Last season was a disappointment missing the playoffs but the team finished with promise. The Leafs were one of the best teams in the NHL over the last 33 games finishing with a strong 18-9-6 record. The team core is young and still not yet in their prime, lead by captain Dion Phaneuf, team leading scorer Phil Kessel, rookie sensation James Reimer and Luke Schenn. The supporting cast is formidable as well sporting a second line of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin. Toronto also has several promising prospects in the system in Nazem Kadri, Joke Colborne, Jake Gardner, Keith Aulie, Brad Ross, Greg McKegg, Jesse Blacker, Marcel Mueller and Matt Frattin top the list.
The biggest need the Leafs need to address this summer as identified by Burke is a number one center. The best possible solution to solve this need would be add a UFA and the only one to fit the bill this summer is Brad Richards. Richards would be a perfect solution at the right price. Richards is a play making, two-way player who would be ideal for Kessel who is a scorer and has defensive liabilities. Richards also plays point on the power play solving the teams need for a quarterback since Tomas Kaberle departed. Richards signing in Toronto is a dream scenario for Burke, but only if the price is right. Burke has never been willing to overpay for any player and last summer stated his disdain for front end loaded long term contracts like the Ilya Kovalchuk deal. Will Burke be able to sway Richards to leave either money or term or both on the table to play for the Toronto maple Leafs?
Any other external option for a top center will have to be acquired via trade. Several names have been rumored to be available including Jeff Carter, Paul Stastny, Stephen Weiss, and others. All would come with a steep cost, however none are as ideal a fit as Richards. Carter is great but another shooter. Weiss is no more a number one than Matt Stajan. Stastny is the next best solution. The best internal options to make the team are Kadri, Colborne and Mueller who played extremely well for the Toronto Marlies.
Few other roster positions are actually open. Assuming MacArthur returns all eight winger spots are full. Only the first and fourth line center positions are open. If Burke needs to, or chooses to look at adding a star top six forward this summer he has lots of parts to try to package together. With two first round picks and a early second round pick Burke has openly shopped those assets.
Cap space is another valuable asset at his disposal meaning a team with cap trouble may be talked into moving a player they otherwise wouldn't want to move. Carter and Zach Parise fit this scenario. Even if Burke hits the jackpot with a sweet deal on Richards he may still move on another star player. Plenty of internet rumors have named players as big as Steven Stamkos, Praise, Rick Nash, Carter, Zach Bogosian and Ilya Bryzgalov. While this is speculation and mostly ridiculous, count on at least one player of this caliber to be a Leaf come training camp.
Phaneuf is the go to number one defender followed by Schenn, Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson rounding out the teams top four. Mike Komisarek has just not worked out as a Leaf; even with a $4.5 million cap hit for the next three seasons, I believe he does have trade value. Other players as options to fill out bottom pairing include Brett Lebda and Matt Lashoff. Lebda failed to impress and will not likely be back. Burke may dip into a rich UFA defense pool this summer for some depth, and leadership. possible targets may include Ed Jovanovski, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, or Sean O'Donnell. Burke is familiar and comfortable with all of these players from his previous teams.
In the crease rookie Reimer enjoyed a break-out finish to the season, winning the starting job with a solid 2.60 GAA and a 0.921 save percentage, winning 20 of his 37 starts. With Reimer as the starting goalie Burke has to choose a reliable back up. UFA and Burke favorite J.S. Giguere looks like a probable choice as his $6 million cap hit expires. Giguere is injury prone and has just undergone surgery to repair his injured hernia. Giguere has been an excellent mentor for both Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson and works well with goalie coach Francois Allaire. If he is willing to play an 1-year deal for a million or 2 and is healthy, Burke may do it. If so, that leaves the monster Gustavsson as the odd man out. Gustavsson may have trade value and be used in a package to land a star forward.
Burke has a lot to work with in Toronto now. A good young team with depth in every position, ample cap space with over $21 million according to capgeek.com and an impressive host of prospects acquired from trade, great drafting and college free agents. The strong finish to the season and performance by several Leafs at the World Hockey Championships has Burke "believing in this group" and the time is ripe to add a major piece of the puzzle.
No doubt Richards will be a target as a UFA as will a complimentary winger and defenseman, but that will not be all Burke will try to do. Burke has clearly stated his desire to trade up at the draft. A package of a first round and their second for an early pick. Possibly the Colorado Avalanche at 11, or the Calgary Flames at 13. Burke may try another five nickels for a quarter deal like the one they made for Phaneuf. Assets he may include in such a deal depend on the other team needs but may include MacArthur, Kulemin, Tyler Bozak, Gustavsson, Komisarek, Gunnarsson, picks and prospects. This will be an exciting summer for Leaf fans as the team is on the cusp of being a contender and returning to the post season.
Rookies to challenge for a spot include: Kadri, Frattin, Colborne, Gardiner, and Mueller.
Making a splash in the AHL or Jr.: Ross, McKegg, Jerry D'Amigo, Josh Nicholls, Luca Caputi, Blacker, Jussi Rynnas, and Mark Owuya.
Best fantasy players: Kessel, Phaneuf, Kulemin.
Bottom line: Leafs are a team returning to respectability. They are a young team full of promise, potential, and truculence. Now is the time for Burke to make a bold move and add a major player, or two!
The Toronto Maple Leafs next moves:
- Sign Brad Richards.
- In addition to or failing that, work another blockbuster trade to add a superstar player to lead the team offensively.
- Make a draft day deal to move up and secure another top prospect.
- Fill any holes and round out the roster with veteran players on short term deals.
Pete Harling is and always has been passionate about hockey. He loves to watch it, play it but what he loves the most is fantasy hockey. Email Coach Harling at [email protected].