TORONTO – The BlackBerry belonging to Leafs General Manager Brian Burke rang every 30 seconds or so on Sunday afternoon as he marched in Toronto's Pride parade.
In most cases though the price-tag didn't fit and as a result the Leafs stayed relatively quiet on July 1st, signing just one player during the annual kick-off to free agency.
"I think the first time I gave this rant was probably in '98, maybe '99," Burke said with a smirk early Sunday evening. "I believe our group makes more mistakes on July 1st than we do all the rest of the year combined. I think we hand out contracts with unrealistic values and unrealistic term and I think these are things when you're in a hard-cap system that bite you right in the butt at some point.
"I'm not surprised we weren't able to do more. We could have; we had cap-space, we had the money, ownership has authorized us to spend. I just don't think it was a prudent way to spend money."
29-year-old Kingston, Ontario native Jay McClement
emerged as the Leafs initial dip into the thinning pool of unrestricted free agents. The six-foot, 205 pound centre was inked to a two-year deal for a reasonable $3 million after spending the past two seasons in Colorado with the Avalanche.
A second round pick of the Blues in 2001, McClement had a big fan in head coach Randy Carlyle, who offered significant input to the management team on potential free agent signings.
"Randy was pretty excited about this," Burke said of McClement. Slated to line up as the club's third-line centre – pushing David Steckel
down to the fourth rung – McClement adds much-needed size and penalty-killing complement – he led the Avalanche in shorthanded ice-time last season – to the Leafs bottom six.
The annual offseason renovation period leaves the club with considerable upgrades still to fill – they have slightly less than $13 million in cap space according to Cap Geek with two significant restricted free agents in Cody Franson
and Nik Kulemin to sign – namely up front in the first-line centre spot and in goal, if possible. The trade market is sure to be the most desirable avenue for these transactions though with a thin free agent pool again the norm this summer.
"We need to get bigger," Burke explained of his club's needs. "We're still looking to solve or upgrade the goaltending situation. We're still looking to add at centre or upgrade at centre if we can...I felt all along we'd have to address these things through trade and that's how we're going to have to do them."
Burke said the Leafs may have to look internally for options down the middle if the right trade fails to surface, while expressing careful interest in the services of future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur
. "My belief is that New Jersey intends to re-sign him and that's his first choice and I'll be surprised if it doesn't go down that way," Burke said of the longtime Devil. "We're certainly in the hunt there to see what the price-tag is anyway."
The internal side of the ledger saw the Leafs lock up three players, 24-year-old Matt Frattin
being the most notable among them (Jussi Rynnas
and Ryan Hamilton
the others). Frattin was signed for two years at $1.7 million, poised to join the Leafs in a full-time capacity next fall. The budding winger totaled eight goals and 15 points in 56 games as a rookie last season, adding 10 goals in 13 playoff games with the Marlies. His year ended prematurely though because of a knee injury that may sideline him for the beginning of the regular season.
"We think this is a guy who's going to step right in and play right away for us and has top-six potential as a forward," Burke said of Frattin, who had surgery late in the spring. "He's a big body guy who uses his weight well; like in the playoffs he looked a lot like Dustin Brown
to use an example. We think he's a big part of the future here."
Injuries (in addition to the readiness of Frattin among others) spelled an end to Colby Armstrong
's career in Toronto just prior to free agency, the Leafs buying out the oft-injured winger's contract on Saturday. "If it wasn't for bad luck he would've had no luck as a Leaf," Burke noted of Armstrong, who played in only 79 games over two seasons as a Leaf, missing time with a string of unfortunate injuries. "He just couldn't stay healthy and I think the injuries and the recovery period from them broke him down as a player. He wasn't able to get there at the end."
With the McClement signing, Frattin's ascendance and Van Riemsdyk's addition to the organization last week, the Leafs have a glut of forwards on their roster, opening further the possibility of a trade as the renovations continue. Upgrades at centre and in goal remain the most likely this avenue though the blueline could stand to add further stability.
"We're not done yet," Burke ultimately concluded. "This is a starting point."