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Leafs May Need To Break Ground For Centre

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Two down and it looks like none to go.

Brad Richards, the crown jewel of the free agent season, is weighing presentations from six or so teams. With GM Brian Burke visiting the troops in Afghanistan, the Leafs called on legendary executive Cliff Fletcher to lend the necessary dignity.

The presentations were delivered at the Mississauga office of Pat Morris, Richards’ agent but there is some question as to whether the exercise is a meaningful one. A report in the New York Post suggests the Rangers will be given the opportunity to match any offer made to Richards.

With salaries inflating with every human breath, exactly how much the 31-year-old Richards can command is an open and loaded question.

Friday, handy forward Ville Leino moved from Philadelphia to Buffalo for $27 million over six years. Former Leaf Alexi Ponikarovsky, a five goal scorer last season with Los Angeles, accepted a $1.5 million contract from Carolina. Joel Ward, owner of 40 goals over three full NHL seasons, signed with Washington for $12 million over four years.

Where that leaves the Leafs is anyone’s guess. Certainly Dave Nonis, Burke’s point man, wasn’t offering any opinions.

“We made the presentation and we moved on with the rest of the day,” he said of the Richards pitch. “We are still looking at a number of scenarios in terms of trading and signing players.”

There are interesting twists, of course.

One involves the Maple Leafs and Burke’s oft-stated distaste for signing restricted free agents or using front loaded contracts.

Certainly, it will take scads of up-front money, perhaps even the NHL maximum of $12.8 million to get Richards’ attention.  That’s staggering for a 31-year-old center who suffered a major concussion last year and probably does not stand as one of the top 10 players in the league.  That said he nicely meets the Leafs need for an offensively gifted two-way centre skilled on the power play and in the face-off circle.

The salary spiral changed the economics of the game over one day. In terms of dollar for value, the Leafs might get far better worth for their money with an offer to restricted free agent Steve Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Right now the Leafs have $18.5 million in cap room. They are 19th in the league in spending and are in a virtual dead heat with the Lightning in cap space. Landing Stamkos would mean sending four straight number one draft choices to Tampa and making him the highest paid player in the league.

There are three possible scenarios regarding any decision on Stamkos.  One, the Rangers land Richards and everyone goes camping. Two, the Lightning sign Richards, who maintains a sentimental affection for the team in which he won his only Stanley Cup and everyone goes camping. Or three, the Lightning sign Richards and with Philadelphia and Buffalo out of the running because of cap considerations, the Leafs could tender an offer which the Lightning would struggle to match.

Yes, the Leafs could surprise and poach the Tampa forward but it would be the biggest shock since gravity.

There are, as Nonis mentioned, some free agent candidates and trade possibilities.

Free-agent wise Simon Gagne, Jason Arnott, Nikolai Zherdev and Tim Connolly remain on the market but their price in the afterglow of Friday’s run is impossible to predict.

The Leafs lost out on one player they were linked to when Max Talbot signed a $9 million, five-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers.

“We had several offers as the day went on,” Nonis said. “We quite easily could have signed many players but the dollar and term went to an area we did not feel was reasonable.”

Tim Brent and backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere took advantage of the splurge. Brent signed a two-year deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. Giguere goes to the Colorado Avalanche where, provided his surgically repaired hips and groin hold up, he will mentor Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov.

Despite his popularity and the desperate decision to put him on the point during the play, Brent was a journeyman who is now on his fifth team. The 27-year-old scored nine goals and recorded 21 points and drained the tank on every shift. He was never able to get close to a one-way contract with the Leafs, who might be more inclined to slip strapping centre Joe Colborne into the lineup. Had the Leafs landed the number once centre they covet, Tyler Bozak would have been nudged down the food chain into the spot held by Brent. As it was, Brent went out and found himself a one-way contract.

Giguere, meanwhile, had streaks of good play but was knocked out of the crease first by Jonas Gustavsson then with the ascension of James Reimer.

The 34-year-old Montreal native went 17-18-6 in his tenure in Toronto but like Brent he was a favourite of fans, coaches, teammates and media. Multiple surgeries and the need to find some playing time for Jonas Gustavsson made Giguere expendable.

Clearly, the rules of engagement in the NHL have been altered. The Buffalo Sabres are spending like drunken sailors and are dramatically better. The Philadelphia Flyers waited until the day before their no-trade clauses expired before trading Brad Richards and Jeff Carter and their freakish contracts.

To complement Carter, Columbus added James Wisniewski for the bargain price of $33 million. Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.

So we are left with this: the Maple Leafs have a gaping hole where their number one centre should be. They have $18 million to spend but nowhere to put it that doesn’t involve breaking new ground.
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