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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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The book has (finally) closed on the Ilya Kovalchuk saga, as the Russian winger elected to remain with the New Jersey Devils.  This ends weeks of mind-numbing speculation and rumour-rehashing, including a recent explosion of news in the hockey world that had all signs pointing towards Los Angeles.  Thus, while there will be some surprise that Kovalchuk did not head down south, the overwhelming feeling amongst hockey fans today will be relief.  A side-effect of Kovalchuk’s prolonged decision-making has been the absolute cessation of any other hockey activity.  The dam should finally burst as the remaining free agents and possible trades will now be explored further by the league’s general managers.

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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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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.

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According to the Toronto Maple Leafs official Twitter feed, the club announced today the signing of free agent defenseman Brett Lebda to a two-year deal worth $1.45 million per season.

Lebda spent the last five seasons with the Detroit Red Wings after the organization signed him as a free agent in 2004, picking up a Stanley Cup ring in during his stay in ’08.

Lebda’s career high in points is 18.  He had 16 two years ago, but saw his total fall to just 8 points last year, though he did only play 63 games due to a back injury.

Lebda has great pace and puck-rushing ability, though his point-total doesn’t necessarily reflect that.  The Buffalo Native is thick for his height at 195 pounds, but is a bit undersized at 5’9. He does play a game bigger than his frame would suggest. $1.45 million seems a tad pricey, but hopes will be that Lebda will be able to improve production on a Leafs blueline that doesn’t have the type of elite offensive weapons from the blueline like Detroit had in Brian Rafalski and Nik Lidstrom (this providing Kaberle is dealt, and no doubt this seems like a poor-man’s replacement).

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- The Toronto Star has a nice piece up about Kadri’s offseason workouts and training regimen. The youngster has bulked up to an impressive 185 lbs, up from 170 lbs at this time last season and credits his success to being able to train regularly with Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. The Maple Leafs player development staff are quite pleased with Nazem’s progress, as he continues to vie for a role in the team’s top six forward group.

- Not to give away too many details, but I conducted my interview with Leafs’ Director of Amateur Scouting Dave Morrison yesterday for the 2010 Maple Leafs Annual and he confirmed that if Kadri does not make the team out of camp, the organization will send him to the Marlies rather than back to the Knights.

- The Montreal Gazette provides some insight into how prospect Brayden Irwin, a late season NCAA free agent signee, is preparing for upcoming year.

- CapGeek notes that the Maple Leafs have re-signed forward Tim Brent to a 1 year, two-way contract worth $575,000. Brent will likely provide some scoring depth for the Marlies, having scored 28 points in 33 games last season.

- Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski confirms that the lack of movement on the free agent front is due to fact that several teams are facing financial restrictions. Free agents were aware that several teams were trying to offload cumbersome contracts, but were surprised at the lack of success in doing so. The teams trying to climb to the cap floor are preferring to do so by bidding on second or third tier players, which in turn is inflating the market for these secondary contributors. Several teams are in the “wait-and-see” mode with an eye on scooping up bargains around July 10th.

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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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Okay, so my math may be a little off.  It’s Canada Day weekend, there shouldn’t be any arithmetic.  Unless, of course, you are an NHL general manager, than you better hope you have your math hat on.  A quick note to say I hope our fellow Canadian readers, as well as our loyal readers situated the south had an enjoyable holiday weekend.

Now, let’s divulge into what has so far been a somewhat reserved free agency period, One timer style.

–The big news coming out of free agency this hour is this report out of the L.A. Times that indicate the Los Angeles Kings are quite far apart on signing Ilya Kovalchuk. While they may not be out of the running entirely, Helene Elliott suggests the prospects are quite dim.  So where does Kovalchuk go?  The Islanders reportedly seem to be the only team willing to offer him the term he is looking for (rumoured to be 10 million for at least 10 years) but are there other suitors?  What about New Jersey?  Toronto?  One would think that although Burke would love to pull off the major move of free agency, the reasons Kings GM Dean Lombardi is balking about bringing in Kovy (term) is likely the same reasons Burkie has reservations.

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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.

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Bad news. According to the fine folks over at CapGeek, the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t the only team facing cap penalties next season. Here are the basics: a team is allowed to surpass the official salary cap by a “bonus cushion” maxmium of 7.5% for performance bonuses, such as those written into virtually every rookie contract. However, this number is then deducted from your maximum salary cap allowance for the following season.

For example, since winning the Cup, the Blackhawks received plenty of media attention when it was pointed out that Toews’ bonus for the Conn Smythe, among others, would push them well over the cap limit. As a result, the Blackhawks will face a $4.157 million penalty for this upcoming season. The Maple Leafs meanwhile will also have $1.4 million deducted from their limit this coming season, thus setting an internal budget at $58 million rather than the league wide $59.4 million.

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John Mitchell joins Nik Kulemin as the second Leaf to re-sign with the club today.  After initially not being qualified by Toronto, Mitchell hit unrestricted free agency with an understanding that Brian Burke intended to offer him a new contract.  The purpose of waiting was financially-driven as it allowed Toronto to save at the very least 250,000 on Mitchell because he was not qualified.

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Considering we were hearing word of $3 million + demands from Nik Kulemin’s camp, this is pleasantly surprising. It gives Kulemin a deserved $800k raise and a couple of years to prove he deserves a bigger, long-term extension, and Brian Burke the chance to see if the 24-year-old’s late season production wasn’t just the result of a default increase in playing time. Come two off-seasons from now, when both sides re-evaluate where they stand, the Leafs will still own Kulemin’s rights as an RFA. There is little doubt the Leafs are paying the extra cash for potential, but it’s certainly worth it given Kulemin’s 24 and was Leafs’ best forward offensively and defensively on several nights during the back half of the ’09-10 schedule. Patience has paid off for Burke and Nonis with a reasonable contract for the next two seasons. At the very least Kulemin will provide a responsible two-way presence with some offensive upside on the second or third line. Beyond that we’ll have to see where he can go in terms of production.

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The first thing that became clear as I was tallying up the results after Burke’s first UFA pickup was that a lot of MLHS’ers saw the Colby Armstrong signing coming. 76 of you in fact. 13 of those 76 (Beathoven, moimoi28, Gordie Orr, dlb, xXGods SoldierXx, 2 Minutes, Sugar Hill, Sk8trBoi, Doorman, CbtSpr, JD, CarltontheBear, Tiguak) predicted the length and value of contract within 100K, some predicting 3 years, $3 million on the nose. While the majority of those who had Armstrong signing in Toronto had him netting a contract more in the 2.5 million/year range, there were almost as many predicting Armstrong would receive the $3 million he got or a shade above… which indicates the supposed “Finger-like” overpayment wasn’t all that unexpected. Around these parts at least, many knew the price going in.

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Somewhat surprisingly, there has been a fair amount of debate over yesterday’s signing of Colby Armstrong.

I find this interesting because  much of the criticism seems to revolve around the notion of $3m equating to more than a 15 goal career average, even though Armstrong wasn’t exactly acquired for his offensive prowess.   The main criticism seems to be, why would the team be willing to make a $9 million investment over 3 years, when similar production can likely be found at a cheaper rate?

Now, it seems most decided to stop at that point and take the easy road; that being negativity for the sake of negativity (a known idiosyncrasy of Canadian hockey fans).  But instead of screaming “WHY did they sign him?”, I propose a different question:  Why DID they sign him?

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Flyers officially kick off July 1st festivities by acquiring Andrej Mezaros from the Lightning in exchange for a 2nd round pick. Rumors of Boston centre Marc Savard potentially heading out west to Calgary as well.

As for the Maple Leafs, they will have $10.5 million in cap space to play with today, though that figure does not include the possible removal of Kaberle’s $4.25 million via trade or Finger’s $3.5 million as a potential waiver candidate.

The Leafs have been linked to defenseman Dan Hamhuis, forwards Raffi Torres and Colby Armstrong, and will also kick the tires on sniper Ilya Kovalchuk. Darren Dreger believes the club will look at adding a 3rd line forward along with a defenseman to “stockpile for later deals”. Stay tuned to this blog for updates on signings throughout the day.

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Trades are never won or lost when initially made, and tonight’s multi-player deal with Chicago is the very embodiment of that fact. Analyzing a deal that sent Kris Versteeg and Bill Sweatt to Toronto for Viktor Stalberg, Phillippe Paradis and Chris Didomenico involves a lot of subjective potential measurement.  Making the task more difficult is that two teams often come together to execute a trade for very different reasons in a salary cap era.

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On the eve of unrestricted free agency, the Maple Leafs made a big first move to upgrade their forward group. According to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, the club has swung a deal to acquire Blackhawks winger Kris Versteeg and prospect Billy Sweatt in exchange for winger Viktor Stalberg, along with forward prospects Chris Didomenico and Philipe Paradis.

Versteeg, still just 24 years of age, will instantly become a big component of the Maple Leafs’ core moving forward. He has two seasons of 20+ goals under his belt already, and is under contract for two more years at $3.08 million per season.

Meanwhile, Sweatt, the Blackhawks’ 2007 2nd round pick, was ranked as the 7th best prospect in the Chicago farm system by Hockey’s Future. He is described as a talented two-way player with top end speed and finishing ability on the rush. By all accounts, Sweatt is also an excellent defensive player and effective penalty killer, which should ease the pain of losing Paradis.

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Monday afternoon’s 5pm qualifying offer deadline has come and gone. A QO is simply a mandatory minimum contract, valued at either the player’s previous year’s salary or slightly above, which prevents said player from becoming an unrestricted free agent on July 1st.

The Maple Leafs extended qualifying offers to forwards Nikolai Kulemin and Christian Hanson, while letting go of forward John Mitchell and defensemen Matt Jones and Phil Oreskovic. Collegiate free agent signee Kyle Rogers was also among the Marlies’ restricted free agents, but there is no word yet on whether he was qualified. If Rogers becomes a free agent, the Leafs will have trimmed down their contract obligations down to 43.

Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos also adds that the club will look to bring Mitchell back for a lesser salary, and continue to discuss a long-term contract with Kulemin, though the latter is believed to be seeking north of $3 million per season. Around the league, some may be surprised to hear that the Islanders will not be bringing back 26 year old forward Sean Bergenheim, an industrious checker who has averaged 12 goals/year over the past 3 seasons.