Well, today at noon it finally started: Free Agency.
The early leaders in the 'Buying Improvement' contest are the Boston Bruins and...the Leafs?
I know, I know. We didn't sign Elias today or Chara (Elias is likely out of our range and the Bruins pipped us to Zdeno) but there was a big difference from last year and that is that JFJ was awake this year. Sure he was probably awake last year since it would be tough to sleep for that many months if you aren't a bear (TERROR ALERT!) but he clearly was not quite sure how the new market was going to play out.
This year has been a study in contrasts. JFJ has been decisive (at least) and made moves ranging from 'not bad' to 'could be good/great' to 'solid'. Granted he did make 1 'odd' move (Pohl's one way deal) and one questionable move (McCabe is making a lot of money for a defenceman that can't really defend. Bring back the Can Opener!). However, he has avoided the inaction of last year as well as making any truly boneheaded deals (of course, that Allison rumour is lurking). In fact, he has cleaned up some of his idiot moves. Give Belfour a pre-lockout 3 year deal? Don't exercise the option and buy him out. Sign Tie to a two-year deal at the Friends and Family rate? Realize he can't make the minimum contribution he used to make, buy him out. Together these moves will constitute a hit to the salary cap figure but at least they won't be making a hit to the team's wins and points figures. Anymore.
Now I am not really saying that the Leafs made the second biggest improvment out of all teams but they did fill two big holes on defence by getting Hal Gill from the Bruins and Pavel Kubina from the Lightning. Now, on their own maybe neither signing would be that great. Kubina's would definitely be seen by some as over-paying (especially in light of the contracts that Willie Mitchell and Jay McKee signed). Those people would be right. $5M/yr is a lot in light of those deals and taking into account what Kaberle ($4.25/yr) and McCabe ($5.75/yr) are already being paid.
However, taken together, they provide the Leafs with a solid second defence pairing (my assumption is that they will play together since Kaberle and McCabe are a pretty much undisputed to pair). This is something that was seriously lacking last year and that will allow the 5, 6, and 7 spots to go to three of the kids that filled in last year. Gill and Kubina complement each other pretty well. Both are big, strong defencemen; especially Gill who will be our 6'7" answer to Chara. The symbiosis in this relationship is that while Kubina has put up back-to-back solid offensive seasons while Gill (minus last year's disastrous season for all Bruins) posted +/- numbers of 16, 21, 16 over the last three years.
These two moves work to build a better defensive foundation in front of our new # 1 Raycroft. They are also signs of JFJ having a pulse and a clue, both good things for long suffering Leafs' fans. Granted, their success depends on the return to form of two Bruins but they will be entering this season on the back of a full off-season of training and camp not a year long lockout.
Free Agency Grade (thus far): C+