Now, I won't say that this will cover what the Leafs will do since to call Brian Burke an enigma is an understatement. However, these are my thoughts on what they need to do come July 1st. Burke and Nonis have given a lot of hints about what they are trying to do but, as has been noted repeatedly, sometimes what Burke says needs to be taken with anywhere from a grain to a bucket of salt. The problem, of course, is that when trying to speculate on what might happen you could be chasing shadows. So guessing what they are going to do will probably end in tears. However, if it does, SkinnyFish has a great plan for that. It will both pull you out of and launch you into a huge depression. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
At the centre of what I believe needs to be done lie my thoughts on Brian Burke's theories on building the Leafs' into a contender. One of the obvious ones is that he believes in acquiring high-end talent or potential high-end talent however he can. The move for Phil Kessel was because he identified him as an elite talent that he needed to have. He recognised that, contrary to John Ferguson Jr.'s wildest dreams, these kinds of players do not come onto the market often and the trend seems to be towards them becoming even rarer. You can play around with Cap Geek to see future UFA classes but it does not paint a pretty picture. As Mirtle's post notes, and as much as Hawerchuk argues the opposite, Ilya Kovalchuk IS the prize of free agency. He does have an above average shooting ability and if handled correctly can score a tonne of goals. Going after Kovalchuk, or other top end talent, is precisely what he did in Anaheim to win them a Cup.
The second one is that I believe that Burke has set himself a window of as little as two years to win a Stanley Cup in Toronto. When the Tampa Bay Lightning came after Dave Nonis he signed an extension that would lock him in through the 2011-2012 season. Afterwards, I think Burke might be tempted to drop the GM part of his dual role while giving Nonis the reins. If that's what he's planning he needs to get on his horse. His moves, and obviously his words, certainly indicate that he is building a team with a core that will be reaching their peaks in the next two years. In addition to Phil Kessel (22), Burke added Jonas Gustavsson (26), Dion Phaneuf (25), and Tyler Bozak (24) to a core that consisted of Luke Schenn (21). His insistence on getting roster players or more advanced prospects like Luca Caputi when he can seems to back this up.
At the end of the day, as he's said so many times, Burke will be active tomorrow. Whether he will be successful or whether he'll go after these terrible suggestions is yet to be seen but he will be on the phone (provided Chiarelli lets him go). Will it be our draft? Or will he just add some complementary (to what?) 3rd line pieces? God help us but we'll find out soon enough.
Pending UFAs of note: NO ONE
The Leafs literally have zero unrestricted free agents that would be considered necessary to re-sign. Even on the "Why not add some depth?" list you'd only find: Wayne Primeau, Jamie Lundmark, and John Mitchell (he becomes a UFA tomorrow). Even those would only come at a very cheap price.
Pending RFAs of note: Nikolai Kulemin, Christian Hanson
The Nikolai Kulemin saga has dragged out as everyone bats around comparables to pencil Kulemin in somewhere along the spectrum between $1.9M to $3.5M. Burke has been clear that Kulemin's agent is asking for too much money and in turn 'someone' has leaked that the two sides are about $1M per year apart. Thankfully, it appears that we will soon have a resolution. Last night Bob McKenzie tweeted that the Leafs and Kulemin are broaching the gap and should announce a deal soon. It could even possibly be today.
As for Hanson, he's been kind of the invisible man during this entire time as the community has been fixated on Kulemin and Mitchell (God we love the Leafs). Hanson was qualified by the Maple Leafs and has no arbitration rights. Last year he made $900K and when his signing is announced I would expect him to be very close to the minimum 10% raise.
Salary cap space - $12,284,167
Thank God the NHLPA used the 5% escalator and extended the CBA. It might have given some teams a bit of a breather, although not as much as dealing with Rick Dudley could, but the extra $5M+ from not having bonuses count towards the cap is going to give Burke a lot of room to play with. Add in $7.75M for Tomas Kaberle (Sorry Eyebleaf) and Jeff Finger (Sorry Mrs. Finger) and that is $20M for Brian Burke to fill the gaps in the Leafs' lineup and get this team to it's first playoff appearance since having their financial power severely limited.
Projected budget - $59,400,000
I can't imagine supporting a team that has an internal budget far from the salary cap. Your team is basically conceding that it will not use every tool available to it in order to win.
Key needs - GOALS
Clearly, the Leafs need to both find more goals and prevent goals. The latter has been addressed. The Leafs' horrible team defence will be buoyed by a healthy Mike Komisarek (who is hopefully done trying to earn his contract all in one shift), the addition of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Dion Phaneuf, the emergence of Carl Gunnarsson* as well as having a healthy Jonas Gustavsson. I don't see any need to add more assets to the back end.
However, the Toronto Maple Leafs need to find goal scorers. After 4 seasons of being in the top 11 in scoring the Leafs' slumped to 25th in 2.56 goals per game. They have one legitimate offensive threat in Phil Kessel and only two players in Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri that have a decent-to-good chance of developing into top flight offensive threats.
* PDO-related sophomore slump notwithstanding
The list of names that have been mentioned in terms of signings have ranged from the fanciful (Dan Hamhuis) to the absurd (Raffi Torres). However, if, after being a sideshow at the draft, Brian Burke wants to remedy his reputation his pursuit needs to being and end with Ilya Kovalchuk. The Leafs have a massive financial advantage over every team in the NHL. It is what has allowed them to pay high-end GM money to Dave Nonis to be an assistant GM or to expand their scouting network. Now it is vital that Burke use it to sign the kind of player that the Leafs do not have coming down the pike and that is rarely available.
Burke has been adamant about not getting ito a bidding war for Kovalchuk. That is understandable. There is certainly a line that cannot be crossed in terms of cap hit. However, Burke was on the Fan590 last night re-iterating that he does not believe in long-term deals or adding tails to deals to bring down the cap hit. Now that is unacceptable. Toronto's financial might allows it to hand out some ridiculous deals that could be front-loaded easily. Other teams that can not possibly use it to the same hilarious extreme as the Leafs are using it to their advantage. If Burke is dismissing this move out of hand out of some misplaced sense of honour that would be a mistake and I'd consider it negligent. Otherwise, considering his complaints, he sounds as whiny as British officers complaining that the Revolutionary Army wouldn't line up and fight them face-to-face.
There will definitely be tears shed tomorrow, whether of joy or rage is yet to be seen, but while tomorrow is supposed to be Toronto's draft don't be surprised if Burke decides to go the trade route to address gaps in the forward ranks. All we can do now is wait and see.