Brian Burke could become a very busy man in the days that lie ahead before training camp.
While the new labour agreement, tying players and owners together for at least eight more years, has yet to be ratified, its impending implementation could – could in the strongest sense of the word with so many details as yet unknown – stand to benefit Burke and the Leafs.
Toronto was generally quiet this past offseason – one that saw splashy deals handed out left and right – adding only James Van Riemsdyk and Jay McClement to an already crowded forward complement.
Perhaps that was by design.
It's long been thought that Burke would wait out the next collective bargaining agreement before striking on those parties disadvantaged by the impending cap crunch. The cap is expected to rise to $70 million this season before shrinking back down to $64 million in 2013-2014. A trimmed-down number was to be expected, but the immediate decrease could still prove challenging to some parties, forcing them to shed salary on waiting vultures like the Leafs.
The Montreal Canadiens for example, already sit at slightly more than $60 million for next season, surely slimming down by using at least one of the two amnesty provisions provided by the new agreement. Others like the Lightning ($57.5 million), Flyers ($57.4), Bruins ($57.3) and Blackhawks also hover near the impending limit.
This looks to be where Burke's potential advantage lies, although he shied away from such a notion when contacted by email on Sunday. Asked whether he anticipated trade activity this week, Burke responded flatly, “I do not.”
The numbers line up in his favour, however, making it a realistic possibility.
The Leafs have cap space, both now and in the future. For this season, according to Cap Geek, Toronto has about $6.7 million to play with, enough to add a significant piece or two. It's a year later, however, that the money really frees up; only 13 players are currently signed, lending to cap space of slightly less than $23 million (not including any potential buyouts). Only three players (Van Riemsdyk, Mikhail Grabovski and John-Michael Liles) remain signed beyond that.
With so many details of the new CBA as yet unknown, it's unclear just how much of an advantage Burke will have in this respect. If teams are able to add salary in trades, a rule Burke has championed, the Leafs could be in a prime position to add talent – albeit expensive talent – addressing a range of deficiencies on the roster. Will the CBA punish teams who signed players to lengthy, back-diving contracts even after said player is traded or retires? These are facts we just don't have currently, slightly hamstringing any real foresight on the matter.
One other necessary ingredient to evaluate in regards to the Leafs future cap space is the impending and potentially rich free agent market for 2013. Among the names currently unsigned beyond this year: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jarome Iginla, Derek Roy, Alexander Edler, Ryane Clowe, Nathan Horton, Simon Gagne, Stephen Weiss, Jimmy Howard, Douglas Murray and Toronto's own Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur. If available, many names in that list could interest the Leafs, starting with Getzlaf and Perry
At this point, goaltending and defence remain the club's two greatest weaknesses.
Dealing for a veteran netminder of Roberto Luongo's quality would immediately solve the goaltending instability – assuming he's interested in joining the Leafs – but is the organization prepared to assume the weight of such a contract? Do the instant benefits outweigh the long-term costs? Again, without knowing full details of the CBA, it's difficult to assume.
If they're not prepared to take on Luongo's extensive contract (10 years remaining, with an annual cap hit of $5.3 million), the Leafs could and should look to upgrade on defence. An already question-laden group is hurting. Jake Gardiner has been sidelined with a concussion since December – his immediate availability is in doubt – and Cody Franson remains unsigned. The other current holdovers include Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles.
Mike Kostka (second in points among AHL defenceman) and Paul Ranger (among the AHL leaders in plus/minus) have both been exceptional for the Marlies, but remain uncertain products at the NHL level. Morgan Rielly could emerge as an intriguing option or Randy Carlyle could simply opt for safer depth products like a Korbinian Holzer or Mark Fraser.
The Leafs are likely in a waiting pattern until the new labour agreement is set in stone and full details become available, but based on early returns from the deal, the Leafs could be in a strategically viable position.