Breaking Down the Leafs' Offseason So Far: Part 1 - Free Agents

Yes, ladies and gents, I’m still alive and writing. This summer has been a bit up and down here at Editor-in-Leaf, but with the season still almost two months away, we still have time to get ourselves all ready for what should be an exciting season. I’m going to start with a look at each aspect of the offseason, and how Brian Burke has handled it, and, of course, give my highly-valued opinions on the subject. First up – unrestricted free agents – in a segment I’m going to title “Thank Jesus, God and the Virgin Mary We Didn’t Sign Brad Richards.”

While everyone expected Brian Burke to make a splash on July 1, few people expected it to be for making headlines of his own by spending the opening day of free agency, less commonly known as Canada Day, with Canadian troops stationed in Afghanistan. The biggest names in free agency never realistically had any sort of chance of ending up with a Leafs’ jersey on. Brad Richards was always going to be a New York Ranger, Steven Stamkos was never going to be allowed to leave Tampa Bay, and whether Eklund believes it or not, Drew Doughty  will be a Los Angeles King before the start of next season. The fact is, as it’s been mentioned by numerous columnists and hockey analysts over the summer, very few big name players are given the chance to test the waters of free agency, as any GM with a brain between his ears won’t let them walk without at least getting a return on their investment. 

With some ridiculous contracts being thrown out by some clubs (really, Buffalo?), Burke was wise not to jump into the free agency pool. If there’s any Leaf fan that says they would be willing to pay for Richards for basically the next decade, or that they really wished Ville Leino and his new $4.5 million-a-year contract were in Toronto for the next 6 years – most likely the same people that still bitch about the Phil Kessel trade – they should just take a step back and seriously re-think their position.

No, Darryl Boyce, Philippe Dupuis, Joey Crabb and Mike Zigomanis (the unrestricted free agents Burke did sign) aren’t going to be the catalysts that bring the Stanley Cup back to Toronto, but all four are solid depth signings, none of which will cost the Leafs tens of millions of dollars over the next 6-8 years. Dupuis is likely the frontrunner for the job, as long as Matthew Lombardi remains in recovery from his concussion, adding a bit of speed and more offense than fan favorite Tim Brent brought to the table. Should Dupuis not pan out, Zigomanis is a very viable option, offering some of the best faceoff skills in the league, and excellent skills on the penalty kill. Boyce proved his worth last season, and will continue to be a solid backup option when the situation calls for it.

Editor’s Note: This paragraph was supposed to be included last night, but somehow got lost in the shuffle of saving and updating drafts. Thanks to a watchful commenter for pointing out its absence.

The biggest splash Burke made in free agency was the signing of Tim Connolly. A much-maligned, injury-riddled 2nd-3rd line center in the opinions of some, and a point-per-game top-six pivot with untapped potential in the eyes of others. While I’m not a huge fan of the money, with cap space to play with and a need for a playmaking center for Kessel, Connolly, if he can stay healthy (a big IF), will have two years and more than enough opportunities to prove that he can produce in a top-line role. He should be playing with a chip on his shoulder since Buffalo seemed to have no qualms about letting him go, and from all accounts, he has been making incredible efforts this offseason to prepare to prove that he can be the player that he has shown glimmers of in his career. A pretty low-risk, potentially high-reward situation if you ask me.

While there was no offer sheet to Stamkos like everyone wanted, Burke did a great job retaining the key restricted free agents that the Leafs needed to keep. Tyler Bozak never fit the bill as the top line center that we all wanted him to be, but working in a 3rd line role like he should in the upcoming season, he has a chance to show his true potential. Centering Colby Armstrong and an as-of-yet undetermined linemate should give the Leafs a third line that is not only capable of operating in a solid shutdown checking role, but still provide some offense.

James Reimer and Carl Gunnarsson were no-brainers. Both young players with a ton of upside, Burke would have been nuts to let these two get away. Reimer has been all but handed the starting job for next season, and will have every opportunity to be the first star goalie that the Leafs have had in years. Gunnarsson will benefit from the addition of John-Michael Liles, not in terms of playing time, but from the fact that he won’t be expected to be the second coming of Tomas Kaberle right away. There will be very little pressure on the young Swede, at least relatively speaking in hockey mad Toronto.

Finally, Clarke MacArthur was kept on after a breakout season that saw him blow away his personal bests in goals, points and assists. As many expected, he did get a pretty significant raise, but not to the ridiculous extent that we saw around the rest of the league. He’ll have another couple seasons to prove he’s a legitimate top six winger in this league. Letting him go would have been a pretty significant mistake, but thankfully, we don’t have to deal with that scenario.

Obviously, the biggest name in the Leafs’ pending contract pool is Luke Schenn, but I’m fully confident Schenn, who traveled with Burke on that immensely popular trip of his back in July (presumably as a bodyguard), will be back next year, hopefully for 3+ seasons and under $4 million.

Overall, the free agent market wasn’t exactly a bonanza for Burke and the Leafs, but I’m not entirely disappointed with the moves, or lack thereof, that Burke made. With the stupid money being thrown around, and the uncertainty surrounding the next CBA, Burke was very wise not to jump into the mix. I still think there could be a few options for the Leafs, including players like veteran center Chris Drury. So what do you guys think? Was Burke too frugal this offseason? Were there any players you would have preferred him to chase this summer? (And don’t say Brad Richards)

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