Leafs Should Pursue Paul Kariya

The free agent market has dwindled to a handful of good players left and should dwindle even further with the expected signings this week of:

Ilya Kovalchuk – New Jersey
Lee Stempniak – Phoenix

It’s left a few good players around still looking for work with about 3 weeks until the opening of training camp.

Jose Theodore and Antti Niemi are goalies still waiting to be signed.

After Mitchell, there are little to no defensemen left to sign other than several depth guys like Mathieu Schnieder, Jay McKee, Randy Jones, Mike Mottau and Paul Mara.

Up front, the pickings are slim as well.

Mike Comrie, Marek Svatos, Bill Guerin, Clarke MacArthur, Kyle, Wellwood, Patrick O’Sullivan and Fred Modin are a few offensive players left over.

Jay Pandolfo, Scott Walker, Owen Nolan, Jeff Halpern, Brendan Morrison, Tim Kennedy, Adam Mair and Kirk Maltby are a few role players still left over.

For the Toronto Maple Leafs, it leaves very little to choose from in their efforts to bolster a forward group they have that still lacks experience, proven offense and depth.

Certainly the improved play of Mikael Grabovski, John Mitchell and Nik Kulemin will help as if their offensive output goes up, it will provide the needed offensive depth to support Phil Kessel.

The acquisitions of Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong along with the hope that Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri are ready for the NHL grind are imperative as well to the overall offensive picture. The team had just 1 player left at the end of the year, after their mid-season roster purge, who scored 20+ goals.

While its great to see the Leafs have some promising players in their lineup and some good youth for a change, leaning on hope or forcing players who aren’t ready to step up and produce as NHL veterans can be a recipe for disaster.

That kind of thinking got them into trouble last year when the team “hoped” Vesa Toskala would return to form or they “hoped” they could survive until the return of Kessel in November. Hoping clearly didn’t work.

Its clear, the Leafs need a proven player up front to help ease the pressure off of the youngsters. While they will likely still be put in positions to play key roles, you still need to put them in a position to succeed.

With the pressure to win immediately on in a big way in Toronto, it would be more hurtful than helpful to force the prospects into this position if they’re not ready.

Thus, to find a player that would both lead and produce and provide excellent support for Kessel would be a huge boon to the team.

The one free agent left over who could help in that regard is Paul Kariya.

Now, as the rumors suggest, Kariya, it says, wants to either stay in a small market or go back to California. Its been said he would like to re-unite with his good friend Teemu Selanne in Anaheim. With the injury setback of forward Jeoffrey Lupul, it seems the door is ajar for Kariya to return to where he started.

Also, based on his age, the fact he isn’t a “Burke type player” and has some injury history, Leaf Nation is probably not fully behind such a signing.

Kariya did not have a great season in St. Louis last year either, so is this player on the decline or just having an off year?

And obviously cost is a concern. He is a 35+ player. So his money/cap hit is guaranteed no matter what happens. He made $6 mil last year, the last of a 3 year deal. How much and how long does this player want to sign for? That is a major question and the Leafs are not a team with a ton of cap space.

But, as we’ve seen this summer, anything can happen.

Kariya would appear to be a good fit in Toronto.

As a former captain, he would provide leadership, especially up front where it is lacking. Would he not be a great mentor to the likes of Bozak, Luca Caputi, Christian Hanson and Kadri?

He is still highly skilled, even if he may have lost a step. With the Leafs owning one of the NHL’s worst powerplays, adding another weapon like Kariya would only help.

He is a terrific playmaker and with him and the returning Tomas Kaberle, that’s two playmakers to set up the likes of Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, their two big PP guns. It would make Toronto less predictable with the man advantage as teams usually guard Phaneuf and Kessel and make the other 3 players beat you.

Kariya is also someone who’s played for Leafs coach Ron Wilson before. He in fact had his most productive season under Wilson. While that was some time ago, he knows what Wilson expects and Wilson would know what Kariya could bring to this team, despite the advanced age.

Wilson employs a more aggressive style offensively than Kariya’s last coach Andy Murray (and Davis Payne) and that may suit Kariya much more than the stifling defensive first approach he played in St Louis. That style could allow Kariya to return to be a creative, dangerous player for maybe a couple more years.

We’ve seen his friend Selanne undergo a renaissance in old age and Kariya could find that last gear to his career before he calls it quits.

Is it a risk? Yes. Are the chances of this happening excellent? Probably not. But, Burke would be foolish to not look into this acquisition.

Right now, his trade avenues have dried up with Kaberle back and his NTC back in force. He has no 1st rounder to move and is likely and hopefully frowning upon moving a Bozak or Kadri or Luke Schenn for help now up front.

Sure, a Bobby Ryan or Jeff Carter would be fabulous for Toronto. But it will cost them something significant. A large piece of their current building process and to many, that’s potentially a setback to all the work Burke has done the last 2 years. Its likely too many in Leaf Nation are sick and tired of seeing good young players moved out of the Leaf organization and succeeding elsewhere.

Kariya will cost them nothing but money and term. The team has about 2 mil in cap space to use and likely more if they do the expected and bury Jeff Finger in the minors.

Kariya has been a hero to Canadian hockey at the Worlds and the Olympics and it would be just great to see him don the Maple Leaf once more, even if the colours are Blue and White.

Right now, the options are slim to none. Kariya though is a legit option available and if the Leafs are smart, they’d pursue in earnest. If not, its their loss.