If the Toronto Maple Leafs are deep at any position, it's certainly on defense. With the additions of Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, and Francois Beauchemin at various points last season, they'll start next season with a strong core of both offensive minded defenders and stay at home guys as well.
That includes two young studs in Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson, and the biggest question of all in Tomas Kaberle; who by all accounts could be long gone by the time next year rolls around.
They also have Jeff Finger, a constant healthy scratch this season, and a tough player to get rid of simply for his menacing contract of $3.5 million per season for the next two years. Its widespread knowledge that the likelihood is he'll be sent down to the minors, thus lifting his salary from the Leafs cap, but he's a problem Burke would rather not have to deal with.
Then there's Keith Aulie, the towering 6'6", 210-pound blue liner who came over to the Leafs with Phaneuf last season. He's only 21 and has no NHL experience, but his size could be a valued asset to an already big blue line.
But with that depth on defense already, the question has got to be asked: would Brian Burke dare add any more through free agency this offseason?
A lot of that comes down to what happens with Kaberle, and whether he stays or goes, but there's always a chance that the Leafs GM would bring on another body. The money is another issue, with five Leafs defenders making over $3 million (and Schenn making $2.75) and Phaneuf, Komisarek, and Kaberle making over $15 million combined.
A sticky situation and quite frankly one that might not even need to be addressed, but one that's worth taking a look at anyways. With that said, here's a few free agent options that could look good on the Leafs next season.
Dan Hamhuis, D
One issue the Leafs ran into this year on defense was injuries, which undoubtedly cost them a number of wins. One free agent who has been a model of consistency thus far in his career is Dan Hamhuis. Since he stepped into the NHL in 2003 with the Nashville Predators he's played six seasons (483 games) and only missed nine games.
He has 161 points in that time, and this year he had five goals and 24 points in 78 games. The 27-year-old has been a great player for the Preds and though they'd be crazy not to offer him a contract, he could be the odd man out on an up-and-coming Nashville club.
Money could be an issue with Hamhuis, who made $2.5 million this season, but if both Kaberle and Finger's contracts are off the cap, then his salary would pale in comparison to his fellow Leaf blue liners.
He hovered around 20 minutes of ice time this season, and would make a great partner for Schenn or Gunnarsson as the Leafs second or third defense pair.
It might be a bit much to think Burke would spend this kind of money on another defender at this point, but as stated before, with the likes of Kaberle gone, depending on what came back, there could be some room for a contract Hamhuis' size.
Jordan Leopold, D
Leopold has bounced around the NHL a bit since he came into the league in 2002, playing for four different teams—most recently the Penguins this season—but could find a home in Toronto this summer. Through 81 games he registered 11 goals and 26 points while playing a significant role for the defending champions all season.
He's a player who can make a difference, and at 28 would be worth investing in; especially because his play is strong at both ends of the ice. While he's a great offensive weapon from the point, he can also stand tall in his own end; making him someone Burke should consider.
Leopold has found it tough to find a permanent home thus far in his career and has been dangled as trade bait more than once. If Burke were to offer him a multi-year deal he might feel that Toronto would be his best option. At $1.75 million this year, he wasn't much of a cap hit, and at around the same price for the Leafs he'd serve as a great member of the club.
Zbynek Michalek, D
Although this season saw him equal his lowest point total in a season since he came into the league, Michalek had yet another impressive year for the Phoenix Coyotes. He was also a member of the 2010 Czech Republic Olympic Team.
He averaged over 20 minutes of ice time this season through 72 games, scoring three goals and 17 points.
He wouldn't play as big a role for the Leafs as he did with the Coyotes, but he would be a nice addition as a fourth or fifth option. He made $1.5 million this year and at that price could be affordable—if, of course, Kaberle's contract is no longer on the Leafs cap.
Michalek is only 27 and in the prime of his career as a defenseman. Throwing him in the mix on the Leafs defense would not only bring a little European flavour to a largely North American group, but add a solid player to a very solid core of blue liners.
Brett Lebda, D
The biggest reason why Lebda might be a great addition the Leafs, other than he'd be coming from a stellar franchise in Detroit—who know a thing or two about good defenseman—is that the price tag on him is cheap.
He made just $850,000 this season, and as a 27-year-old, would fit in nicely on the final pairing with the Leafs. He's not much of an offensive threat, recording just eight points in 67 games this year, but the Leafs could use another defender focused more on his own net than the opponents'.
He's played 326 games with the Red Wings over the past five seasons, and though his role was never a major one on the team, he brings with him a ton of experience and a Red Wing swagger; not to mention a Stanley Cup ring.
If Burke is looking to add a young, battle-tested, cheap player as one of the final pieces to the club, Lebda might be just be the perfect fit.
If he even dare add more depth to the Leafs defense.
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