When the Toronto Maple Leafs open their 2010/11 campaign it is expected that their forward unit will be drastically different. Brian Burke has made it clear there will be changes up front with the most glaring need for at least 1 front line centre as well as a couple more top 6 wingers. However looking at the Leafs salary commitment for next season as well as the upcoming UFA crop, you have to wonder, what options do Brian Burke really have? Lets take a look at the Leafs salary cap next year
The following forwards will in all likelihood be on the roster next season
Phil Kessel - 5.4mil
Tyler Bozak - 3.725mil (2.85mil of which is bonus flexibility)
Mikhail Grabovski - 2.9mil
Nikolai Kulemin - RFA (Estimated salary: 2mil)
Nazem Kadri - 1.75 (850k bonus)
Colton Orr - 1mil
Christian Hanson - 925k
Victor Stalberg - 850k
Fredrik Sjostrom - 750k
That leaves at least 4 forward stops to be filled via free agency or perhaps another guy in the system has a big training camp and cracks the roster. This list does not include the following players whos contracts are up.
Alex Ponikarovsky - likely to be dealt at the deadline
Lee Stempniak - has not lived up to his potential
John Mitchell - might have a shot of returning with improved play down the stretch
Rickard Wallin - 1 goal this year
Wayne Primeau - Too old for a rebuilding team
Jay Rosehill - might see a game here or there next year
With the recent acquisitions of JS Giguere and Dion Phaneuf, the Leafs will have under 6 million dollars to spend on these 4 forwards. There however will be room for flexibility if the much maligned Jeff Finger is sent to the Marlies. That would give the Leafs 3.5mil back.
The UFA crop this summer is less than impressive. After Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrick Marleau, there are no top tier forwards available. Ilya's contract demands will price him out of Toronto and Marleau has a not too pleasant past relationship with Leafs coach Ron Wilson so signing either would be a longshot at best. After that there are some decent top six guys, but all of them will be seeking big money of which the Leafs cannot afford to be overspending. Among the possible UFA forwards the Leafs could look it
Olli Jokinen: His stock has fallen dramatically in the past two season and its unilikely Burke will look to a Centre whos not pass first anyways. Jokinen remains a good complimentary scorer but the Leafs will not be looking for that from the C position. They need a passer for Kessel
Alex Frolov: Frolov has a reputation as a soft player and his less than stellar 2009/10 season will likely scare off Brian Burke.
Ray Whitney: Hes a quality veteran who can still produce, but his age will likely keep him from being sought by the Leafs
Tomas Plekanec: He's having a career year and I believe the Habs will find a way to resign him but he will likely command too much money for his value.
There are more UFA forwards available who can be considered top 6 but none who are solid top line guys. Burke will likely sign a couple pluggers such as Steve Ott but if the Leafs really want a top line forward they are going to have to use the one trade option that has been speculated for several years now. Tomas Kaberle. Kaberle's no trade clause will be temporarily lifted for 7 weeks starting draft day in June. He is still an elite puck moving defenceman with one more year on his contract and at a reasonable 4.25 million. Given the plethora of defencemen making big money it would now make sence to try and turn Kaberle into a a quality forward. In years past, the Leafs were just too thin on D to trade Kaberle. It remians to be seen what other GMs would pay for him. The consensus is that he would get at least a 1st round pick, however if Burke is able to get a young top six forward instead, that will be his best shot at improving the lackluster forward crop heading into 2010/11. Some people ahve said Nazem Kadri is the top forward the Leafs need. That may be true but its unlikely he will be an elite player for at least a couple seasons and even then its far from a sure thing, hell be top line material. Only time will tell if Kaberle is a good enough trade chip. The UFA crop is just too thin to improve the Leafs enough up front to make them a playoff contender.