It seems that the majority of the Toronto hockey media seem to have the belief that the Maple Leafs are at least 3-4 years away from being a good team and that the best way to get there is to do nothing this summer and hope to get another high draft pick in next years draft. Howard Berger is a prime example as we can see from his latest article, as well as his comments on the radio today.
It’s the reason Burke has to do his utmost to resist temptation this week. A number of distinguished names will be available on the open market, but none will lift the Maple Leafs into the Promised Land. At least, not yet. Furthermore, signing expensive free agents will diminish the ice time required for the club’s growing list of youngsters to prove whether they belong in the NHL.
I understand Howard’s argument that you build success through the draft and player development and there is some truth to that. You can build your team by being bad for a number of years and stocking up high draft picks as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington have done. But more often than not, that doesn’t work. See Columbus. See Atlanta. See Florida. See Los Angeles. See Phoenix. Maybe someday these teams will be good, but honestly, can you see Columbus, who made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, compete for a Stanley Cup in the next few years? Not me. On the flip side, how many high draft picks has the Detroit Red Wings had over the past 10 or 15 years? Their highest pick in the past 15 years was in 2005 when they drafted Jakub Kindl 19th overall and more often than not, they don’t even draft in the first round.
If anything, the NHL in the new salary cap era is probably less about drafting well because talented young players are getting big time money upon leaving their entry level contracts which is completely different from the pre-lockout environment when you could keep your young players relatively cheaply for much longer. The biggest difference in the new system is you can’t afford to make mistakes or over pay players for what they provide. This is what makes Burke a good General Manager. He is resolute in that he has a game plan and he will stick to it. In trades, he won’t over pay even if it is for someone he really wants (see moving up in the draft) and likewise in free agency he won’t pay more than he thinks a player is worth. But there is no reason why Burke shouldn’t try to sign a big name, big salaried free agent so long as he believes that the player is a player who can be a component of a winning team both now and in the future and so long as he isn’t over paying for that player.
The New York Rangers have made mistakes. Signing Gomez, Drury and Redden to such big contracts was a mistake, not because those are bad players, but because they are all making probably 1-2 million more per season than they should be. Had they been on more reasonable contracts the Rangers could very well afford another $4-5 million player which would make them a much more competitive team and might move them from a first round playoff exit to a contender to go deep into the playoffs. If Brian Burke can sign a big name free agent or two for a reasonable contract then I absolutely believe that he should, and I believe he will.