There are opportunities abound for the Toronto Maple Leafs to take advantage of over the next couple months that may very well define the relative success or potential failure of their pending rebuild, their ability to restock the prospect cupboards and finally the acquisition of additional draft picks. By the trade deadline this year there should be a significant focus on acquiring as many draft picks and prospects via trades for current roster players as they are able, of which there should be no question however there are two additional ways management should explore to assure the rebuild goes as smooth as humanly possible. That would be cap space management while acquiring influential veteran leadership with the potential to be turned into assets during the next trade deadline and professional tryout invitations at training camp.
With the number of Toronto players that are rumored to be on the trading block, one can hopefully assume that the Leafs will have a lot more cap space available to them before the end of the year. Any available cap space the team manages to generate in the near future will be absolutely vital in their rebuild efforts as it will open up a number of new avenues for the club to explore, especially if they attempt to acquire younger players from cap maxed teams. This space could also be used to potentially absorb other teams less than desirable contracts, an asset which if properly negotiated could yield additional players and picks.
Off-loading current players will also require the team to start plugging positional holes, which if properly approached, could be used to their advantage. Taking a more in-depth look at the potential UFA market for older veteran defensemen as an example, perhaps there is a player or two available that could be had at relatively low cap hits and/or short term contracts that could aid the team two-fold. If for example Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf is dealt over the summer, it would immediately open a roster spot on defense and there should be some focus on signing a player to a contract who has the potential to be trade bait by the next trade deadline AND is capable of lending a veteran hand in developing current Leaf prospects. Players like Robyn Regehr (34 years old), Johnny Oduya (33), Scott Hannan (36), Carlo Colaiacovo (32) or Keith Ballard (32, depending on whether he chooses to retire after suffering another concussion back in December). They may not be the best defenseman available to the team and all have slowed a step to be certain however they are all veteran NHL players who could be signed to inexpensive, short term contracts and depending on their personality, may also be the influence needed on such a young defense core.
Although the main stream media recently made mention that the Maple Leafs are now rumored to be considering retaining Roman Polak’s services due to his mentor-ship qualities and relatively low cap hit that does not expire until next year, this would be a significant mistake in my opinion. Given how well Polak has been playing as of late and paired with the agreeable cap hit will make him enticing to teams looking to make a playoff push. Unless the potential returns are really poor, the Leafs should not hesitate to pull the trigger on a deal that lands them additional future assets especially if you can find an inexpensive serviceable veteran leader for next year that really just costs you money, something the Leafs have plenty of.
This thought process could also be applied to UFA forward’s over the summer with a focus on obtaining teachers and mentors who are also capable of filling holes in the lineup; who could potentially develop into trade-able assets by next years deadline. For example, if the Maple Leafs were to part ways with center Tyler Bozak, perhaps there should be focus on obtaining the services of a veteran player like Brad Richards over the summer who is a pending UFA and although has slowed over the years, still put up 31 points in 57 games to date or perhaps Daniel Briere who before his buyout still looked to be good for 20 goals a season.
On the flip side if management were able to part ways with players who have high cap hits perhaps the focus with available cap space should shift to potentially absorbing the likes of Vincent Lecavaliere’s contract from the Philadelphia Flyers who has three years left on his contract ($4 million next season and $3 million for the remaining 2) or perhaps Mike Richards who the Los Angeles Kings currently have buried in the AHL playing for the Manchester Monarch’s (paying him $6m next year and $5.5m, $4.5m and $3m over the next 3 years). The team would be essentially buying the draft picks or prospects that came along in the trade but the veteran player coming over could be the mentor this teams youth will so desperately need over the next couple of seasons which will undoubtedly be trying at times.
Thinking outside the box, one other potential adjustment Maple Leafs brass should consider making over the summer is their approach to training camp. They really should consider rolling the dice and extend a significant number of pro invitations to former NHL players currently plying their trade in Europe or elsewhere. Players like Peter Mueller who has expressed an interest in making a return to the NHL in the past (attended the St. Louis Blues camp but was not signed) who at 26 still might be worth investing in or perhaps the likes of Ryan Malone who’s agent I would get in touch with yesterday and tell him to start getting prepared for potentially his last shot at the NHL. The college free agent market should also be re-explored. Under Brian Burke the Leafs were fairly active in this area which really faired no worse in producing NHL caliber players (like Ben Scrivens and Tyler Bozak) and if you are further able to sign some of these players to AHL only contracts it would allow you to further build up your prospect pool.
Hopefully the team will continue to support the concept of a complete tear down while implementing some out of the box thinking no matter how uncomfortable the processes may be, anything else will just have them revisiting the past.