Last season the Maple Leafs were easily the NHL’s worst defensive team, surrendering 3.49 goals-against per contest. The Buds managed to stay competitive-ish by potting 2.98 goals of their own each game, good for 10th in the league, but GM Brian Burke has obviously seen enough.
In true Howard Beale fashion, Burke has gone about molding a D-corps with the “proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence,” as he described the vision he had for the Leafs upon his arrival in Toronto this past November.
With the signing of former Duck Francois Beauchemin Monday, the Leafs now have nine defensemen under NHL contract, six of whom are more expensive towards the cap than the Leafs’ three most pricey forwards. Something’s got to give (see: Kaberle, Tomas), but Burke is doing the right thing, loading up on the back end, where the affordable free agent talent has been this summer.
Of the remaining available UFA forwards, names such as Joe “Av for Life” Sakic and Saku Koivu lead the list at center; Alex Tanguay is the only left winger of note; and, at right wing, the list begins with Petr Sykora and Todd Bertuzzi (the latter Burke would likely love to sign, but would be castigated for doing so). Other than Tanguay, who would have to take a pay cut from the $5.375 salary he earned last season to fit into Leaf plans, none of those players are worth investing in if you’re Burke at this point.
Of the remaining UFA defensemen, the big names are Mathieu Schneider and Sergei Zubov, with Derek Morris, 30, a close third. The first two remain useful in the right situations, but Schneider is 40 and Zubov nearly 39 and each has already seen their best days. Morris fits the Burke mold, but likely would cost more than the GM is willing to spend. And, really, at some point even Burke must know that you need more than one dimension to your blueline.
Burke’s plan seems to be working. He’s managed to lure one of the most sought-after UFA defenders out there in Mike Komisarek and as good a second-tier guy as the market offered in Beauchemin. The Leafs were also the big winners in the Jonas Gustavsson sweepstakes. Tuesday morning the Swedish netminder, known as ‘the Monster’ and the best available free agent goaltender, decided to sign with the Leafs, rather than Colorado, San Jose or Dallas.
Gustavsson chose the Leafs over the others despite the team’s poor defensive record in recent seasons, the fact they already have an incumbent No. 1 netminder, Vesa Toskala, and the likelihood Toronto will again be watching from the sidelines when the NHL’s spring tourney begins next April.
Why? Well, surely money was a factor, although $900,000 for one year in this day and age free agent freznzydom seems like a real bargain. Maybe other teams wanted a longer commitment from Gustavsson or he felt he had the best chance of showcasing himself in Toronto, where Toskala was one of the NHL’s worst starting netminders last season.
But part of the reason must be the fact the Leafs will be a much harder team to play against this season compared to the recent past. There’s no way it will be as easy to score on a team with this D-corps as it was last season or the one before (or the one before that). And with significant money still remaining under the cap and a big chip to play in perennial All-Star Game participant Tomas Kaberle, it’s likely the Leafs will only get better – if not this season, then in the very near future.
Beginning with a blue-collar, lunch-pail group on the blueline is a good way to start.
Host Edward Fraser sits down with writers Adam Proteau and Ryan Kennedy to discuss… The Leafs signing Jonas Gustavsson… The addition of Francois Beauchemin to Toronto’s blueline… Brian Burke’s off-season grade… And Alex Kovalev landing in Ottawa. Producer: Ted Cooper.
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