The Toronto Maple Leafs ended last season with a 10-5-3 record after the Olympic break, giving them the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference for that time period. Many people consider this garbage time, when the games don’t matter, but the team put up this record playing against teams whose games meant a hell of a lot. Now I do not think the Leafs will finish in the top 4 of the Eastern Conference based on these results, however, with the additions of Versteeg, Armstrong, Lebda, and a healthy Komisarek, this team should be able to obtain a playoff spot. Anything less than a playoff spot should be considered a failure. This may seem like a lofty goal for a team that finished second to last overall last year, but Burke has made moves to make this team better immediately, not five years from now.
Looking at the Leafs roster they are set in between the pipes this year with Gustavsson and Giguere sharing the duties ($7.35M cap hit for the pair). This tandem ended the season well and Gustavsson was much better down the stretch compared to early in the season. On the blue line the Leafs have a log jam with 8 NHL defensemen ($25.5M cap hit) on the roster. Up front the Leafs have some holes to fill. They currently have 10 (Bozak, Kessel, Kulemin, Versteeg, Armstrong, Grabovski, Sjostrom, Brown, Orr, Mitchell) roster spots filled ($20.6M cap hit). Overall the Leafs have committed approximately $53.5M in salaries, along with another $2.4M in buyout and carryover penalties, and another $0.665M in bonus allowance overages. That gives them a total cap hit of $56.55M, leaving the Leafs with $2.85M in space to work with to add 3 roster players (minimum roster size is 18 skaters and 2 goalies, maximum roster size is 23 players).
One of those 3 available roster spots could well go to rookie Nazem Kadri. After Kadri’s performance last year in training camp, there will be a lot of pressure on him to jump up and snatch a position on one of Toronto’s top 2 lines. For the sake of my review I will assume that he will stick with the big club. Kadri’s cap hit for the season will be $1.72M. With the remaining money the Leafs still need to add a top 6 forward and a 3rd/4th line grinder. It is safe to say that the salary of the grinder will be in the $550M - $1M range. It could be filled internally by a young player like Christian Hanson or it could come from the remaining free agent pool if a guy like John Madden were willing to take a pay cut on a one year deal. After filling those 2 roster spots the Leafs will be right up against the cap and still need a top 6 forward to round out the roster. The Leafs can exceed the cap in the offseason but they will have to make a move prior to the season to get back under the cap.
Given the lack of cap space, what will Burke do to complete the 2010-2011 edition of the Maple Leaf roster? Although most teams carry 23 players, it is possible that Burke can start the season with 22 players and not do anything until the season starts. However, I do believe Burke will be doing something to lighten the load on his blue line and add some punch to his forward ranks.
Burke and the Leafs brass probably have plans A through Z in their heads but I think he has two main options; one being more desirable than the other.
Option 1 – Trade Tomas Kaberle for an NHL forward and fill in the roster with a league minimum player (or carry a 22 man roster).
Option 2 – Demote Jeff Finger to the AHL, sign a free agent forward like Alexander Frolov, Paul Kariya, etc. to a one year deal and fill in the roster with a league minimum player (or carry a 22 man roster).
Now it is possible that Burke makes none, one, or both of these moves, and possibly many more moves, but where things stand right now, those 2 options seem the most likely.
I believe option 1 is the more desirable of the two for a couple of reasons. Tomas Kaberle is a UFA at the end of this season, and I cannot believe that after all of the trade talks that he would want to sign an extension with the Leafs. Even if he did want to be extended his salary demands would be too much for the already expensive Leaf blue line. The Leafs can’t afford to let Kaberle walk at the end of the year without receiving a tangible asset in return. The other reason has to do with demoting a free agent after two years of a four year contract. Burke always talks about building a first class organization and doing things the right way. Demoting a veteran player half way through his free agent deal would not look good to future free agents. Burke has yet to do this with any other player (Jason Blake anyone?) and I believe this to be a last resort.