Leafs Fans Must Sit Tight
Although many Toronto Maple Leafs zealots had me believe it, the sky did not fall when I awoke this morning, despite the outcome of the latest entry in the Tomas Kaberle saga.
And guess what? Kaberle's future with the Leafs does not dictate whether or not the team's short-term goals will be fulfilled. In fact, retaining the veteran defender may prove to strengthen the Leafs' chances at making the playoffs for the first time in the post-lockout era.
Don't get me wrong, I still believe it was in the Leafs' best interest to trade the veteran defender and acquire an offensive boost upfront. However, no one other than Burke is privy to the quality of the trade offers. Burke had made it clear he was seeking a top-six forward, and clearly those demands were not met.
Here's a question: Would you rather Burke trade Kaberle for spare parts? Keep in mind that Kaberle is a four-time National Hockey League all-star and has produced over 50 points three times, and once tallied 67 points in 2005-06.
If you answered yes, you're out of your mind. It's easy to get caught up in the trade hype, but at the end of the day it's nothing but uneducated hype.
Kaberle's future with the Leafs is currently unclear, and for now everything is speculation until we are told otherwise. He has experienced this sort of scrutiny before, so it's not as if he suddenly has no interest in playing for the Leafs after repeatedly making his desires clear. The man wants to wear the Blue and White.
While the Leafs have a glut of defensemen on the blueline, but this could be viewed just as much of an advantage as it is a disadvantage. Pre-season is just around the corner and this will give teams the opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of its talent. The Leafs currently have eight NHL-ready defensemen---Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn, Brett Lebda, Carl Gunnarsson and Jeff Finger. Logic dictates that Finger's contract should be absorbed in the minors, but what of Lebda and his new contract? Was he signed as a seventh defenseman? It doesn't make sense. And you can bet Gunnarsson will not wither away in the minors after his impressive stint with the Leafs last season.
Consequently, the Leafs have too much money tied up on defense. In fact, they have just over $27 million committed to the blueline, which leads the NHL by a wide margin. That is simply unacceptable when you consider the glaring weakness the team has on the forward ranks. However, and please excuse me for using such a cliche expression, but Rome wasn't built in a day. Consider that since Burke's inauguration as Leafs GM, he has implemented many new faces that have upgraded the team both in the present and for the foreseeable future. Whether or not his strategy to fast-track the Leafs to success is the right one is another story altogether. But you have to give the man credit, his vision has thus far implemented hope in a fan base desperate for the playoffs.
And that's why Leafs fans should sit tight and see what Burke has planned to rectify these issues. With Kaberle being the only defenseman heading into free agency next summer (Schenn and Gunnarsson are pending restricted free agents) , it begs the question if Burke is still interested in offering the 31-year-old offensive defenseman a contract extension. The ramifications could be astronomical when you take into account all the money that is committed to the blueline even without Kaberle's contract. Unfortunately, the Leafs do not have the prospects to resolve the team's lack of firepower internally, so if Burke hopes to upgrade in that regard, he will have to shed some salary from the back end. The most obvious targets would be Beauchemin and Kaberle, but with the latter's no-trade clause now in effect, it's unlikely he will be moved any time soon. And it is unrealistic to expect Beauchemin's $3.8 million cap-hit to be viewed as anything but a burden after a mediocre season. His current market value wouldn't muster anything more than some late-round picks and mid-level prospects, but the added cap space would give the Leafs some flexibility and options upfront. If the Leafs do play out the season with seven NHL-ready defensemen (excluding Finger's contract in the minors) it is likely that Gunnarsson may find a new home as a restricted free-agent next summer, as it unlikely the team parts ways with defensive stalwart, Schenn. And with the latter surely to be seeking a raise from his $875 thousand cap-hit (minus bonuses), there will be even more money committed to a blueline that has yet to realize its potential.
While it is a foregone conclusion that salaries must be moved on the back end, it may be in the Leafs' best interest to let the season play out and deal with this issue next summer, when they have more options and the value of certain players, like Beauchemin, may be higher. With his lone trading chip now protected, Burke must go to battle with his current group of forwards, unless he is willing to take a chance on one of the remaining free agents.
The Leafs have climbed considerable heights from the gutter they resided in for so long, but make no mistake, they are still in the process of getting out. Hiccups like these were a virtual certainty no matter what general manager took the reigns from Cliff Fletcher back in 2007.
Patience is a virtue. For now, let's sit tight and see how the upcoming season unfolds before formulating a bunch trade proposals.
Plus, I'm curious how effective the tandem of Kaberle and Phaneuf will be on the powerplay. It could lead to the resurgence of both players.