Leaf fans expecting the team to make a big splash in the free agent market on July 1 may be underwhelmed. It won't be from lack of trying but rather from a lack of talent. The marketplace has changed considerably since the lockout year. Before the lockout many players reached free agency beyond their prime years but without a cap it didn't matter to big market teams. They overpaid aging stars and didn't worry about value for money.
Players now reach free agency at much younger ages and GMs are not about to lose stars during their most productive years. Over the last few years teams have locked up franchise players at young ages for what amounts to their prime years. Leaf fans who expected to see a Rick Nash or Mike Richards in Toronto as free agents were disappointed to see them sign career contracts with their respective teams. In fact, former Leaf GM, John Ferguson, had designed his contracts to allow for plenty of cap space for when these players became available for free agency.
So the Maple Leafs again enter a new season without a real franchise player, but plenty of cap space and not much to choose from. The Leafs desperately need a #1 centre but none are available. The only big star is Ilya Kovalchuk and only because he rejected a long-term contract from Atlanta. The Leafs already have a #1 left winger who will be paid almost half of what Kovlachuk wants and is 6 years younger.
The top ten free agent forwards include Alexei Ponikarovsky and Lee Stempniak which tells you how thin this group is. The free agent defensemen on the market look more promising. Unless there is a last minute signing today those available tomorrow include Sergei Gonchar, Paul Martin, Dan Hamhuis, and Anton Volchenkov. The market for goalies is incredible considering only 3 teams are shopping for a starting goalie - Tampa Bay, San Jose and Philadelphia. Some decent goalies will be looking at backup roles and then try to outplay the incumbent starter to get more ice time.
So what will Brian Burke do? My guess is he will grab at least one centre for his 2nd or 3rd line and to provide more depth. He could take a chance with Ollie Jokinen but I think Burke would not be happy with an underachiever as his top centre after purging his team of most of its deadwood. Instead he will sign a big name defenseman and use his excess defensemen to trade for a #1 centre. Can he do it? Well if you can pick up Dion Phaneuf for spare parts then there must be a decent centre out there that is available for a top 4 defenseman. It likely won't be Marc Savard. Although the $4 million cap hit is not too bad, the length of his contract, his no-trade clause, and his concussion history makes Savard pretty tough to move. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli panicked earlier in the year when he made the contract offer to Savard. The Bruins were struggling offensively and he was viewed as their top offensive threat. In hindsight he appears to be regretting the signing.
Nonetheless Burke intends on making some noise this weekend. Remove the salaries of Tomas Kaberle and Jeff Finger and the Leafs have $20 million to work with. That means that despite Burke's denials, Kovalchuk is a possibility. He is the only true gem in the marketplace this summer.