Editor's Note: Do the Leafs have roster flexibility? Sure. Is it a good thing? Fleet Fox thinks that it is.
There's more than one way to skin a cat. And if that [free agency] list keeps dwindling, there are other mechanisms for a cap-friendly team to do some things.
- Brian Burke, at the season-end press conference, on acquiring top-six talent.
It seems that Leaf fans can't go a single day without being reminded of the picks given up in the Kessel trade. "They shouldn't have traded those picks; you've got to build through the draft", they always say. Yeah, yeah, we've heard all about the importance of draft picks for building a team but we also know that it's equally important (if not more so) to focus on post-draft player development, and salary cap management. That is, at what point will it make sense to save a year of a player's Entry Level Contract and when is it better to use one to keep a player in the AHL or NHL? Contract status goes a long way towards determining where a player will develop in an upcoming season.
What I want to look at in this post is one of the possible advantages that Burke's plan for an accelerated rebuild gives us in terms of player development and cap management: flexibility. I think we may be surprised how well positioned we are in Leafland.
Up until Brian Burke arrived, salary cap management was a complete mess, and despite spending more than most teams, the Leafs were (and still are) one of only three teams to not make the playoffs since the lockout (the other two are Florida and Atlanta). Leaf player development was hit-and-miss, with Ian White, Matt Stajan, Alex Ponikarvosky, and Nik Antropov proving to be serviceable NHLers, while Jiri Tlusty, Tuukka Rask, and Justin Pogge, each for different reasons, just didn't pan out or, as is the case with Rask, weren't given the opportunity.
Lately though, I have confidence that our GM is not going to ruin our drafted prospects, and when he mentions the possibility of Kadri playing next year, it makes me step back and consider that he might actually know best - a knowledgeable GM being a relative novelty around here. Naturally, we are still waiting to pass judgment on the development of Schenn, Kulemin, and Gunnarsson, but for right now, things are looking up.
Elliotte Friedman wrote a good article a few days ago about managing drafted talent:
"Let's look at the Stanley Cup champions since the lockout:
"In 2006, Eric Staal earned $942,400 US and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cam Ward $684,000 for the Carolina Hurricanes. Now, their combined cap figure is $14.5 million. In 2007, Ryan Getzlaf made $881,600 and Corey Perry $684,000 for the Anaheim Ducks. Now, they're at $10.65 million. Both were absolutely deserving, but a major reason Chris Pronger is in Philadelphia.
"In 2008, Henrik Zetterberg's salary was $2.7 million and Niklas Kronwall's $1.5. Now, they're at $9.1, and Kronwall is underpaid by NHL standards. The Red Wings were already loaded with big deals, but these ones pushed them over the edge. (That's why it will be interesting to see what Nicklas Lidstrom signs for.)
"Last year, Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury's extensions had already kicked in. Malkin and Jordan Staal jumped from a total of $1.85 million to $12.7 million this season."
So a quick summary: Carolina fell apart, Anaheim fell apart, Detroit is in the process of falling apart, and Pittsburgh may just do the same. It's not to say that it all happened at once, or that any of these teams are incapable of getting back on track, but as Friedman notes, there don't seem to be mid-range contracts for good, young talent in today's NHL. In other words, if you are projected to be a star, you will get a giant contract as soon as your ELC is up. This has put a lot of those teams, those that supposedly did everything right by building through the draft, in a bit of a pinch. This is definitely not the situation the Leafs are in.
Yes, the good news for The Leafs is that Burke has cobbled together a team that is very flexible when it comes to the cap, by signing a larger amount of cheap forwards to smaller Free Agent contracts. In doing so, Burke has granted himself the luxury of negotiating with several players right before they have hit the peak of their careers. If they're duds, we'll know. If they're future stars, we'll know. The three main examples of this include Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, and Jonas Gustavsson. Naturally, Kessel is already something of a star, but as is so commonly said around here, he still has time to grow - we'll see how much. Also, Bozak may very well be the only one of those three that gets a major boost in pay when his deal is up.
Of course, Burke hasn't had the luxury of negotiating most of the contracts he currently manages, but the fact of the matter is that neither Kulemin nor Mitchell will command huge raises, and shouldn't break the bank. As for the following year, Stalberg and Caputi will likely be had for mid-range contracts as well. Gunnarsson could cost a bit more, but hopefully the depth we have on the blue line will keep him sheltered and cheaper. (Dear Komisarek, please stay healthy.)
Furthermore, most other veterans aren't on long contracts. Giguere's contract provides a perfect window to ease Gustavsson and/or Rynnas into a larger role, and I can quite honestly say that I do not worry much about which of Wallin, Primeau, or Lundmark is signed or let go. Sjostrom will probably be a cheap re-sign, as well.
The team's only potential contract anchors are on defence, with Komisarek still needing to prove he can stay healthy, Beauchemin needing to be more consistent, and Jeff Finger needing to be in the minors. Even then, both Beachemin and Finger's contracts are up in 2011, and aren't so massive that they can't be dealt with. Dion Phaneuf's contract may be a bit too big, but clearly he is a man that we are going to build around anyway. He's not going anywhere.
An interesting situation presents itself: The Leafs have put together a young team almost entirely through free agency, using only six Toronto-drafted players, and only five if you count Kaberle as gone. In this way, they are set to sign a number of players to shorter, more reasonable contracts, effectively getting players to sign the elusive mid-range contracts that Friedman talks about. This also means that no one single player (perhaps with the exception of Pheneuf, who might be worth it anyway) inhibits Burke's flexibility to trade and/or dump salary to accommodate a free agent signing. Another benefit to this weighting of contracts is that it becomes easier to sign cheap plugs if our prospects need more time to develop in either junior or the AHL (i.e. Paradis, Rynnas, Blacker, Kadri, etc.). Ironically, by using such accelerated rebuilding process, Burke is able to better shelter his existing prospects, lure plenty of college and European free agents, accommodate trades (particularly forwards), and maybe even lure in a decent UFA or two, than if he had simply waited for draft picks to come up through the system.
Had the Leafs simply sat back, hoarded draft picks, and waited for 3 or 4 years until the picks we traded for Kessel to come in and save the day, we would be:
1) Enduring a much longer period of complete futility until these players were NHL-ready. Obviously, a team that includes Kessel will do better in the standings, but it is also more attractive to free agents - signing with an up-and-coming team is far more enticing than a team like the Oilers, who are waiting for the day when all of their prospects hit the bigs.
2) Stuck with a terrible cap situation once both those first-round players demanded large contracts as soon as their ELC were up. And this is only the best-case scenario, where both of these first-rounders were the types of players we actually wanted to keep. If either or both were only mediocre players, we'd be better off simply signing a free agent who could contribute immediately.
Now all we have to do is survive the Leaf news drought until July 1st. One of my grade school teachers had a great line for this: "Qui vivra, vera." Basically, "Whoever lives to see shall tell."