08-09's Crystal Ball II

[Note: I do not believe that any of this will happen, but some of it might. The point is, it is now much more fun to speculate about the future of the Leafs – especially now with the potential of having names like Stamkos, Doughty, Brunnstrom, etc. in a Leaf uniform.]

For Leaf fans who have demanded change for a long time, one must keep their heads on straight (after all Peddie is still around and nothing substantial has happened). But it is also a fun time to be a Leaf fans JUST FOR THE VERY POTENTIAL of change swirling in the air. Below is a typical leaf plan that we often see posted here on HTR. However, the format is NOT so much a plan as a potential scenario, and there are some assumptions that have been made …
1) there will be some contracts that are completely unmovable and that the next Leafs GM is stuck with (McCabe, Tucker, Raycroft and Bell for one year).
2) there will be some contracts that currently thought by some to be unmovable – but actually will be moved if done a certain way in order to suit the needs of certain teams (Kubina, Blake).
3) there are some contracts that are VERY movable and attractive to GMs of other teams (Kaberle, Kilger, Gill, Antropov, Ponikorovsky, White).
4) In this particular scenario, I have Sundin NOT waiving his no-trade clause, resulting in the trading of my other favourite Leaf player – Tomas Kaberle (in other scenarios, I included Sundin waiving his NTC and Kaberle staying).
5) there are FOUR turning points (or, as I like to call it: ‘the hockey gods FINALLY giving long-suffering Leaf fans a break’) over the course of this 5-month scenario, which gives the article its fantastical tone.
6) that other NHL teams actually, believe it or not, have needs that must be fulfilled in trades with the leafs (I know, it’s a shock to me too), and also operate under a cap system (amazing isn’t it?).

Friday February 22nd – Mats is resigned
Just days before the trade deadline and with rumours swirling, Cliff Fletcher announces a two-year extension for Mats Sundin. This time, the contract is reduced to $5 million per season but a no-trade clause is maintained for both years.

Analysis: For the most part it is recognized by most hockey pundits that this was the only route Fletcher could take if Sundin was unwilling to waive his NTC (other than letting Sundin go for nothing in the offseason). With Sundin off the market, the fun seemingly ends and speculation turns to the other four players with no-trade clauses along with other tradeable assets like Antropov, Kilger, and Gill. The Sundin resigning is the first of the five turning points because, among other things, it dictates the route that Fletcher decides to take from here on in.

Tuesday February 26th – Trade Deadline
The domino effect of the Sundin signing sees both McCabe and Tucker refuse to waive their no-trade clauses when asked by Fletcher. Finally, at noon on the day of the deadline, the Leafs make two minor trades and then, towards the the 3pm deadline, make two shocking trades in quick succession:

Atlanta: Hal Gill
Toronto: 2nd rounder in 2009, Andrei Zubarev (prospect)

Minnesota: Chad Kilger
Toronto: 2nd rounder in 2008 draft

Analysis: The Leafs clear $3 million in cap space on two contracts that have a year remaining on each. They also acquire two 2nd round picks in the next two deep drafts and a Russian defensive prospect that displays the same kind of potential (though a different kind of defensive game) as Dimitri Vorobiev. The Thrashers view Gill as an important piece to improving their PK as they try to win their division from the Caps, Canes, and Panthers, while Minnesota believes that Kilger’s grit, speed, and shot (not to mention how cheap he is) heading into tough, grinding 7-game Western Conference playoff series.

St. Louis: Tomas Kaberle, Nik Antropov, Ian White
Toronto: Jay McKee, Matt Walker, 1st rounder in 2008, Ian Cole (prospect), Ben Bishop (prospect).

Analysis: The deal is stunning for many reasons, but mainly because Kaberle showed no signs of waiving his NTC and it was believed by many that he was untouchable. The Blues and Leafs essentially exchange two large defencemen contracts but two completely different kinds of defencemen. The Blues get a top-10, two-way blueliner, who is not yet 30 years old, is signed to an incredibly affordable $4.25 million a year, and STILL has 3 years remaining on his contract (also, Erik Johnson and Kaberle form a solid future defence pairing). Moreover, the Blues acquire Antropov, who in 61 games has put up 21 goals and 60 pts, is affordable, has a year left on his contract, and will give the Blues some offense beyond the playoff drive this season. The same goes for young two-way blueliner Ian White, who more than makes up for the loss of Walker, who has recently demanded to be traded after being unable to crack the Blues top-6. Of course, the Leafs benefit by getting an unspectacular, solid veteran shotblocker who has been inconsistent since his days with Buffalo (largely due to injury concerns) and is on the books for two more seasons. More importantly, they clear $2.3 million in cap space, acquire some prospect depth in Cole and Bishop, and acquire a 1st rounder in 2008.

San Jose: Pavel Kubina, Jason Blake
Toronto: Kyle McLaren, Mike Grier, 4th rounder in 2009 draft

Analysis: After being thwarted on other fronts (including the Kaberle deal), the Sharks land their two-way defenceman in Kubina, who is in the top-30 in defenceman scoring (6 goals, 30 pts). They trade a solid stay-at-home defender who takes up half of Kubina’s salary and half the time remaining on his contract. They also lose a solid two-way winger in Grier, but add more scoring depth in Blake, who has heated up in recent weeks to pot 17 goals and 41 pts in 61 games (and would seem to be a perfect fit for Joe Thornton). In exchange for these two larger, long-term contracts, the Sharks only give up players who are not contributing much from an offensive standpoint along with a 4th rounder in the 2009 draft, which was previously Toronto’s pick that was lost in the Toskala deal. The Sharks add $4.7 million in cap space and the Leafs create that much in cap room.

After the deadline Trader Cliff is lauded by some as a man who has done a lot with what little he has been given. His options were severely limited thanks to no-trade clauses and players unwilling to waive them. The veterans and contracts he has taken on or has kept (Sundin, Grier, McLaren, McKee) are reasonable and form a veteran core who are solid in their own end and can set a good example for other young players. In the remaining 16 games games after the deadline, the Leafs go 4-9-3 (with two regulation wins against Montreal and one against the Senators) and finish the season with the worst record in the East and the second-worst record in the NHL (28-40-14).

June 12th and June 22nd – Selection order announced and the 2008 Entry Draft in Ottawa, respectively
In early June, Leafs management announce a surprising choice in the hiring of a new President and GM – John Muckler, who, in turn announces the firing of Paul Maurice and the hiring of Pat Burns. But the news on Thursday June 12th is much nicer for the new Leafs GM and represents the second turning point for the Leaf franchise: for the second straight year the 1st overall pick will not go to the team that finish 30th overall, and this year goes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who only had an 18% chance of getting the #1 pick. For Leaf fans, and in particular Muckler, it is breathtaking news. Now the n
ew GM can walk into his former team’s building and can announce the #1 selection and arguably a franchise player for that team’s arch rivals. To no one’s surprise, on Friday June 22nd Muckler announces the selection of Steven Stamkos from the Sarnia Sting.

Much more surprising – and related back to the Kaberle trade which now becomes the third turning point – is the fact that the Blues, despite finishing just outside the playoffs in the West in 10th place and despite a decent record (38-32-12), finish 21st overall in the NHL, but move up a spot in the draft lottery. This means that the Leafs’ are going to select again at 9th overall position. To everyone’ surprise, defenceman Luke Schenn is still available and the Buds promptly select him, completing the Kaberle trade. Moments after the Schenn selection, Muckler announces that, for the third consecutive year in a row, the Leafs have made a draft day trade:

Columbus: Alexei Ponikorovsky
Toronto: 2008 2nd rounder, 2009 2nd rounder

Analysis: It seems like a minor return for Ponikorovsky, who has scored 20 goals for 3 straight seasons (despite his shoulder injury he scores a career high 22 goals in 2006-2007). But Muckler and the Leafs’ scouts desperately want a higher 2nd round pick so that they can target Jared Staal (they lost their own pick in the Brendan Bell-Yanic Perreault trade at the 2007 trade deadline). They select Jared Staal 40th overall (formerly Columbus’ pick), and Tomas Knotek 55th overall (formerly Minnesota’s pick).

The consensus reaction from many hockey journalists and bloggers is that the Leafs were the big winners on the day. Stamkos is the future of the franchise. The loss of solid names like Kaberle, Ponikorovsky, and Antropov stings, but not when one looks at the prospect depth and the cap space that the Leafs now have. The selections of Schenn, Staal, and Knotek are widely regarded as steals for where they are selected.

July 1st – Leafs sign Fabian Brunnstrom
The snowball that is the Leafs’ good fortune continues to grow in this fourth and final turning point. They follow up signing Linus Klasen in February by signing another promising 22-year old Swedish prospect – Fabian Brunnstrom, beating out the Wings, Sens, and Canucks for his services. Brunnstrom was offered the maximum amount by the Leafs (as he was by the other 3 teams). However, he was also offered a top-six spot on the roster alongside the likes of Steen, Wellwood, Sundin, and Stamkos. Klasen, on the other hand, has another year to play in Sweden.

Also on July 1st, the Leafs say goodbye to five free agents who took up $3.5 million in cap space: John Pohl, Scott Clemmensen, Andy Wozniewski, and Wade Belak. The Buds also resign Dominic Moore for one year and near the league minimum, and their RFAs to very modest, longer-term deals (Steen, Stajan, Wellwood, Walker, Ondrus, and Harrison).

Remarkably, the modest numbers of the Steen, Stajan, and particularly poor season that Wellwood had means that the Leafs are able to sign the three to relatively cheap contracts and longer term deals. Of course, the signing of Brunnstrom is the icing on the cake for this long-suffering franchise. Not because he is a can’t-miss prospect, but because now the Leafs boast a prospect depth – much of it NHL-ready – that ranks among the top-10 in the NHL, and they have done so without trading Mats Sundin. The 2009 draft will see the Leafs have just one first round selection but THREE in the second round (their own, Columbus [Poni], and Atlanta [Gill]). Also, they’ll have their 4th rounder back.

Prospect Depth After July 1st, 2008
Kulemin——–DiDomenico——-D. Mitchell

Projected 2008-2009 NHL line-up:
Brunnstrom (0.9)—–Sundin (5.0)——–Steen (1.5)
Tlusty (0.7) ———–Stamkos (0.9)——Tucker (3.0)
Earl/Kulemin (0.8)—–Wellwood (1.5)—–Grier (1.8)
Bell (2.1)—————-Stajan (1.5)——Devereaux (0.6)
[Moore (0.7), Newbury(0.5)/Ondrus (0.5)]
————-McKee (4.0)—————McCabe (5.75)
————-Coliacovo (1.3)———–McLaren (2.5)
————-Stralman (0.7)————Kronvall (0.5)
[Walker (0.7)]
——————————Toskala (4.0)
[Raycroft (2.0)]

23 players, $43 million
Projected cap ceiling: approx. $53 million
Cap space: approx. $10 million

There are no buyouts (if any of the above salary amounts seem too small, then make the adjustments. In any case, plent of cap room). The contracts ending at the end of the 2008/2009 season: Newbury, Battaglia, Devereaux, Bell, Grier, and McLaren. The Leafs might need to sign a decent depth defenceman (Commodore), MAYBE a back-up goalie (Danis, Leighton, Hedberg, Joseph) and waive/buyout Raycroft, MAYBE a top-6 veteran left winger (vets like Stillman, Roberts, Shanahan, Nagy) – none of which are mandatory signings. The Leafs certainly have the cap space to make those UFA signings. But the key here is that there is NO REASON to spend to the cap ceiling just for the sake of it. A UFA signing is made only if it makes sense for the Leafs in the long-term (in terms of salary, avoiding an NTC if possible, age, consistency, etc.). In other words, it must be done in a discriminating and selective way, but, otherwise, forget it (re: the Detroit model).