The Toronto Maple Leafs have started a rather unsavoury tradition in recent years. Having officially and mathematically been eliminated from playoff competition again this year, they have now entered their 3rd annual "retooling" year. Unlike previous years however, there appears to be real hope and belief amongst both the Leaf fans and the media that things will be much different this off season. The general consensus is that Cliff Fletcher will do everything required to reshape this Leafs team. Fletcher has clearly stated as much, and he has certainly proven to be a man of his word over the years. MLSE executives have also echoed these sentiments making it clear that Mr Fletcher will have the full financial backing of MLSE required in order to absorb, buy out or move whatever salaries Cliff desires.
In a typical and predictable manner, the Toronto media have jumped all over this story. Recent stories have been released via all outlets outlining the Leafs buyout strategies, the relative impact on the teams salary cap and the enormous benefit to the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans for taking this approach. Frankly, I found most of these stories to be laughable. The research was sound, the numbers were perfect and the pieces were very well written - everything you would expect from professional media reporters. However, as is often the case with any media reports regarding the Maple Leafs, the overall basis for the conclusions were devoid of all logic and reason. Only an organization completely lacking any creativity or backbone would fold up like a cheap suit to the demands of their employees. Buying out a players contract is simply the best of both worlds for the player. They get their money, and they become a free agent. Succumbing to such a situation would not only hurt the organization in the short to medium term, but, would have a resounding negative affect on the organization for years to come. The youngsters currently in the room would realize that the Leafs management have absolutely zero backbone, new players coming into the organization would feel they could relax after signing a big contract, and everyone would countinue to accept mediocrity knowing full well that the worse thing that would happen is that the Leafs organization will buy out their contracts and subsequently make them a free agent - effectively enabling them to double up on their salaries.
Do not despair Leaf fans, rest assured, this will not be the avenue Cliff Fletcher exercises, regardless of what has been widely reported across all web, print, radio and television outlets. There are no "sources" here, I am not a professional journalist with a scoop, or inside information. However, anyone with any sense of reason and logic who actually listens to the non-veiled, black and white, consistently homologous messages Cliff Fletcher has stated, via every possible outlet, would have received the following messages:
1) Cliff Fletcher is very disappointed with how things went
2) He is embarrassed that he was not able to move more of these contracts at the trade deadline
3) He has made it very clear that he will employ whatever means necessary to move some of the contracts and change the face of the team
4) He fully intends for the Leafs to be in the playoffs next season
Although point 4 above raises concern for many of the self proclaimed "tank nation", it is probably the most important and revealing statement with respect to the organizations ultimate intentions. If Mr Fletcher intends to transform this team into a contender for next year, while simultaneously moving some of the current core players and their contracts, one has to conclude that it is fiscally impossible to do so while carrying the burden of buying out such significant contracts.
So, How different will this off season be? The answer is this off season will be just like the others before it. The Leafs will retool their team yet again, with the intention of making the playoffs next year. However, the actual mechanism for accomplishing this will be completely different. This off season promises to be one of the most exciting off seasons ever for Leaf fans. The gloves will be off this year, and one should expect some legitimate drama, which may very well carry over to the start of next season and should come to an abrupt end by trade deadline day in 2009.
The most obvious mechanism to shed some salary for the Leafs is to employ the waiver system. The waiver system under the latest CBA is certainly flawed and was not well thought out. However, it does provide a unique mechanism to rid a team of unwanted salaries. There is alot of confusion around how the waiver wire actually works in the NHL and what impact players claimed on waivers have on the salary caps of the respective teams involved in the transaction. The actual mechanics of the waiver arent overly complex, however, they do create some interesting scenarios. A player that is not eligible for demotion without first clearing waivers must be made available to every other NHL team before being required to report to the AHL. Any team making a claim on this player on the way down is able to acquire this player without a loss of any assets in return, however, they must absorb 100% of that players contract against their salary cap. If however that player is not claimed by any team on the way down to the minors, their salary is still 100% payable by the team that placed them on waivers, however, as long as they are in the minor league system, that salary is no longer on the books as it pertains to the salary cap. If the team decides to call the player back up to the NHL from the AHL, the player must yet again be placed on waivers (re-entry waivers) before being able to report to the NHL parent club. However, on re-entry waivers, if a team were to claim that player, then both NHL teams (the one that placed the player on re-entry and the one that made the claim to acquire the player) would absorb 50% of the players contract against each of their caps. I do agree with many others who have suggested that it would be a dangerous tactic to use the waiver wire too aggressively, as it may scare away future Free Agents who may not want to end their careers in the minor league system - regardless of how well they are being paid. Placing a veteran like Tucker or Blake on waivers is simply not a viable option for the Leafs. However, the Leafs have 2 players in particular who are still on their first, post rookie contract deals, who do not have significant NHL careers established that would be perfect candidates to be placed on waivers. Andrew Raycroft and Mark Bell. One should expect the Leafs to make it known across the NHL that these players will be placed on waivers and will NOT be recalled from the AHL. Effectively, this means that any team willing to absorb a 1 year, $2M contract can have either of these players for free and effectively zero (or minimal risk). Otherwise, these players will play out the year in the AHL and will be free agents at the end of the 2008/09 season. I would expect both of these players to be claimed off of waivers, as they are both quite young, they have both showed the potential for much larger upsides and are both relatively cheap @$2M and are both relatively low risk ventures with only 1 year remaining on their contracts.
After the obvious waiver wire transactions, expect Cliff Fletcher to begin the process of dismantling the group of 5 players with the No Trade Clauses in their contract. In order for any "retooling" to be successful, and in order for the culture of this team to undergo any positive changes, this group must be dismantled. With the exception of Sundin, there should not be a place for any of these players on the team moving forward. Sundin is the lone exception, he will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st.
Tucker becomes the obvious player and contract to be bought out. He will likely be asked one last time to waive his no trade, however, it is unlikely he will do so, knowing he is the most likely target to be bought out and knowing he can get paid and simultaneously become a free agent, he will likely decline to waive his no trade clause. At $3M per year, he is the most affordable buyout. The resultant $1.5M cap hit over the next 6 years is not an ideal situation, but, it is a manageable number and will be used by Leafs management to prove that they are serious about taking every action necessary to break up this group of players with no trade clauses. One can also expect Pavel Kubina to be traded. Although Kubina's stock has significantly risen in recent months and amongst strong sentiments from many Leaf observers that the Leafs should consider keeping him, his value to Leafs management as a mechanism to send a clear and concise message to Kaberle and McCabe is simply too high. I have personally been a big supporter of Kubina while he has played in Toronto, despite the general consensus that he was a bad signing and a bad player. However, Kubina made a very crucial error in judgement not waiving his no trade clause this past trade deadline. It was an extremely poor gamble as he was the single player most exposed out of the group of 5 with no trade contracts, as his no trade clause contains an out for the Maple Leafs this off season if the Leafs failed to make the playoffs. With a very shallow free agent crop for front line defencemen, the market value for Kubina, with a very manageable 2 years remaining on his contract will be quite high. Having said this, it is likely Mr Fletcher will be quite selective with Kubina's ultimate destination. Likely to be a location that Kaberle or McCabe would consider to be unsavoury. Obviously the Leafs would like to receive fair market value in return for this asset, however, their primary concerns will be to free themselves of the $5M salary allocated to Kubina next year, while concurrently sending a strong message to Kaberle and McCabe to co-operate or risk similar fates when the Leafs have the contractual freedom to do so. This is particularly meaningful to Kaberle who has given the Leafs a similar out clause in his contract in a couple of years. The Leafs will not follow through with their hollow threats to buy out McCabe or Kaberle, as frankly, to do so, would effectively tie the hands of the organization for years to come. I would expect both players to waive their no trade clauses, at least for a select list of teams voluntarily after seeing Tucker bought out and Kubina traded. However, in the unlikely event both players hold firm in their desire to not be traded, do not be surprised at all to see more hard handed measures being employed. Including long stints in the press box as healthy scratches and limited ice time during games. It needs to be clarified that both of these players are good players and have a lot of value in their own right. Kaberle in particular will yield the sort of return that the Leafs covet. Having missed the opportunity to land Jeff Carter from the Flyers after Kaberle refused to waive his no trade clause, the Leafs simply do not want to miss out on similar opportunities this off season. A player like J. Staal may very well be available from the Penguins, and Kaberle is exactly the sort of asset that may be required to pry that sort of asset out of Pittsburg. Together, Kubina, Kaberle and McCabe represent almost $14M in salary that the Leafs will clear off the books, one way or the other. It is unlikely that the Leafs will manage to clear all of these contracts off the books come July 1st, however, it is highly probable that once the chips begin to fall with Raycroft and Bell being put on waivers, Tucker being bought out and Kubina moved - that Kaberle and McCabe will not be far behind and will choose to have a say in their own destinies and ultimate destinations vs choosing to countinue to battle with Leafs management and ultimately risk a hostile situation. McCabe will likely opt to be moved to Long Island where his wife resides - and considering the very limited options available to the Leafs, the only real return will be the salary cap relief.
Total Salary Cap Impact:
Mark Bell = approx $2M
Andrew Raycroft = approx $2M
Tucker = $1.5M
Kubina = $5M
Kaberle = $4.2M
McCabe = $5.75M
Total Salary Cap Savings = approx $20M. Assuming the Leafs are only able to move 2 of the 3 defencemen, they will still realize a total cap savings of approximately $15M.
Understanding the mandate from all for the Leafs to be a playoff team next year, expect the Leafs to make a splash in the Free Agent market. However, do not look for significant signings. The Leafs will be after role player types. Those who have a history of being competitive, gritty, motivational. Also look for Fletcher to leave considerable cap space to be used for a potential acquisition of an impact player during the year. They will likely look at short term contracts (1-2 years) for the UFA's and will want the types of players that can change the mentality and culture of a hockey team.
Centers: Mats Sundin, Michael Peca, Bobby Holik and maybe even Mark Cullen for 3rd/4th line center roles. With Mats Sundin, I am hopeful that they can convince him to move to the wing and play him in a second line role with some heavy power play minutes
Wingers Martin Gelinas, Ryan Malone, Cory Stillman and maybe even a Gary Roberts for 2nd/3rd line roles
Defense Mike Commodore, Brooks Orpic and maybe even a Jason Smith. Someone to bring a presence to the defensive corps and pair up with one of the younger, puck moving defencemen the Leafs already have.
Their free agent acquisitions are not going to be for impact types of players. The Leafs will look for very short term deals (1 year in most cases and may stretch to 2 years depending on the player, age, etc). They will be looking for veteran presences to supplement their youth and bring stability to their lineup in supporting roles while also trying to instill a personality change to the locker room. Many will not like these sorts of moves, however, understanding the mission of the club is to make the playoffs next year - as long as these are short term moves, do not take away any opportunities for the youngsters to take on more prominent roles, then I believe that this is a sound strategy.
The key to the Leafs success next year and moving forward will be the countinued development of players like Stajan, Steen, Wellwood, Tlusty, Strahlman, Kronwall, Kulemin, Colaiacovo (hopefully), their upcoming 1st round pick and Pogge (and to a lesser extent Antropov and Ponikarovsky). Expect these players to be heavily relied upon next year - and if the Leafs management is able to surround them and insulate them with the right short term veterans, I would expect the Leafs to be in playoff contention next year.