Leafs need an established goaltender, not another project

If the Toronto Maple Leafs hope to acquire an established goaltender, Brian Burke will have to explore the trade route.

Considering the unrestricted free agent class is absolutely skeletal in terms of starting goaltenders, and Burke’s abysmal track record in free agency, that should sit well with most Leafs fans.

The issue, of course, is that one of the prime goaltending options is now a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. According to CBC’s Elliotte Friedman, the Leafs were not interested in granting a second year to Vokoun, so the 36-year-old goaltender wound up with the Penguins at an affordable cap-hit of $2-million for the next two years. I can’t help but sigh knowing the Leafs could have had a) a cheap, veteran goaltender, and b) one who could have served as a stop-gap while James Reimer, hopefully, develops into a starting netminder.

But that ship has sailed and the Leafs must look for alternative options. What options, you ask? Well, it appears there’s really only one. Unless the Leafs are banking on the other guys… which would really place this organization in a state of peril.

But who are the other guys? Well, they’re a collection of goaltenders that are either unestablished, washed up or career back-ups. Whether it’s via restricted free agency or unrestricted free agency, the Leafs could hypothetically acquire one of these goaltenders for relatively cheap.

Josh Harding, Anders Lindback, Martin Biron, Dwayne Roloson, Antero Niittymaki, Chris Mason, Scott Clemmensen, Alex Auld, Ty Conklin and Dan Ellis are some of the names on the list. No offense to any of these goaltenders, but acquiring any of them would be a fatal mistake for Burke and the Leafs. Harding, at nearly 28 years old and with a career save percentage of .916, undoubtedly tops the list. And while his statistics suggest he’d offer the Leafs above average goaltending for the first time since the lockout, he played a career-high 34 games last season. Also consider that he played within a defensive system in Minnesota and would, sadly, be exposed to much more behind the Leafs’ current defensive unit. Subsequently, Harding would be a project for the Leafs. And with Reimer and Ben Scrivens on the sidelines isn’t that position already filled? The Leafs don’t require another patch job or high-risk move. They need an established goaltender that can handle the bulk of an 82-game schedule and allow Reimer to take a lesser role and develop outside of the intense spotlight of being a starting goaltender in Toronto. Reimer and Scrivens are projects and should be treated as such, acquiring similar players would simply be lateral movement and poor management on Burke’s part.

So, who’s left that the Leafs could potentially acquire? Well, Roberto Luongo, of course.

Rumours of the Leafs acquiring the 33-year-old goaltender have intensified of late but most of it is unsubstantial. TSN’s “Insider Trading” segment shed some light on the matter and revealed the Leafs are indeed interested in Luongo, as are the Florida Panthers. Not exactly earth shattering news, but interesting nonetheless. While the glove certainly fits it wouldn’t have been surprising if Burke looked the other way since he may not want Luongo for another six years (the last three years on the contract are easily bought out and probably won’t be played, which is something else Burke dislikes).

Personally, I was hoping the Leafs would target Vokoun and consider Luongo as a consolation prize (since the team is on his list of preferred destinations). But since that won’t be happening, there’s really no other choice but for Burke to orchestrate a trade to acquire the goaltender. Ideally, the Leafs can move out a big contract in return, but there’s no sense in playing armchair GM at this point.

What really matters is what will happen if Burke fails to acquire Luongo or any other established goaltender. Leafs fans may as well kiss the 2012-13 season goodbye and root for a Nathan MacKinnon draft pick. It’s not that Reimer is a failed project, but relying on a project, for the most important position on the ice, to vault the team into the postseason for the first time since the lockout is foolhardy. If the Leafs miss the playoffs again it would likely mean the end of the Burke era. Considering the Leafs have seven unrestricted free agents (Tim Connolly, Joffrey Lupul, Matthew Lombardi, Clarke MacArthur, Colby Armstong, Tyler Bozak and David Steckel) next summer, which would free $21.35-million off the salary cap if they were all let go, with only one RFA in Carl Gunnarsson, it would be an ideal time to get a new general manager if Burke fails.

I’m willing to give Burke the summer to see how he sorts everything out, but if an established goaltender is not acquired by the time next season starts, consider me removed from the Burke bandwagon.

You stay classy, TCL.

Follow me on Twitter @RonGuillet