Perhaps over the last 20 games we have seen a glimpse of how next year's Toronto Maple Leafs squad will play. We've seen the emergence of Tyler Bozak into a skilled and tenacious centre – we've seen Dion Phaneauf drastically improve the Leafs defensive play in their own end – and we've seen Monster and Giggy consistently post a combined save% over .900, which has been a rare commodity in a blue and white uniform for far too long.
But Burke is nothing if he's not a tinkerer. He's going to be active at the draft and in free agency because, while Burke surely likes the youthful enthusiasm the Leafs are bringing down the homestretch, more consistent scoring next season will require a bit more veteran experience. However, it is important that the Leafs do not overspend in the offseason – unlike a lot of young teams, the Leafs are already paying their young guns (Kessel 5.4, Bozak 3.7, Grabo 2.9, Schenn 2.9). When Kulemin and Gustavsson sign RFA deals for (hopefully) 2.5 a piece over three years, I estimate that the Leafs will have just over $6 million in cap space to play with before the start of next season (assuming that Kaberle is traded).
It should be noted that the Leafs should have a $3.5 million Finger that could be shoved in the AHL, and another $6 million to play with after Giggy comes off the cap in '11-'12. But I still think Burke should play it relatively safe – even after Burke trades Kaberle, the Leafs cannot overspend. To commit $6+ million long-term to Patrick Marleau, or one of the many sub-par $4 million + free agents, would: a) remove financial flexibility from the club which would hurt the Leafs ability to make trades, b) from a player development standpoint, locking up a high profile player could remove ice-time from our blue chippers, and c) create a cap-crunch situation in several years when potential high salary players like Kadri or Bozak go RFA. This last point may seem a little "pie-in-the-sky" to some, but it could happen - just ask the Blackhawks.
I don't want to sound like an alarmist here, but the Leafs have too many big contracts that are next to un-tradeable in the tight world of the cap-based NHL. One more and I'm afraid we might end up being forced to prematurely part with some of our young players down the road.
Instead Burke should focus on loading up on some quality complementary players that would ink shorter term deals. As far as "needs" go, the Leafs need help up the middle. Two possibilities are UFA's Matt Cullen and Brendan Morisson. Both are natural centers that have shown the ability to succeed in both top line and third line situations.
Caps centre Brendan Morrison has shown a decline in his scoring flash largely due to reduced icetime in Washington – if the Leafs could nab him for $1.5 million for two years I think he would flourish with the extra icetime and could provide some great secondary scoring.
Picked up by the Senators from Carolina before the trade deadline, Matt Cullen interests me a bit more than Morisson because of his ability to center a PK unit and his playoff experience. Cullen won the Stanley Cup with the Canes in '06 and then went to at least the second round in '07 (Rangers) and '08 (Canes again). I think he might be a bit more expensive than Morisson, but for $2.0-$2.5 he could be worth it based on his versatile style of play.
As far as wingers go, Tomas Holmstrom is the player I would love the Leafs to snag. I really don't think the 37 year old Swede would leave the Wings for a Toronto retirement tour, but for under $3 million he is the best player available. But one player that keeps on popping up on the score sheet this season is Phoenix Coyotes winger Matthew Lombardi – scoring 52 points in 77 games this season for the 'Yotes, Lombardi has finally found the scoring mojo that the Flames organization had been waiting for all these years. He passes well, has a deceptively hard shot, and has never lost the blazing speed that made him a top-prospect of the Flames for many years. Lombardi will probably go for $2-2.5 million based on his performance this year – this could be a steal compared to other, more sought-after UFA's like Pavol Demitra that will put up similar points for double the price.
Don't get me wrong, I would love to see Ilya Kovalchuk firing blue and white laser-beams over Halak's shoulder all next season, but the Leafs need to build around their existing stars. Adding one or two of the players I listed above would provide stability on the PK, a little veteran leadership in the dressing room, and maybe even help the Leafs score a few more PP goals next season. Wouldn't that be grand?