiations with prospect Bill Sweatt, acquired in the Versteeg trade from the Blackhawks. In a statement to the Toronto Sun, Burke explained that the club would rather keep a spot on the 50 contract limit open than continue discussions with Sweatt. As the talks continued to stall, the Leafs likely turned and upped their offer to Marcel Mueller, whose ELC contract value sits at $1.12 million. Sweatt is likely looking for a figure close to Blake Wheeler’s $2.825 cap hit as a 4-year college free agent, which is a steep price to pay for a player with speed but limited offensive upside.

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    Maybe it was indicative of how fragile the Leafs psyche had become after relinquishing such an unexpectedly high draft pick to the Bruins, or maybe it was just a reaction to the mid-summer boredom brought upon as the Kovalchuk saga stop-gaped the NHL trade wires, but the recent trade rumours surrounding Luke Schenn suggests a seismic shift has taken place in Leafs Nation with regards to the future and how to obtain long sought after success.

    One that seems to have embraced a cap defiant means of rebuilding in an age of tank-to-win.

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    Great to see such an active group of readers. Here are a couple of FanPosts for your Friday afternoon reading enjoyment with today’s theme being youth, youth and more youth. Paul LeMay (B. Leaf) takes an in-depth look at the team’s organizational prospect depth while Chuck Johnson compares Nazem Kadri’s chances of making the NHL as a 2nd year player with those of previous high draft picks.

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    NHL Shield

    There has been a certain degree of consternation among Maple Leafs fans of late regarding the number of SPCs (Standard Player Contracts) the team has on the books. Many have expressed concerns that the Maple Leafs are near the league maximum, and fear the situation could adversely affect the team’s efforts to continue to re-tool the club into a playoff contender.

    A quick glance at the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), however, tells us the situation is not so dire as some would have us believe. The reason? A seldom-discussed clause, unofficially dubbed the “Slide Rule”.

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    Just a month ago, the Chicago Blackhawks were the envy of the National Hockey League.  Having finished off the Philadelphia Flyers in six games courtesy of a Patrick Kane overtime goal, the Hawks had climbed to the top of the mountain, and had risen out of what could once have been considered obscurity years earlier, to build a winning team, and break the Stanley Cup drought that loomed over the franchise for so long.

    And while many general managers stood in jealousy and envy of Stan Bowman and his management team for the feat they had just accomplished, not one GM was going to envying Bowman in the days following.

    For the Chicago Blackhawks, winning the Stanley Cup came at a price, and it was rather large.

    Since they won the Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks have made many moves, tearing down their roster that brought them their once elusive championship.  Fan favourites were shipped out in favour of draft picks and younger players, on cheaper contracts.

    One of those trades involved Kris Versteeg, a trade Brian Burke was all too happy to accommodate.

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    Even with news breaking this afternoon of Ilya Kovalchuk’s new $60 million contract extension (potentially) with the New Jersey Devils, this 2010 free agency period has been one of the most uneventful and slow-developing offseasons in recent memory. The reason being? Despite a mediocre at best free agent group, there simply isn’t enough money to pay these guys what they’re probably worth. As one unnamed NHL General Manager put it last week: “The teams with cap don’t have cash and the teams with cash don’t have cap”. The Maple Leafs however, are fortunate enough to have both, and have the opportunity to exploit the market to their advantage.

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    As much of the league takes a post-draft/free agent frenzy breather for the Canada Day and July 4th long weekend, I figure I’ll spark some discussion with a bit of educated speculation. In talking to a source over the past week it’s been suggested to me that Brian Burke has a  deal or two on the table for scoring help involving a Leaf asset he’s struggling with the idea of parting with. It’s said at this time Burke is hoping desperation on the part of the involved GMs reduces the price on a few top six trade options as the off-season continues.

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    ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun floated out over twitter last night the possibility of Leaf interest in winger Maxim Afinogenov. One’s initial reaction might be to dismiss the Russian enigma as the anti-Burke. Looking at the list of remaining UFAs, there are also a few scoring wingers that could be considered safer, comparable alternatives (i.e. Alexander Frolov). But in the salary capped hockey world we live in, where a player’s on-ice ability is ever tempered by his dollar value against the cap, Afinogenov’s services could actually comprise a niche market of sorts for clubs looking for a Plan B scoring option with fewer strings attached.