I've had a lot of discussions lately with people who have been lamenting Burke's inactivity in the free agent market. Part of this Burke has brought on himself by calling it "our draft". Having said this, my standard response to these people is, "what could he have done?".
The only real prize forward during this free agent period was Ilya Kovalchuk and the most common response that I hear is that Burke should have taken a more serious run at him. What if he had? What if he had made an offer to Kovalchuk that was strong enough to land the talented Russian sniper?
For sake of argument, we're going to assume that Kovalchuk's cap hit falls in the $8M per season range over the next 10 years.
Let's assume that Kovalchuk being added to the lineup results in 25 extra goals over last season's production (214 goals). A 239 goal season for the Leafs would put them sixth in the league as measured against last seasons' goal totals. Couple this with the improved goaltending and the kind of defense that the team expects from this year's edition of the Buds and a playoff spot is all but a lock.
After a successful 2010-11 season though the Leafs would find themselves in a very precarious position.
While Giguere's $6M comes off the books, he and Kaberle are the only significant contracts that are being substituted. Presumably, if Kaberle doesn't get traded then we'll want to keep him.
With so little available cash, the Leafs will have to re-sign top level RFAs in Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Tyler Bozak. Making this even more challenging will be the increased point totals that Bozak would likely reap skating alongside Kovalchuk. As a point of comparison, RJ Umberger makes $3.75M per season for a mid-fifty point season (which is Bozak's projected output without Kovalchuk). If he were to finish with closer to 70 points, Tomas Plekanec would be the comparable (at $5M per season).
Not only will signing RFAs be challenging, but filling any additional holes in the lineup will be all but inconceivable as there would be little to no money available for free agency. This means the lineup will be in stasis until 2012-13 when Beauchemin, Finger, Lebda and Grabovski come off the books. None of these players has an overly large contract and likely the cap space that they free up will be used to replace them with players that are of comparable stature.
Given these factors, signing Kovalchuk would likely make the Leafs a playoff team, but not a team that would represent a Cup favorite. They would be stuck as a 5-8 seed in the Eastern Conference for the next 5 years. Is this a result that Leaf fans would be truly happy with?
I was always a proponent of taking some kind of a run at Kovalchuk but 'some kind of a run' doesn't include giving him the term or the cap dollars that he's looking for. As much as I'd love to have a player of his calibre in the lineup, I don't like where it puts us longterm. So for this year we'll have to suffer -- hopefully next offseason we'll land a big-name scorer at a reasonable price.