The Toronto Maple Leafs got a little tougher on the first day of free agency.
Whether or not they will be tougher to beat remains to be seen.
Leafs GM Dave Nonis limited his big day to two pricey moves in the market on Friday, as he landed winger David Clarkson and re-signed centre Tyler Bozak for the combined sum of 15 per cent of their cap dollars.
In the midst of the frenzy, Clarkson, 29, received a seven-year, $36.75-million deal to leave the New Jersey Devils, the only NHL team the undrafted Toronto native had ever known.
Bozak, meanwhile, settled for a mere five and $21-million after less than two hours testing the open market.
Afterwards, Nonis sounded very much like a man pleased with his handiwork and largely finished with his roster, save for minor tinkering via trade.
“The good news for me is it’s not my problem anymore,” Nonis said of solidifying his forwards for a hand off to coach Randy Carlyle in the fall. “It’s up to Randy. I’ve done what I can do.”
If the Leafs activity in the last two weeks does ultimately end up being it for changes, however, it’s a bit of a mixed bag of an off-season.
In all, Nonis’s main bets are on Clarkson, centre David Bolland and netminder Jonathan Bernier being difference makers, with the first two adding the grit his coach covets up front and the latter bringing insurance in case starter James Reimer falters.
Aside from the ridiculous term and dollars for a player that has a career high of 46 points, Clarkson brings some interesting elements, as he was a key part of a Devils team that played a strong possession game, something sorely lacking in Toronto last season.
While it’s highly unlikely he’ll be able to repeat his 30-goal feat of 2011-12, he should fit nicely on a scoring line with Nazem Kadri and contribute at least in the early portion of the deal.
Nonis, in other words, could have gone down bumpier roads in the pursuit of toughness.
“Last year, we did a good job of having players play outside their comfort zone,” Nonis said, making a veiled reference to departed forwards Mikhail Grabovski (who was bought out) and Clarke MacArthur (signed in Ottawa). “It’s easier to [play that style] when you have players that relish those roles and that style of play…
“If we wanted to get in on a player like David Clarkson, that was the price tag for us to pay. It’s going to happen more than once. You’re going to have seven- and eight year deals, and they’re going to be for players who you think give you a chance to win.”
What Clarkson and Bozak’s contracts really cost the Leafs, however, is upgrades elsewhere, as after their remaining restricted free agents are signed, they’ll essentially be capped out.
That pain could be felt the most on the blueline, where Carlyle now has to hope youngsters like Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly can step in and give them some useful minutes.
Nonis’ only addition on the back end so far has been the late Friday signing of T.J. Brennan, a 24-year-old free agent who played 29 games in the NHL last season with the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers.
“It’s going to be an issue of cap space,” Nonis said of reconfiguring his defence. “It’s also going to be a situation where we have some young players that may have a pretty good opportunity of cracking the lineup or becoming the seventh defenceman.
“I think our back end is good. I don’t think it’s necessarily where we need it to be one through seven, but you look around the league, I think it stands up fairly well.”
It will likely have to. Toronto’s success during the lockout-shortened half season was largely built on four things: Reimer’s goaltending, strong special teams, an opportunistic offence and some luck, which stemmed from a sky high (and league leading) shooting percentage.
Not all of that will be easily duplicated, especially with Bozak and RFAs like Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson all potentially nearly tripling their salaries and the cap dropping by $6-million.
That’s what has created the difficult decision facing most NHL teams these days, as with a limited amount to spend, tough calls need to be made on days like Friday.
Toughness or talent? Forwards or defence?
Insurance in goal or strength down the middle?
In the end, Nonis’s choice was having a couple more players who play The Carlyle Way™ over other, more tangible improvements, and the Leafs will succeed or fail based on that shift away from Grabovskis and toward Clarksons.
And the new adds will need to make a considerable impact – beyond the intangibles – in order for Toronto to keep pace in what should be a tight new eight-team division next season with the likes of the Detroit Red Wings.
“If David Clarkson doesn’t score 30 goals in a Leafs uniform but provides all the other things that we know he’s going to provide, we’re pretty comfortable we’re a better team,” Nonis said.