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.