In the MLSE land of unreasonable expectations, even a superstar troupe like Burke and Wilson will not be afforded another record breaking season; at least not if said record is a fifth consecutive season of playoff free hockey. Subsequently Burke is going to be looking for a catalyst to the rebuilding project come summer and the most obvious route will arrive in early July, not a week earlier in Montreal.
Naturally this fills one with both trepidation and excitement. The free agency rebuild is a model based on short term mediocrity in a system continually throwing picks and prospects at trades to support those early July scraps while crippling the long term security of the club. Burke has already shown he can weave a fine line between youth and experience in Anaheim but even then it was at the expense of the cap in a net growth market.
Unfortunately Burke is a victim of an intolerant and impatient organization that continually scupper efforts to make the team genuine contenders and in taking the job almost certainly knew he would never be given the kind of timeframe Dean Lombardi inherited from Dave Taylor in LA.
Where Pittsburgh had the dubious draft lottery to thank in speeding up their draft built system, the Kings have been far superior poster boys for the pitfalls and crapshoots of trying to build solely through youth and some six seasons down the line the end of the road is still a long way from sight in the Sunbelt.
Effectively what this leaves Burke with is a juggling act during the free agency period. With so much emphasis on youth, Burke is going to want a good combination of young UFAâ€™s who can help the team down the line as well as a smattering of short term veterans who will be able to bring the younger players through. While many are eyeing up the juiciest names as potential Leafs targets, the Sedins, Bouwmeesterâ€™s and Gaborikâ€™s of this world, chances are Burke will be looking for a number of useful role players who can throw out some offence or support whilst adding playoff ready depth.
With over $44million already tied up in cap for next season compared to just $16million in 2010-â€™11, this direction would certainly seem the most prudent in the short term as it will afford developing talent ice time while keeping the door open for big offseason signings a year later when the expected cap fall will tie many teams hands.
Of course, one cannot rule out Burke making his big play this close season, particularly with a certain pair of personally drafted Swedish twins offering up good production for their combined value. But, as it became painfully apparent last season, the Leafs need more than two players if they hope to secure a playoff spot next season and with the cap value and goaltending issues tempering the Leafs real market power for the meantime, you can only assume Brian Burke is scouring the free agency pool for potential bargains.
Here is a few bargain bin UFAâ€™s who could tempt Brian come early July 1st.
Top Four Defensemen
Assuming either Kaberle or Kubina or both are no longer Leafs come next season, Wilson would have to work wonders with a defensive unit sorely lacking experience or talent. If the Leafs were to have even the faintest chance of going beyond 82 games they would need at least one established top four D-man.
Age: 28 2008-09 Salary: $1.6million
A consummate minute muncher in Anaheim, Beauchemin was all but unknown when Burke splashed out for him early in his Ducks tenure. Little more than a safe pair of hands, Beauchemin plays a simple but physical game and, while his offense can be streaky, Beauchemin has proven a useful point man albeit used sparingly as such in Anaheim. If his salary can stay around the $2million mark Beauchemin could be a less glitzy band aid in the Toronto back line.
Age: 34 2008-09 Salary: $2.4million
The Latvian would have to take a pay cut to be an attractive proposition, but the former league iron man who played 495 consecutive games between February 2000 and February 2007 is perhaps one of the most underrated defensive defenders in the game. Indeed, 9th in league shot blocking, the slow footed, low scoring Panther is highly thought of in Florida where he is described as having an infectious personality and great character.
Rough and ready, a player like Skrastins would provide a fantastic education to the likes of Schenn and at 34 is still an extremely capable athlete. His only real downside is this past seasonâ€™s 18 points was a career high and would need to be paired with a puck mover.
Age: 27 2008-09 Salary: $600k
Johnny Oduya may not be a top four defenseman yet but many in New Jersey believe he was pound for pound their best D-man last season in a young and inexperienced backend that had to grow up fast in the wake of Brodeurâ€™s injury. With some estimates saying he could earn $4million next year, Oduya may be overpriced, but if those numbers donâ€™t stick the Leafs could certainly do worse, especially as his year by year improvement seems far from capped.
Described as a well liked team player, Oduya infrequently shows brilliance taking the puck into the offensive end. Otherwise a talented puck handler, Oduya can make bad decisions when defending aggressively but after years on international sized rinks, Oduya continues to show promise. Indeed some project the young Swede could be a 15 goal scorer one day and there would certainly be space on the Leafs roster if Kubina or Kaberle made an exit. Whether he could help make the Leafs a playoff team in the short term would be the question.
Age: 30 2008-09 Salary: $775k
Three goals in three hundred career games is all you need to know about Rob Scuderiâ€™s offensive output, but the Penguins leading plus 23 he put up on route to the playoffs is more than compensation. Spending large portions of last season on the Pensâ€™ second pairing, Scuderi may not be bona fide top pairing caliber, but considering he plays such a simple game while hardly ever taking a penalty Scuderi is both reliable and rarely a liability. Bearing in mind he offers little more than a solid, defensive skill set with no frills, Scuderi is unlikely to ask for much in July which means he could be brought in as an afterthought and still eat consistent minutes.
Skilled Grit, Character and Energy Players
When Mikhail Grabovski is your grittiest player you are in trouble and not only are you in trouble but you are a million miles from what Brian Burke wants. Cliff Fletcher helped set the tone in last seasons draft, he didnâ€™t pick knuckle-draggers, but he picked players with size. Taking that notion and running with it, chances are Burke is going to want some nice cheap toughness that also comes with an offensive upside. Mayers failed to do the trick while May provided next to nothing up front and the less said about Hollweg the better.
Expect Burke to add character grinders in July.
Age: 35 2008-09 Salary: $1.15million
Laperriere may be no spring chicken but if weâ€™re talking archetypal Brian Burke players Lapperiere has to be up with the best of them. A tremendously hard worker loved by his teammates, Laperriere offers little offensive upside and next to no natural talent but has proved to be an effective penalty killer and boisterous forechecker. The kind of agitator opposing fans like, Laperriere never pushes the rules yet tends to get better results than most. Playing the kind of role a Recchi had in Pittsburgh last year, albeit less of an offensive threat, Laperriere would be more than serviceable as a father figure in the Leafs team.
Age: 27 2008-09 Salary: $875k
Not so much a tough third liner, Larose comes off a great post season where he proved a standout with the conference finalist Carolina Hurricanes. A real energy player who enjoys rattling opponents, Larose has been a competent two way player in the Hurricanes system and has started to develop some creative acumen in the offensive zone. While he was paid under a million last year, the jury is still out on whether he will remain so cheap in light of his playoff exploits.
Age: 27 2008-09 Salary: $975k
You donâ€™t need telling that Brian Burke likes this guy. Having brought him to Anaheim after just over a month of his tenure, Moen went on to play a crucial role in Anaheimâ€™s rough and tumble route to Stanley Cup glory. Struggling to recover that 21 point season form, Moen has molded into a solid role player in San Jose but was almost nonexistent in the playoffs. Still he has proved a serviceable penalty killer and is a real team player whose size makes him hard as nails to shift from the puck.
Age: 28 2008-09 Salary: $500k
Rarely does a player go from major junior into Canadian University hockey and surface the other side an NHLer but that was the long and winding path the former University of Prince Edward Island graduate took. Buried in the Minnesota Wildâ€™s system, Ward was snapped up by the Predators as a free agent last July and from looking well out of place at the start of the year, Ward became a revelation down the home stretch.
Almost unbeatable in the corners, Ward combines good size with a never say die work ethic. Noted as a real team player, Ward was a nuisance on the fore check on route to finishing seventh on team scoring with 17 goals and 18 assists while also performing admirably on the penalty kill. Could be a one year wonder or a complete steal if he fails to make less that $1.25million next year.
Too many Leafs forwards played a one dimensional game last year and the zeal for back checking witnessed at the start of the season began to fade as the year wore on. While Hagman played a good two way game and Moore before he was traded, too few were willing to get their hands dirty on a consistent basis. If Toronto wants a real shot at playoff hockey they could do worse than look for some cheap, defensively sound depth players.
Age: 34 Salary: $1.8million
A selfless playmaker with a great work ethic Axelsson has been the Lidstrom of Swedish forwards for years. Utilitarian in his application and flawless two way, Axelsson has gone largely unnoticed during Bostonâ€™s ascension yet has proved invaluable when deployed in line matching battles as well as the PK. While he may struggle to shut down bigger forwards, Axelsson has been painfully underrated and enjoyed his second best offensive year this season with 30 points. Would need a big price drop but could be a calming influence alongside John Mitchell.
Age: 29 2008-09 Salary: $1.5million
Of players who took one thousand faceoffs or more last season, Manny Malholtra finished third behind Rob Brindâ€™Amour and Kris Draper in wins. Not bad company and whilst the Blue Jackets center hasnâ€™t been the offensive threat many thought he would be, Malholtra is both extremely accomplished as a two way forward and a team leader not to mention a stalwart within the communities where he has played. With a big frame and speed Malholtra has those Burke qualities that could make him a serviceable defensive depth player albeit only if he takes a pay cut.
Age: 34 2008-09 Salary: $1.75million
A team leader with great hockey sense who excels in the corners, Greirâ€™s gung ho style is perfect for the West Coast game Burke and Wilson want to bring to the Northeast Division. With all the tools he brings to the table, Grier would be hard to talk south of $1.5, even at 34, but his record surpasses him as one of the most accomplished two way players in the league not to mention his work on one of the leagues best penalty killing units.
Age: 28 2008-09 Salary: 900k
Here is a name you donâ€™t need telling about. Slated as a checking line center, Moore came into his own in Toronto being overplayed before disappearing in Buffalo on route to 45 points, effectively tripling his previous seasons best.
Demonstrating a fantastic work ethic and sense, Mooreâ€™s two way play was outstanding, even in his heightened role, while he came forward as a potential leader in the early season.
Most in Buffalo want him gone after a poor showing and one wonders where he will pitch his asking price.
Age: 29 2008-09 Salary: 615k
If you watch the Rangers youâ€™d probably never notice Blair Betts, he is one of those pivot players who barely registers in a game and 48 points in 339 games attests to his lack of offensive acumen. Worse still he has an extremely weak shot and little in the way of playmaking creativity, sound tempting? For all his foibles at $615k, unlikely to rise gratuitously, you get one of the most competent defensive forwards in the NHL who is a great penalty killer and more than serviceable on the fourth line.
Top Six Forward
While bringing in another top six forward may seem superfluous in a franchise trying to blood their young, in terms of an immediate return to playoff hockey the Leafs are short on raw scoring talent, particularly following the exit of Nikolai Antropov. Perhaps counterproductive in the long run, if Burkeâ€™s hand is forced by the upperÂ echelonsÂ during free agency he may look for some reasonably priced point scorers.
Age: 30 2008-09 Salary: $4million
At five foot seven inches, Brian Gionta couldnâ€™t be further from the prototypical Brian Burke forward. That said with great wheels and energy, Gionta is a useful two way playmaker who, when surrounded by the right players, can be an effective scorer.
Should expect quite a pay cut if he wants to stay in a Devils organization struggling with a multitude of UFAâ€™s. If he is let go Gionta, who is known for being crafty around the net, was good for 20 goals and 60 points this season.
Age: 34 2008-09 Salary: $3.2million
Having been sidelined for almost two years with back problems, Sullivan returned to spearhead the Nashville Predators spirited playoff aspirations on course for 32 points in 41 games. Again small in stature, Sullivan makes up for it with great puckhandling and superb determination. Will probably take a small pay cut next year aware he has been tarred as injury prone (even though the back injury was the first prolonged injury in his career). A former Toronto alumnus, Sullivan could be a real bargain during free agency.
Age: 29 2008-09 Salary: $2.15million
Like Marmite, Nik Antropov appears to enjoy a love hate relationship with the Maple Leafs fans. While many would love to see the big West Coast sized power forward come back after his trade deadline deal, an equal number see his potential return as a step backward to rebuilding the club.
For sure, Antropov has got to work on his physical game, but coming off a career year few can doubt the potential for him to work in a Ron Wilson coached side, itâ€™s merely a question of application.
Still living in Toronto, of the three well priced top six forwards going into free agency Antropov offers himself up as the most likely candidate for a contract.