Another NHL season is drawing to a close and, once again, the Blue and White find themselves out of contention for the playoffs. There are few among us that would have predicted otherwise as the 2008-09 NHL season began. A dismal team on paper has shown on some nights that it is just that, while on other nights they exude confidence and commitment to the positive work ethic head coach Ron Wilson has instilled in this current Leaf group.
Following another disappointing season, it cannot go without saying that our beloved Maple Leafs have shown improvement from the 2007-08 season. They will most likely finish several points shy of their total that year, but there have been many positives come out of this season. Jason Blake has regained his scoring touch and is currently leading the Leafs in that department. Rookies such as Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell, and, of course, Luke Schenn have improved by leaps and bounds and are beginning to show signs of the young core of players that will help lead this team back to the playoffs.
Promising play by Jiri Tlusty, Jeremy Williams, Anton Stralman, and Phil Oreskovic in the AHL will lead the second wave of hope accompanied by newly signed Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson from the NCAA. Previous Leaf draft picks such as Viktor Stalberg, Chad Rau, and Alex Berry will soon by joined by the 2009 Leaf Draft Class under the radar of hope in Leaf Nation.
As every NHL General Manager knows, you have to build through the draft in this cap era if you wish to build a contender. This has never been more important now with the economy in its current state. However, one cannot overlook the importance of Free Agency. Over the past several weeks I too have heard the rumblings that Leaf GM Brian Burke will be showing interest in some highly coveted Free Agents on July 1st, 2009. The list of these potential targets starts with Jay Bouwmeester and includes the Sedin Twins, Mike Cammalleri, and even the likes of Marian Gaborik. To Burke, I must offer a word of advice: Patience. To all Leaf fans I offer that same advice, for this upcoming period of Free Agency has to potential to make or break this rebuild.
Too often in the past have I watched the Leafs push hard for 'top-end-talent' via Free Agency only to fall short. Jason Blake, although a serviceable top-six winger, never became the 40 goal scorer we hoped he would. Pavel Kubina didn't lead our defense-corps in or to the playoffs like he did in Tampa. So too will Mike Cammalleri and Henrik and Daniel Sedin fail should we follow that same route. As strong and as skilled as these players are, they are not the saviour we Leaf fans or Brian Burke himself should look too.
I have seen several people's attempts to build a roster using the current Leaf team plus several high-end Free Agents, and have to disagree with this course. It is my opinion that we can remain as competitive as we were this year with a small injection of skill and toughness and continue to remain on course with MLSE's plans to rebuild and still make a strong push for the playoffs next season.
I will now show you my personal opinion of how this roster could look next season if the right moves are made. I will then explain how the roster came to be by including the potential trades and free agent signings that I envisioned. I will include the cap figures to show that we are above the cap floor and will also explain my reasons for the moves and signings in a small section following the roster.
2010 Toronto Maple Leafs:
Ponikarovsky - Grabovski - Kulemin
Blake - Bozak - Hagman
Moen - Hanson - Ward
Boogaard - Winnik - Laperriere
Van Ryn - Schenn
Alberts - Finger
Williams (resigned two year-two way contract at 800k)
Stapleton (resigned one year-two way contract at 875k)
Sifers (resigned two year-two way 700k contract)
Ian White to Colorado for a 2nd in 2009 (previously acquired from Montreal through Calgary).
This makes sense to me. Colorado needs a puck moving defenseman to replace Leopold and White only makes 850k for two more seasons. He has proved to be worth a mid 2nd and can play forward if need be. Bonus: We get Montreal's 2nd which we flip to Phoenix in a deal to draft Brayden Schenn.
Matt Stajan, John Mitchell, a 1st in 2009 (7th overall) and a 2nd in 2009 (acquired from Montreal via Calgary and Colorado) to Phoenix for a 1st in 2009 (5th overall) and Daniel Winnik.
Stajan haters rejoice! I am not one of them, but Phoenix seems like a good fit for him. He will replace Reinprecht either by playing on the second line or taking over third line duty allowing Hanzal or Mueller to fully entrench themselves on the second line. Sad to lose Mitchell here, but Winnik brings the same type of game and would be more suited for 4th line duty on the Leafs.
Tomas Kaberle to Nashville for a 1st in 2009 (~12 overall) and the rights to Greg Zanon and Joel Ward.
I'll probably be chewed out for this one but I think it is a great deal for both teams. Zanon is a great shutdown guy and the Leafs have to improve in their own end. This will take some pressure off Schenn and allow him to develop some offense as well. Joel Ward is an excellent character guy and would be great on the third line with Hanson. The 1st round pick is self explanatory. Nashville gets some offensive help on the blueline to take some of the load off Weber and at a great salary with two years remaining.
Pavel Kubina and Jamal Mayers to Minnesota for Derek Boogard, Marek Zidlicky and a 3rd in 2009.
Something tells me we would have to take back some salary for this one so that's why I included Zidlicky (who we would either flip to another team, waive him, or buy him out). Pavel Kubina would absolutely thrive with Minny's defense-system and with Gaborik most likely on the way out they could use some leadership in Mayers. Boogaard would become a fan favourite in Toronto because we have no one capable of beating Laraque on our current team. Chalk this trade up to getting an enforcer and clearing some cap space.
2009 NHL Draft: 1st Round:
5th Overall: Brayden Schenn
12th Overall: Simon Despres
I call that a win. With Brayden and Luke Schenn we have two guaranteed Leafs for life (Schenn Nation, anyone?). Oh, and L. Schenn and Despres manning the blueline for years to come sounds just fantastic to me.
Lee Stempniak sent to Marlies for 2010 season (possibly claimed)
Marek Zidlicky bought out if no one claims off waivers
Outgoing Free Agency:
Brad May (presumably retires)
Ryan Hollweg (no contract offer made)
Incoming Free Agency/Resigning:
Mikhail Grabovski (resigned to a one year 2.0mil contract)
Daniel Winnik (resigned to a one year 950k contract)
Ian Laperriere (signed to one year 1.1mil contract)
Travis Moen (signed to three year 5.4mil contract paying 1.8mil a season)
Joel Ward (signed to two year 3.8mil contract paying 1.9mil a season)
Greg Zanon (signed to three year 8.25mil contract paying 2.75mil a season)
Andrew Alberts (signed to one year 1.65mil contract)
Brian Boucher (signed to one year 1.5mil contract)
Grabovski gets one more year to prove he is capable of playing consistently on the top-six. Laperriere replaces Mayers leadership and helps the penalty kill. Moen is a Burke favourite and is a playoff performer and solid defensive forward. Zanon reduces the load off Schenn and Finger and helps the penalty kill and strengthens the own-zone play. Alberts signed for grit and penalty kill. Boucher signed to play 20-30 games to push Toskala and provide stability between the pipes should Toskala tweak his groin again.
Cap numbers: Total: 43.989
Forwards: Total: 22.225mil
Jason Blake 4.0mil
Niklas Hagman 3.0mil
*Alexei Ponikarovsky 2.1mil
**Nikolai Kulemin 1.5mil
**Mikhail Grabovski 2.0mil
*Ian Laperriere 1.1mil
Travis Moen 1.8mil
Joel Ward 1.9mil
Tyler Bozak 1.5mil (entry level plus bonuses)
Christian Hanson 1.5mil (entry level plus bonuses)
*Derek Boogaard 875k
*Daniel Winnik 950k
Defense: Total: 14.53mil
Jeff Finger 3.5mil
Luke Schenn 3.0mil
*Mike Van Ryn 2.9mil
**Anton Stralman 730k
Greg Zanon 2.75mil
*Andrew Alberts 1.65mil
Goaltending: Total: 5.5mil
*Vesa Toskala 4.0mil
*Brian Boucher 1.5mil
Buyouts: Total: 1.734mil
Darcy Tucker 1.0mil
Andrew Raycroft 734k
*UFAs in 2010 (plus Lee Stempniak, Frogren, Stapleton)
**RFAs in 2010 (plus Jiri Tlusty, Phil Oreskovic)
That leave 22.95mil committed for the 2010-11 season. Leaving us potentially 30mil to work with when the likes of Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuk are available. Just like this season, Burke would be able to ice a competitive team that, to me, seems like an improvement over this years group but doesn't break the bank and stays under 45mil against the cap. Not only does that leave us room to resign key people after next season and let the young guns take the reins, but we can take the 2010 Free Agent period by storm. Even without all the moves I've just suggested, waiting until 2010 for the chance to sign Rick Nash seems worth another season of competitive-mediocrity to me. Am I right?