The say the answer to the headline is almost always no, and
in this situation we’ll clear that up immediately, and say that’s correct. The
answer is no. Of course, this is assuming the conventional approach, where the
Leafs go and throw too much money at a player who has impossible expectations
attached to them and will receive more money than God for the next seven years.
Yeah, we don’t need another Clarkson, Komisarek, Blake, Finger, or (insert the
name of one of the other many of other players this applies to).
That being said, there are two interesting options that make
me reconsider completely sitting out the opening of free agency.
Unqualified RFAs and Buyouts
Cat Silverman and Ryan Fancey have both recently run posts
on some players being bought out and how they could potentially fit as cheap
options for the Leafs in the short term. Stalberg, Richards, and Parenteau all
could be good short term options who could show they aren’t as bad as their
last deal, and could be worthwhile rental players by the time the trade
deadline rolls around.
In the case of Hodgson, he’s a 25 year old that is young
enough to get still get in on the ground floor of a Toronto rebuild, and as a
cheaper offensive option he could add some value to a Leafs team that will be
hopefully moving out some of its other offensive players. Hodgson is certainly
short on defensive zone ability, and that’s pretty indisputable, but if the
intention is to move out players with similar deficiencies (I’m looking at
Bozak and Lupul to start that argument, but it certainly applies to van
Riemsdyk and Kessel too) perhaps the Leafs can absorb some sloppy defensive
play while not continuing to have a top six that is a complete black hole once
the puck travels south of the red line.
The quality of unqualified RFAs has improved in recent
years, thanks largely to the new CBA and to the Leafs Mark Fraser blunder
around the understanding of the new rules of the CBA. With arbitration eligibility
moved up for RFAs, and teams required to accept any arbitration ruling under
three million dollars, there is the potential to get stuck with potentially a
worse outcome than paying Mark Fraser $1.3M a season (thankfully the Leafs just
had to overpay prior to arbitration, that number could have been real ugly.)
With potentially expensive RFA arbitration rulings looming,
teams are more likely to avoid qualifying players with arbitration rights. None
of these players are going to be amazing, in fact it’s a guarantee that they
won’t be, because you’d happily pay an amazing player more than $3M or risk
paying them that through arbitration, but what you do get is a crop of players
who might add some value in depth roles and in wonderful cases, are still
developing enough that they can be moved up in your roster. Players like Riley Nash, Scott Glennie, and Mark Barberio might not be the players that turn
around the franchise, but their the names of players that are all capable of
filling a role on the Leafs with some upside of beyond sitting at the bottom of
The Second Option:
Big Fish, Small Term
Our own Shawn Reis has informed we that what I am about to
suggest is very much an EA NHL GM type move, so I’ll apologize in advance for
suggesting it, but I feel it has a lot of merit for a team like the Leafs that
aren’t shy about spending money and this moment, still have the ability to
retain salary on two contracts.
The idea is essentially pretty simple, the Leafs go out into
the free agent market and offer excessively high contracts to top free agents.
(So far this should be sounding like the Burke or Nonis status quo). The
difference this time is that the contracts are only 1 year deals. And the deals
are offered with the promise that when the trade deadline rolls around the
Leafs will be willing to retain as much salary as possible in order to trade
that player to a playoff bound team. For an example, let’s say Mike Green is
seeing offers on longer term deals of around $7M average annual cap hit, the
Leafs offer him $9M for one season, and then will eat half of his salary to
trade him to a contending team willing to give up a first round pick or whatever
the player’s value dictates at trade deadline time. The player gets a big
payday, a chance to play on a very good team (at some point) and will get to be
a free agent again next season when they can chase a long term deal. The trade
off is of course that there is some level of risk involved regarding injuries
or drop off in play and I still can’t imagine top free agents in their prime
going for this.
However, there are a few exceptions that it may apply to.
For one, Cody Franson, who has expressed an interest in returning to Toronto.
If he’s interested in a short term return with a nice little payday attached,
he may have a chance to show he’s better than his last couple of months in
Nashville. There may also be interest with the older free agents on the market.
While Matt Cullen, Daniel Briere, and Erik Cole might not bring back the return
of a first round pick like I suggested with the Green scenario, rolling the
dice on veterans like these with the intent to give them a shot at the cup next
spring may be appealing for them and still gives the Leafs a means to
essentially buy more draft picks.
The Leafs of course are assuming some risk in this as well. With
entering into this situation with the intent to use their salary retention
spaces, that may tie their hands on any other deals involving salary retention
or require another team to take on the full salary of the player the Leafs have
signed. There is also the more obvious risks of players underperforming and not
having a market or injuries preventing the player from being traded. These are
smaller risks when you acknowledge the Leafs won’t be in a position to be good
next season anyway and the whether they are traded or not the contracts will
expire next June.
What to Expect
It’s much more likely that the Leafs lean towards going with
the first option in Free Agency. There are still too many moving pieces in the
organization to really look at option two until some current salary is moved
out. With the Leafs already having rumoured interest in Andy Miele and Sam
Gagner, it’s safe to say we can expect an unconventional free agency period
which is nice because it keeps Matt Beleskey out of Toronto.