While the buzz in Leafs Nation is whether the Toronto Maple Leafs will acquire Brad Richards on July 1, general manager Brian Burke will still have options to improve his hockey team via free agency if he fails to acquire the coveted centerman.
The problem, however, is that those options would not improve the Leafs up the middle, but rather on defense and bottom-six positions. And if Burke is set on acquiring a number-one center to finally ail the Leafs' most glaring need, he will likely have to go the trade route or send an offer sheet to a restricted free agent---an unlikely scenario considering Burke's stance on the tactic. While there are other centers available in free agency, the most prominent names include Michael Nylander, Tim Connolly, Jason Arnott, Michal Handzus and Brooks Laich. The most enticing center available, both in terms of offensive potential and age, would have to be Laich.
Laich, 27, had an underwhelming season, dropping from the 20-goal, 50-point plateau he established himself at the two previous seasons--- it should be noted that all of the Washington Capitals' top pointers suffered a drop in production with the implementation of a defensive strategy, rather than the run 'n gun strategy they were previously (in)famous for. He did manage to rank second among Washington forwards in blocked shots (54), fifth in hits (113) and finished with a 51.3 faceoff percentage. While none of these statistics are particularly overwhelming, he is no doubt a valuable commodity as a secondary scorer. But therein lies the problem. The Leafs have an abundance of secondary scorers that cannot adequately fill the role as a first-line forward for a full season. Adding a center of Laich's caliber would bolster the Leafs' depth up the middle, but the lack of an elite centerman would, once again, cost the Leafs precious points in the standings. It is due to this fact that Burke will no doubt explore other avenues if he wishes to remedy his team's biggest woe. Otherwise, the Leafs will continue to spin its tires in the post-Sundin era.
While there are a number of intriguing free agent forwards---Tomas Fleischmann, Ville Leino, Simon Gagne, Erik Cole, Radim Vrbata, Michael Ryder and Jussi Jokinen among the list--- players of such caliber shouldn't be viewed as a necessity for the Leafs. With the likes of Clarke MacArthur (assuming he re-signs), Nikolai Kulemin, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri and potentially Matt Frattin on the Leafs' forward ranks, Burke should focus on acquiring more crucial needs.
With all that said, if Richards decides to sign with another team on July 1---assuming it doesn't take him weeks to decide---expect Burke to actively pursue a center through trade. Who that might be is anyone's guess---Jeff Carter and Paul Stastny have been linked to the Leafs before. And if Burke is offered a deal to acquire a number-one center at the NHL Entry Draft on Friday, does he pull the trigger and avoid the risk of losing all his options? Only time will tell, but the next couple weeks will be defining for the Leafs and Burke.
Considering the circumstances, if I was a betting man, I'd put my money on Burke offering Richards a lucrative long-term deal. If the Leafs are that desperate to acquire a number-one center, it is logical to absorb a large amount of money towards the cap as opposed to relinquishing an already limited amount of internal assets.
Bring on the Draft.
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