With free agency slowed down to the speed of an indecisive Russian snail, there's not much to talk about at the moment aside from the usual speculation. However speculation without an understanding of what is needed just leads to crazy scenarios and debates that go nowhere. If we're going to speculate on Burke's next move, we need to understand what types of players he wants or needs. What holes he has to fill.
Now it's become pretty clear that Tomas Kaberle will be traded this offseason. He was almost moved at the draft; the signing of Brett Lebda, Burke's constant talk about wanting a Top 6 forward for him, etc... Also inevitable appears to be the waiving of Jeff Finger. Through no fault of his own, he simply costs too much for what he gives back to be on the big club. He's a salary cap liability. So for everything I'm about to say, assume that Kaberle and Finger are gone.
So what holes do the Leafs need to fill? Right now I see the team being structured as such:
Note on Kulemin: Sure he played on the 1st line after everyone else got dealt to Calgary, but I just don't believe that Nikolai Kulemin is a legitimate 1st line left winger in the NHL. I see his max potential as being a 20G, 20A player with a good physical aspect to his game. A Johan Franzen lite if you will.
By my take on things, the Leafs need a 1st line left winger, a 3rd line center, and a 7th defenseman who doesn't cost $3.5M. With that lineup the Leafs would have $9,775,833 in cap room if you ignore the $5.4M in potential bonuses, and I will. $9.8M in cap space for a 1st liner, a 3rd, and the 7th defenseman. That certainly makes any scenario possible. So who could Burke bring in to fill these holes?
The 1st Line Left Winger Hole
They is a myriad of 1st line quality left wingers out there for the taking at the moment, though they all come with their own caveats and would fit the Leafs' current situation to varying degrees.
The 800 pound gorilla in the free agency room who has yet to pick a club. His asking apparent asking price and term are somewhat ludicrous ($10M for 10 years), and I don't see any GM giving him that kind of dough. The Leafs have a huge asset in their corner though that could help them land Kovalchuk; tons of cash. The only problem with that is that current GM Brian Burke has stated publicly that he is against long term contract that taper off at the end to bring the overall cap hit down. Why I have no idea, but when a perennial 40+ goal scorer is available for straight cash, how can you pass that up?
With the signing of Nikolai Zherdev, Gagne's time in Philly has come to an end. They are currently $2.5M over the cap and it's become clear that Gagne is their man to move. However he has a NTC and would need to approve of any trade. There's been talk that he would waive his NTC to Toronto, LA, or Montreal, but it's all hearsay. Were a trade to happen, it'll be for picks and prospects as Philadelphia cannot take on a roster player with their current cap situation. I don't think he'd be a great fit in Toronto as he's getting old and has been injury plagued for the last few seasons.
New broke yesterday from Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News that the Stars offerred Neal a 2 year contract worth $2.5M per. That's a huge slap in the face for a 22 year old 27 goal scorer. The reason for such a low offer is that Dallas' owners are bankrupt and have instituted an internal salary cap of around $45 to $48M; currently they sit at $43.5M with only 6 defensemen signed and 12 forwards. There have been talks and speculation of trading Kaberle to the Stars for a player for quite some time. Could James Neal be that player? If not, what about the possibility of offer sheeting Neal for the max contract where the compensation is only a 2nd round pick? You'd have to think that given 1st line minutes, Neal could be a 30 goal scorer.
It's become clear that Frolov has to wait for the Kovalchuk-Kings saga to play out before he finds a home. If Ilya goes to LA, then Frolov will be the odd man out there and need a team. There are questions about his work ethic and tendencies to float in the defensive zone, but with the blue liners on the Leafs and the fact that he is a proven sniper capable of 30+ goal seasons, you'd think that those deficiencies wouldn't be a problem. He made $2.9M last year, his 4th and last of his RFA contract, and at 28 will probably be looking for a contract worth $4M for 3 to 5 years. He could therefore serve as a good bridge player as the young Leafs team matures and develops.
Godd Till wants Kaberle traded to Columbus for Filatov. I personally love that idea.
Long story short; Burke has to fill this hole with someone from outside of the organization.
The 3rd Line Center Hole
He has yet to sign be resigned after his first full season with the Leafs that began with promise and ended with a whole lot of nothing. 2 goals and 5 assists in 31 NHL games is a big disappoint for the once highly touted college free agent. The plus side here, is that were he resigned, it'd be for cheap. But I believe that better options exist.
But SkinnyFish, you say, you already have Grabovski playing as the 2nd line center. That is correct, currently Grabbo is slotted into the 2nd line, but their another small, fast, and skilled center on the Maple Leafs I don't have listed above: Nazem Kadri. Kadri has stated that he wants to make the Leafs straight out of camp. However, I believe it best for him to start with the Marlies and tear it up down there before forcing Burke's hand to bring him up the big club. If/when that should happen, he'd slot into the role of 2nd line center, forcing Grabovski down to the third line. Not a bad scenario at all.
Mitchell will more than likely start on the 4th line, but were he to do well, or say Hanson falters, then I could see a potential swap of Hanson and Mitchell between the 3rd and 4th lines. Or with a good camp and pre-season, seeing Mitchell start on the 3rd line wouldn't be out of the question at all.
Long story short; this is a position to be filled internally and in the cheapest way possible.
The 7th Defenseman Hole
If a high profile left winger with a big caphit isn't brought in, then the Leafs could afford to keep Finger on the Leafs as they'd have no need to clear his caphit from the books. He's a legit 4-6 defenseman in the league, and the Leafs have few other options for this position with more talent.
Insert best defenseman on the Marlies here
Have it be a running competition all season long. If you prove yourself in the AHL, you get to move up the the Leafs and play there. Falter, and you go back down and the new #1 contender takes your spot. With guys like Mikus, Holzer, and Aulie as the likely trio of players vying for this spot I think it would be a good idea.
Short story shorter; it's the 7th defenseman and he just needs to fit under the cap.
So those are the holes I currently see in the Leafs' lineup, and the players I think can fill them. What about you?