Sunday, June 9, 2013

Searching for Better than Mike Fisher

jeff carter mike richards la stanley cup
For years the Leafs searched for an elite winger to flank Mats Sundin. Infuriatingly, once the Leafs finally acquired that elusive missing piecePhil Kessel—Sundin was retired. The quest then became searching for an elite centre to pair with Kessel.

Tyler Bozak has filled in on the top line about as well as you would expect a third line centre would, and somehow might parlay that experience into a major pay day this summer. GMs are truly stupid people once the free agent market opens.

Bozak didn't have to be the answer, however. There have been a surprising amount of No. 1 centres available through both trades and free agency since Mats Sundin left Toronto. Here is a rundown of who was available and what it would have cost the Leafs to acquire them. Considering the return demanded, maybe the last few years of Bozak won't seem so bad.

2012 - Jordan Staal

Traded to Carolina for: Brandon Sutter (23-year-old 3rd line centre), Brian Dumoulin (2009 2nd round pick, defenceman), and 2012 1st round pick (8th overall - Derrick Pouliot)

Maple Leafs equivalent: Tyler Bozak (26-year-old 3rd line centre, albeit one who plays on the first line), Jesse Blacker (2009 2nd round pick, defenceman), 2012 1st round pick (5th overall - Morgan Rielly)

Verdict: Losing out on Staal wasn't Brian Burke's fault as it was widely known that Staal, a free agent at the end of the season, was intent on signing with Carolina to play with his brother, Eric. Trading for Staal would have been flushing away players on a one-season player.

2011 - Brad Richards

UFA signed by New York for: 9 years, $60 million (cap hit of $6.67 million)

Reported Maple Leafs offer: 6 years, $42 million (cap hit of $7 million)

The Leafs' offer was $15 million less over six years compared to the deal Richards signed with the Rangers. New York's offer has three bogus years at the end that pay Richards a mere $1 million a season, indicating that he will retire at 37 before getting to those years.

Losing out on Richards was because Burke's moral opposition to long-term, cap-circumventing contracts (to say nothing of Richards' preference for playing under John Tortorella again). Adding an extra three years and $18 million to the deal would have actually dropped the cap hit of Toronto's offer over the first six seasons, and it isn't as if MLSE is hard-strapped for cash. Instead, Richards accepted an offer that essentially pays him $9.5 million a season compared to the Leafs' offer of $7 million a season.

Verdict: Prior to signing the contract, Richards averaged 75 points per 82 games over his career. Over his first two seasons in New York he managed 100 points in 128 games, a decline from his early years. Although those point totals are still respectable, Richards was a dog in the playoffs and was a healthy scratch for two elimination games against the Bruins.

There is now talk that Richards will be bought out in New York. Thank Burke's morals for avoiding this contractual anchor.

2011 - Mike Richards

Traded to LA for: Brayden Schenn (2009 1st round pick, 5th overall), Wayne Simmonds (22-year-old 2nd line winger), and 2012 2nd round pick

Reported Maple Leafs offer: Nazem Kadri (2009 1st round pick, 7th overall) and Nikolai Kulemin (25-year-old 2nd line winger)

At the time Kulemin was better than Simmonds after completing a campaign in which he scored 30 goals, but Schenn was more highly regarded as a prospect than Kadri. By taking the Kings' offer, the Flyers were/are banking on Schenn becoming a better NHLer than Kadri (unless the 2nd round pick was the kicker that separated the two deals).

As it stands right now, the two Leafs players have actually outscored the two players the Flyers ended up with over their careers by a total of 18 points in 27 fewer games. That said, even though Kadri had a big breakout last season, I'm not sure Philly is exactly disappointed with their return. Simmonds has become a pretty good power forward and Schenn showed signs of becoming a quality player last season.

Verdict: Mike Richards was generally disappointing in his first season in LA, although he turned it on in the playoffs, scoring at an almost identical rate as his career numbers. He also does plenty of things well besides scoring, and at only 27 years old would have been the perfect addition to the Leafs.

For what it's worth, Pierre LeBrun tweeted that the Flyers wanted to move Richards out of the conference.

2011 - Jeff Carter (Trade 1)

Traded to Columbus for: Jakub Voracek (22-year-old 2nd line winger, although he developed into a first line winger this season), 2011 1st round pick (8th overall - Sean Couturier), and 2011 3rd round pick (Nick Cousins, centre)

Reported Maple Leafs offer: Nazem Kadri (2009 1st round pick, 7th overall) but refused to offer Nikolai Kulemin (25-year-old 2nd line winger) to close the deal

Verdict: It seems hard to believe that the Leafs offer would have been considered better than the Blue Jackets offer, but that is with the benefit of hindsight. We know now that Kulemin disappeared in 2011-12 and that Sean Couturier was shutting down Evgeni Malkin by the end of the year.

However, Kadri's emergence this year, plus Kulemin's quiet bounce back, make the non-deal a little more justifiable (to say nothing of Carter's endless contract).

2012 - Jeff Carter (Trade 2)

Traded to LA for: Jack Johnson (25-year-old puck moving defenceman) and either a 1st round pick in 2012 or 2013 (the Blue Jackets chose to receive the 2013 pick after LA won the Stanley Cup)

Maple Leafs equivalent: Jake Gardiner (21-year-old puck moving defenceman) and 2013 1st round pick

The Leafs wouldn't have a package quite like LA's, which is why Gardiner is included, which would make this deal a killer for Toronto, especially if it was a 2012 1st round pick (Morgan Rielly) that was demanded.

Verdict: You can say what you want about Carter, but Gardiner and a 1st would have been a huge overpayment and would have made the Leafs defence, the team's most glaring weakness, even worse.

2012 - Mike Ribiero

Traded to Washington for: Cody Eakin (2009 3rd round pick, centre) and 2012 2nd round pick (Mike Winther, centre)

Maple Leafs equivalent: Greg McKegg (2010 3rd round pick, centre) and 2012 2nd round pick (Matt Finn, defenceman)

Ribeiro has averaged 65 points a season since the lockout, which puts him as a below average first line centre, but a first line centre nonetheless.

Verdict: The package wouldn't be totally unreasonable, but Ribeiro didn't fit with the Leafs roster in terms of age, contract length (he was only one year from being a UFA), or style of play. The deal just wouldn't make a lot of sense.

2009 - Scott Gomez

Traded to Montreal for: Pavel Valentenko (2006 5th round pick, defenceman), Ryan McDonagh (2007 1st round pick, defenceman), Doug Janik (AHLer), Christopher Higgins (26-year-old 2nd line winger)

Maple Leafs equivalent: Alex Berry (2005 5th round pick, winger), Luke Schenn (2008 1st round pick, defenceman), Boyd Devereaux (AHLer), Lee Stempniak (26-year-old 2nd line winger)

Yes, at the time Gomez was a No. 1 centre, although he was barely hanging onto that status. He had averaged more than 65 points a season in the four years after the lockout.

Verdict: Be thankful Burke wasn't as desperate for a No. 1 centre as the Montreal Canadiens were.

2009 - Olli Jokinen

Traded to Calgary for: Matthew Lombardi (26-year-old 3rd line centre), Brandon Prust (24-year-old grinder), 2009 or 2010 1st round pick (the Flames chose to give up the 2010 pick, Brandon Gormley)

Maple Leafs equivalent: Matt Stajan (25-year-old 3rd line centre), Ben Ondrus (26-year-old grinder), 2009 1st round pick (Nazem Kadri, centre)

When Calgary first acquired Jokinen he was struggling somewhat in Phoenix, but was an 80-point player the three previous seasons. When he was brought to Calgary he was heralded as the No. 1 centre Jarome Iginla always needed. Instead he flamed out in Calgary (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist) and wouldn't become a serviceable player until his return a few years later.

Verdict: Jokinen would have been a huge disappointment and wouldn't fulfill Toronto's need at centre. Plus, at this time Burke was still purging the Leafs roster of old, expensive players who he had little use for. Even without considering how his career turned out, going after Jokinen would have made little sense.


Since Burke took over the Leafs, plenty of No. 1 centres have become available, primarily through trades. In almost every case, missing out on fortifying the team up the middle has actually worked out for the Leafs, either because of the players Toronto would have had to give up or the quality of the players they would have received.

Only two players, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (the first time he was traded), were a strong fit in terms of skill and price, yet Burke ultimately could land neither. However, the addition of even those two would have been debated, especially because Nazem Kadri was so good this season.

The Leafs still have a giant hole down the middle of the roster, which was one of the major failings of Burke's tenure. However, by keeping Kadri, the situation is not as dire as it once was. The task now falls to Dave Nonis, who will have a busy summer making enough additions to ensure the Leafs' first trip to the playoffs in close to a decade is not their last.

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