While the general refrain when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs these days is one of optimism (a rare thing for an NHL team set to finish 29th), it's hardly the mood for everyone.
Especially so for those wondering where, exactly, they'll be drawing a paycheque next season.
In that group are a cast of five unrestricted and four restricted free agents - two of whom (netminder Jonas Gustavsson and winger Nikolai Kulemin) are guaranteed to be back, while regular healthy scratch Garnet Exelby almost definitely won't.
Others fall somewhere in between.
What to do, for instance, with fringe contributors such as Wayne Primeau and Rickard Wallin? And will young RFAs Christian Hanson and John Mitchell stay given their up-and-down 2009-10 seasons?
What is certain is that Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke already has roughly 16 players - including 2009 first-round pick Nazem Kadri - already pencilled in for roster spots, leaving little room for others to crack the lineup given the Leafs are expected to add a free agent or two after July 1.
With only three games left in Toronto's season, the dichotomy in the dressing room yesterday between those who have a future with the organization and those who don't was crystal clear. While centre Tyler Bozak spoke of his quest to get up to 200 pounds in order to build on a promising rookie season, Exelby quietly admitted he is in line for a pay cut from his $1.4-million (U.S.) contract after falling out of favour and playing only 49 games.
"I think that's a very big possibility," he said. "I just want to play; I want to help contribute to a team somewhere. Next year will work itself out - I can't really sit and sweat about it. Just go home and take some time off and get back to training."
Also unsure of his future is defenceman Jeff Finger, who is owed a whopping $7-million over the next two seasons and has played even less than Exelby this season.
After Burke was unable to package Finger in a deal to the Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline, it has been widely assumed he will be demoted to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL next season in order to free up a sorely needed $3.5-million under the salary cap.
Finger hightailed out of practice yesterday before talking to any media, but Exelby is his roommate on the road and said the two had shared frustrations about playing sparingly on one of the NHL's worst teams.
"We've been going through the same thing all year, so we can at least talk to each other about it," Exelby said. "Help with the attitude adjustments and just being there for each other."
Assuming Kulemin and Gustavsson are re-signed for somewhere in the neighbourhood of a combined $5.5-million or so a season and Burke finds a home for Finger's contract, the Maple Leafs will have approximately $8-million in cap space in 2010-11 with eight forwards, six defencemen and both goaltenders signed.
Burke is also looking to add at least one impact forward via free agency, and due to the slim pickings there, that player may not come cheap.
As a result, the Leafs will likely need low-cost options to fill out their roster - some of whom could be holdovers from this season if players such as Primeau and Mitchell are willing to take salaries near the league minimum.
Another option on that front may be to bring back defenceman Mike Van Ryn, who missed the entire season due to major knee surgery last October but has been around the team often while rehabbing.
Only 30, Van Ryn has played just 47 games in the past three NHL seasons due to perhaps the worst run of injuries for anyone in the league. He knows his road back will mean signing a bargain-basement contract with the team that takes a chance on him.
"I've said all along, I'd like to be here and be a part of [the Leafs' rebuilding]" Van Ryn said yesterday. "Whatever role they want to put me in, I'd be happy just to get back on and wear the uniform and play again. It's a fun room to be around."
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, meanwhile, had only praise for Van Ryn's play last season.
"We missed him last year, and I think to an extent we've missed him a lot this year," Wilson said. "You look at our record last year, when he was in the lineup, and it was five or six games over 500 [13-8-6] … He's a good guy, great in the room, too. Hopefully, things will work out for him and we can help in his comeback next year."