There is little question that next season is the one Brian Burke has been working towards as the beginning of his team’s perennial contention; playoffs are no longer the hope, they’re the expectation for 2011-12.Â Brian Burke enters year three at the helm of the team. Â The team has improved steadily in the previous years under Burke, and with the way last season finished, fans will be expecting bigger and better things from the Leafs this year.
Even the most optimistic of Leafs fans would have a hard time believing the roster as currently constituted is a playoff lock. There’s work to be done this summer once Burke finishes vacationing in Afghanistan (that’s a joke). With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of players who may be on the Maple Leafs radar. Â It’s important to note I’ve included only UFAs, and the course the Leafs take in free agency will be altered in many different ways, by many different decisions.Â Let’s take a look at a few names that could help the Leafs move forward.
Brad Richards, C, 31 ($7.8 million cap hit last season)
May as well start with the obvious and get it out of the way. Â The Maple Leafs need a first line centre in the worst way. Â It’s hard for anyone to deny that a player like Brad Richards in between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul could make a very potent top line. Â Add to that Grabovski between Kulemin and MacArthur should he return, and this could be a legitimate top six group.
However, Richards is this year’s crown jewel, and his suitors are expected to be many. Â The Maple Leafs will be in stiff competition for Richards, but with this team severely lacking a true number one centre and many trade options, Burke will have to throw caution to the wind and go for broke.
Tomas Fleischmann, C/W, 27 ($2.6 million)
With Laich off the market, this is another player with ties to the Capitals organization who could bring versatility to the Leafs lineup. The man known as “Flash” could also step into the Leafs lineup and pay dividends on both sides of the puck. Â He struggled at the start of last year in Washington, but a trade to Colorado at the deadline saw his production increase to 21 points in his final 22 games with the club. Â He’s a guy who could play in most situations, and he’s also an infrequent visitor to the penalty box.
Michael Ryder, RW, 31 ($4 million)
Coming off a strong playoff (17 points in 25 games) which concluded with a Stanley Cup, Michael Ryder could be an interesting backup plan for the Toronto Maple Leafs if they are unable to resign MacArthur. Â A perennial threat to fill the back of the net, he’s hit the 30 goal plateau twice, and is coming off of back-to-back 18 goal seasons. Â He isn’t overly physical, but isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty when the game gets rough. Â Ryder would be able to step in seamlessly on the wing alongside Grabovski and Kulemin.
Joel Ward, RW, 30 ($1.5 million)
The Leafs could give Ward the chance to return home and play hockey for the blue and white in the 2011-2012 season. A 30-40 point player in the right situation, Ward is a big body who is as physical as they come, and is developing into the power forward type player the Leafs could really use in their lineup. His playoff performance was outstanding as he posted 7 goals and 12 points in 11 games, showing signs of being a big game player.Â He’s another player on this list who could use his size and skill to drive hard to the net, park in front of the net, and make life miserable for opponents. The Leafs have a definite need for a player like that with some goal scoring touch to experiment with on the powerplay.
Scottie Upshall, LW, 27 ($2.25 million)
Although he struggled down the stretch in Columbus, Upshall managed 22 goals this past season between Phoenix and the Blue Jackets, and has proven that when healthy he can be a good option for secondary scoring. Â He’s had the rhythm of his career somewhat stunted by injuries and countless trades, but Upshall is the type of player who can bring scoring touch and some sandpaper to the third line of a team, while taking turns on the top six if needed. Â There will be questions about his injury woes, but when healthy Upshall can produce points and score timely goals. Â Bringing in a player like Upshall though would all depend on what the Maple Leafs plan do with third line players currently in the organization, like Tyler Bozak and Darryl Boyce.
Raffi Torres, LW, 29, ($1 million)
I’ll admit it. Â I still don’t like Raffi Torres. Â His playoffs this spring with the Vancouver Canucks saw him earn my displeasure many times for questionable hits and conduct. Â And i’ll be the first to admit that I don’t appreciate nor condone any form of cheap shots in this game.
There is, however, little denying that Torres wouldn’t bring an edge to the team that would help them continue to forge their identity. Â Torres and Colby Armstrong would on the ice together would go a long ways in allowing the Leafs to establish the physical tone of a game. Â And like Armstrong, Torres is no slouch in the goal scoring department either. Â The only downside would be that Torres, who has the penchant for playing over the line, would force an already well below average penalty kill into more work than it needs.
Adam Hall, RW, 30 ($600,000)
Hall played key roles on a Penguins team that made it to the finals in 07-08, and this past season’s Tampa Bay Lightning, who came within one game (and one goal) of advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Hall doesn’t put up the biggest points, and will never be that type of player, but he brings an energy to any team’s bottom six that is seemingly infectious with the rest of his teammates. Â He’s a hard working player all coaches can appreciate, and can play on the bottom six, and in a penalty killing role.
Drew Miller, LW, 27 ($650,000)
It’s a pretty safe bet to assume that Drew Miller is good for ten goals.Â In his three full seasons in the NHL, Miller has scored ten goals in each season, and in fact his points totals are all very similar as well (two seasons of 19 points and one of 18). Â Miller can be one of those players who can chip in offensively, while setting the tone with physical play and being trusted by coaching staffs to handle defensive responsibility and play in key situations, and also against other teams top players.
Max Talbot, C/W, 27 ($1.05 million)
Continuing with our string of energy type players who can chip in offensively, Max Talbot enters the UFA market as someone who will be sought after by more than a few teams. Â Why? Â Well, simply because teams win with players like him. Â Talbot has played an integral role in the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the last few seasons, with not only on ice play that includes timely scoring and a physical, checking style, but also for his off ice antics among the team, which consistently make him one of the more popular players on any team he plays on. Â The Leafs and Talbot have already believed to have been engaged in discussions prior to July 1, and with Talbot hitting the open market in a few short hours, it will be interesting to see where the Leafs stand in all of this.
Johan Hedberg, G, 38 ($1.5 million)
Brian Boucher, G, 34 ($925,000)
I grouped these two players together for the fact that they are in similar stages of their career, and it would likely be a similar situation that would bring one of them to Toronto. Â General Manager Brian Burke has already stated that he plans to go with James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson as his goaltending tandem for the 2011-2012 season, which is exciting for Leafs fans who are ready to see the two highly touted goalies take the reigns. Â However, for a team looking to make a bigger step forward this season as they continue towards their goal of returning to the playoffs, the truth is that a sophomore slump by Reimer, or injuries to either could result in the unraveling of the Maple Leafs season.
Hedberg and Boucher, should the Maple Leafs so choose to do so, would be able to step into the team for a very small cap hit and deliver solid backup goaltending to the team, while also being able to take over the net should the younger starter stumble through a stretch of games.
In the past two years of this column, I have included Colby Armstrong, Francois Beauchemin, and Mike Komisarek as people who should be on the Leafs radar.