So the higher powers at MLSE have given Maple Leaf GM John Ferguson Jr. a luke warm vote of confidence by picking up his option for the 2007-08 season with some indication they will negotiate an extension next spring. So, assuming JFJ gets to keep his job, what are his challenges for the upcoming year.
It appears that the Leafs are set in goal for a long time with Andrew Raycroft signed through 2008-09 season and Justin Pogge on the horizon. They also appear to be set on defense with McCabe, Kaberle, Kubina and Gill all signed to long term deals and several youngsters rounding into NHL form. So all the decisions the JFJ will need to make over the next year have to do almost solely with the forwards.
All totaled, the Leafs already have close to $25 million allocated to 12 players next season. This includes 1 goalie (Raycroft), 4 defensemen (McCabe, Kaberle, Kubina, Gill) and 7 forwards (Kilger, Wellwood, Stajan, Steen, Ondrus, Pohl, and Belak). The defense will be rounded out with Ian White and one or two of Brendan Bell, Carlo Colaiacovo, Staffan Kronvall, and Andy Wozniewski. Lets allocate up to $2.5 million to round out the defense and sign a backup goalie. That puts the Leafs payroll for next year at just under $27.5 million with 6-7 forwards to sign.
Everyone is talking about what to do with Tucker and Sundin but another player which I think is equally important is Alexei Ponikarovsky. Ponikarovsky is one of the Leafs most valuable players because he is so well rounded. He can skate, score goals, has excellent size and uses it well in the corners, can kill penalties, has a great shot and can play on the power play. I would like to see the Leafs make a long term commitment to Ponikarovsky and feel they could probably get him signed to a deal not unlike the deal the Ottawa Senators signed Peter Schaeffer to last summer (4 years @ $2.1 million per season). I think Ponikarovsky has the potential to be better than Schaeffer so let’s allocate $2.5 million per season to Poni on a long term deal. That puts the Leafs payroll at approximately $30 million.
For Sundin, I think, assuming he wants to return, you bring him back. The Leafs have an option on Sundin for around $5.3 million next season but the cap hit would be closer to $6.5 million if they picked up the option. If the Leafs choose not to pick up the option it will cost them $760,000 against the cap. Lets assume that Sundin wants to return to the Leafs. I think in this situation you could probably get Sundin signed for $5.5 million per season on a 2-3 year deal (this is comparable to the deal Sakic signed last summer). This would put the Leafs payroll at $35.5 million.
So that leaves us with Tucker, Peca, O’Neill, Battaglia, and Antropov as the free agents in need of new deals. So, who to keep and who to let go. Those who have read this blog for a while will know that I like Antropov so I would definitely sign him. He is a quality player and should be able to get signed for a very affordable price. Lets say $1.5 million max to take the payroll to $37 million. I am not completely sold on bringing back Mike Peca. He’s a nice player but $2.5 million for a defensive specialist seems a bit much, especially considering guys like Stajan, Ponikarovsky and Steen are all also solid defensively and can kill penalties. I’d use Sundin, Wellwood, and Stajan as the top 3 centers. At this point the Leafs lineup might look like this:
One or two of Ondrus/Suglobov/Battaglia/Williams/Westrum
Aubin or Tellqvist
Total payroll for the above players would be about $37 million. So, how do fill in the ????’s above. First, I would not bring Darcy Tucker back for the money he seems to be asking for. I like Tucker but he is somewhat one-dimensional. He is not great defenseively (typically one of the lowest +/- on the team), takes too many bad penalties and really isn’t much more than a power play specialist. He has scored 43 goals since the start of last season, 29 of them coming on the power play and 48 of his 82 points have come on the power play. Talk is that Tucker is looking for possibly as much as $3.5-4 million on a long term deal. To that I say, good luck and I hope you get what you are looking for elsewhere. As good as Tucker has been I think you can find a lot of players capable of standing to the side of the opponents goal to slap a perfect cross-ice pass into an open net on the power play. What I would do with Tucker is trade him before the trade deadline for a young talented player capable of filling one of those ????’s on the second and third lines at a cost of under $1 million per season. I would then go to the free agent market next summer and spend $4 million per season on a real 30 goal score with speed who can play on Sundin’s wing and who doesn’t take dumb penalties and who doesn’t hurt you defensively. Guys potentially available who are worth looking at are Slava Kozlov (Atlanta), Cory Stillman (Hurricanes), Ryan Smyth (Oilers, though he might cost a bit more), Paul Kariya (again, might be out of budget), Jason Blake (Islanders), Brendan Shanahan (Rangers), Tkachuk (Blues), Naslund (Canucks). All of these guys I’d rather have than Tucker. Whatever money is left use to fill in the other ???? on the second or third line. Jeff O’Neill who has played better this season is an option as are a few guys currently on the Marlies.