Leafs Gear Up for July 1st and Free Agency

x xContributor IJune 30, 2010

TORONTO - APRIL 6: Nikolai Kulemin #41 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates up the ice during a NHL game against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Air Canada Centre on April 6, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

It seems a safe assumption that the Toronto Maple Leafs will add to, rather than trim their roster this summer following the club’s disastrous 29th place finish in 2009-10. That said, the Leafs have several upcoming unrestricted and restricted free agents, some more notable than others, and decisions on their futures will be made in the coming weeks.

The most notable is RFA Nikolai Kulemin, who earns $1.5m per on his current deal. While goaltender Jonas Gustavsson was quickly extended and the Leafs moved for sought-after prospects Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens, negotiations to tie Kulemin down have been more drawn out. The Russian winger put up 36 points in his sophomore season, and while he added only one goal to his rookie tally of fifteen he was comfortably the Leafs’ best two-way forward. Kulemin has the speed, strength and hands of a top power forward but perhaps lacks the scoring touch of a perennial 30 goal scorer, finding most of his goals around the net.

Reports estimate that there is $1m per between the two parties, with Kulemin’s agent pointing out that his client was a top line player for the Leafs last season. General manager Brian Burke argues that wouldn’t be the case on a team with real depth at forward. Burke is believed to be willing to give Kulemin $2-2.5m per.

The Leafs will be wary of handing out a contract similar to the $2.9m they gave to Mikhail Grabovski after the Belarusian’s impressive emergence in the NHL. A year on and that is a contract the Leafs would probably like to move, given the emergence of Tyler Bozak and the inconsistent play of Grabovski.

Kulemin aside, the rest of the list of upcoming free agents consists of role players such as Wayne Primeau and depth defensemen like Garnet Exelby. Don’t think for a minute, however, that Burke will put more thought into flashier parts of the team; bottom six forwards and shut down defensemen are invariably key features of Burke teams.

Primeau, who did a reasonable job as fourth line centre, has been told he will have to wait to find out whether the Leafs can find room for him on their roster for 2010-11. Rickard Wallin was told the same and promptly signed for Swedish Elite League side Farjestad; don’t expect Primeau to wait around if he receives an offer elsewhere on July 1st.

Jonas Frogren’s unsuccessful spell in Toronto will come to an end and it looks probable the same will apply to waiver pickup Jamie Lundmark, who didn’t exactly play with the intensity of a guy desperate to impress enough to earn an extension. Exelby looked like a worse return for the popular but highly-paid Pavel Kubina by the game and requested a trade at the March trade deadline. That didn’t materialise but it is unlikely he’ll stick around past July 1st.

Three players with a better shot at a future in Toronto are Christian Hanson, John Mitchell and Mike Van Ryn. Hanson, a college free agent signing towards the end of the 2008-09 season, will likely be resigned at a salary similar to the $800,000 per that he currently earns. His time with the big club last season was mixed but he has the qualities of a decent bottom six forward.

Mitchell was one of the most frustrating players on the Leafs roster in 2009-10 but is also one of the more interesting upcoming free agents. The Maple Leaf draftee is over 6 foot tall and a strong skater whose penalty killing skills have improved and is a useful option in the shootout. Mitchell’s problem is that he must simplify his game; defensive forwards with a bit of scoring touch are hugely valuable players, but Mitchell tries the difficult move in the offensive zone too often and that is not a quality you want in a player in your bottom six. Burke chose not to qualify Mitchell’s rights, but still held out some hope of resigning him at the league minimum $500,000 per, rather than lose him entirely.

Finally there is Van Ryn, the forgotten man of the Leafs roster. Out injured for the entirety of the 2009-10 season, Van Ryn could be of interest if he can make a return to full health. If he does so, it is likely his next contract will be a one-year deal at under $1m, with teams unwilling to gamble long-term on a player with an injury history resembling Van Ryn’s. Kurtis Foster signed a similar contract in Tampa Bay and put up 42 points from the Lightning blue line – Van Ryn has similar capabilities and if he can stay healthy someone will be getting a bargain.