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Breaking Down The Odds

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

RELATED: Leafs Acquire Liles From Avalanche | blog
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This column was written without any inside knowledge of the Maple Leafs plans for free agency. If you don’t know that by now, you will soon enough.

That said, free agency hits on Friday and the Leafs are still in the hunt for a centre who can put them over the top.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of that single move. The Leafs are nearing the end of their rebuild. They took another step when they added John-Michael Liles from Colorado.  The top two defence pairs are set. Likewise, the bottom two forward lines are reasonably sound thanks to players such as Colby  Armstrong and Mike Brown.

Joffrey Lupul may not be first line timber but he played well at the end of last season as he recovered from a life-threatening infection. Phil Kessel’s skill set remains unequalled by 95 per cent of the league.

That’s why fetching a centre who can win face-offs and keep Kessel well fed is paramount. The Leafs with Phil Kessel scoring 45 goals aren’t just 13 goals better that they were last year.
A more potent offence and more time spent in the opposing zone will help when both teams are even strength. A better first line commands better checking and frees the second unit from the opposition’s best defenders. A first-rate centre would completely transform the team’s identity. It’s that important.

So let’s look at the scenarios.

THE WING AND A PRAVER:  offer sheet to Steve Stamkos.

Why it could work: If the Leafs tendered the maximum salary, $12.86 million, the Lightning might think twice about matching especially if they were closing in on Brad Richards. The Lightning are said to have lost between $20-$25 million last season and that kind of contract might be unsustainable. The Leafs could get some breathing space by dealing Mike Komisarek to teams working to reach the cap floor. Stamkos is a Unionville kid who grew up a Leafs fan. His uber-trainer is former Leaf Gary Roberts. His potential for endorsements would likely be much higher in Toronto.  Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Ryan Malone account for nearly $18 million in payroll or a little less than a third of the team’s player salaries.  All three have no-trade contracts and aren’t likely to accept a deal.

Complications: They are many. As mentioned the Lightning have the right to match and it seems impossible to think they would let Stamkos go for such a paltry return. Even if the Leafs tendered the maximum contract, $12.86 million per year, the Lightning have room under the salary cap to match the offer thanks to $23.8 million they can spend. Stamkos has never publicly indicated anything other than enthusiasm for playing in sunny Tampa. Leafs GM Brian Burke says he will not be offer-sheeting a player this time around and has been critical of the practice the few times someone tried it.

Outlook: Pretty bleak. This scenario is a giant hypothetical. That said, talks seem to be dragging on between Stamkos’ representatives and the Lightning.

Projected possibility: Five per cent. Stamkos and the Lightning were in talks at the draft and they are talking this week. But if there is no contract going into noon on Friday, game on.

THE BRAD RICHARDS PROJECT: Sign the veteran centre to a long term deal.

Why it could work: The Leafs have a ton of cap room to invest on Richards. A late season concussion might dampen the enthusiasm of other teams to sign him.  Richards has the perfect skill set, great vision, strong defensive principles and character, to answer the Leafs’ needs.

Complications: There is ample speculation that Richards, who will have his choice of as many as four or five offers, does not want to play in a frenzied hockey market such as Toronto.  Short of gunplay, it’s very difficult to sign a player who doesn’t want to play in your city when there are comparable options elsewhere.

Outlook: Barely better than the outlook for signing Stamkos.

Projected possibility: Eight per cent.

LET’S MAKE A DEAL: trade for centre Paul Stastny (Colorado) or Stephen Weiss (Florida).

Why it would work:  The Leafs have plenty of material to deal. The teams with the lowest payrolls in the league, Florida and Colorado, need more than young talent. They need contracts that will bring them to the salary cap floor. With Jeff Finger and Mike Komisarek, the Leafs have $8 million in floor money. The Leafs could sweeten the pot thanks to a bevy of prospects. Stastny is only 25 but his $6.6 salary, while handy for the cap floor, is still problematic since the assent of Matt Duchene has pushed Stastny back to the second line. Even so, the Leafs would have substantial interest in Stastny, a player who has had three 70-point seasons in his career. Weiss is sort of a poor man’s version. He has tremendous skating and playmaking skills but in six seasons he has not made the playoffs and that likely is getting a little old. The Panthers are moving forward shouldn’t have much use for a veteran player who will be 32 four years from now when the Panthers become winners.

Complications: The Avs and Panthers don’t want to part company with their good players. Funny that. Teams turned down by Richards will go back to kicking the tires on Stastny and Weiss. The return, should the clubs choose to trade them, will only go up with time, especially since Brooks Laich re-signed with the Capitals.

Outlook: Don’t expect anything soon. It’s to the Panthers and Avs’  advantage to draw this out.

Projected Possibility: Of getting one of the two…10 per cent.
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