Sitting at 19-23-5 after 47 games, nobody will tell you that the Leafs season so far has been a success. Heading into the season with playoff aspirations, the Leafs looked to be an organization built well from the goaltender out.
Currently, the Leafs sit sixth worst in the NHL and 13th in the East, with only the Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils behind them while having less cap space. The only good news to come from this is that there are actually teams that are worse off than the Leafs
The Devils have a copious amount of money tied up in long-term contracts to Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston, David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus, Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov, actually are running the risk of losing their franchise player Zack Parise as a free agent due to the team not being able to afford his services.
The Kovalchuk contract is holding the Devils down quite a bit, and with the cap hit of $6.66 million, it's a "hellish" contract to have holding them down. Their most expensive defenceman, Volchenkov, has no offensive upside at all, and it's apparent he misses Chris Phillips, and to that end, Phillips misses Volchenkov.
The Devils, in order to originally get Kovalchuk, mortgaged away some of their best prospects in order to get him. The best part of having prospects are they are young, cheap talent to have on a roster, which in today's NHL is very valuable to have good prospects that can readily step and play at the NHL level.
Right now, only Mattias Tedenby appears to be a top-level prospect in the Devils' system, and without a first-round draft pick from last year (Kovalchuk trade), the Devils farm system looks to be in a worse state than last year.
Are they doomed for the future? I wouldn't say that, but obviously the Leafs, despite their struggles, have better long-term prospects than the Devils do.
As for the Senators, they also have invested way too much money in aging, has-been stars and are paying for it today. Alexei Kovalev has arguably been their most inconsistent forward this year and really looks washed up. With a $5 million dollar cap hit, the only forward costing the Senators more is Jason Spezza at $7 million. Luckily for the Sens, Kovalev's deal expires at the end of the season.
Daniel Alfredsson at $4.875 million and 38 years old looks to be another contract that could hold the Senators down, but overall, he's the team's captain and face of the franchise. I doubt very much they are unhappy with the money invested in him.
Milan Michalek came to the Senators in the Dany Heatley trade, and really hasn't lived up to his potential. At $4.3 million, he's another pricey option to have in your top six, given the level of production. But again, he's still young, fast and skilled, so there is still some upside with him.
Probably the most publicized off-season signing came when the Senators signed aging Russian defenceman Sergei Gonchar to a three-year deal worth more than $15 million. With the emergence of Erik Karlsson as an All-Star this season, and coming in at about four times less the cost of Gonchar, you would believe they regret shelling out that much cash for him.
With defensive prospects Jared Cowen, David Rundblad and Patrick Wiercoch yet to come, as well as 2011 World Junior standout goalie Robin Lehner down the line, the Senators do have some talent on the farm.
Are they worse off than the Leafs? Probably not, but I would say they are in a tie right now. The Leafs boast the better farm system, but the Senators boast better top-six forwards and a really good young defenceman in Karlsson.
As you can tell, the premise of this article is to spend money wisely.
The Leafs have too much money invested in parts of their team that simply are not performing. It's arguable they aren't playing to their potential, but really, potential to me is hockey slang for "I think you can do it someday, but not right now" or maybe ever again, in the case of some Leafs.
The Leafs have over $30 million invested in a defence that simply cannot make wise decisions with the puck, and play as if the puck is a hand grenade with the pin pulled out.
Dion Phaneuf at $6.5 million, Mike Komisarek at $4.5 million, Francois Beauchemin at $3.8 million, Jeff Finger at $3.5 million and Luke Schenn at $2.9 million are all defencemen the Leafs have locked up after this season, and none of them I feel comfortable with carrying the puck out of the defensive zone.
The Leafs are one of the worst offensive teams in the NHL, but you can put some of the blame on their very expensive defensive core that was potentially supposed to be one of the better units in the league. There I go using that word "potential" again.
In goal, the Leafs spent over $7.3 million on the tandem of J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson. Only the New York Rangers have spent more on two goaltenders with $7.6 million invested in King Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron, $6.8 million of which is owed to one of the best goalies in the league in Lundqvist. Again, the Leafs are hoping to bank in on Gustavsson's "potential".
Lastly, the Leafs extended Phil Kessel's contract, which is a $5.4 million cap hit until 2013-14. The trade that brought him to Toronto can be argued for years, but the fact is he's the Leafs' highest paid forward and hasn't played like it. Is it money spent wrong? I don't believe it is, but it's apparent that the Leafs will need to spend more in top-level forwards in order to contend.
The future looks good, despite not having first-round draft picks in 2010 and 2011. The Leafs have been making their mark late in drafts, in Europe and the college ranks to help relieve the stress brought on by not having those picks.
Marcel Mueller, Jerry D'Amigo, Christian Hanson, James Reimer, Brayden Irwin, Josh Nicholls and Jesse Blacker are some good finds, and they will need to continue to explore all avenues in order to compete in future seasons.
My best thoughts are this...
- Tyler Bozak to me looks great next to Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg down on the third line.
- The Second Line remains in tact.
- The fourth line sees the likes of Mike Brown, Mike Zigomanis, Colton Orr and Fredrick Sjostrom skate along side each other.
So right now the holes in the club are two top three forwards (one of which is a center).
On the back end, the Leafs will need to drop some unneeded salary in order to improve up front.
- The loss of Tomas Kaberle will be huge, unless he's somehow re-signed and other defenceman are traded.
- The Leafs will likely need to drop two large contracts on the back-end and replace them with the likes of Keith Aulie, Jesse Blacker, Korbinian Holzer, or other cheaper talent outside the organization.
- Last but not least, the Leafs will either need to spend money on an elite level goalie that earns his pay check, or spend far less on goaltending than they have in years past.