As always, there is a lot of speculation as to what the Maple Leafs will do on July 1st when the NHL free agent season begins. Some are suggesting they should go big or go home and do whatever it takes to sign Ilya Kovalchuk as the answer to their offensive woes while others believe Kovalchuk is going for the big long term contract to which Burke has said on numerous occasions he isn’t interested in doing. After Kovalchuk though there aren’t any top tier forward free agents available to help solve the Leafs lack of scoring problems.
I am in the camp that I don’t believe that Kovalchuk will be a Maple Leaf. He’ll end up signing a long term big dollar contract somewhere else. Whether the Leafs will, or should, go after Kovalchuk depends a lot on what Burke believes he can acquire in a Tomas Kaberle trade. If Burke believes he can land a scoring winger with size in a Kaberle trade then the need to go after a guy like Kovalchuk is minimized.
Historically teams that win the Stanley Cup have excellent defenses, solid goaltending and are strong down the middle. Teams that have had elite level wingers but have lacked at center have generally not done well. What has Kovalchuk won? What about Jarome Iginla? What about Rick Nash? These are three of the best wingers in the game but haven’t achieved much, if any, playoff success. Feel free to toss Ovechkin into the mix (for now anyway). The Leafs already have an offensive minded winger in Phil Kessel and I don’t believe they necessarily need another offense-first winger like Kovalchuk, at least not if the price tag is $9 million.
As it stands right now, the Leafs forward lines might look like this:
|Left Wing||Center||Right Wing|
|Tyler Bozak||Phil Kessel|
|Mike Brown||Colton Orr|
I have intentionally left a lot of blanks in there and have only listed the players I believe are fairly certain to fill those positions. That leaves the two left wing slots on the first two lines open, the second and third line right wing positions and the third and fourth line center positions as well as a reserve position or two which Brown may get bumped to depending on how the roster unfolds. Should Kulemin get re-signed he will fill in one of those open winger slots, probably either on the second or third line. The Leafs also have Luca Caputi, Viktor Stalberg and Christain Hanson in the fold but while all have showed flashes of potential, I don’t believe any of them showed enough last year to make me believe they should be written in as a sure bet to make the club. The same goes for John Mitchell who is set to become a UFA but who the Leafs have said they would like to bring back at the right price (read: close to league minimum or even a 2-way deal). Caputi probably has the best opportunity to make the club because he plays a physical game and is probably more suited to a third line role than Stalberg though Stalberg showed he might be ready for a top 6 role late last season. I haven’t mentioned Nazem Kadri yet but I should as it is likely he will fill one of the top six positions, possibly as a winger or as the second line center pushing Grabovski to wing where he may be better suited anyway (or he could be used as trade bait). So as it stands now there are five or six forward slots up for grabs and I am certain that Brian Burke wants to bring in at least two, if not three additional forwards to really create battles for those open slots.
Now it is time for some speculation. If Kovalchuk is out of the picture, as I believe he is, who will Burke go after. There are three things that we know that can guide us into figuring out what Burke might do. First, Burke has stated he wants to find a winger that can score, preferably one with some size. Second he wants to add more toughness throughout the lineup. Third, historically he has shown that he really likes to bring back players who have played for him before. So where does that leave us.
There are no first line or even true second line wingers who can score and have size on the open market. It seems to me that this is what he intends to acquire via a Tomas Kaberle trade. That trade probably won’t happen for at least a few days after the early free agent frenzy settles so I won’t speculate on that here right now.
There are players that will address toughness further down the lineup though and who are young enough who can contribute to the Leafs for the next several years. Two names that have been speculated upon are Colby Armstrong and Raffi Torres and both of these guys can fill that toughness role and they are both capable of scoring 15+ goals so in a pinch are capable of playing a second line role or second PP unit role. I fully expect that Brian Burke to go after and sign one of these guys so long as the price tag is around $2.5-3M per year on a 3 or 4 year deal.
In my mind the Leafs can desperately use a veteran centerman, if not two, as Bozak and Kadri would form a pretty inexperienced top two. If Burke is looking for a center under the age of 30 who can produce offensively you are pretty much limited to Matthew Lombardi, but I don’t see that as the route Burke will go because I don’t see Lombardi as the kind of ‘role player’ Burke wants on the third line. That means you may have to go a little older and so I think he might consider going after a guy like Matt Cullen who is 32 years of age and a pretty good 2-way player versatile in that he can play a second or third line role and play at center or on the wing. His price tag might get a little high for what Burke wants to spend on a third line player but he would be a nice veteran addition.
A similar player to Cullen who will cost somewhat less is Eric Belanger. Belanger isn’t big, but he plays a gritty physical game and would look good in a third line role and has consistently gotten around 35 points throughout his career.
We know Brian Burke has liked Brendan Morrison in the past. He had Morrison in Vancouver and signed him as a free agent in Anaheim. The Anaheim experiment was a bit of a flop mostly because he paid him too much money for what he could contribute but last year in Washington he showed he could be a serviceable role player as a third or fourth line center. I don’t know if Burke intends to go after Morrison but it wouldn’t surprise me if Burke signed Morrison so long as his contract short term (1 or 2 seasons) and no more than the $1.5M he made last year.
If Brian Burke is set on trading Kaberle for help up front he’ll probably want to pick up another defenseman but not one with a big salary. There are a lot of defensemen to choose from in this UFA class so it is difficult to speculate who he might go after but I suspect he’ll wait until the first rush on defensemen passes and he’ll try to pick up someone at a bargain price a week or two down the road as players start to see job openings dwindling away and get concerned about if and where they might play come September more than they are about holding out for maximum dollars.
Update: The Leafs have acquired Kris Versteeg from the Chicago Blackhawks for Stalberg and prospects DiDominico and Paradis. Versteeg will likely fill one of those second line winger roles.