Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The New Landscape And The Toronto Maple Leafs

Brian Burke has come under a lot of fire as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  The team has yet to make the playoffs during his tenure and the rebuild-on-the-fly is now entering the territory of the 5-year rebuild that Burke said he had no interest in.

In many ways though Burke's failures to date have been the product of a flawed system.  When the now-expired CBA was signed, the majority of the league --or perhaps all of it-- didn't foresee the opportunity that back-diving contracts would provide teams who sought a competitive advantage over their peers.  Moreover, the cap was supposed to provide cost certainty and eventually reach some kind of equilibrium.

What we saw instead was unprecedented and unevenly distributed revenue growth for a league where the salary cap is tied to revenue.  As such, the cap rose significantly every season which in turn allowed teams to retain any unrestricted free agent who didn't want out for non-financial reasons.  The rising cap, the team's lack of valuable assets, and Burke's unwillingness to circumvent the spirit of the CBA meant that the "July 1st is our draft" strategy was completely untenable for reasons which were, at the time, largely unforeseeable.

The new CBA, once signed, appears as though it will put the Leafs in a good position to succeed moving forward.  The salary cap is set to drop by about 14% which would see it settle in at roughly $58 - 60M.  The Leafs, prior to any buyout amnesty which may or may not exist, will have about $39.7M committed to the 2013-14 roster during an offseason rife with high-end UFAs.

In addition to cap space, Burke will likely be armed with a CBA-defined term limit on contracts that players can receive, something which will likely save him from his own principles and allow him to be a player on July 1st rather than a spectator.  Aaron Ward tweeted this morning that, "NHL plans to relent on player contracting issues.  Player contract length remains important to the league." If the league were to cede the players arbitration rights and leave the age for free agency more or less intact, would the Players' Association really dig in their heels on a term limit that impacts such a modest portion of its membership?  I'm skeptical. 

Moreover, the Leafs aren't one of the teams who could potentially end up receiving a back-diving contract spanking from the new CBA.  Initial reports suggested that teams who had signed players to longterm deals would be on the hook for that player's cap hit should the player retire in advance of a deal expiring.  Bad news for the Flyers, among others.  Burke is generally seen as a GM who has his finger on the pulse of league management and I don't think it would be unreasonable to assume that he was aware of the widespread displeasure that many of the league's owners felt with how certain teams were conducting their business.  I wouldn't suggest that he absolutely expected punitive measures to be forthcoming but I don't think it's a stretch either.

What the Leafs have heading into this new CBA is flexibility with regard to their roster (cap dollars and roster spaces), a number of ELCs who appear ready or nearly ready to play on an NHL roster, and one more season of Phil Kessel on a sweetheart deal.

Make no mistake, the Leafs roster leaves a great deal to be desired but the General Manager, whether it's Brian Burke or someone else, will be well positioned to set this team up moving forward.  We'll have dollars to spend that other organizations wont and with term no longer an issue, there's a very real chance that Toronto will be able to attract one of the A-list free agents set to hit the market in the summer of 2013.

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