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With this year’s free agent frenzy pretty much over, with the exception of a few decent UFA’s remaining and the exciting controversy of RFA Steven Stamkos heating up, the beginning of a long dreaded summer is starting to kick in. Throughout July and August we will see some trades and signings here and there, but the true anticipation is waiting for September to come and training camps to open. Until then, I decided to look ahead towards next summer’s free agent frenzy and speculate on some potential UFA’s and RFA’s that may break the bank or be of interest to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Although 2013 is being looked at as the best potential free agent market in the last decade with names such as Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf all being UFA eligible (although they are likely going to re-sign), the 2012 class as it stands looks to be fairly good as well. Keep in mind that many of these players that are going to be mentioned will resign with their current club, however it is inevitable that most will not, so time to fuel the speculation.

2012 will mark the end of an era in terms of a few key veteran UFA’s. First up is defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom who recently re-upped with Detroit for 1 more year. Although he is still as effective as ever, I am sure 2012 will be the year he finally hangs them up. Another player… or goalie I should say who has never even hit the free agent market is Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils. Next year at 40 years of age, and a decreasing level of play may mark the end for his tenure as well. Lastly Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes and soon to be something else may also decide to move on from the team that has nurtured him for so long. Doan will be 35, so I still see some more time left in his career, meaning teams looking for leadership and a great veteran presence will be lining up at the doorstep for his services come July 1, 2012. Sticking with the veterans, next year’s market will also see some key players who may be looking to move on for one more contract. They include: Brian Rolston, Daymond Langkow, Milan Hejduk, Saku Koivu, Sami Salo, and Ryan Smyth.

As well as a solid group of veterans set to hit the free agent market next season, there also lies a core group of young UFA’s at only 26 years of age who will surely garner much attention if still available on July 1, 2012. The likes of allstar defencemen Brent Burns and Ryan Suter lead the pack. Both are yet to hit their prime and will definitely rake in some big money on the open market. After these 2 come a 2nd tier class which include: Matt Carle, Matt Hunwick, Andrei Kostitsyn, Torey Mitchell, Brayden Coburn, and Toronto’s own Jonas Gustavsson, all of whom are solid players and would definitely make an impact on any team’s roster.

With a balance of both youth and experience present in 2012′s free agent class, there is an abundance of talent that will please teams on either side of the spectrum looking to pick up players from either one of these categories.

Now to the exciting part… I am going to rank the top 30 free agents available regardless of age or team loyalty, or anything of that nature which may impact where they sign prior or post July 1, 2012.

1. Alexander Semin

2. Patrick Sharp

3. Pekka Rinne

4. Ales Hemsky

5. Nicklas Lidstrom

6. Ryan Suter

7. Brent Burns

8. Dustin Penner

9. Mikhail Grabovski

10. Nicklas Kronwall

11. Shane Doan

12. Kristian Huselius

13. Brad Boyes

14. John-Michael Liles

15. RJ Umberger

16. Chris Kunitz

17. Jiri Hudler

18. Andrei Kostitsyn

19. Milan Hejduk

20. Johnny Oduya

21. Dennis Wideman

22. Francois Beauchemin

23. Olli Jokinen

24. Tuomo Ruutu

25. Ray Whitney

26. Michal Rozsival

27. Richard Peverley

28. Matt Carle

29. Tomas Holmstrom

30. Brayden Coburn

So that is my top 30 2012 UFA list as it stands today. As you can see there is tons of talent set to be available, with all of these 30 players being large impact players who would definitely be an asset to any team going forward.

Personally I do not like talking much about RFA’s because 95% of them will resign with their current team before they are set to be free agents. However, with that said I must make note that 2012 will see many key RFA’s contracts expire. If you do the math correctly, yes that means 5% of these RFA’s will likely switch teams via trade or the ever so rare “offer sheet”. Some huge names already established in the NHL who are set to become RFA’s include: John Tavares, Carey Price, Mike Green, David Krejci, Victor Hedman, Erik Johnson, David Perron, Sam Gagner, James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Myers, and Toronto’s own Nikolai Kulemin.

As noted before, many of the unrestricted and restricted free agents listed above will resign with their current team before next year’s free agent frenzy. However, it is always fun to speculate and analyze who may become available. In my personal opinion the names on this years top 30 list blow this current year’s (2011) list out of the water. If over half of these UFA names are still on the list come July 1 2012, I can confirm that we are surely in for an exciting frenzy! Much to look forward to over the next year; and as a fan of player movement around the NHL, let us hope these names stay on the board when the market opens and have new teams by this time next year.

After striking out on the biggest fish of the free agent market (Brad Richards), the Leafs quickly moved to “Plan B” which was signing Tim Connolly. The move was met with mixed emotions in Toronto, as some saw Connolly as a injury prone center who probably wouldn’t make much of an impact at the salary he signed. Others saw Connolly as a decent stopgap solution, given that his term (2 years) was extremely reasonable and that he has shown in the past he has the ability to put up numbers. Let’s take an in-depth look at Connolly and see what he’s all about.

The first thing to deal with is his current contract signed with the Leafs. It’s a two-year deal worth $9.5mil for an AAV (average annual value) of $4.75mil. It’s a little steep considering what he was paid in his last contract (two years, $9mil, AAV of $4.5mil) and the fact he didn’t really do much to deserve the raise. Speculation is however, that Connolly had other deals on the table which had longer contract lengths then what the Leafs offered. In order to secure his services, they gave him a raise in order to keep the deal at a minimum of two years. This is a great tradeoff, considering MLSE has deep pockets and we won’t potentially be stuck with an albatross contract.

The great thing also about Connolly’s contract is that the deal is slightly front-loaded, in that he’ll make $5.5mil of the $9.5mil this season, meaning he is due to be paid only $4mil next season. This makes Connolly an attractive options for cash struggled markets who need players with high cap hits to hit the floor (Connolly at $4.75mil) without actually paying them that much (Connolly will only cost a team $4mil in 2012-2013).

So when you really think about it, it’s a smart contract by Brian Burke and company, who flexed their financial muscle in order to get a deal which not only helps the team in the present, but could potentially help them  down the road by bringing in assets through trade. For now, Connolly is very much an important part of the team so trade discussions should be pushed aside for a year or so.

Now that we’ve dealt with Connolly’s contract (which many people moaned about) we can talk about Connolly’s performance on the ice, and if he’s a viable solution for a (temporary) number one center.

What does it take to be a number one center in the NHL? Let’s take a look at some of the top offensive NHL centers last year:

 


The list above is the top thirty scoring centers in the NHL. The blank spots were players on teams that had already been represented on the list by a higher scoring player. After removing duplicate teams, there were 20 players remaining. Teams without a center in the top thirty in last year’s scoring include: Winnipeg (formerly Atlanta), Edmonton, Calgary, St. Louis, Phoenix, Nashville, Columbus, Florida, New Jersey and Buffalo. All team’s missed the playoffs except for Nashville, Phoenix and Buffalo, all of whom are known for their strong goaltending and tight defensive systems. This just shows that it’s basically essential to have a top scoring center to make the playoffs, although the case can be made that some non-playoff teams have top scoring centers, but the number of playoff teams vs. non-playoff teams is not even close.

Now, how does all of this relate to Tim Connolly? Well, let’s assume that for Tim to “have a good year” based on everyone’s standards, he’d need to eclipse the 50 point mark, preferably close to 60 points. I’m not saying it will guarantee the Leafs a playoff spot, but it would help, and it would be a pretty good season for Connolly.

There’s a lot of variables that go into how many points a player gets in a season, so let’s only look at what we can safely predict: linemates and special teams time.

Connolly has eclipsed the fifty point mark only twice in his career: 2005-2006 (63 GP – 16 G – 39 A – 55 PTS) and 2009-2010 (73 GP – 17 G – 48 A – 65 PTS). Let’s take a closer look at his 2009-2010 season, with this tool from DobberHockey.

It seems as if Connolly’s most common linemates were Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville (28.82% at even strength, most used line at EV by team at 8.01%). Next most common linemates were Clarke MacArthur and Jason Pominville (11.76% at even strength, third most used line at EV by team at 3.27%). Of all lines used by Buffalo that year, Hecht – Connolly – Pominville was the highest scoring with 48 points at even strength.

On the man advantage, Buffalo’s most used line was Connolly – Pominville – Derek Roy – Vanek (most frequently used at 1.27%) and accounted for 20 points. Of Connolly’s 65 points that year, 27 were scored with the man advantage.

Buffalo had the 17th best powerplay in 2009-2010 at 17.6%, and were led by Connolly and his 27 powerplay points.

I think it’s safe to say Connolly will be on the most used Maple Leafs line at even strength this year, along with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. I think it’s also safe to say that Connolly will see lots of powerplay time, so he should help to inmprove in that department. However, will Connolly be able to replicate this successful seasons with his new linemates?

Hecht vs. Lupul

Hecht had a decent season on Connolly’s line, notching 42 points (21-21). Lupul’s best seasons have hovered between 45-55 points. After coming back from a series of injuries, a 40 point season for Lupul shouldn’t be that far fetched. Therefore I say Lupul and Hecht are comparable linemates.

Pominville vs. Kessel

Pominville, since becoming a mainstay on the Sabres, has consistently put up 60+ point seasons, with the exception of the one that just finished. He missed 9 games due to injury, and fell just short with 52 points. Kessel has essentially done the same, although has been in the league for less time. Kessel is thought of as a pure goal scorer, where as Pominville was more balanced, and saw his assists exceed his goal totals. I’m going to give the edge here to Kessel, solely for the fact he’s considered a pure scorer. If Connolly, who is considered a playmaker, can dish the puck off to Kessel, I think Kessel could eclipse 60 points, potentially 70.

Special Teams (Powerplay)

Although the Leafs have had issues with their powerplay in the past, I think with the additions of Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and Connolly will improve their standing. I can’t quantify by how much they will improve, but I think that Connolly (and others) have the ability to get the job done with the man advantage. This will play a huge part in any success the Leafs wish to have this upcoming year.

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A lot of people seem to think Connolly is injury prone to the extent where it’s a certainty he won’t play the majority of the upcoming season. Let’s take a little look at Connolly’s injury history. Aside from the two concussions he suffered (that caused him to miss essentially two full seasons) he’s suffered a series of everyday hockey injures: hip, foot, groin, knee. Sure, he’s missed a lot of time due to them, but can you really fault him? If you play hard, theres a chance you will be injured.

On the other side of the spectrum, you can’t play and score when your out of the lineup. For Connolly to have a successful season, he’s going to need to play 75+ games. Anything less than that, and his numbers will suffer and Leafs Nation will be in full uproar about how fragile he is.

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After looking at all these areas, I think it’s highly possible for Connolly to score anywhere from 50-60 points this season, giving the Leafs two legitimate scoring centers (Grabovski). I also think Connolly will be able to elevate Kessel’s game, and help Lupul to have a bounce back season. I’m not sure if it will directly translate to a playoff team, but it should keep the critics off Connolly’s (and to a lesser extent, Leafs management’s) back. After Richards was swept up off the market, Connolly was the best (free) option out there, and they added him to a good contract.

It’s hard to predict if Connolly will have a good season or not, but you can fully expect him to be thrust into a role where he’s expected to exceed. If it doesn’t work out, Connolly will be off the books in two years at the expense of $9.5 million. That’s chump change to MLSE.

The Toronto Maple Leafs announced Thursday they have signed  centre Philippe Dupuis, and defenceman Matt Lashoff to 1 year contracts.

Dupuis,26, played his first full NHL season with the Colorado Avalanche in 2010-2011, registering 17 points (6 goals, 11 assists) in 74 games,  along with 40 penalty minutes and 128 hits.  The Laval Quebec native was drafted 104th over-all by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2003, and was second among Avalanche rookies in points, and second among forwards in hits.

Lashoff,24, played the majority of the 2010-2011 season with the Toronto Marlies. In 69 games, he registered 28 points (7 goals, 21 assists) along with a team high 137 penalty minutes.  In his time with the Maple Leafs, Lashoff  collected 1 point in 11 games, and had 6 penalty minutes.

 

With the resigning of restricted free agent Matt Lashoff and acquisitions of Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles,the Maple Leafs have a crowded blue line with 8 defenders. Not including prospects like Jesse Blacker and Jake Gardiner who could make the big club come pre-season.

In an interview with the National post, Brian Burke indicated he was very pleased with the organizations moves, and is going to take a step back and catch his breath.

“We feel we’ve dramatically altered the look of the  team for the better, so we’re going to sit back now and await for further developments”

With a crowded blue line, those “further developments” could include names like Mike Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson, or even Luke Schenn.With teams needing to reach the salary cap floor, the likes of Mike Komisarek is intriguing to many teams.

Komisarek, who has struggled ever since being signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2009, has a cap hit of 4.5 million, and has 3 season left on his contract. Only putting up 10 points, He is known for his physicality and shutting down the opposition.

With the recent signings and trades for defencemen, its no secret that Burke is going to deal one of his defenders. Its just a question of who? And when?

 

With yesterday’s blockbuster deal now in the books, and another potential top 4 defenceman added to this year’s squad the Leafs now have 8 NHL ready defencemen. With that said, it is always good to have an abundance of defenders because injuries are bound to happen and men will always go down at some point in the season. However these 8 NHL ready defenders are realistically all top 5 on any NHL team, therefore the opportunity cost of trading one for either forwards, prospects, or picks is less than keeping all of them around.To put it more simply, these 8 defenders which consist of:

Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles, Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek, Cody Franson, and Matt Lashoff

are all very good players and would be a waste to keep more than one of them sitting in the press box each game, when we can trade them for an asset that will be much more useful to us in the long run. Also in the case of Mike Komisarek, who is now the most likely trade candidate and rumoured to be on the move; the removal of his 4.5 million dollar salary would free up a great deal of cap space for us moving forward into next year.

Knowing Brian Burke and his creative and “ballsy” antics, anything is possible so I also would not be surprised if he tries to turn this deal into another blockbuster which would involve another top tier forward (most likely first line centerman) coming back our way. However any deal involving a star player, would most definitely include one of Nazem Kadri or Joe Colborne going back the other way, in addition to one of the defenders we are looking to dump. But if all that fails, and Burke is content with going into next season with Connolly, Grabovski, and Bozak/Lombardi as our top 3 centers (which to be honest is not so bad), then a simple dumping of one of our d-men for prospects or picks will happen.

Another reason why I personally see us dealing one or maybe even two of our NHL ready defencemen is the emergence of players/prospects Jake Gardiner, Jesse Blacker, and Korbinian Holzer. Any one of these defenders will be able to step into our NHL lineup next season no doubt, therefore this fact alone makes many of our defenders that much more expendable.

If I were a betting man, I would predict Komisarek to be leaving town before the beginning of next season. Realistically because it would be more of a salary dump, and a trade to get another team to the cap floor, not much would be coming back our way. However for the services he provides, and abundance of d-men as mentioned above, not to mention cap space he frees up for us, any deal would be a good deal. A mid-level prospect and mid round pick is the potential asking price I can see GM Burke asking for. All I know forsure is the Leafs are not done wheeling and dealing. I fully expect Burke to complete another few deals before next season begins, as he revamps our team into a contender. Exciting times leafs fans… stay tuned!



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