Better Luck Next Year Toronto

From the early happenings in the free agent market, it appears that the Toronto Maple Leafs will be out of the running for many if not all of the big free agents available this season. With only 7-10 Million left to spend and several roster spots that need to be filled, it appears that the Leafs wont be contending for the time being at least.

The Leafs for the last few years have been built through free agency but not this year. Several key free agents already, including their own in Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk have passed on Toronto for greener pasture. Previously the Leafs always had a competitive edge on the competition because they could outbid other teams for the services of players. But in the new economic world, that seems to be no longer the case.

It is not really known what the plan is that John Ferguson is partaking. Does he know something we dont? Is he rebuilding? My take is that he is planning to make a run at players next summer when the free agency age goes down to 29. Though the talent is plentiful this year, it may be even better next year and more beneficial since the players available will be younger.

There are plenty of big names available. There are many players whose contracts will be up this year and would be eligible for free agency either because they have played 8 seasons in the NHL or they are 29 years old. and even more players available if some of the current RFAs just take qualifying offers and make themselves free for next summer. Here’s an unofficial look at who could be had on the unrestricted free agent market. Of course some players wont be available if they end up signing long term deals this summer.

WESTERN CONFERENCE:

Anaheim: Sykora, Carney

Calgary: Iginla, Warrener, Kiprusoff

Chicago: Thibault

Colorado: Hedjuk

Columbus: none

Dallas: Turco, Arnott

Detroit: Lidstrom

Edmonton: Smyth, Dvorak

LA: Norstrom

Minnesota: none

Nashville: Sullivan

Phoenix: Gauthier, Morris

San Jose: Nabokov, McLaren, Marleau

St Louis: Pronger

Vancouver: Jovanovski, Ohlund, Morrison

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta: Savard

Boston: Thornton

Buffalo: Briere, Biron, McKee

Carolina: none

Florida: Jokinen

Montreal: Theodore, Koivu

New Jersey: Friesen, Langenbrunner, Elias

NY Islanders: Peca

NY Rangers: none

Ottawa: Chara, Redden, Hossa

Philadelphia: Johnsson

Pittsburgh: none

Tampa: Lecavalier, St Louis, Kubina

Toronto: McCabe

Washington: Witt

That is an impressive list. The Leafs would probably not exercise the option for Belfour’s contract for next season meaning the team would only have Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker under contract and over 30 million in cap room. This is the only logical step the Leafs can take to remain competitive sooner rather than later.

If the idea by JFJ is to get younger then that is a good plan for the team. Much too often, the Leafs have turned to aging veteran talent on their last legs. I am not sure if you could consider it tanking but the Leafs will certainly face some lumps this season. They may still be ok thanks to Ed Belfour stealing some games for them. But if they struggle they can be buoyed for next year getting a high draft pick and getting the chance at some younger free agents.

Players like Coliacovo, Kronvall, Steen, Wellwood, Stajan will have 1 more year of pro experience under their belts whether it be with the Leafs or Marlies and Rask is one year closer to coming to North America. This can only help the Leafs in their transition to get younger. And if they do miss the playoffs, they could add a nice prospect in the draft next season which early on is considered fairly deep.

There may be some hope to salvage this year. With little payroll available there chances of landing a top end player is limited. But they could fill their roster with cheaper talent like a Jason Allison, Eric Lindros and/or John Leclair who could take cheap deals with plenty of bonuses worked in. Players like Anson Carter, Ville Nieminen, Jan Hrdina, Chris Gratton are young still, and would probably come cheap like Jeff O’Neill did and would help the Leafs stay relatively competitive. THe Leafs could target a player like Martin Prusek or Brian Boucher to help give the team a decent backup to Ed Belfour.

Their major weakness though is defence and while we have seen many of the top blueliners go off the market, the Leafs may still target a top guy like a Gonchar or Hamrlik but unlikely. They may simply add a guy like Numminen or bring back Leetch to bridge the gap until next season and hope for the best.

Either way, things dont look that great for the Leafs this year, but are looking up for next year. They could still remain competitive by grabbing a few of the scraps that are left over from other teams, but dont expect much of a cup run for the time being.

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