Friday, July 2, 2010

Further Dismantling the Champs

kris versteeg hawks leafs
Burke’s speedy re-tooling of the Toronto Maple Leafs took a step forward this week. On the eve of free agency, Burke took advantage of the cap constrained Chicago Blackhawks and acquired Kris Versteeg and prospect Bill Sweatt in exchange for Viktor Stalberg, Phillippe Paradis, and Chris DiDomenico.

I maintained that future Leaf Patrick Sharp would be the player the Maple Leafs finagled out of the Hawks, but it’s clear that Chicago did everything in their power to keep Sharp because of everything he brings to the team. So instead of being current Leaf Patrick Sharp I guess we’ll still have to call him future Leaf Patrick Sharp.

However, acquiring Kris Versteeg is a pleasant consolation prize. Versteeg is only 24-years-old and just completed his second full year in the NHL. This was his second straight 20+ goal season, even though he primarily played on the third line thanks to Chicago’s tremendous depth up front. Versteeg is a capable defensive player and killed penalties for Chicago. This is good news for a Leafs team that struggled terribly when a man short for most of last season.

I think it is reasonable to expect an increase in offensive production from Versteeg considering he will now receive more minutes with the Leafs and will surely feature more prominently on the power-play.

According to Hockey’s Future, Bill Sweatt, a former second round pick, possesses the skills and intangibles to become a top-six forward at the NHL level. Sweatt is a very fast skater and just completed his fourth year at Colorado College where he accumulated 109 points in 143 games. He will be 22 by the time next season starts and will probably get an extended look during training camp, with an outside shot at making the team.

The main player the Leafs gave up is Viktor Stalberg, who scored a ton of goals during the pre-season and prompted him to be a late round selection in my fantasy hockey pool. I didn’t pick him, but I definitely thought about it. That's what happens when a bunch of homers play fantasy sports. Despite his Hall of Fame like pre-season, Stalberg struggled through much of his rookie year and ended with 9 goals and 5 assists in 40 games. Stalberg is a great skater, but seemed to lack enough awareness to truly harness his talent.

While Stalberg can certainly become a good NHLer in the future, which may be as early as this year because of the talent now surrounding him in Chicago, I really like this deal for the Leafs. They acquire an established NHL player who is actually younger than Stalberg and more versatile. Versteeg has also won a Stanley Cup, which is important to bring to any team, especially a young one such as the Leafs. The Leafs essentially add a valuable player that could prove integral to their core, while giving up non-core assets.

The other big news in Leafsland was the signing of Colby Armstrong to a three-year deal worth $3 million per season. Some people have cried that this is a classic case of overpaying (which is what you have to do in order to sign UFAs – there were probably tons of teams that offered $2.75 per season and the Leafs offered $3), but it seems pretty reasonable to me. Armstrong was making $2.4 million last season, so he’s given a $600,000 pay raise, and remember the cap limit has increased. Not bad.

Armstrong is a feisty player that Leaf fans will immediately love. He plays a physical game and can chip in around 15-20 goals a season. He’s defensively responsible and can kill penalties (Armstrong averaged around 2 minutes per game on the PK for the Thrashers’ 16th ranked unit). He’s certainly best suited for the third line, but can fill in on the second line as an injury replacement.

Today's big news was the re-signing of Nikolai Kulemin. After re-signing Kulemin to a very reasonable 2 year deal worth $2.35 million per season the Leafs have approximately $4.7 million left in cap space. However, this figure could be close to $12.5 million if the Leafs trade Kaberle and demote Jeff Finger to the minors. Christian Hanson needs to be resigned and Nazem Kadri will likely join the team next season, which makes the available cap space probably closer to $10 million – more than enough for Burke to acquire more talent (but obviously if Kaberle is traded there is money coming back). That’s good because the Leafs still have holes in the lineup.

Despite adding Versteeg and Armstrong there is still a need up front, although it isn’t as glaring as it was a few days ago. The easiest way to remedy this is by trading Tomas Kaberle (yes, we are still talking about this; it’s only been two years). Rumours suggest five teams have interest in the services of the slick puck mover. Burke’s plan to hold onto Kaberle until the free agency dust settles is smart. Now that the best free agent defencemen are gone the teams left out will increase their desperation, which can only benefit the Leafs.

Buffalo is the team that clearly lacks a defenceman of Kaberle’s skill, mainly due to their impotent power-play. They also head into next year with Craig Rivet, Jordan Leopold, and a sophomore Tyler Myers as their three best defencemen… that isn’t very good. Miller better be prepared to play out of his mind on a nightly basis because he won’t get much help. Although, if the Sabres best offer is based around Drew Stafford I don’t think that will cut it.

The Leafs will be a better team than they were last year. Considering they were 29th last season I don’t think they can get much worse. If their goaltending and penalty kill can play at the post-Phaneuf/Giguere trade levels then they should see a marked jump in the standings based on that alone. If Burke is able to acquire another top-six forward (Bobby Ryan! I mean why aren’t the Ducks signing him. Either give him his money of give him to the Leafs. Kidding, it won’t happen…right?) then the Leafs may be a surprising team next year.


Ted Rigby said...

For the past week or so I've been visiting several times daily in hopes of catching first wind of a Kaberle deal... he needs to go soon, for the good of my (little) remaining sanity!

Not sure about this Colby Armstrong fellow, I just remember him being somewhat of a cheap-shot artist... or is that just an excess of truculence?

Matt Horner said...

I'm pretty sure he's thrown a few cheap shots in his time, but Darcy Tucker was a notorious cheap-shot artist and Gary Roberts routinely drilled people into the boards from behind and I loved them both.

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