Is Patience The Key To Toronto Maple Leafs Re-Tooling?

May 23rd, 2011 1 Comment

With the NHL’s free agent frenzy looming, there is every reason to believe that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke will be actively pursuing an unrestricted free agent or two in order to help firm up what many fans of the Blue and White believe to be a playoff team in 2011-12.

At the top of Burke’s wish list is a top-flight centre, as well as a puck moving defenseman and perhaps a quality backup goaltender as insurance for the soon to be sophomore James Reimer.

A quick look at this summers UFA list reveals that there are very few centres that would be able to serve as a true number one—actually, there is Brad Richards and not much else.

If you believe what Richards said to reporters while visiting Toronto last season, there is hope that he will at least entertain the idea of signing with the Maple Leafs.

“When the time comes, if that’s an option, Toronto’s always a No. 1 hockey destination. It would be great being a Canadian playing in Toronto, but we’re not even close to that bridge yet. And like I said, I’m focused here. I have so much respect for Joe Nieuwendyk, and to even talk about other teams is not even close to being fair”.

Of course, Richards’ comments were in response to the never ending trade rumors that surrounded the Maple Leafs and Richards all season long, but if you read between the lines, it appears as if Richards would at least entertain the idea of signing with the Maple Leafs, right?

A report from Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun back in February of 2011 suggests quite the contrary. Citing “an old Tampa source”, Simmons reported that Richards said he has “no real interest in Toronto”.

Now don’t get me wrong, Richards never said those words, but he was said to have shaken his head “no” when he was asked if Toronto was a real possibility by Simmons’ source.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The fact is, few teams will be able to afford the $7-9 million contract a player of Richards’ status could command—even with the salary cap expected to climb to upwards of $63 million this summer.

The Dallas Stars, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning have all been linked to numerous Brad Richards trade/signing rumors, with the Rangers and Leafs emerging as the most prevalent.

Fast forward to the 2012 crop of unrestricted free agents and what you’ll find is a list that is underwhelming to say the least—especially down the middle.
Patrick Sharp looks to be the top available centre, but how many of us actually believe that the Chicago Blackhawks will let him walk?

Shane Doan might be available, but at 34 years old, he’s hardly the answer to what ails the Maple Leafs, is he?

Former Maple Leafs draft pick Brad Boyes will be a UFA in 2012, but his skill set is not that of a true number one centre.

Which brings us to R.J. Umberger.

Umberger, who, like Shane Doan has been known to play both centre and wing, currently plays with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He has notched 20 goals or more in four of his six NHL seasons and is coming off a career high 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists).

But again, is 57 points enough to justify making Umberger a top line centre? And just how much upside does he have left?

With so few options via free agency both this and next summer, (outside of signing Richards this summer) Burke has two realistic options—trade for a legitimate centre or wait for his prospects to develop.

Burke holds two late first round draft choices (25th via Philadelphia, 28th via Boston) in this summers NHL Entry Draft which could help him obtain said centre. Realistically, two late first round draft pick’s will not net you a first line centre unless Burke is willing to throw in a legitimate prospect such as Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne or Jake Gardiner.

Viewed by many to be the Maple Leafs centre of the future, Kadri has looked less than stellar in his short NHL career (three goals, 12 points in 29 games played with the Maple Leafs), causing more than a few fans and scouts to change their tune on the oft defensively challenged Kadri.

Of course, one cannot ignore Kadri’s 17 goals and 41 points through 44 games with the Maple Leafs AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies, but even then, he appears to have some growing to do—especially to assume the number one role with the big club.

Colborne was acquired in the Tomas Kaberle deal from the Boston Bruins. While it is unfair to judge him on his short stint with the Maple Leafs AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies (eight goals, 16 points in 20 games), the book on Colborne is that he projects to be more of a second line centre and/or third line (centre or winger).

High-scoring Greg McKegg looks to be an excellent prospect, but his strength looks to be playing the wing. Simply slotting McKegg in at centre would be tough as making the transition to centre from wing is often trickier than it is perceived to be.

Kadri and Colborne gives Burke two legitimate prospects for the future, but with time running out on star forward Phil Kessel’s deal, Burke may opt to trade one of them away in order to bring in that top-notch centre now, instead of waiting for Kadri and/or Colborne to develop into that number one centre.

So, which centres may be available via trade this summer?

Try as he might, Ottawa Senators centre Jason Spezza never seems to be able to escape trade rumors.

Spezza struggled with injuries each of the past two seasons, registering just 57 points in both 2009-10 and 2010-11, in a combined 122 games.

Spezza has three years left in his seven year/$49 million deal which currently sees him carry a $7 million cap hit. Spezza also owns a no trade clause, but it is suspected he might be willing to waive his NTC in the event a deal came along to his liking.

Would Burke deal for a player that has never quite been the same since losing Dany Heatly? Better yet, would Spezza want to come to the high pressure hockey world that is Toronto?

The answer to both questions is probably “no”, but with few options on both sides, anything is possible, right?

Could a Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau become available from San Jose? Have the Washington Capitals soured on Nicklas Backstrom? Will the Jeff Carter rumors emerge again? Might the Stephen Weiss rumors find their way back into the headlines? Is Paul Stastny really available?

We could spend all day speculating on a multitude of other trade scenario’s, but at this point, there are few rumors emerging.

One thing is for certain, Burke will have his hands full when attempting to fill the gap down the middle—how Burke addresses that need will be one of this summer’s most entertaining stories to watch.

Until next time,

Peace!

1 Comment

  1. Nikolas says:

    This will be a very interesting off season for Burkie and the Leafs….

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