Free agency. For the players, it is often like hitting the lottery; for NHL general managers, it often spells the difference between making the playoffs and finding yourself in the unemployment line.
While most free-agent signings work out for both parties, there are plenty of examples of big-money signings gone wrong.
For Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, the summer of 2011 might just be the most important of his career, as he must identify organizational needs and decide which ones he intends on filling from within, while filling the other holes with potential free-agent signings.
Most fans will agree that the Maple Leafs are still at least three or four players from becoming a legitimate playoff team.
Some of the holes on the current roster include question marks between the pipes, a lack of power-play scoring, a legitimate need for a front-line centre, the need for another puck-moving defenseman and a glaring need for a penalty kill specialist.
While it is impossible to believe that Burke will be able to address all of his via free agency, there is the sense that given his considerable cap space this summer (believed to be upwards of $23 million), Burke will be a major player this summer.
Some of that $23 million will be used to re-sign the likes of James Reimer, Clarke MacArthur, Luke Schenn, Tyler Bozak, Carl Gunnarsson (all of whom are restricted free agents this summer) and perhaps a guy like Tim Brent, who will be a UFA this summer.
After everything is said and done and the anticipated increase in salary cap is accounted for, Burke should be left with upwards of $12 million with which to go free-agent shopping.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the top six unrestricted free agent players Burke may target and why they fit into the current club’s plan.
If you are looking for the Maple Leafs biggest organizational need, it is that of a legitimate (not a prospect, not a “potentially” great) first-line centre.
Despite reports that Richards has little interest in becoming a Maple Leaf, there is every reason to believe that Burke will attempt to sign Richards.
At 30 years old, Richards has a lot of good hockey in front of him. He has averaged better than a point per game in each of his past two seasons and has the ability to be a 25-goal, 90-point man for the foreseeable future.
The biggest quagmire for Burke will be determining Richards’ worth. Richards is expected to command a salary of $6.5-$8.5 million per season and is expected to be asking for a five-year or six-year deal.
That would mean allocating between $32.5 and $51 million to one player, which could be enough for Burke to pass on the talented setup man and sniper.
Despite the Leafs Nation being wrapped up in James Reimer mania, it appears as if the Maple Leafs may still be in need of a legitimate number one goalie next season.
Since his arrival in Toronto, Reimer has played well, registering a record of 14-7-4, to go along with two shutouts, a goals-against average of 2.61 and a save percentage of .921.
That said, at just 23 years of age, Reimer is yet to prove that he can handle the rigors of an 82-game NHL season.
Is “Optimus Reims” a legitimate No. 1 goaltender? Can Reimer lead the Maple Leafs to the playoffs next season? Only time will tell, but as it stands right now, there are more questions about the young goaltender than there are answers, which leaves many Leafs fans wondering if Burke should look to bring in a more experienced netminder next season.
Complicating matters is the fact that Jonas Gustavsson looks to be falling behind in his development and his recent health issues have some people worried that he may not be able to stay healthy enough to endure an entire 82-game season.
That’s too many question marks for my liking, which leads me to believe that Burke will look to bring in a veteran goaltender in order to ensure he will not come up short in the goaltending department next season.
Arguably the most talented unrestricted free-agent goaltender available this summer, Ilya Bryzgalov has a past with Brian Burke that goes back to their time together in Anaheim with the Ducks organization.
Through 59 games, Bryzgalov has a record of 32-17-8 with six shutouts, a goals-against average of 2.55 and a save percentage of .915.
Bryzgalov has been an All-Star caliber goaltender for a number of years now, and at just 30 years old, does not look to be slowing down anytime soon.
It might just take a five-year, $25 million deal to get Bryzgalov under contract, but it might just be the best money Burke ever spent.
If James Wisniewski got a chance to stick with one club for more than five minutes, it says here he could evolve into an All-Star caliber defenseman that could easily chip in 50 points in an 82-game season.
As it stands, Wisniewski (27) has worn the uniform of the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, New York Islanders and the Montreal Canadiens over the past three seasons.
For some NHL fans, when you see a player that has moved around as much as Wisniewski has, alarm bells start to go off that maybe he is a problem player; in Wisniewski’s case, it’s quite the opposite.
Known as a gritty defenseman with offensive upside, Wisniewski has registered nine goals and 45 points (eighth amongst all NHL defensemen) through 65 games played with the Islanders and Canadiens.
Of those nine goals, seven of them have come on the power play, an area when the Maple Leafs could use a shot in the arm.
While some would argue that Wisniewski cannot deliver five-on-five, his defensive prowess is actually very good. Although he was a minus-18 with the New York Islanders, he is a plus-six since coming over the Montreal Canadiens.
Wisniewski can deliver a solid 15-20 minutes per game, contribute on the power play and stay out of the penalty box (he has 34 penalty minutes on the season). It says here, if Burke can sign him, Wisniewski would be the perfect fit.
Through 73 games with the Washington Capitals, Brooks Laich has registered 16 goals and 40 points, complementing that with a plus-14 rating, three game-winning goals and four power-play goals.
Laich is hockey’s answer to the utility player. He plays well five-on-five, he can take faceoffs, has the ability to play both the power play and the penalty kill, and he also brings a physical element to his game.
Needless to say, the Maple Leafs would benefit immensely from the signing of a player of Laich’s ilk, especially where the power play and penalty kill are concerned.
If Burke manages to land Laich, it may spell the end of Tyler Bozak’s time in Toronto. Let’s face it, if Burke has to overpay to get Laich (and all his versatility), he could offset those lost cap dollars by trading away Bozak.
Laich should fall into that $3-$3.5 million contract range, while Bozak will likely fetch upwards of $2 million. If given the choice, which player would you rather see in the blue and white next season?
There has been a lot of discussion about Clarke MacArthur’s future with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While it is assumed that Brian Burke will go after the talented winger aggressively this summer, there is nothing written in stone that MacArthur will be back with the Maple Leafs next fall.
Given MacArthur's success in Toronto, we may find him headed to arbitration this summer, and we all know how that worked out for him last year.
With that in mind, should MacArthur (who is a RFA this summer) bolt from Toronto, Burke will need to replace his considerable offense, which is often easier said than done.
One player that could help fill the void is veteran winger Milan Hejduk.
While not the player he was in his earlier years, Hejduk is still gifted offensively, and with nine power-play goals on the season, he brings an intangible that the Leafs are low on.
If MacArthur leaves, and if Hejduk was willing to sign a one-year deal with the Maple Leafs, he’s worth the risk; if not, Burkie will pass.
Looking for a decent two-way player that can agitate opponents while still chipping in 15-20 goals? Scottie Upshall just might be the answer.
Through 70 games split between the Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets organizations, Upshall has registered a total of 20 goals and 31 points.
Upshall (27) has long been known as a gritty player that can help shut down the opposition. He is even on the season in plus/minus, which suggests he is a solid defensive player, while his 46 penalty minutes suggest, while known as an agitator and tough player to play against, he does so legally more times than not.
Sure, Burke already has a player like Upshall in Colby Armstrong, but look at how often Army has been injured and look at the Maple Leafs' shaky record without Armstrong’s grit and tenacity in the lineup.
Sometimes you can never have too much of a good thing, which is why signing Upshall would not be redundant.
Upshall may not be the perfect fit for Brian Burke, but he could chip in a solid 15 minutes of work every night, help solidify the Maple Leafs forwards defensively and, as I pointed out earlier, with 20-goal potential, the kid could help the Leafs' sputtering offense.
At 6’0”, 200 pounds, Upshall has decent size (an attribute Burke loves), and his style of play may just be enough for Burke to give Upshall a call this summer.
It’s not often a general manager has the amount of dollars that Brian Burke will have with which to sign unrestricted free agents this summer. While most Leaf fans would acknowledge Burke still has many holes to fill, a tweak here and a tweak there and Burke’s roster suddenly goes from also-ran to legitimate playoff contender.
Burke has been quoted as saying that he does not want to build a team that will squeak into the playoffs only to have their heads handed to them (or something to that effect).
With that in mind, look for Burke to make solid/major acquisitions this summer, not just stop-gap signings to fill holes.
Burke is interested in signing players that address organizational needs, players that will be around for three to five years, players that will make a tangible difference in the standings and in the future success of the franchise.
Each signing Burke makes will affect the next. If he manages to sign a big-money player like Richards, he will not be able to make multiple signings. That said, should he miss out on Richards (and there is a good chance he may), look for Burke to address other areas of his team, such as a puck-moving defenseman, penalty kill specialist and maybe even a goaltender.
Nothing is written in stone. Of the six players I have listed, Burke may only manage to sign one, but if he should be lucky enough to sign two or more of these premium free agents, he should see results immediately.
Until next time,