With another season behind them, it appears as if the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has some tough decisions to make with respect to a number of restricted and unrestricted free agents this summer.
Heading into the 2011-12 season the Maple Leafs have a total of 13 players under contract, eating up a total of $36,890,000.
That leaves Burke just over $22.5 million with which to round out his roster, but not before he addresses a couple of key free agents.
Atop the list is restricted free agent defenseman Luke Schenn, who currently carries a cap hit of just under $3 million.
The smart money has Schenn looking for a raise this summer and, given his stellar performance this season, it appears as if Burke will be willing to pay.
Schenn has grown both on and off the ice, registering five goals and 22 points, while keeping his plus/minus at a respectable minus-7 on the season.
Schenn has been one of head coach Ron Wilson’s go-to defenders for most of the season, often being asked to play against the oppositions top lines and man the penalty kill.
Many Leaf fans see Schenn as a future leader of the club, whether that translates into him honing the “C” at some point remains to be seen, but there is little question that he has the character and fortitude to be the Captain someday.
With many NHL teams locking their stars into long-term deals it would appear as if Schenn will be in the running for a new contract in the five-year $20 million range, if not more.
There is no question that, when it comes to current roster players, Schenn is Burke’s top priority this summer.
Restricted free agent goaltender James Reimer looks to have earned a new contract as well and, much like Schenn, will be a top priority for Burke this summer.
Reimer looks to be the goalie of the future for the Maple Leafs franchise and while the Leafs will be cautious when assessing his worth, there is no way Burke doesn’t find the cap room for Reimer.
Currently carrying a cap-hit of just under $600,000, it is not hard to believe that Reimer will be getting a healthy raise next season and beyond.
Most NHL general managers are trying to keep their goaltending costs down. Look for Burke to attempt to continue to do just that with Reimer, looking to sign the young goalie to a three- to four-year deal in the $5-$7 million range.
Another restricted free agent that will be high on Burke’s priority list will be Clarke MacArthur. MacArthur helped solidify the Maple Leafs second (sometimes first) line—which included Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and MacArthur— making the Mac-Russian line one of the more dangerous units in the NHL.
MacArthur’s output suffered a bit down the stretch, but one has to believe that Burke will do everything in his power to keep MacArthur in the fold, solidifying his most valuable trio for years to come.
Both Grabovski (UFA) and Kulemin (RFA) will be free agents at the end of the 2011-12 season, so look for Burke to attempt to sign MacArthur for three years or less as he must weigh the likelihood of Grabovski and Kulemin staying with the Leafs long term.
It’s not as if MacArthur is irreplaceable, but with the team looking for some form of continuity and familiarity next season, it appears as if Burke will offer MacArthur a two or three year deal in the $2.0-2.6 million range per season.
Other restricted free agents include sophomore forward Tyler Bozak, depth players Jay Rosehill and Darryl Boyce, while Joey Crabb is a unrestricted free agent this summer.
All four of these players may have a place with the big club next season, but if Burke elected to skip one or all four of these players nobody would be all that disappointed, so long as Burke brought in players that could do their jobs.
Of the four, it appears as if Rosehill may be let go, while Boyce and Crabb should get at least some consideration to be resigned.
Tyler Bozak has spent most of his career fighting a battle he could not win. Often asked to play first line minutes, Bozak was (perhaps unfairly) in way over his head. The question for Burke is, just where does Bozak fit into this club and at what price?
To suggest Bozak may not be back with the Maple Leafs may be going a touch too far, but it is not completely out of the realm of possibility.
Nazem Kadri is expected to get a good look next season, possibly on the third line, while it appears Grabovski will continue to be the Leafs’ second line centre next season.
Most Leaf fans are convinced that Burke will shop for a first line centre this summer instead of trying to promote Grabovski (which he resisted this season) or give the likes of Bozak or Kadri a shot.
With Grabovski firmly entrenched on the second line and Kadri likely to see action on the wing or the third line as a centre, that means Bozak will likely have to be utilized as a fourth line centre, which may not be to his liking and may not play into his natural abilities.
A gifted faceoff man, if Bozak is back with the Maple Leafs look for his playing time to be greatly diminished and his salary to be more in line with what a bottom-six forward earns, say in the $1-$1.5 million range.
Defensemen Carl Gunnarsson and Matt Lashoff will also be restricted free agents next season, with both players looking for expanded roles.
Burke was looking to add another defenseman at the deadline, but came up short. Both Lashoff (who had been playing with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL for most of this season) and Gunnarsson received a lot of extra ice time as a result of Burke being able to land another defenseman, which, in turn, afforded both players to showcase what they could do in an expanded role with the big club.
Lashoff would fit that seventh defenseman role nicely, while it appears as if Gunnarsson may be able to step up into a top-four role or continue to log minutes as a bottom two defenseman who, given his hard shot, should see some power play time.
Gunnarsson is looking like the real deal, while Lashoff “is what he is.” Look for Burke to attempt to re-sign Gunnarsson to a two year deal in the $1.5 million per season range, with Lashoff’s future hinging on Burke’s ability and willingness to sign another free agent defenseman this summer.
Unrestricted free agents J.S. Giguere, Fredrik Sjostrom and Tim Brent are not likely to be back with the Maple Leafs next season, although Brent could emerge as a plan B should Burke be unable to find another bottom-six forward at an affordable price.
With the Maple Leafs goaltending picture looking so good (thank you Mr. Reimer), it appears as if it is time to cut bait with Giguere, who was injured far too often and played too sporadically this season to be taken as a serious backup/1B role.
Sjostrom looks to have run his course with the Maple Leafs as well. Known as a defensive player, Sjostrom has done little to help the Leafs floundering penalty kill over the past two seasons, which only magnifies his inability to find the net.
Look for Burke to attempt to anchor his bottom six with a penalty kill specialist and a player that can help bring balance to their scoring.
Until next time,