Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke didn’t waste any time in making a move to kickoff the NHL all-star break, only it didn’t come in the form of a trade.
Instead, he re-signed veteran defenceman John-Michael Liles on a four-year deal on Wednesday that will pay him an average of $3.875-million a season.
"Not gonna lie... it's been a pretty good day," Liles said on his Twitter account shortly after the news broke.
"He wanted to stay," Liles's agent Joe Resnick said in an interview. "And gave up a chance to go unrestricted, which is significant. It shows his commitment to the Leafs. He feels they're making the right moves and going in the right direction. And he's really excited to be part of it."
Liles turned 31 in November, so age shouldn’t be a huge consideration just yet, and he takes a small discount from the $4.2-million cap hit he brought to Toronto in an off-season trade from Colorado last summer.
The breakdown on the new contract will see him earn $4.25-million in the first three years and $2.75-million in the final year. The deal also includes a limited no-trade clause.
"He definitely wanted term on this contract," Resnick said. "When J-M was traded to Toronto, he was really excited. He was hoping it was going to be everything that it is. It's turned out to be probably more than he ever though it was going to be.
"He relishes the fact that it's a hockey city, and he enjoys playing in front of a packed house every night."
The Leafs have been pleasantly surprised with what Liles has brought on the back end since that deal with the Avs in the summer. He has a reputation for being mostly an offence-first player, but coach Ron Wilson has remarked how he believes Liles’s defensive game is better than advertised.
The coach was playing him in more than 21 minutes a game – third highest on the team – before Liles suffered a concussion in Buffalo in mid-December.
Liles, a native of Zionsville, Ind., is also fourth on the team with 10 power play points despite missing 15 games.
He has been skating with the Leafs of late and is expected to return from the injury as soon as Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
"I feel great," Liles said during an appearance on a Toronto radio station on Wednesday. "I'm kind of battling different things. Sometimes you have a good day and sometimes you take a half-step back. It's been a great last couple weeks. I feel like I'm heading toward getting back real soon."
Liles signing essentially means the Leafs current defence core is locked in through next season, with only Cody Franson (a restricted free agent) needing a new deal.
Toronto has also now committed $53-million in salary to its team for next season, with free agents like Mikhail Grabovski, Jonas Gustavsson Nikolai Kulemin, Franson, Keith Aulie and Joey Crabb to sign or let go.
What’s unknown is what the salary cap will be for next season, with the collective bargaining agreement expiring and who knows what taking its place. It's probably a safe bet that the salary cap decreases slightly, leaving the Leafs a little tight when it comes to bringing back all of those free agents.
Grabovski is the most interesting name given his key role on the team and likely salary expectations. An unrestricted free agent this July, he should command more than $4-million a season on a fairly long-term deal, and there’s no indication yet which way the organization will go in terms of getting him a new contract.
If they want to bring back all of their free agents, obviously other bodies are going to have to leave via trade or potentially even a penalty free buyout period that comes in as a result of CBA discussions.
Because we don’t yet know how the agreement will look, however, speculating how Burke will navigate the salary crunch is difficult.
What’s clear is that the Leafs have four veteran defencemen who like to play the right side, and Dion Phaneuf isn’t going anywhere. That leaves one of Mike Komisarek, Luke Schenn or Franson (who is considered part of the future on the blueline) to move.
It also looks unlikely that Toronto would attempt to bring in another defenceman via free agency or a trade, even with someone like Nashville Predators veteran Ryan Suter – an old friend of Phil Kessel – potentially available.
That said, had Liles gone to free agency this summer, he likely would have been one of the higher scoring options available. Toronto likes his leadership qualities and opted to stick with what it knows by keeping him.
It's safe to say he'll be wearing an 'A' as an alternate captain and playing the point on the power play with Phaneuf for the foreseeable future.
"He was so proud to wear an 'A' when there were the injuries," Resnick said. "He said to me 'I'm wearing an 'A' for an Original Six team.' That was an honour to him."