Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Looking ahead at th Maple Leafs' free agents

Looking ahead to next summer, the Toronto Maple Leafs have 9 players who will be free agents which includes 4 that will restricted (RFAs) and 5 that will be unrestricted (UFAs). So you need to begin thinking strategically about what your plans are for each one of those players - sign, let them walk or trade.

Here is the list of free agents and their 2011-12 salary:

Nikolai Kulemin ($2,350,000)
Cody Franson ($800,000)
Keith Aulie ($733,000)
Jay Rosehill ($600,000)

John-Michael Liles ($4,200,000)
Mikhail Grabovski ($2,900,000)
Jonas Gustavsson ($1,350,000)
Joey Crabb ($750,000)
Darryl Boyce ($700,000)

There are some tough decisions to make. Starting with the UFAs, Liles and Grabovski will be looking for contracts that pay in the neighbourhood of $5 million per season. Some fans will say well just pay them. Except the Leafs are just about at the salary cap so they won't be able to accommodate that many raises. Brian Burke has suggested that the Leafs need to get bigger in their forward ranks which suggests Grabovski might be on the move this winter. Liles has done an excellent job quarterbacking the powerplay so he is a candidate to stay but the Leafs have cheaper alternatives in Cody Franson and Jake Gardner as well as depth at the blueline. If Liles stays then someone else will be moved. Gustavsson looked like he had played his way off the team but now I'm not so sure. A decision can't be made on the goalie until the end of the season. As for Crabb and Boyce they may be back depending on their salary demands. Last season Tim Brent was offered a 2-year contract by Carolina so he walked.

The RFAs can't just walk and there has been some reluctance by competing GMs to sign someone else's RFAs. So the toughest part is determining what they're worth. The most difficult will be Kulemin who had a break out year last season with 30 goals then struggled to score this season. Does he get paid like a 30-goal scorer or a 15-goal scorer? Franson, Aulie and Rosehill will be easier to deal with especially the last two since they haven't been NHL regulars.

All this can change if Burke packages some talent for a player to skate alongside Kessel and Lupul. Expect that trade to occur by early February. Burke does not like to deal at the trading deadline when prices go off the chart.

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