We hear that a lot. So, for fun, I decided to try. I was writing a long-winded comment over at mc79hockey when I thought a lot about how much someone could load up and get better just by improving their depth. The Leafs in 2011 were first or second or something (I don't remember, there was a PPP post about it) in terms of goals from their top few scorers (Kessel had 32, Kulemin had 30, Grabovsi had 29, iirc). The Leafs have some underrated high end scoring ability, and in any given year, with the right usage, 30 goals from Kessel, JVR, Lupul, or even Kulemin or Grabovski or whoever the fuck shouldn't be that shocking, not that any but Kessel are locks for it. The point is, I wanted to see if there was enough depth talent on the UFA market to build a good team around a few high pick stars, like Chicago, Pittsburgh, or soon Edmonton will have. This is the team I made up.
Nathan Horton - Vincent Lecavalier - David Clarkson
Clarke MacArthur - Mikhail Grabovski - Jaromir Jagr
Benoit Pouliot - Kyle Wellwood - Viktor Stalberg
Keith Aucoin - Dominic Moore - Dustin Penner
Marek Zidlicky - Michal Rozsival
Ian White - Tom Gilbert
Ron Hainsey - Aaron Johnson
I really wonder if that team could beat the Leafs. Its bottom six is unquestionably better, (Pouliot/Wellwood/Stalnberg/Aucoin/Moore/Penner vs McClement/Bolland/Kulemin/McLaren/McClement/Orr). The second line is probably better (MacArthur/Grabovsk/Jagr vs Lupul/Kadri/Clarkson) and the top line of Nathan Horton, Vincent Lecavalier, and David Clarkson, is probably not as good overall as van Riemsdyk, Bozak, and Kessel, you have to think it doesn't have a huge possession anchor weighing it down in its most important position.
The defense is solid, although I happen to like the Leafs defense, and feel like Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Franson, Gardiner, Ranger, and Liles would be a more than adequate defense core, if used right (and that involves tactics, which will be mishandled, and if you want a longer explanation, the aforementioned comment on mc79hockey gets into it, on his Penguins post). Goaltending is basically a toss-up, because you have no idea what the hell Tim Thomas is going to do this year.
That all said, I think this team would probably play a decent game vs the Leafs, and might even be favored. What's more, the sum of their contracts equals $39 325 000, far below the salary cap. Kyle Wellwood, Ron Hainsey, Tom Gilbert, Ian White, and Tim Thomas are unsigned, but being unsigned at this point in the season, okay, the four of them cost you about $4 million. Still about $20 million under the salary cap. That means, you could take this team, and probably afford to still have Kessel, Phaneuf, Gardiner, and one of JVR and Lupul, and still probably have a little bit left over.
All of this sort of drives the point that there are a lot of market inefficiencies in the NHL, and with the cap going down, this was a good year to capitalize. This is just what teams decided not to re-sign (or bought out), and the money they actually as opposed to hypothetically got. Imagine if you took on the players they're willing to trade, like Devin Setoguchi (acquired by Winnipeg for a second round pick), Bobby Ryan (acquired for a crop of picks/prospects that, while decent, are still picks and prospects), or even earlier trades like the one that sent Jeff Carter to Los Angeles, the one that sent James van Riemsdyk to Toronto, the one that sent Ryan McDonagh to the Rangers, etc. A vigilant, smart GM could make a killing here, and that probably explains why in a capped league we have perennial contenders like the San Jose Sharks, who always seem to make the right move, but even they could've fixed a lot of their depth issues with any number of these guys.