Lost in all the All-Star hype was some big news out of Toronto this week, with veteran defenseman John-Michael Liles inking a 4-year deal that will keep him in a Leaf uniform through the 2015-16 season. For the blueliner that has never scored less than 30 points in his career, Brian Burke coughed up a cap hit of $3.875 million per year, with a total value of $15.5 million. The interesting part of the signing is that it comes at a time when trade speculation is at its yearly high in Toronto, with the trade deadline less than a month away and Burke’s propensity for swinging deals before the time constraints of the deadline can come into full effect.
While the initial response to the signing was a bit worrisome, the fact is that the Leafs cannot be the league’s youngest team forever, and having competent veterans on board is an integral part of a successful franchise. If there’s any indication of Liles’ value to the franchise, just look at how inept the powerplay has become in his absence. Despite the recent struggles, with Liles anchoring the man advantage, the PP unit was so successful that it remains one of the higher-ranked in the league. He’s a solid veteran presence, he moves well, handles the puck confidently and is defensively responsible.
The Leafs’ depth on the blueline, both now and for the future, is well-documented. Captain Dion Phaneuf is coming back into the form he displayed early in his career and is under contract through 2013-14, as is veteran Mike Komisarek, who has also played much better this season, although he’s going to have to continue to re-find his game to live up to that $4.5 million cap hit he’s got. Luke Schenn is signed as long as Liles is, while Keith Aulie and Cody Franson are both restricted free agents at the end of the season. Don’t forget Carl Gunnarsson, who has been one of the most consistent blueliners on the club this year, and young Jake Gardiner who’s been a revelation in his rookie year and celebrated his first NHL goal in the Buds’ last game before the All-Star break. A stockpile of talent in the farm system includes German Korbinian Holzer, Jesse Blacker, Matt Lashoff, Stuart Percy and of course, Jeff Finger (who is thankfully an unrestricted free agent at season’s end).
If I count correctly, there’s 8 NHL-ready defensemen already on the roster, with at least 4 more ready to be called up at any time. It’s no secret Burke appreciates the value of having numerous game-ready blueliners, and that strategy has already paid off this season as injuries have taken their toll and the Leafs’ blueline has managed to soldier on. However, with the duly noted need for a top 6 power forward up front and a number of teams looking for help on the back end, the fact that Burke has chosen to re-sign his oldest defenseman to a 4-year deal has done nothing to quiet the speculation.
Given the comments made by Liles with regards to why he chose to sign before hitting free agency (loved the city, the fans, etc.) and Burke’s high regard for keeping a good reputation with players around the league, I’d say it’s just about guaranteed that Liles won’t be shipped out any time soon. Phaneuf and Gardiner are both off limits, and it’s unlikely that anyone’s looking for Komisarek and the hefty price tag he comes with. The most attractive trade prospect for opposing teams would probably be Schenn, and while I’m personally not in favor of trading the big guy, and I don’t think Burke is banging down doors trying to get rid of him, he’s the chip that would bring back the most at the trade table at this point.
Gunnarsson could be a key piece of a larger package, as would Franson or Aulie, but with the shorter-length contracts they hold, in order to bring back a legitimate top 6 forward, such a package would also have to include some more valuable pieces. It remains to be seen whether Burke can even wrangle free a forward like the one the Leafs would need, but by re-signing Liles and indicating he holds him as part of his plan for the future, Burke has also shown he may be willing to move some of the pieces that would have once been thought untouchable.
I’m not in any way saying I want to see Schenn shipped outta town on the next flight, as I think he’s got huge potential, and knowing Burke’s penchant for building strong defensive clubs, it’s very possible that he doesn’t try and deal any of his blueliners. All I’m sayin is that if there’s gonna be a legitimate forward brought into the club, it’s not going to come cheap. So, if you had to deal one of the Leafs’ blueliners, which one would it be?