So the Toronto Maple Leafs have re-signed defenseman John Michael Liles to a four year contract with an annual cap hit of $3.875 per season. Who’s next for Brian Burke and the Leafs? Heading into this season Toronto had both Liles and Mikhail Grabovski due to become unrestricted free agents while 25 year old winger Nikolai Kulemin was – and still is – scheduled to become a restricted free agent. While Liles was an unknown at the time to the fans of the blue and white, both Grabovski and Kulemin were coming off career years.
Presently the Leafs have 33 games remaining in their season, and both Liles (when healthy) and Grabovski have been key contributors to the Leafs success. Before his injury Liles was among the top ten scoring defenseman in the league. He was also the quarterback to a lethal power play (ranked 3rd in the league at that point) as well as being a plus 2 on the season. The 30 year old Indianapolis born blueliner was also logging an average of 21.32 of ice time per game. Liles’ absence has been glaring during his recovery from a concussion, and I stated a couple of weeks ago that the Leafs should definitely take a crack at re-signing him.
Due to his youth and durability (previous to this year Liles has appeared in over 70 games in six of his seven seasons), I think this was a great move by Burke and his team of geniuses. Without Liles next season the Leafs would be desperately lacking a proven point producing puck moving defenseman. Management couldn’t realistically expect that Jake Gardiner would be able to fill that role all by himself next season. If Toronto is intent on competing for a playoff spot and greater next season than a veteran like Liles is necessary.
What now happens though with the remaining free agents in Kulemin and Grabovski? At this point (according to Capgeek.com) the Leafs have $52,923,333 committed in salary for the 2012-2013 season with the Liles contract. With the cap expecting to rise slightly from the current $64,300,000 there still doesn’t appear to be enough room to re-sing both of the forwards mentioned above as well as defenseman Cody Franson (another pending RFA). Keep in mind that Burke would like some room to pursue high level talent this summer to upgrade his roster. If the Leafs re-sign Kulemin, Grabovski and Franson to deals then Toronto’s options are limited at best this summer.
What is interesting is that Grabovski may be one of the Leafs most important players. Grabo is a leader both on and off the ice, which is illustrated by the ‘A’ he wears on his blue and white sweater. Last season #84 recorded 29 goals and 59 points, and is currently on pace to pass those career high numbers had he played a full season. Having missed six games earlier in the year with a sprained knee Grabovski is projected to amass 29 goals and 56 points heading into unrestricted free agency. In the preseason I wrote this in regards to Grabovski and his salary expectations. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to see the Leafs best two way player receive a $4.5 to 5 million dollar contract offer on the open market. Should the Leafs pay that amount to keep him? Grabovski seems like the type of player that would take a little bit of a home town discount to stay in Toronto, but appearances aren’t always a reality. Personally I thought Burke would have re-signed him by now, so I’m a little confused as to whether Grabovski is being included in a package for an impact forward around the league.
Another option that the Leafs may take is unloading under contract players in order to make room for both Grabovski and Kulemin. With this option available the rumours of Clarke MacArthur being offered around the league begin to make sense. MacArthur is in the first season of a two year deal that has an annual cap hit of $3.25 million. An emerging talent such as Nazem Kadri or Matt Frattin should be able to fill MacArthur’s shoes at a third of the price. I’m sure the Leafs would rather keep Clarke, but Grabovski is a more integral player and thus room needs to be made for him. Of course Toronto could also dump Matthew Lombardi and his $3.5 million dollar contract, but I think MacArthur holds more value on the trade market.
Should Burke successfully dispose of salary I see the 28 year old Grabovski re-upping for another 4 years in Toronto at a fair price for both sides anywhere between $4.25 to $4.75 per season.
A Blessing in Disguise
What about Kulemin? Coming off a 30 goal 57 point season, the defensively responsible Kulemin had seemingly set the bar for the foreseeable future. However this season has been one to forget so far. Having only scored 5 goals in 49 games, Kulemin is in the midst of his worst season in the NHL. Currently making $2.35 million in the final year of his deal, heading into this season people were not only expecting Kulemin to score many goals, but to also score a big moneyed contract. Had he met the lofty heights he established last season Kulemin and his agent could have expected to be rewarded between 4 to 4.5 million a season. With his struggles this year Burke and the Leafs may be able to re-sign the soft spoken Russian to a deal worth 3 million a season, 3.5 at the most.
Considering the salary crunch the Leafs appear to be headed into with Grabovski, Kulemin’s poor season will hopefully benefit the bottom line. With Liles’ new deal there was no way Toronto could have re-signed Grabovski and a productive Kulemin. With the money for Grabovski perhaps emerging from the deletion of a MacArthur, Lombardi or perhaps even a Luke Schenn ($3.6 million cap hit), and the lowered salary expectations of a struggling Kulemin, things may end up working out for Burke and the Leafs. At the moment it seems like fans of the blue and white seem to be in store for some interesting times ahead. Stay tuned.