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With the NHL season winding down and the 2011 Entry Draft quickly approaching, all but four teams have begun to look ahead at their future. Once again, the Toronto Maple Leafs have had plenty of time to begin looking toward their future, with their season having ended well over a month ago.
Looking past the draft, the Maple Leafs are going to be very busy when it comes to 2011 free agency. Their biggest concern is certainly the gaping hole in their top-six, where general manager Brian Burke continues to look for someone to play between sniper Phil Kessel and the opposite wing. Many people─including myself─are thinking of Dallas Stars forward Brad Richards.
The 31-year-old seems to be the perfect fit for Kessel. A play making centre who scored 77 points in 72 games last season would likely help Kessel reach the 40-goal plateau, something that many people expected him to achieve in the 2010-2011 season.
However, the Maple Leafs don’t exactly have the “upper-hand” when it comes to signing Richards. The New York Rangers, who will definitely be in play for Richards, appear to be the most likely destination for the former 91-point scorer.
Richards played under the Rangers’ current coach, John Tortorella, in Tampa Bay. He also won a Stanley Cup under Tortorella while with Tampa Bay in 2004.
Since the Maple Leafs will need to out-bid the Rangers for the services of Richards─which could be very difficult to do─Brian Burke and his staff will need a backup plan. But who, other than Richards, would be a good fit for the Maple Leafs?
Well, there is no “perfect fit” like Richards. However, there are a few players who could help the Maple Leafs in some key areas.
Brooks Laich of the Washington Capitals is one of those players. The 27-year-old scored 16 goals and 32 assists to go along with a plus-14 rating in 82 games last season. As a centre, he would be a great addition to the Maple Leafs’ forward group, as well as being a much-needed addition to the penalty kill.
It’s obvious the Maple Leafs need a top-six centre, and that Richards and Laich could both fit those roles. But what if something happens to one of their top-six wingers? Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are all talented players, but will they all be able to repeat their success from last season?
MacArthur, who I am expecting to re-sign before July 1, scored a career-high 21 goals, 41 assists and 62 points. That’s great, but one has to wonder if that was just a one-time thing, or if MacArthur will continue to be a prominent point-producer.
Kulemin, 24, is almost in the same situation. Not once during his three-year career has Kulemin failed to improve upon his statistics from the previous season. His 30 goals, 27 assists and 57 points are an improvement of 14 goals, seven assists and 21 points over last season. In a tough Toronto market, will Kulemin be able to match or build on his 2010-2011 numbers?
Lupul, who has the biggest question mark hanging over his head, was great for the latter half of his time in Toronto last season. The 27-year-old native of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta played in just 54 games this season due to injury. He scored 14 goals and 17 assists.
Perhaps Kessel is the most sure of the bunch to reach the 30 goal plateau, since that’s something he has already done three times in his career.
As you can see, there are many questions surrounding the Maple Leafs’ top wingers. Because of that, should the Maple Leafs go after one in free agency? If they choose to do so, Ville Leino would be ideal.
In 81 games last season, Leino scored 19 goals and 34 assists. He also had a plus-14 rating, something that should make him attractive to many teams this off-season. At $800,000, he was a bargain for the Philadelphia Flyers last season. There is no doubt that he will be looking for more money in the off-season, but he still wouldn’t be overly expensive; likely a little more than the $3 million Colby Armstrong is making.
Although Brad Richards would be the best fit for the Maple Leafs, the chances of him actually donning the Leafs’ blue and white next season sits anywhere from 30-45 percent. That’s no reason for Leafs fans to worry though, because with other free agents, restricted and unrestricted, as well as the trade market, management has options.