Sunday, July 3, 2011

Hopping Off the Bradwagon: Richards to New York

tim connolly sabres leafs
The NHL’s free agency period opened on Canada Day and GMs everywhere went mad. July 1st isn’t usually a day of tepid, reasoned action: it’s a day of all out anarchy. This year proved even more extreme than usual. Because of the increasing salary cap and a general lack of difference-makers on the market, teams were outbidding each other to throw crazy money at mediocre players.

Teams like the Florida Panthers desperately needed to make the escalating cap floor and spent an inappropriate amount of money on players like Scottie Upshall and Ed Jovanovski.

Not only was the amount for a former third-liner obscene, but the term given out was maddening. Max Talbot for five years? Ville Leino for six? Crazy.

The Leafs wisely chose to avoid getting into a bidding war on free agents like Joel Ward and Scottie Upshall, who they likely had interest, but not for the amount players of that ilk eventually signed for. Some people in Leafs Nation were upset with Burke's inactivity, but at that likely stems from their desire to see something happen. Some tangible evidence of "progress". In reality, avoiding these deals and allowing a young player like Matt Frattin or Nazem Kadri to grab a roster spot is much more prudent.

The one bidding war the Leafs did engage in was for the services of Brad Richards – the only legitimate star among this year’s crop of mediocrity.

The Leafs were one of four finalists for the former Conn Smythe winner and reportedly offered more money than the New York Rangers (as did the Calgary Flames) (ed note: Darren Dreger just tweeted that the Leafs offer was actually 6-years, $42 million, so scratch that), but Richards chose the Rangers regardless. Ultimately, Richards’ preference was for New York and money didn’t really change that. Of course, he’s still due to make a considerable amount for a very long time – 9 years in fact.

I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t want the Leafs to sign Richards. For the greater portion of the last year I’ve dreamt of Richards landing in Toronto. However, the fact that Richards didn't sign in Toronto doesn’t represent a major failing for the Leafs.

We must remember that the Leafs are still a re-building club. Brian Burke is still overhauling the roster and signing Richards would have certainly sped up this process, but would not be a cure-all fix. Plus, having Richards for 9 years would also present itself with considerable risk on account of Richards’ age. Yes, Richards would immediately upgrade the Leafs, but his decision to sign with New York will not cause the Leafs to crumble – they simply have to find alternatives.

The first alternative the Leafs sought was Tim Connolly – the oft-injured centre from Buffalo. The Leafs signed Connolly to a two-year $9.5 million contract, which is certainly inflated due to this year’s market. Connolly scored 42 points last season in 68 games, but registered a career high 65 in 73 games in 2009-2010. Connolly is a playmaking centre and will hopefully mesh well with Phil Kessel, but he is also a huge injury risk. He has not played a full 82 game season since 2001-2002 and has managed only one season over 70 games since the lockout. He also has only scored over 50 points twice. Brad Richards he ain't.

Hoping that Connolly is the saviour for the Leafs, in the way Leafs Nation hoped Richards would be, is clearly delusional. However, Connolly represents a decent stop-gap solution for the Leafs until either Nazem Kadri or Joe Colbourne is ready for full-time top-six duties. As these two represent the Leafs two most promising prospects it is essential that they are not rushed into a role they are incapable of handling. The Leafs have wasted too many promising youngsters in the past and they can hopefully avoid this by allowing them to slowly develop.

It doesn’t really matter that the Leafs will pay Connolly nearly $5 million per season. The term is short enough that it isn’t cap constricting.

The Leafs also made another move on Sunday, acquiring Matthew Lombardi and Cody Franson from the Nashville Predators in exchange for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney. There is also a conditional pick involved as well; the Preds acquire a fourth round pick if Lombardi plays in 60 or more games, while the Leafs get that pick if he does not.

The Predators are so desperate for money to re-sign Shea Weber that they willingly added Fransen into the deal in order to avoid paying Lombardi’s $3.5 million per season for the next two years.

Lombardi is currently recovering from a severe concussion he suffered during the second game of the season. He’s a speedy, skilled centre that had a career year for Phoenix in 2009-2010, scoring 53 points. He hopes to have fully recovered and be ready for training camp, but at this point penciling him into the lineup isn't realistic.

The Leafs are in a financial position to take a risk on a player like Lombardi; if he is unable to play they can place him on LTIR without any worry because of their financial might. A budget team like Nashville doesn’t have that luxury.

Lombardi, if healthy, can also help the Leafs at centre. He certainly isn’t first line calibre, but neither is Tim Connolly. What Lombardi does provide is depth. With Connolly and Lombardi (in addition to Mikhail Grabovski) the Leafs are now much stronger down the middle than last season (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much).

Because the Leafs took this contract from the Predators they managed to acquire Franson, a 23-year-old, 6’5, 213 pound defenceman entering his third season in the league and final year of his current $800,000 contract. Franson scored 29 points last season and was a +10. The Predators did shield him a little, playing him against some of the opposition’s weaker forwards and starting him more frequently in the offensive zone, but this isn’t uncommon for a young defenceman. He seems to posses an emerging offensive game, something that is lacking among the current Leaf defencemen.

The Leafs’ defence now consists of Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, Keith Aulie, Franson, John-Michael Liles, and Mike Komisarek. Add in Matt Lashoff who played decently in his 11 game stint at the end of last season and the Leafs boast an impressive young group, especially with Jesse Blacker and Jake Gardiner in the minors. The Leafs could move out a defenceman at some point to gain scoring help up front, but there is certainly no rush. The Leafs can afford to exhibit patience and wait. Who knows, maybe a team trying to make the cap floor will actually trade for Mike Komisarek as well.

Failing to sign Richards wasn’t the news many Leaf fans wanted to hear on Saturday morning, but the team now has a lot of long-term financial flexibility. According to CapGeek, the Leafs have 20 players signed and over $10 million in cap space – more than enough to re-sign both Schenn and Clarke MacArthur (provided MacArthur is in Burke’s plans). I didn’t include Tyler Bozak’s name because it’s likely that Burke will look to move him in a package for the right deal, unless the Leafs management are sceptical about Lombardi’s chances of making the opening night roster.

There isn’t a true number one centre to play with Phil Kessel, but the Leafs are building in the right direction. They finally have a legitimate prospect pool and are in a position where they won’t have to rush any of them into a role they are ill prepared for. Tim Connolly isn’t the missing piece of the Leafs’ Stanley Cup roster, but he is an adequate stop-gap solution until the Leafs find the player who is.

1 comment:

Bo Jackson said...

JML is a nice stop gap until Jake Gardiner is ready as well. Leafs finally doing it right.

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