Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Last One, I Promise

First of all, I apologize for another Leafs column, this will most assuredly be the last for a while. I know many of you out there despise the Leafs and really, there are several other noteworthy subjects to discuss.

But I just can't help myself. Mistake after mistake from the Leaf organization, it's like watching Perez Hilton play scrabble.

The word around training camp is that Toronto has guaranteed a roster spot to defenceman Jonas Frogen, the 28 year-old Swede who will make his NHL debut this fall. I'm not complaining about this at all. Frogen is signed to a reasonable $1.065M per year contract, by all accounts played well at the World Championships last year in Quebec, and is precisely the type of low risk-low cost free agent the Leafs should be building with.

The real question is why they would they sign Jeff Finger to a four year $14M contract? It's not like this team was one mid-level defenceman away from winning the Stanley Cup, or even being legitimate contenders. Last time I checked, being able to score a goal was instrumental in being able to win a game. With the set of forwards GM Cliff Fletcher has assembled, scoring will be a monumental challenge. (Exhibit A: Mikhail Grabovski is the #1 center.)

And the Leafs already had numerous other viable options to plug in on defence, none of whom would've eaten up nearly as much cap space as Finger. This is a rebuilding project that has no blueprint. The right move is to stockpile draft picks and bring in players who are either young or cheap or better yet, both.

Right now the Leafs have nine NHL defencemen in camp (Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, Finger, Frogen, Mike Van Ryn, Carlo Colaiacovo, Anton Stralman, Staffan Kronwall and Ian White). Actually, scratch that. The correct number is eight because Ian White is an AHL defencemen, end of story. Luke Schenn, the 5th overall pick in this summers draft, has absolutely no business making this team regardless of how amazing he plays. It serves no long-term purpose to have him on the squad which is exactly why I'm terrified the organization will keep him around.

Any way you cut it, there are too many bodies. Someone has to go, either by trade, via the waiver wire, or being sent down to the minors. Which makes the case for signing Finger even more confusing. What did they gain by signing him? A worse spot in the draft lottery? He certainly won't be the difference between making or missing the playoffs and now he could end up forcing the Leafs to give up on a guy like Colaiacovo or Kronwall who may be just as good as Finger.

Toronto easily could have gone with Kubina, Kaberle, McCabe, Frogen, Stralman, Colaiacovo, and Kronwall on defence this year (Total Cap hit: $18.58M) and then moved McCabe at the trade deadline for draft picks and opened up significant cap space in the process. Instead they'll go with Kubina, Kaberle, Finger, Van Ryn, Frogen, Stralman and one of Colaiacovo/Kronwall/White (Total Cap hit: $17.45M) with the net result being a sacrificed 4th round draft pick (from the McCabe trade), and a worse cap situation in the long run.

The good news is that Brian Burke is officially nine months away from fixing this mess. The bad news is the Nik Antropov situation has to be dealt with before then.

Antropov is entering the final year of his contract and is coming off his most (only?) impressive season. My immediate reaction is to hope he continues to play well and put up points so the Leafs can get more in return for trading him at the deadline. But after more consideration, I'm scared a good start to the season will force Fletcher to offer Antropov a lucrative extension, since he is "our only top 6 forward".

I'm left staring straight-ahead blankly in disbelief while I consider living in a world where Nik Antropov makes $6M a year to play hockey.

On my team.

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