The biggest decision Brian Burke has to make between now and when the flag drops on the NHL's free-agent season at midnight July 1 will be at goaltender.
Right now, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager has made the easy decisions. Vesa Toskala, who becomes an unrestricted free agent, has as much chance of coming back as your agent does of being elected Miss America. Rookie Jonas Gustavsson will become a restricted free agent. He says he wants to stay with the Leafs and indications are that Burke feels the same, although contract negotiations have not started yet and this is not a lock.
The hard decision is one of three options:
- Hand the No. 1 job to Gustavsson next season and sign a good backup from the list of free agents.
- Look for a veteran free agent who can act as a mentor to the 25-year-old Gustavsson and be capable of playing as many as 50 games if the youngster's development still lags.
- Sign or trade for the best possible goaltender money and cap space can buy. Gustavsson can either back up and wait his turn or be traded for another asset.
At this point, Gustavsson is being given a chance to provide at least part of the answer. Now that Burke and head coach Ron Wilson are fairly sure Gustavsson's health problems, which saw him undergo two heart ablation procedures, are solved, the plan is to give the rookie most of the work between now and the end of the season.
But that is only as long as he continues to play well. So far, he has shown streaks of promise but he has also shown he still has much to learn from goaltending guru Francois Allaire.
The most likely outcome is that Gustavsson, who does not benefit from playing behind a defensively consistent team, will continue to be up-and-down. Burke, then, might have to make a call by the Mar. 3 NHL trading deadline if an attractive alternative presents itself.
That alternative could be Florida Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun. Even though the Panthers are almost as inept as the Leafs, Vokoun quietly re-established himself as one of the best goalies in the league. Word is that if the Panthers remain out of playoff contention leading up to the deadline, GM Randy Sexton will starting looking to trade his goaltender.
Vokoun has one year left on his contract with an attractive salary cap hit of $5.7-million (U.S.). If he became available, he would present the Leafs with the kind of goaltending they have not had since the days of Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph. It was Joseph, don't forget, who was the most responsible for turning the Leafs into instant contenders back in 1998.
This type of scenario has been mentioned before, only it involves Burke's goaltender while he was running the Anaheim Ducks, J.S. Giguere. Ducks GM Bob Murray has been hounding his old boss to take Giguere, who would be reunited with his old mentor Allaire.
The problem here is that Giguere's inconsistency saw him lose the No. 1 job to Jonas Hiller. Plus, he comes with a cap hit of $6-million for next season, which is a little rich given his performance.
Hiller is a more intriguing idea involving the Ducks. He is only 27 years old and becomes an unrestricted free agent. He, too, is an old pupil of Allaire's.
Other attractions on the unrestricted free agent side include Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks, who is said to have few friends in that dressing room. But it is hard to imagine him wanting to play for Wilson again.
There is also Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis of the Nashville Predators, since the Predators can only afford to keep one of them at best. But that, too, would involve abandoning the Gustavsson experiment or at least pushing it to the back burner.
That leaves sorting through the free-agent crop for the best veteran to serve as a mentor and, if necessary, a saviour for the team if Gustavsson falters.
The prime candidates here are Martin Biron, 32, of the New York Islanders, Chris Mason, 33, of the St. Louis Blues and Marty Turco, 34, of the Dallas Stars.
Turco is the best choice in that regard. He is a good man in the dressing room. He is also playing well and young enough to handle lots of work next season. Also, Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk wants to get younger at that position and does not plan to sign him.
NOTES Mike Komisarek is working toward a return for the Toronto Maple Leafs game on Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks, although his shoulder injury might not be fully healed. Last week, the Leafs defenceman paid a visit to famed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., to get an opinion on his shoulder, which he injured on Jan. 2. No one is saying what Andrews told Komisarek, but judging by what he was saying yesterday, Komisarek may have been given the options of having surgery or playing with the injury once the pain was manageable and postponing surgery until the NHL season is over. In any event, Komisarek will try and play by Saturday, motivated by a desire to get back on the ice for the Leafs and, in several weeks, to play for the United States at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. "I'm doing everything I can to get back on the ice rehab-wise, treatment wise," Komisarek said. Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said if Komisarek is not ready to play, he will not be rushed. He said the Leafs have no plans to jeopardize Komisarek's future just so he can get back on the ice or play for the U.S. Olympic team. "We will make the right decision," said Wilson, who also coaches the U.S. team.
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