Diminishing Salary Cap Breeds Possibilities for Toronto Maple Leafs in 2010

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Diminishing Salary Cap Breeds Possibilities for Toronto Maple Leafs in 2010
(Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

With the 2008-09 season winding down, many teams are locking up playoff spots and preparing for a long run en route to a Stanley Cup championship.

Sadly, for the fourth year in a row, the Toronto Maple Leafs will do no such thing.

Instead, Leafs management, players, and fans will eagerly await the offseason.

Free agency and draft day will be big events

The question is, what is realistic and what is pure fodder? Will Brian Burke blow his current roster up in an attempt to start from square one, or will he try to make a splash, signing big-name players for big money?

I believe Burke will have a very busy offseason, but don’t think for a minute that Burke will be signing a ton of free agents.

Now, it would be foolish to think that Burke does not already have a detailed plan of what he intends to do this offseason, in fact, with rumors abound that Burke is interested in signing the Sedin twins out of Vancouver, many would suggest that part of BB’s plan has already leaked out into the media circles.

Whether or not the media suspicions are correct or not is beside the point right now.  The Sedin twins coming to Toronto is just the first of what will be numerous rumors that will hit the airwaves and TV broadcasts in the coming months.

Some true, some pure speculation—all will create great debate and excite the fans to no end. My money is on Burke being relatively quiet on the free agent front, but we’ll have to wait and see.

When the NHL implemented the salary cap system after the 2003 lockout season the intention was to create parity amongst all teams. Playoff races would be closer, last longer, interest in the games would be heightened, and each franchise, could—with some luck anyways—afford the opportunity to sign a true super-star talent.

Essentially the NHL felt that by implementing the salary cap every team would, for the most part, have a chance to make the playoffs every season.

On the surface, the plan has worked. If you take a look at the current NHL standings you will find that four points separate the 12th place teams from the eigth place teams in the Western Conference and nine points separate the 12th place team form the eighth in the Eastern Conference. 

Playoff races are alive and well in most NHL cities—that’s parity my friends!

Make no mistake about it—the salary cap is a huge factor when determining how to go forward with any NHL franchise. General Managers in must gaze into the future in order to be a success.

Gone are the days of filling holes by reaching into ownership's deep pockets—money has become a secondary factor.  It no longer creates separation.

In fact, in some cases, money has handcuffed franchises that went to the well more often than not. They didn’t know anything else, thus their talent pool is typically depleted from past deadline deals, handcuffing their current and future success.

This is clearly the case with the Toronto Maple Leafs, as such, Burke will need to take care of the now and the future, a daunting task to say the least.

There are four prospects worth talking about in the Leafs organization—goaltender Justin Pogge, forward Jiri Tlusty, forward Chris DiDomenico, and to a lesser extent defenseman Phil Oreskovic. That’s it.  None of these players made The Hockey News top 50 prospects list, none of these players are regarded as a “sure thing”, none of these players are NHL ready right now.

Therein lies a huge problem for Burke—he’d love to fill a hole or two with young talent, but he simply doesn’t have the horses to pick from the stable. Essentially, he is handcuffed by past mismanagement. So, with little in the way of talent in the system and a diminishing salary cap to deal with, where will Brian Burke find the talent?

It is going to take a combination of patience, perseverance and creativity to make the Leafs a better team to start the 2009-10 season. Any players drafted in 2009-10 will likely see action at the junior level and/or in the AHL.

Remember, Luke Schenn is the exception, not the norm. Most draft choices take a minimum of three to five years to mature into genuine NHL players, and very few succeed right away.

Free agency will provide Brian Burke an opportunity to explore some interesting players, but at the end of the day I see Burke looking to make trades to make his club better.

There are numerous teams that, when and if the NHL decides to lower the salary cap, will have little choice but to move essential pieces off their NHL rosters. The Detroit Red Wings, Calgary Flames, Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, to name a few, will all struggle to make it under next year's salary cap.

All of these teams have key free agents to re-sign, all of them will need to consider which pieces they are willing to give up in order to make it under the cap—not an easy chore.

The asking price for these players will be next to nothing, it is unlikely these teams will be able to take dollars back, thus handcuffing their returns. Advantage: Maple Leafs.

One thing Burke has is loads of room in salary cap, something he will surely look to use to his advantage this offseason. Depending on how much the salary cap drops in the offseason, Burke will have upwards of $9 million to spend on players. 

That’s significant dough, it also makes Burke a convenient trading partner for teams that need to dump salary—and with the NHL likely to lower the cap this off-season, there will be plenty of teams looking to dump players.

The trick for Burke is to make moves that make sense financially now and for the foreseeable future, Burke will have to weigh today’s acquisition against the impact on his teams future.

For example, a player like Chris Pronger might look great in a Toronto uniform, but in the long run—is Pronger considered a diminishing asset? Is Pronger a fit long-term, or by acquiring him are you just handcuffing the Leafs down the road?

A measure of tough love will have to be used when evaluating the current roster as well. Veteran players like Thomas Kaberle, Pavol Kubina, Vesa Toskala, Jason Blake, Alex Ponikarovsky, and Ian White will all need to endure considerable evaluation at season’s end. Are these the horses you want going forward, or do you consider moving one or more of them in the hopes of acquiring future assets?

Kaberle and Kubina have reasonable contracts, as does Ponikarovsky, but is their value on the open market worth giving the thought of trading them? For instance, at just over $4 million per season, for a player of Kaberle’s talent level he brings great value and an enormous amount of talent. 

If you trade Kabby how do you replace that talent without having to go out and pay another equally-talented player $2 million more per season than Kabby makes? Is trading that kind of player worth the negative impact it could have on a teams salary cap, or are you better off keeping Kaberle and losing out on acquiring players that can potentially help your franchise in the long term?

It’s a tricky question and a slippery slope indeed. What would you do? Do you take a player with potential and a draft pick in return for your franchises biggest asset and then try to replace him?

My best guess is that two or more of those players will be traded by Brian Burke this offseason. If he is able to make such a move, a little more cap space will open up, thus making it possible for Burke to consider some big ticket players that—in my mind, anyway—will surely be available come June.

The cap may not have created pure parity on the ice, but it has forced teams to evaluate and re-evaluate their costs.  Teams that did not do their due diligence in projecting correctly will suffer and be forced to move players they typically would have been able to afford to keep.

It would seem that the salary cap has created financial parity, which should, over time, create a more balanced league. The teams who miscalculated will be the losers in all of this, Brian Burke and the Leafs are poised to reap the rewards.

So, I foresee the impact on the Leafs by their prospects will be minimal. Free agency, while a valuable piece to the Leafs puzzle, should be minimal. 

Trades will be aplenty and should have the biggest impact on this franchise going forward, while coaching, scouting and management, will continue to be key positions, likely having the most impact on the Leafs future success in the long run.

Today’s NHL is all about development and opportunity, the Leafs have a great opportunity to make huge strides this offseason.  Let’s hope my predictions come to fruition.

www.TOsports.ca

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