If you visit VLM regularly you know that I thought that, this far into Brian Burke’s time here, we would be (and in truth, really should be) a lot further along the “re-build” than we are. For all the roster upheaval, the team still wasn’t a playoff performer as recently as this past April. That’s simply not good enough when teams can be turned around much more quickly than that—even in the cap era.
That said, it seems clear Burke is not going to go outside his comfort zone in making a move just to ensure the Leafs make the playoffs next spring. He’s not playing the role of someone “desperate to save my job as GM”. We know players were/are available—Jordan Staal (who wanted to play with his brother), for example. Luongo and Bobby Ryan also spring to mind. But the Leaf GM wasn’t/isn't prepared to outbid anyone else or to go outside what he believes is fair market value for players of that ilk. So he slowly plots his moves, brings in van Riemsdyk for Schenn, and inches the needle forward bit by bit.
“Missing out” on Justin Schultz can’t be pinned on Burke. When money is the same, ultimately a player goes where he thinks he will feel most comfortable. If, in this instance, that’s Edmonton, fair enough. Whether it turns out to be a brilliant stroke by the Oilers or not, we’ll find out over time. (I’ll say this, as a hockey fan, I’m glad this little saga is over. While I’m all for player freedom and following the rules and the letter of the law and all that stuff, I’m not a fan of a 21 year-old doing his mini-version of the LeBron James thing. I’m sure that wasn’t his intent, but at the end of the day, my guess is he ruffled some feathers around the league, including in Anaheim, who by all accounts thought months ago he was on board and would sign there once he finished his collegiate season. Suddenly, he wanted to play elsewhere. At least he can't be accused of signing because of the warm weather in Edmonton. It's got to be a hockey decision.)
So now the Leafs move into free-agency and whatever that will ultimately entail for them. Other than the “Big Three” (Semin, Suter and Parise), there are other intriguing names that will hit the market by the time you read this—Tootoo, Prust and offensive defenseman Jason Garrison from the Panthers among them. Shane Doan may be the most interesting name on the list, but I’d be shocked if he left Phoenix, despite the ownership delays. Matt Carle is another compelling name, and I would think he's a player the Leafs would kick the tires on pretty quickly.
Besides Doan, another guy who would seemingly (short-term) fill the leadership void in Toronto is the guy everyone used to call “Captain Canada”, Ryan Smyth. Whether he would be an impact player at this point (I don’t think so), he would perhaps bring leadership, though he has bounced around these last few years. (I wonder if he ever regrets leaving Edmonton originally over such little money years ago? The guy was a hero in Alberta. Pride on both sides killed that deal. He could have been mayor. Now, he seems like “yesterday’s guy”, unfortunately. Maybe this is why Iginla would rather stay, wisely, in Calgary?)
I don’t really have a handle on individuals the Leafs might pursue. (Anyone want to see the Leafs go after Brodeur for a season or two?) I’ve made my feelings known here before, that I feel they need (in addition to the obvious—a stud defenseman and an elite forward/center) more overall toughness and some experience and leadership. Whether they’ll pay, say, Prust a ridiculous amount to handle some of the toughness quotient, I have no idea. But I’d rather they bring in a number of guys who are simply good players who can play gritty hockey, too.
I’ll miss Colby Armstrong, though not the salary. He seemed like a stand-up guy, and the kind of annoying-to-play-against winger that should have been a fit here. (How we manage to bring in guys who should be perfect, like Versteeg and Armstrong, and end up sending them away, I don’t quite know.)
I do want to say one thing about Suter, and I say this as a hockey fan, not as a “Leaf” supporter. I feel badly that he won’t (evidently) re-sign in Nashville. If he was going to, he would have done it by now. Here is a franchise that has done everything right. They draft well (goodness, David Legwand is still there like 50 years later…Martin Erat too, a 7th round draft choice a dozen or so years ago); they support their players (like Tootoo); they play good, tough hockey. They have created a team true concept. Yet Suter wants more. I just don’t get it. Is it money? Playing with a better team? (If he signs with the Wings, heck, they lost to the Predators in the playoffs this past spring…) Location?
I mean, the guy gets all the praise, glory, money and playing time he wants. The organization has done everything it could to “prove” to him they are serious about building a winner in Nashville, yet that’s not enough. And I don't know if Suter noticed, but he wasn’t perfect in the playoffs. He wasn’t good enough to lift the Preds past the second round. I’m not laying the blame at Suter’s feet, simply suggesting that sometimes, athletes do buy the theory they're not part of the problem and that the grass will be greener somewhere else. (Former Maple Leaf Curtis Joseph may have some views on that. He thumbed his nose at a great offer from Toronto so he could “win a Cup” with the Wings. He played poorly and was treated shabbily by the Wings when Hasek returned. In the end, he was thrilled to get a back-up contract with the Leafs a second time around as his career wound down. Again, like Ryan Smith, Cujo was a guy who could have been mayor in Toronto—not sure why I use that reference, probably no one really wants to be a mayor—but his ego got in the way. Smith suddenly wanted to play in Edmonton again, just as Joseph did here. Best to appreciate something when you have it the first time, eh?)
This is my long-winded way of saying, markets like Nashville need to keep their stars to contend, but I believe they have done everything they could to make that happen. Sometimes, it lies with the player, and in this instance, I put the finger on Suter. It’s just disappointing, as a fan, that the player shows no loyalty. How much money does anyone need? And if we put our Leaf hats on, I’m pretty sure most of us would be disappointed if someone our organization had supported and developed since they were 18 decided he wanted out after a decade, just as he was hitting his prime. (I preferred NHL free-agency beginning at 31, though the NHLPA sure didn’t.)
Hey, maybe the Leafs will go after Dustin Penner? He fits the size requirement- and the experience requirement. He’s a "top-six" forward. The guy has two Cups on his resume, but has been one of the laziest players in the league more often than not. You just know if someone offers him 7 million a year for 5 years, he will float many nights. Now, if we ever get deep into the playoffs, he may come alive, eh?
As you can see, there is not a lot of continuity in my thinking today. It's a holiday! If you want to make some “predictions”, by all means share your Canada Day free-agency thoughts on the Leafs, or on anything else that you sense might happen around the league…