The Toronto Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs in five consecutive seasons after making them in six consecutive years from 1999 to 2004. Their win total has decreased for five straight years and the near future isn't looking much brighter unless Brian Burke can pull some magic this summer.
From 2003 to 2007, the Toronto Maple Leafs made only four selections in the first two rounds of the NHL Entry Draft. That means that they traded six of their ten picks (before making them) in order to improve in the short run. You can even add Tuukka Rask to the list as he was traded for Andrew Raycroft one year after being drafted. Amongst their other picks, Jiri Tlusty was traded this year, John Doherty never made the AHL which leaves Nikolai Kulemin as the only player currently in the Leafs organization. The future of the team is therefore in the hands of late round picks such as Viktor Stalberg, Anton Stralman, John Mitchell and Carl Gunnarsson (all picked in the fifth round or later) as well as draft picks from the last two years which include Luke Schenn and Nazem Kadri.
As we know, the Leafs also traded three of their next four picks in the top two rounds in exchange for Phil Kessel. It certainly is possible to build a team with free agency or with late draft picks but the odds of success are much lower than if they had a number of high draft picks ready to make the jump in the next year or two.
Let's take a look at the 15 players they currently have under contract for next season:
Dion Phaneuf - D - $6,500,000 - The Leafs traded Matt Stajan, Nik Hagman, Jamal Mayers and Ian White in exchange for Phaneuf and others earlier this year. It might not seem like much considering Stajan and Mayers were set to become UFA's but Phaneuf has a heavy contract at 6.5 million. Phaneuf came first in an NHL poll where players were asked who the most overrated player in the league is. I can't say I agree with this assessment but most would agree that he would not receive 6.5 million if he were a UFA this summer - Slightly overpaid.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere - G - $6,000,000 - He was pretty good in his final 15 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs but he has a save percentage of only 0.903 over his last 81 games. That is a pretty big drop from the 0.918 he averaged in 381 games from 2000 to 2008. He is still only 32 years old so he could return to the level he was at a few years ago, but 6 million is still way too much for him - Overpaid.
Phil Kessel - F - $5,400,000 - He is by far the best forward on the Toronto Maple Leafs even though the trade for him looks pretty bad at the moment. His statistics are very similar to Brian Gionta's who signed for 5 million with the Canadiens last off-season. It is therefore a fair salary for him but he could become a bargain in the next year or two if he gets to play with better players - Fair value.
Mike Komisarek - D - $4,500,000 - If I had to take a vote as to who is the most overrated player in NHL, I probably would have selected Mike Komisarek. He is a very intense player but he often gets out of position because he wants to hit, he is amongst the most undisciplined players in the NHL and he has only 62 points in 395 career games - Slighty overpaid.
Tomas Kaberle - D - $4,250,000 - Tomas Kaberle somewhat makes up for the salaries of Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek. He is above average defensively and has 258 points in 377 games since the lockout which made him one of the top ten scoring defensemen in four of the last five seasons - Great value.
Francois Beauchemin - D - $3,800,000 - He averaged 25:27 of ice time per game in 2009-10 including about three minutes per game on the penalty kill as well as the power play. His offensive stats are not particularly good but it was still a good signing by Brian Burke - Good value.
Tyler Bozak - F - $3,725,000 - Tyler Bozak was offered very large bonuses in order to sign with the Maple Leafs and has a very high cap hit because of that. He should develop into a pretty good player but he will be overpaid until his entry level contract runs out after next season - Slightly overpaid.
Jeff Finger - D - $3,500,000 - Jeff Finger is one of the worst signings of the past few years in the NHL but the good news is that the Leafs can stick him in the farm for the next two years. He'll be one of the highest paid players in the AHL but at least it will clear up 3.5 million in cap room - Overpaid.
Luke Schenn - D - $2,975,000 - He is another player with very large rookie bonuses who takes up a lot of room on the salary cap. Schenn was used for over 20 minutes in 13 of his final 30 games and should be used even more in 2010-11. He will also be overpaid until his entry level contract runs out at the end of next season but should be a very good defenseman in the near future - Slightly overpaid.
Mikhail Grabovski - F - $2,900,000 - He signed a contract worth 8.7 million over three years at the end of the 2008-09 season. He recorded 35 points in 59 games in 2009-10 and I don't see him getting much more than 50 points in a season. 2.9 million dollars per season is a lot of money for a 50 points player who is a liability defensively - Slightly overpaid.
Nazem Kadri - F - $1,750,000 - It is pretty safe to assume that Kadri will make the team next season. He was very impressive in the training camp and in his one game with the Maple Leafs this season. His offensive production will depend heavily on his ice time but he could easily record 40 to 50 points in his rookie campaign - Fair value.
Colton Orr - F - $1,000,000 - He was dressed for every game this season but played only 6:51 per game - Fair value.
Viktor Stalberg - F - $850,000 - He was the second best scorer on the Marlies with 33 points despite playing in only 39 games and recorded 14 points in 40 games with the Leafs. He could eventually be a pretty good second line player in the NHL but probably not for another season or two - Fair value.
Luca Caputi - F - $833,333 - Caputi has been a good player in the AHL in each of the past two seasons and looked good late in the year with the Leafs. He is two and a half years younger than both Bozak and Stalberg and could breakout as early as next season - Fair value.
Carl Gunnarsson - D - $800,000 - Gunnarsson looked surprisingly good when he joined the Leafs this season and was rewarded by Ron Wilson. He is still young but any defenseman who plays over 21 minutes and costs only $800,000 is a bargain - Great value.
Here's what you have when you put all that together:
Great value: 2
Good value: 1
Fair value: 5
Slightly overpaid: 5
Total Cap Hit: $47,033,333 (assuming Jeff Finger plays in the AHL in 2010-11)
The Toronto Maple Leafs defense is pretty much set for the 2010-11 season with Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Tomas Kaberle if he is not traded. In net, playing time will be split between Giguere and Gustavsson. Gustavsson will probably receive a small increase over last year and earn between 1 and 1.5 million depending on the length of his new contract.
On forward, the Leafs should resign Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell and Christian Hanson for a total of about 3.5 to 4 million. Add that to Gustavsson's contract and the Leafs will have 19 players under contract for a total of about 52 million dollars. Assuming the salary cap stays approximately the same, it would leave about 5 million to add two forwards and a seventh defenseman. If the Leafs are able to trade Tomas Kaberle for draft picks and good young talent, it could clear an additional 4.25 million and allow them to make a move for top end talent like Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrick Marleau or Alexander Frolov.
It will once again be very difficult for the Toronto Maple Leafs to make the playoffs in 2010-11 and Brian Burke knows that. When he made the trade of Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala for Jean-Sebastien Giguere, he was losing 2 million in cap room in 2010-11 but gaining 4 million in 2011-12. In 2011-12, the Leafs will not only get rid of Giguere's contract but also save on Bozak and Schenn's contracts. Young players like Kessel, Bozak, Kadri, Kulemin, Stalberg, Caputi, Schenn and Gustavsson will improve and the additional cap room will allow them to add another forward for the top two lines at 4 to 5 million. Their success this season will depend on how Brian Burke spends his money in the off-season but I see them finishing with 80 to 85 points.