The turmoil that surrounds the opening day of free agency can often leave teams with immovable contracts for the forseeable future. The allure of acquiring impact players without relinquising assets can blur the line between a conservative and aggressive approach to remedy team needs. And, as often the case, it could make or break a general manager's future.
In the case of the Toronto Maple Leafs' general manager, Brian Burke, this off-season could well determine his fate in Toronto. With approximately $22-million in cap space (assuming the cap raises $4-million) and restricted free agents Luke Schenn, Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak, Luca Caputi, Ben Scrivens, Jay Rosehill and Christian Hanson to re-sign, Burke should have at least $12-million (if not more) to play with in free agency. What his gameplan is to address the Leafs' needs is anyone's guess, but unless he pulls the trigger on a blockbuster deal at the Draft, it's safe to assume he'll be active when July 1 hits. It's no secret that the Leafs' biggest need is a centerman, and considering Brad Richards is by far the best option available, Burke will undoubtebly explore that avenue. But another pressing need for the Maple Leafs is an offensive defenseman to replace Tomas Kaberle. Leafs fans no doubt are hoping for Carl Gunnarson to fill that role, but he's unlikely to blossom into an elite puck-moving defenseman anytime soon. And sure, if Dion Phaneuf's second-half production is any indication (1 goal, 11 points, -8 in first 33 games; 7 goals, 19 points, +6 in last 33 games), he'll help lessen the void and contribute on the powerplay with consistency. But the Leafs cannot rely on Gunnarson, Schenn or any other defensemen on the roster to adequately fill the role as the powerplay quarterback.
While options are limited in the free agent market for offensive defensemen, the most intriguing are Christian Ehrhoff, Joni Pitkanen, Kevin Bieksa (more of a stay-at-home defender despite two 40-plus point seasons), James Wisniewski, Andrei Markov and Ian White (I'd love to see him back in Blue and White). In terms of offensive talent, Ehrhoff probably tops the list, and because of the fact he'll likely command at least $4-million. Should the Leafs make a serious pitch for Richards, there should be a sufficient amount of cap space left to sign a defenseman of Ehrhoff's caliber. If Burke does manage to import both a centerman and offensive defenseman, thus filling the team's two biggest needs, the powerplay should see a drastic improvement from last season (which ranked 23rd overall). With more firepower upfront---not to mention the inclusion of an elite playmaker--- the Leafs would add new dimensions to its offense, and thus create more offensive opportunities for its defensemen, especially Phaneuf's slapshot from the point.
This is all hypothetical, but for once, the Leafs have the cap space to match any offers teams will make to unrestricted free agents. If Burke wants to compete in the playoffs in the present instead of the future, and we all know that's the case, then you can expect an aggressive approach this off-season to remedy his team's needs. While many in Leafs Nation may wish to avoid such an approach and develop internal assets to fill the team's needs instead, it's just not feasible considering the current state of the Leafs. To realistically and succesfully execute that approach, the Leafs would have to rebuild the traditional way, and we know that's not happening with Burke at the helm. And it is due to this fact that the off-season of 2011 may very well determine Burke's future in Toronto. The pieces are beginning to connect, and Burke's vision of the Leafs will come to fruition very soon. Whether that translates into success is currently unclear, but for the first time in a long time, Leafs fans have legitimate reason for optimism. And that's something.
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