As it stands right now the Leafs have six NHL experienced defensemen under contract and another three who are restricted free agents. Assuming all three of the RFA’s get re-signed it leaves the Leafs with 7 defensemen, five of which will be regulars (Phaneuf, Schenn, Gunnarsson, Aulie and Komisarek) and two that are more along the lines of depth defensemen (Lebda and Lashoff). Phaneuf and Schenn are the top two guys (though they may not end up playing together) and depending on where you see Gunnarsson and Aulie fitting into the mix the Leafs will be looking for a #3, #4 or #5 type guy. Depending on how much they end up spending on a first line center, it is probably safe to assume they could allocate anywhere between $2-4M and there are enough UFA defensemen available that they can probably acquire what they want via free agency rather than have to resort to a trade. Let’s take a look at some of the potential UFA defensemen the Leafs could have interest in.
Definitely Too Expensive
Christian Ehrhoff – Ehrhoff is definitely the top potential UFA defenseman. The Canucks will definitely want to bring him back and if he ever made it to UFA status I am certain the Red Wings will throw some or all of just-retired Rafalski’s money at him. Ehrhoff is in line for a $6M paycheck and as much as I would like to see him in a Leaf uniform, he is probably out of the Leafs budget so lets take a look at some of the other free agent defensemen.
Probably too Expensive
Kevin Bieksa – Bieksa really had a breakthrough season this year, particularly in his own zone and he ended the season at +32, tops on the Canucks, and is a +9 in the playoffs, again tops on the Canucks. His +32 in the regular season trailed only Chara’s +33 among defensemen but Bieksa was +32 in just 66 games. Bieksa is probably a good 2-way second pairing defenseman but his excellent season might push his salary demands beyond what he deserves (unless this past season is the new norm for him which is unlikely) and out of the Leafs budget.
James Wisniewski – Wisniewski started his career with the Chicago Blackhawks and he just seemed like he was that typical #5/6 guy. He was a decent enough player who did a number of things well but not necessarily a core guy, but when he was given an opportunity to play a more prominent role with the Ducks, and then with Islanders and Montreal his offensive numbers really jumped and he was a strong PP performer. He’d probably really help the Leafs PP but there will be enough demand for his services that he’ll probably cost more than the Leafs can afford.
Joni Pitkanen – Pitkanen is one of those guys who had #1 potential but never really took the next step and instead has had a career that some might consider a disappointment because he never really reached his full potential. Pitkanen is a better offensive guy than a defensive guy and would be a nice fit on the Leafs PP unit. He earned $4M last season and is probably in line to earn about the same on his next contract which makes him probably out of the Leafs budget and I think he’ll be happier staying in a non-hockey market like Carolina.
The More Affordable Crowd
Anton Babchuk – Babchuk is the guy I want to see in a Leafs uniform. He is a solid 2-way defenseman with excellent size and good upside potential above and beyond what he has already achieved in the NHL. He left the NHL in 2009-10 to play a season in Russia but returned last season on a reasonable $1.4M contract so he could reach UFA status. He’ll demand a significant pay raise or might decide to return to Russia again, but he can probably he had for somewhere in the $2.5-3M range and I’d definitely do that on a 3 year deal. He has #2 defenseman upside but could be had for a #3/4 defenseman price tag.
Ian White – We are all familiar with Ian White and I am an Ian White fan. He isn’t great at any particular part of the game but he has a good work ethic and he gets the job done more often than not. He got bounced around from Calgary to Carolina and finally to San Jose this past season but he showed well in San Jose scoring 2 goals and 10 points and a +9 in 28 regular season games followed by 1 goal, 9 points and +3 in 17 playoff games. He earned $3M last season and might not even get that on his next contract. I am not sure if Burke would welcome him back, but I would though he might be too similar to Gunnarsson to be an ideal fit.
Shane O’Brien – Brian Burke is familiar with O’Brien from his Anaheim days when O’Brien was just breaking into the league. O’Brien played 62 games for the Ducks in his rookie 2006-07 season before Burke traded him to the Lightning with a third round pick for a first round pick. He has since played a couple of seasons in Tampa, another couple in Vancouver before ending up last year with the Predators. O’Brien doesn’t bring the offensive skills that some of the other guys I have discussed here but O’Brien is a competent defensive guy who plays an in your face physical game and isn’t afraid of dropping his gloves when needed. In many ways O’Brien is a lot of what Burke thought he was getting in Komisarek (but that hasn’t worked out as planned). If the Leafs fail to land a quality 2-way defensemen I’d be perfectly OK with giving O’Brien $2 million or so per season to be a rugged physical defenseman.
Others Worthy of Consideration but Unlikely
Wade Redden – A lot has to happen for Redden to become available as a UFA but many expect he will reach that status at some point. Redden is on a one-way NHL contract but has been sent to the AHL to play. So far Redden has accepted that demotion and has played in the AHL but should he choose he no longer wants to report to his AHL team the NY Rangers have the right to terminate his contract. There has been talk that Redden might be willing to do this and forfeit the remaining $16.5M on his contract just so he can get back in the NHL. Redden is older than an ideal defenseman for the Leafs but I believe he can still play in the NHL and contribute and he played well in the AHL racking up 8g, 42 pts in 70 games and another 6 assists in 6 playoff games. I wouldn’t hesistate to sign Redden on a budget one or two year contract while we wait for the development of Jake Gardiner.
Tomas Kaberle – It is hard to say what happens to Kaberle in the future or even what Brian Burke truly feels about him. My gut tells me Burke has no interest in bringing him back under any circumstances simple because when Kaberle left the defense became Phaneuf’s to lead and Phaneuf really performed well post-Kaberle trade.
Andrei Markov – With his injury issues, it is hard to say what Markov can command salary wise. If he were healthy he’d probably get something north of $6M per season on a longer term deal. He’ll have to take something significantly less in both salary and term but at age 32 and with his injury issues is probably not someone Burke is interested in.
Here are the Hockey Analysis player ratings for the defensemen discussed above.
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