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Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the Atlanta Thrashers fires a shot against the Toronto Maple Leafs during their NHL game at the Air Canada Centre December 30, 2008 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the Atlanta Thrashers fires a shot against the Toronto Maple Leafs during their NHL game at the Air Canada Centre December 30, 2008 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Slim pickings on offence in free-agent crop Add to ...

These are not the days to be caught searching for offence in the NHL - and especially not in free agency, where the pickings are slim.

With both Patrick Marleau and Tomas Plekanec re-signing with their own clubs last week, the lone top-line talent set to be available when Thursday's "frenzy" opens is winger Ilya Kovalchuk.

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For teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, desperately in need of an upgrade up front, that makes life a little more difficult.

The downturn in high-end free agents this year coincides with a trend the past few seasons toward more and more long-term deals, with high-scoring young stars getting the bulk of them. While 2010 was viewed a year ago as the free-agent class of Columbus Blue Jackets star Rick Nash and high-profile restricted free agents such as Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Patrick Kane all signed lengthy deals well before the summer to stay where they are.

Of the top-30 scorers in the NHL last season, Kovalchuk is the only one headed to free agency on July 1. Eighteen of the remaining 29 players, meanwhile, are signed until 2013-14 or beyond, with Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Zetterberg, Backstrom and Vincent Lecavalier all locked up until 2020 or 2021.

An incredible 24 of those 29 top scorers, meanwhile, are still with the teams that drafted them, making Kovalchuk an anomaly in that he is one of the few to turn down a lucrative, long-term offer.

That's all part of a major shift under the league's new collective agreement, which allows players to become free agents as young as 25. Teams with stars like Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby have committed huge dollars to them in their early 20s in a bid to keep them away from free agency - and it's working.

"Players in the old system didn't sign eight- and nine-year deals," one NHL source said Tuesday. "In fact, they were derided if they signed those deals because the market was escalating so rapidly [without a salary cap]"

The end result is a system that works well for teams that have drafted a lot of talent and can hold onto it but which creates serious challenges for those looking to buy big in free agency.

And that's where Toronto comes in.

In terms of teams in need of offence, the Leafs are among the league leaders, having finished last season with more goals than only four other teams. While Toronto has nearly $52-million (U.S.) already committed under next season's $59.4-million cap, only $15-million is dedicated to forwards, with Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski the only top-six options under contract.

If Leafs GM Brian Burke is able to shuffle out salaries on the blueline - with Tomas Kaberle and Jeff Finger's combined $7.75-million cap hit making them the prime targets - adding impact forwards will be his focus.

Burke has indicated he does not plan on getting into the running for Kovalchuk, however, despite the fact sources around the league say the sniper has at least some interest in playing in Toronto.

Given the dearth of other free agent options, Burke isn't going to add a real difference maker on Thursday if he passes there. Where the Leafs are more likely to attempt to remodel their offence is via trade - with veterans such as Marc Savard, Jeff Carter and Mike Ribeiro potentially being in play. All come with warts and all are well-compensated.

"You can't count on free agency to solve all of your problems," Burke said.

Toronto is also one of many clubs hoping to take advantage of teams up against the cap and looking to move salary - something that has long been rumoured but yet to come to fruition outside of the Chicago Blackhawks' recent off-loading.

"That's another opportunity for us," Leafs assistant GM Dave Nonis said. "One of the reasons you don't want to go out and sign players [on July 1]is that, even though they may help you, you don't want to overpay them because that takes away that opportunity."

Even so, Nonis said the Leafs will be "active" in free agency.

"We've got various lists of different types of players that do different jobs and different positions and we'll call on all of those," he said. "If there's a fit, we'll pursue it."

 

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