It’s been an incredibly interesting first week of free agency for the Toronto Maple Leafs and around the NHL.  Here’s four thoughts to get you through your Friday.

Kovalchuk’s retirement a blessing for the Devils

Ilya Kovalchuk shocked the world Thursday when the Russian superstar announced his retirement at the tender age of 30.  In doing so, Kovalchuk will be leaving $77-million on the table over the next 12 seasons.  But he also might save the New Jersey Devils.

A couple years back, I made my opinion on Kovalchuk’s contract fairly clear.  It was cap circumvention then, and it still looks of it now.  With only three years burnt off his contract, the Devils will carry a surprisingly fortuitous cap benefit recapture penalty of only $250,000 until the year 2025.  But as the venerable James Mirtle pointed out, Kovalchuk’s early exit from the NHL will benefit the Devils extraordinarily over the course of the next decade.


Given the incredibly unstable financial situation in New Jersey, Kovalchuk’s departure truly couldn’t have come at a better time from management’s perspective.   I don’t want to say that Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello pushed Kovalchuk out the door, but he’s probably going to be paying the movers.  Lamoriello is nothing if not shrewd, and had to see the potential calamity facing the team had Kovalchuk stayed a few more seasons.  It’s incredibly interesting that the bulk of Kovalchuk’s salary – $56-million – was to be paid out over the next five seasons.

The off-ice viability of the New Jersey Devils will be stronger in the future without Kovalchuk.  When you’re hemorrhaging money, it’s good to cut $11-million in payroll for fiscal ‘14.  The on-ice product will be more viable for the next 12 years they’ll barely notice the effect of the cap benefit recapture penalty.

Certainly, the Devils are a weaker team today without their best player.  They’ll also forfeit their first round pick next season as a part of the cap circumvention from signing Kovalchuk just three seasons ago.  So they’ll serve as a cautionary tale about long-term deals, and they’ll probably miss out on a top-10 pick.  But it could have been a lot worse, all things considered.

Colborne contract makes a ton of sense

In perhaps his most (only?) prudent move so far this offseason, Leafs GM Dave Nonis re-signed Joe Colborne to a modest one-year contract worth $600,000 on Wednesday.  With about $10-million and change left in cap space and more than a couple roster spots to fill – and hefty raises pending for Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson and Carl Gunnarsson – the Leafs needed to get some bodies on the cheap.

Colborne, a first round pick in 2008, has had a decidedly checkered professional hockey career.  Once a top prospect and the jewel of the Kaberle trade, Colborne has never truly lived up to his promise since coming to Toronto.  Just two seasons ago, he was considered a potential second line centre and a blue chip future.  Today, he’s a guy who’s tallied 97 points in 150 career games for the Toronto Marlies.  While he’s hardly a has-been at only 23, it’s looking more and more likely that Colborne won’t be the big, skilled centre the team has been looking for.

Amusingly, due to the contract type, this deal is actually nearly a 1000% raise his previous AHL salary.  But for the Leafs, this is a ‘show me’ deal.  Due to the restraints of the falling cap, you can bet Colborne will be stick with the team through camp to fight it out with the pugilists for time on the fourth line.  And it could be his last stand in Toronto.

Under the Gunnarsson

The other bit of Leaf news from the week was that Carl Gunnarsson has elected to go to salary arbitration with the Maple Leafs.  This was an incredibly smart move by Gunnarsson’s camp, if only for the nuanced rules of the CBA.  As a part of the salary arbitration process, the player can only be signed to a one or two-year contract.  This is exactly what Gunnarsson’s agent wants.

Gunnarsson is a bit of weird case as a restricted free agent, because he’s a late 1986 birth.  Had he been conceived just a few months earlier, he would have become a UFA on July 5.  Alas, he’s still chained to the rules of RFAs, and likely doesn’t like what the Leafs are offering him.

My best guess is that the Leafs would like to sign Gunnarsson to a deal similar to that of Roman Polak’s in St. Louis.  The Leafs would LOVE to keep Gunnarsson in the fold for 4-5 years at around $2.75-million a season.  For what he provides to the penalty kill and defensive zone, that’s a steal of a deal for the Buds.

By going to arbitration, the Leafs would only be able to eat into one year of Gunnarsson’s UFA eligibility, and he’d finally be able to see what the market would bear for his talents in either 2014 or 2015.  He’ll be 28 at the oldest, and should his offensive game grow, could command a much larger salary than Polak’s.  This is simply smart business, and a part of the transactional nature of professional athletics.

Before you sling fiery comments on his twitter, just remember: don’t hate the player, hate the CBA.

Why Franson didn’t choose arbitration

A corollary to the above section on Gunnarsson, Cody Franson opted to forego salary arbitration this week.  His reason? Another wrinkle in the CBA as it pertains to the arbitration process.

When a player elects for salary arbitration, the team is given the choice of whether they want to offer a 1 or 2-year deal to the player.  (The inverse is true when its club elected).  So in Franson’s case, he’s only 25 years old; two seasons away from UFA eligibility.  The Leafs would almost certainly elect for a 1-year deal, so they could retain Franson’s rights as a restricted free agent for one more year in 2014.  Franson would also be unable to sign an offer sheet prior to arbitration, losing him leverage in negotiations.

So by foregoing arbitration, Franson has as much freedom as his status allows.  His side is probably much more interested in a much higher dollar amount than the Leafs want to pay.  I’d guess he’s more interested in the type of deal Roman Josi and Slava Voynov signed with the Nashville Predators and Los Angeles Kings (respectively).  There’s no doubting that Franson is an offensive talent, but he’s nowhere in the realm of those two.  Franson may be a $4-million a year guy if he continues to finish in the top ten in scoring for defenders (as he did in 2013).  But he’s certainly not a guy the Leafs should think to lock up for 6-7 years at that number.