Monday, July 30, 2012

Building to 2013: Technically Not A 5-Year Rebuild

After 7 consecutive years of failing to qualify for the post-season, it’s fair to characterize the mood of devout leaf fans as pessimistic - and that’s probably putting it mildly. Much like the promises of idealist politicians, we’ve been subjected to nearly a decade of speeches from team management with promises of ‘this time will be different’. While we all take great joy in pointing proverbial finger and using revisionist history to lord our superior intellect over MLSE brass, it would appear that finally, perhaps mercifully, this coming year will be different. More specifically, this coming offseason will be different.

With the Blue Jays and Raptors in a perpetual state of rebuild (although the Jays have been a .500 team for almost a decade, and are plagued by an archaic MLB playoff structure, don’t get me started) it’s understandable that we Torontonians have grown tired waiting another season for success. I won’t pretend to know exactly how long Jays or Raps fan will have to wait, but for us, the 2013 offseason could be the crescendo of Brian Burke’s tenure as Leafs' GM.
Upon arriving in Toronto, Burke made strong statements about the forthcoming truculence of the team he would assemble, and the voracity with which the team would approach yearly free agency, memorably referring to it as “our draft”.
Since then the term ‘truculence’ has taken on a more pejorative tone, as the media and fans lament the Leafs' lack of toughness and size throughout the lineup. Likewise the promise of big name free agent signings has gone unfulfilled with misses on Ilya Kovalchuk, Brad Richards, and the Sedin brothers (who never actually become UFAs, leaving Burke with an expensive plane ticket to Sweden to visit one Jonas Gustavsson) to name a few.
We've all been quick to judge, and in some instances to mock, Brian Burke for his many rules and ideologies; a self imposed trade embargo during the Christmas holidays and rallying against the long term, cap circumventing contracts of Kovalchuk, Luongo, Richards, and Weber, to name a few. However, Burke has quietly put the team in an enviable position heading into the 2013 free agent market, with a substantial amount of cap space.
If we can assume for a moment that the cap remains around $70 million, the Leafs will have close to $30 million in cap space heading into the 2013 off-season. Now this number is a bit misleading, since some of the players becoming free agents will likely be kept and given raises, such as Gunnarsson and Lupul.
Even with a conservative estimate the Leafs should find themselves with at least $20 million in available cap. All this, with a core that would already include Kessel, Van Riemsdyk, Phaneuf, Gardiner, Kulemin, and Grabovski. The UFA class of 2013 could be the most talent laden of any since the lockout. Below are some of potential names available, for a full list of upcoming UFAs you can visit cap geek here.
Jarome Iginla
Corey Perry
Ryan Getzlaf
Scott Hartnell
Mike Fisher
Mart Streit
Brendan Morrow
Derek Roy
Nathan Horton
Ryane Clowe
Stephen Weiss
Valtteri Filppula
Patrik Elias
Niklas Backstrom (G)
Kari Lehtonen (G)
I’ll try not to start playing the role of Fantasy GM, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the potency of a first line featuring Kessel-Getzlaf-Perry. Role players like Ryane Clowe and Brendan Morrow on short term deals could bring a much needed edge to our bottom two lines, with Clowe obviously capable of a platoon role in the top 6. It’s hard to imagine Detroit allowing Valtteri Filppula to walk after their much publicized failure to land either Suter or Parise this off season, however, Filppula, if available, brings the kind of offensive flair and defensive responsibility that we Leafs fans crave.
Of course, as with all wishful thinking, reality often gets in the way, ruining our collective playoff daydreaming and parade route planning. Some of the names above will be re-signed by their current teams, deciding against free agency. We’ll have to wait and see how and if the new CBA rewards players for staying with their current teams, perhaps in a way similar to the NBA’s salary structure that financially rewards players for staying put.
It will be interesting to watch what unfolds in Anaheim this year, as the team underwent significant struggles last season, and you wonder whether Perry and Getzlaf will want to re-sign long term if the team appears in disarray. Burke, one assumes, has a strong relationship with both players, having won a Stanley Cup together in 2007. That's not to say they're sure to come to Toronto, as we witnessed with the Sedins, but it is certainly an advantage other teams will not share.
I by no means believe that the coming 2012-13 season should be taken as a complete wash. The team looks better on paper this year, and barring any further stray elbows from the likes of Brian Gionta we will be in a position to at least compete for a playoff spot in the East. As long as our prospects and young players continue to develop, and we see steps forward from Gardiner, Kadri, Rielly, and Scrivens, this year can be considered a successful one, with or without a trip to the post-season. 

With Kessel and Phaneuf in the final year of their respective contracts in 2013-14, this is the year where the team truly needs to prove its mettle.  With a young and developing core of players and a free agent crop that can legitimately be considered "our draft"-worthy, this is the season where this group of players needs to seriously assert itself.  While this season is an important one from a development standpoint, what’s important to remember is that everything that happens this year is a precursor to 2013-14 when things absolutely has to come together for Brian Burke's assembled core of Maple Leafs.

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