The Stanley Cup's still warm, the parade's tomorrow but already it's time to turn our attention to next season, folks.
The NHL draft is one week from today and has been occupying most team's time the past month, not only in terms of looking at who to pick but also in trying to be a part of the deal-making that will occur in Minnesota next week.
Two weeks from today meanwhile is July 1, when the 2011 free agency class (such as it is) opens to the highest bidders.
It almost goes without saying that the next 14 days are huge for Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are trying to avoid missing the playoffs for a seventh straight year this coming season.
To do so, Burke needs to upgrade his roster, likely both at the draft with a deal or two and then in free agency.
The good news is that the Leafs have plenty of cap space (roughly $23-million with three notable restricted free agents still to sign). The bad news is it won't be easy finding top-end talent to spend it on.
The most obvious one is an offensively gifted centre, preferably a veteran with some size who can play between Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel. (Not an easy thing to find.)
Other than perhaps Brad Richards, who the Leafs will pursue but only at a reasonable price point, there aren't many options on that front, which likely leads Burke to making a deal to upgrade down the middle.
Another key need, however, will be a puck-moving defenceman who can play on the power play and likely pair on the left side with Luke Schenn. Here, there are options in free agency, with UFAs like Christian Ehrhoff, James Wisniewski, Joni Pitkanen, Kevin Bieksa, Andrei Markov and others available ( full list).
If Toronto's going to fill a big need on July 1, it's more likely that it will be on the back end rather than at centre.
Other potential signings will be depth forwards, as the fourth line needs bodies, and possibly a goaltender. Checkers Tim Brent and Darryl Boyce are both UFAs and could fill in those fourth-line spots while Jonas Gustavsson is under contract but still needs to prove he can play 30-plus games at the NHL level next season.
Projecting the Leafs lineup
Burke has already signed two restricted free agents in James Reimer and Carl Gunnarsson, leaving Luke Schenn, Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak as the three other roster players in need of contracts.
Those three likely come in around $8.5-million, leaving roughly another $14-million to fill in holes. Assuming they're added to the roster, here is the Leafs projected lineup and the current gaps Burke would have to fill:
Lupul - [vacant] - Kessel MacArthur - Grabovski - Kulemin Kadri - Bozak - Armstrong [vacant] - [vacant] - Brown extra: Orr
[vacant] - Schenn Aulie - Phaneuf Gunnarsson - Komisarek extra: Lebda
Trades could obviously alter this group considerably, as would the inability or unwillingness to re-sign MacArthur or Bozak. But at this point, with two weeks of decision making ahead, that's how things are shaping up.
In terms of cap space, Burke can open up even more by moving someone like Ben Scrivens (also in need of a contract) into the backup role and dealing or demoting Brett Lebda. (Mike Komisarek they may be stuck with as a $4.5-million third-pairing defender.)
But they may not need it.
At the draft
Burke's made a lot of noise in the lead up to the draft that he wants to move picks, preferably one of his first rounders to either get higher in the opening round or get more picks early in the second round.
The Leafs currently own the 25th, 30th and 39th overall picks but don't pick again until 86th.
In terms of what they're looking for, Burke told me last week, unequivocally, that "we do not draft by position," meaning they won't, for example, go after a defenceman simply because he's a defenceman.
The only priorities he said they had were "character" as No. 1 and "footspeed" as No. 2.
Even with the "draft by position" comment, I think you can rule out the Leafs using a high pick to draft a stay-at-home defenceman given they already have Schenn and Aulie, who are 21 and 22. It also seems unlikely they'll use a top pick for a goaltender, as Reimer, Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, etc. give them a little depth in the "young goalie" department.
A gritty forward with some offensive upside would be my guess for what they're looking for, among other things. Whoever they get likely won't be on the team for at least another season or two anyway.
This is the question I get more than any other about the Leafs, as it's been a long, long time since they've made the postseason. (Toronto is working its way up the list of longest all-time playoff droughts, with only 10 teams ahead of them.)
The Leafs finished last year eight points out of the final playoff spot and look like they're going to be relying heavily on Reimer to shoulder most of the load in goal, which is somewhat of a gamble.
Assuming the goaltending is league average or better, however, the additions Burke makes over the next two weeks are going to go a long way toward determining where this group finishes in the Eastern Conference.
As is, they're a playoff longshot. With two solid players added, likely a centre and a defenceman, a low end playoff seed is a reasonable prediction.
Burke's three-year anniversary in Toronto is roughly five months away and this is a big year for his "blueprint." And the next two weeks will be a big part of that.Report Typo/Error