For the better part of a year now, trade talks have surrounded Tomas Kaberle, the Toronto Maple Leafs' top defenseman. Kaberle, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2010-11 season, will likely demand north of $4 million per year on the open market.
Kaberle is the quarterback of the team's power play and has piled up 85 assists in the last three seasons. Although the Leafs are deep defensively, they will need to find a replacement for Tomas Kaberle whether he leaves via a trade or in free agency this offseason.
The unrestricted free agent pool is deep on defense, but the Leafs also have the luxury of looking within the organization for Kaberle's successor, with a number of talented blue line prospects sitting below Kaberle on the depth chart.
Here are the 10 most likely candidates to replace Tomas Kaberle for the Maple Leafs in 2011.
In a dream scenario, the Maple Leafs would be able to replace Tomas Kaberle with a younger, more complete version of him in Christian Ehrhoff.
Unfortunately for Toronto, Ehrhoff is almost certainly going to be re-signed by Vancouver. In addition he will likely be getting a hefty raise in the offseason, and the Leafs have a ton of money tied up in their defensive group as it is.
But Toronto fans can dream can't they...
Anton Babchuck could be a decent fit with Toronto. Unless they land a great offensive defenseman, the Leafs will only be looking to add depth at the position.
Babchuk is a solid value as a two-way defenseman, but has had tons of issues with durability, and likely would not be worth the risk.
The Carolina Hurricanes have to make a choice to re-sign either Joni Pitkanen or Ian White. I doubt they will be able to afford to sign both. Either of them would make a great addition to the Maple Leaf blue line.
However, I wonder how much White would want to return to Toronto, and how much they would want him back.
As I mentioned earlier, the Toronto Maple Leafs may look within their own depth chart for Tomas Kaberle's replacement.
Brett Lebda is a guy who would certainly see an increase in his work load if Kaberle were to leave Toronto. While Lebda has not put it all together at this point in his career, the Maple Leaf organization had high hopes for him, and maybe a shot at being a top four defenseman is all he needs.
Essentially a carbon copy of Tomas Kaberle, Joni Pitkanen would provide the Leafs with a younger more defensive version of their star defenseman.
That being said, Pitkanen will also command a bit more money in free agency. Is it necessary for the Leafs to spend that kind of money with the depth talent they have on defense?
James Wisniewski would not likely be a long-term signing for the Leafs, but would be a one-year rental to fill Kaberle's shoes until they groomed his replacement.
Wisniewski is a solid offensive presence on the blue line and can be relied on for 25 to 40 points a season.
While he may have lost much of his offensive prowess, Ed Jovanovski has still shown flashes of excellence at the point. He would provide great experience and offensive ability to a young talented group of defensemen.
Depending on Jovanovski's asking price, he could be an ideal short-term signing for the Leafs.
A steady offensive threat for the Vancouver Canucks, Kevin Bieksa has a realistic chance of hitting the free agent market this offseason. If he does, he would be a great fit for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.
He would be able to step in right away and replace a decent chunk of Kaberle's offensive production.
Although he is a defensive liability, Marc-Andre Bergeron would be able to fill the role of power play quarterback for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This signing would make the most since in the event that Kaberle is traded this season. Bergeron is currently a free agent, and would come very cheap to the Maple Leafs. He would provide a great patch for the rest of the season until they found a long-term fixture for their power play.
Carl Gunnarsson is the future on the blue line for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He burst onto the scene his rookie season but has suffered a bit of a sophomore slump this year. However, he has all of the talent to be a great all-around defenseman in the National Hockey League for years to come.
The reason there have been reports of the Maple Leafs shopping Kaberle is because they have confidence in this kid. He is going to replace Kaberle one way or the other.