Minor-league shuffle: What Keith Aucoin brings the organization

Over the weekend, there’s been some fairly decent Leafs player movement. On Friday, of course, Nikolai Kulemin was re-signed a two-year deal. Leafs brass again negotiated a pretty stellar restricted free agency contract for a defensive winger coming off a dud season offensively.

Also Friday, Marcel Müller, one of the Marlies’ high-scoring forwards last season, is heading to MoDo in Sweden next season. In haste to replace his third highest scorer with the minor-league affiliate, the Leafs went out Saturday and signed not-quite-a-journeyman veteran Keith Aucoin to a two-way deal that will pay Aucoin a league-minimum $650K at the NHL-level and a respectable $350K in the AHL. 

Let’s get one thing straight here: Aucoin isn’t intended to solve any of the Leafs major problems. I do believe he was signed as an option to provide a replacement to Müller’s 14 goal, 47 point season out at Ricoh. Aucoin has never really been in danger of being an NHL regular. His career-high in games is 38, and he scored 5 goals and 13 points.

However, he’s always been an interesting puck-possession player at the NHL-level. It’s usually in small minutes or easy minutes, but he isn’t a player who is going to get killed territorially on a call-up. The only reason I’d be particularly wary of Aucoin in the NHL lineup is that it means the Leafs have exhausted all other options, which is a scary thought.

His other trait seems to be penalty drawing. He draws penalties at a pretty high rate, at 2.0 per 60 minutes in 2008 and 1.1 per 60 minutes this past year. All in all, he’s a better depth option than a lot of other AHL scorers, not necessarily for his scoring prowess in the minor leagues (70 points in just 43 games) but he does a few of the things in the margins that help the team.

The problem is that to be truly effective, he needs limited minutes and sheltering. I’m sure Burke is aware of this and he’s not using AHL filler roles to distract him from the task at hand. Rather, my worry is that the Leafs believe they’ve found their No. 1 centre in James van Riemsdyk and don’t intend to grab another guy for a try-out or for a mix.

This is why there was a little bit of frustration among the Leafs fans this weekend when the signing was announced. The reaction was very “is this the best you can do?” It’s an easier fix for an AHL roster spot than it is an NHL one. There are more AHL players floating around the free agent pool every summer.

I don’t think that this front office, one of the largest in hockey, spends all of its time or resources on one thing exclusively at a time. Dave Nonis, one of Burke’s assistants, made a trade at the start of the 2006 offseason that was roundly mocked. On June 14, he acquired Tommi Santala after the Vancouver Canucks had a disappointing end-of-season run that saw them fall short of the playoffs. While the Canucks needed more than a below-replacement centreman, Nonis fired back at his critics within two weeks by pulling off a deal for Roberto Luongo.

Whether this current Leafs management group accomplishes the same goal remains to be seen, but picking up a player to fill an AHL hole isn’t a problem, even if it doesn’t solve all of Toronto’s problems instantly. No single trade will make the team instantly better unless the Leafs can somehow acquire Luongo, Dan Hamhuis, and Ryan Kesler, but I doubt this is a likely scenario.

All you really need to know about Aucoin is that he’s been a dominant AHL scorer, even with his age, and he’s okay when he’s on an NHL fourth line. Leafs brass also don’t see too much more in him. He’s not waiver protected, but I doubt too many NHL teams envision themselves playing with Aucoin on their NHL roster. Otherwise, they’d have signed him to a deal worth more than the league-minimum.