Editor's Note: clrkaitken, our resident CBA expert, takes a look at some of the trends highlighted by Burke's signing of Andrew Crescenzi.
Over the weekend, the Toronto Maple Leafs made a curious transaction by announcing the signing of Kitchener Rangers forward Andrew Crescenzi, a player who came to the Leafs rookie tournament on a tryout, and impressed enough to earn a place in the main training camp. Evidently, his performance at both of those tryouts was impressive enough that Brian Burke felt it necessary to make him a part of the organization.
Now that Crescenzi has gone back to Kitchener for the year, the transaction will fade back into the wave of new news eminating from the Air Canada Centre on a daily basis. But to a certain extent, it shouldn't. Because this signing continues the trend towards a new direction of salary cap management that has been instilled in the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Crescenzi is a big forward, 6'4" and around 200 lbs at the age of 18, giving him lots in common with many of the other big young power forward proejcts Burke has tried to acquire over his time in Toronto. His rookie season in the OHL with the Rangers was decidely mediocre, managing just 8 goals and 4 assists in 68 games. His birthday was just inside the age cut-off for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and so coming off an unimpressive season he was not drafted.
However, while scouting reports and information available about his game is fairly slim at this time, the scouts must see elements of his game that they like. In an interview during the 2nd intermission of Saturday's exhibition game against Buffalo, Maple Leafs VP of Hockey Operations Dave Poulin discussed how early projections for the 2011 draft had Crescenzi as a player who could be selected in the 2nd or 3rd round.
Crescenzi accepted a tryout offer from his hometown club to attend their rookie camp and play for the Leafs in the rookie tournament, and on the strength of his performance, earned a tryout at their main training camp. On the day that another young prospect, Greg McKegg, was assigned back to the Erie Otters, Crescenzi became the newest prospect of the Maple Leafs.
Crescenzi's impact on the Maple Leafs could well mean nothing; the odds of him as an undrafted player ever making a significant contribution at the NHL level are significantly against him. But this signing goes beyond the future impact of just one player, and from a macro perspective continues to underscore some key elements of Brian Burke's management of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
First, this is yet another young free agent that the Maple Leafs have competed for and won. Crescenzi had multiple amateur tryout offers, but ultimately chose to try and latch on to his hometown club. Since Burke arrived, the Leafs have managed to win the services of Jonas Gustavsson, Tyler Bozak, Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens, among others, all of whom were heavily courted by other teams around the league.
Detractors would say that this is in part because the Leafs depleted line-up gave them immediate chances to join the NHL line-up. But while true to a degree, it ignores two realities; other teams in similar situations are simply not acquiring these players despite being able to provide the same immediate opportunities, and this summer Rynnas and Scrivens joined the Maple Leafs knowing full well they were competing for the 4th position on the depth chart.
The most significant reason for the Leafs' ability to acquire these goaltenders is the presence of Francois Allaire, the legendary goaltending coach who is considered the father of the modern-day butterfly goaltending style.. The mentor to Patrick Roy, Allaire's arrival in Toronto has been referenced as a key success factor in the development of Jonas Gustavsson and Rynnas and Scrivens' decisions to join the organization. The lure of working with the best goaltending coach of the business is worth the risk of being farther down the organizational depth chart.
The second point is that under Brian Burke the Leafs have been on the forefront of scouring non-traditional avenues for finding young talent. Since Burke took the reigns, the Leafs have been able to attract several sought-after free agents from Europe (Gustavsson, Rynnas, Marcel Mueller) and the NCAA. (Bozak, Christian Hanson, Brayden Irwin, Simon Gysbers). The signing of Crescenzi, an undrafted free agent garnering attention for his second draft-eligible year, represents another avenue where the Leafs have been able to cultivate a group of young prospects that has never been so promising.
While the likelihood of players taking Crescenzi's path to the NHL is very slim, the fact remains that the Leafs are not leaving any stone unturned in their efforts to continue to acquire the best young prospects they can find.
The Leafs tremendous investments in enhancing their hockey operations staff; the front office, coaching, and scouting, represents one of the only true facets of the game that a team can exercise the significant financial clout it holds over most of its competitors in a salary cap environment. There is no limit to how much can spend on these elements of player development. The Leafs can hire the best coaches and entice players to work and learn under them and maximize their potential. They can hire the best scouts to unearth those hidden gems and maintain a rich pipeline of young talent.
Most importantly, by utilizing these advantages it allows Brian Burke to be aggressive in his trade negotiations with other teams. With his ability to acquire 2-3 additional young players through these free agency avenues every year, it gives the Maple Leafs a larger pool of young prospects to entice other teams to trade Burke better players. It's what allows him to trade 3 high draft picks for Phil Kessel, because Burke was able to acquire a potential #1 goalie and #1 centre to offset the loss of the draft picks. It's what allows him to trade 3 young prospects for Kris Versteeg, because he can find young players to potentially replace them in the pipeline.
Brian Burke has long stated his belief that the Toronto Maple Leafs did not need to tank for high draft picks and undergo a long re-building process to return to being a perennial contender in the NHL. But despite all the uncertainty that has plagued this team under his watch, there has always been a plan. And as the foundation of Burke's own construction effort begins to take shape, Maple Leaf fans should take solace that their architect has been vigilant in making sure that he will be reinforcing the support as his building grows from the ground up.