The Toronto Maple Leafs have a great number of weaknesses, and figuring out how they can address these issues and turn them into strengths is a real dilemma.
With few elite prospects and not many established NHL players with significant value (besides Phil Kessel), the task of improving the Leafs is a challenging one.
For this article, I will put my general manager hat on and outline some changes I would make throughout the season to improve the Maple Leafs and attempt to bring the franchise back to the championship level it belongs at.
Note: All salary information courtesy of Capgeek.com
The list of Leafs forwards who will have their contracts expire at the conclusion of next season is long.
Unless most of them prove they can be valuable members of the team, and their play at both ends of the ice improves greatly, few of them should be re-signed.
Take a look at the upcoming UFAs for the Leafs this season.
|Player||Position||Salary Cap Hit|
|Tim Connolly||C||$4.75 million|
|Joffrey Lupul||LW||$4.25 million|
|Matthew Lombardi||C||$3.5 million|
|Clarke MacArthur||LW||$3.25 million|
|Tyler Bozak||C||$1.5 million|
|David Steckel||C||$1.1 million|
Lupul is the only player I would consider re-signing, but I wouldn't give him $5 million per season after he reached the 60-point mark for the first time in his career.
Connolly's exit seems very likely for health and on-ice performance reasons. If Lombardi can score 20 goals and be a 40-50 point player next year, maybe he gets an extension.
Bozak is still young at just 26 years old and did score a career-high 47 points last season. He would be re-signed instantly since he still has room for improvement and would likely be an inexpensive signing.
MacArthur would have to prove to me that he could be a consistent offensive player before I would give him another contract with a salary cap hit over $3 million.
The Leafs need to make sure some of their younger talents are the real deal, and to do that, these players must receive the NHL experience needed to prove themselves against top competition.
Top prospects Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and 2012 first-round pick Morgan Rielly should all be given a good shot at making the NHL roster for the upcoming season.
Rielly might need another year of development before making the jump to the NHL, but Colborne and Kadri have no excuses if they fail to make the team.
With a number of centers on the Leafs roster likely to become free agents at the end of next season, if Colborne plays well and uses his impressive size to impact games, he could replace one of the veterans currently on the roster in the near future.
Jonathan Bernier is the best goalie for the future of the Leafs because he's young and wouldn't be an ultra-expensive option for the team as far as his yearly salary and annual salary cap hit are concerned. His next contract likely won't have the same financial risk that Roberto Luongo has.
However, the price to acquire him via trade from the Los Angeles Kings could be a bit high.
Bernier is from Montreal, so he knows what it's like to be in a hockey-crazed environment and probably won't be rattled by the pressure of the fans and media since he knows how they act in a place like Toronto.
Bernier was 5-6-1 last season and also had a 2.36 GAA and a .909 save percentage. His career record is 20-17-5.
Although he's never played in a playoff game at the NHL level, he was around the Kings last year during their Stanley Cup championship run as the backup netminder. It's not first-hand experience, but it's still valuable. Bernier also played well in the playoffs for the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL in his time with the team.
Bernier is better right now than current Leafs goalies James Reimer and Ben Scrivens and has a better upside than both of them.
Of all the young goalies in the NHL who might be available during the season, Bernier is clearly the best option for Burke.
At the trade deadline last year, TSN's Darren Dreger reported that the Leafs were offered a first round pick for four players.
If Burke is offered any picks, especially first or second-rounders, for struggling players or upcoming free agents around next year's trade deadline, then making a deal would be a smart move.
The strength of the 2013 draft class is very strong, especially with the high level of players eligible from the WHL and QMJHL. The group of international players, most notably from Sweden, is also impressive.
Compared to the 2012 class, next year's group is better and deeper.
Stockpiling draft picks near the trade deadline in exchange for players who don't have a future with the team is something that the Leafs should consider as they rebuild their roster.