Unfortunately there are no easy answers and no shortcuts. Even if they somehow get Steve Stamkos next year it is unrealistic to expect him to come in and have a big impact right away (it could happen, but it isn’t something the Leafs should bank on). He is going to be a great player but he is not Sidney Crosby.
The key for the Leafs will be putting some of that MLSE money muscle to good use. They can free up valuable cap space by sending Raycroft and Bell to the minors next season as a start (that is $4.1 million in cap space right there). If Kubina won’t waive his no-trade clause, they might need to play hardball with him and ship him (or threaten to ship him) to the Marlies as they can’t keep both him and McCabe and McCabe has a no movement clause.
They have some decent young talent but not a lot of it. If some of the kids make the final 23 next year (and they should, in my opinion, assuming they continue to develop as expected) that will strip the farm bare of replacement parts when the injuries arrive, as surely they will. The Leafs should look for some inexpensive depth guys on two-way contracts to give the kids a chance but also to provide a bit of a safety net. Think Boyd Devereaux and Dominic Moore types. They should look at guys with local connections who will take less money to be Leaf (or a potential Leaf). Sounds silly? I remember years ago driving on the QEW, passing a St. Catherines exit and the town was proudly displaying a giant banner that read, “Home of Bill Berg. #10”. Bill Berg. He was a Leafs fourth liner for three years and probably doesn’t have to pay for breakfast anywhere in the GTA and environs. I’m sure there is a car dealership somewhere with his name on it.
If they play the kids next season they won’t be any worse than they have been this year and they will have some money to spend in the off-season on decent, mid-level players if they want to go that route (just limit the term, and please, no more no movement clauses other than to veteran players signing below market, short-term deals). Sure, tanking the season to try and get Tavares is probably a better way to go from a long-term perspective but we all know that is not going to happen.
So, here’s what I think the Leafs should be projecting as their 2008-2009 lineup based on what is currently in their system and what they might need to do in the off-season. They should see if these young guys are for real and try to inject as much youth and speed into their lineup as possible.
Out at this year’s trade deadline: Gill, Kilger, Belak
To the Marlies: Bell, Raycroft
Young players making the big team: Kulemin, Tlusty, Earl, Stralman, Kronwall
Re-sign UFAs: Sundin, Moore
Tlusty – Sundin – Wellwood
Ponikarovsky – Antropov – Tucker
Blake – Stajan – Steen
Earl – Moore – Devereaux
Extra: Newbury or Ondrus
- Kulemin will push hard for a spot in the lineup and could make Ponikarovsky available. He likely starts with the Marlies as he acclimates to North American hockey (and life)
- Earl’s speed earns him a spot on the 4th line and he could take over on one of the top 3 lines when needed as he has offensive potential
- Mitchell could take over centering the 4th line from Moore (who has been very good for the Leafs this year)
- Newbury basically replaces Belak
- Wellwood and Blake could switch places
- Tlusty projects as a centre, so if he is ready they could look at him to centre the 2nd line and reunite the Sky Line as the number one unit
- If Tlusty, Kulemin are both ready the Leafs could potentially roll 4 lines with good speed and spread out scoring potential
Kaberle – Colaiacovo
McCabe – NEW veteran stay at home defenceman (free agent signing)
Stralman – Kronwall
- They should try to maximize White’s potential by making him QB the second unit of the powerplay. He is always going to be a bit of a defensive liability, so they should try to take advantage of his strengths while limiting his weaknesses.
- Yes, the veteran will be like a Hal Gill, but they should be able to get a better player even if they have to pay a little more. Gill is great killing of 5-on-3 disadvantages but he’s just too slow for today’s game. The Leafs should look at someone like the Devil’s deadline acquisition, Bryce Salvador, or even a Richard Matvichuk (if he has anything left in the tank?). Both are UFAs this summer and made in the $1.5m range this season. Anyway, the point being, there are plenty of veteran defensive defencemen to be had at a reasonable salary.
This team, with Kubina and not the veteran stay-at-home guy noted above, would have a cap number of about $49 million. Take him out and plug in a $2-3million for another defensemen and the Leafs should be about $7 million under the cap (projected at $54m).
If Tucker finishes strongly there might be a market for him. I could see him going to Calgary, especially if they move Tanguay. Fletcher should try to move him, Kubina, Raycroft et al before the draft but he might need to look at moving other pieces if he is looking for anything useful in return (e.g. Ponikarovsky, Blake). I think the guys with no-trade clauses can be moved in the off-season. These guys have families and kids in school so it is understandable that they don’t want to uproot their lives in the middle of the hockey season, or be apart from them for 2-3 months.
Is this team going to win the Stanley Cup? No, obviously not. But this is a start to building towards the future and clearing enough cap space so that Sundin can be properly replaced in a year or two and you start building a pipeline of young (and inexpensive) talent. E.g. what happens if Lecavalier decides not to re-sign in Tampa…. I assume he will, but who knows what can happen. If nothing else, it would be a faster team and you need speed to contend in the new NHL.
1. They can move Kubina. With Boyle getting crazy money someone might view his $5million as a decent deal. Well, probably not. But I think the Leafs could give him away for a pick if all they wanted was cap space.
2. Sundin re-signs the same type of deal as this year
3. Whomever they Leafs draft in the first round isn’t ready to step in right away
4. Tucker has, in fact, been injured this year and does have something left in the tank. It might not be much, but something.
5. Wellwood’s year is best just written off. I don’t think he ever properly recovered from the two abdominal surgeries. This is a big assumption, but in this scenario he works hard on his fitness and comes back healthy and in shape next year. Without speed his shiftiness doesn’t come to much of anything useful. He doesn’t get much of an increase, if any, for next year.
6. Stajan gets an increase to $1.5 million.
7. Blake bounces back to his normal 20+ goals per season numbers
8. The Leafs are willing to play hardball with their players in order to move the team forward….