July 18 2012 12:27PM
After the NHL's recent offer to its players, many pundits have begun to predict that a lockout looms in the league's future. It may not be another full-season lost (I'm preparing my will, because that might be the death of me), but we may go a number of months without hockey.
It's hard to predict the full extent of the damage a full season's labor dispute would do to a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, but I like to think it won't be as bad as last time.
Most of us should remember to the Leafs the last time the league locked out its players and shut down a full season.
A high-octane, veteran-laden team was poised to take a run at the Cup, and could reasonably have been described as contenders. Mats Sundin and Eddie Belfour were still dominant, but an excellent supporting cast was still on the scene. Alexander Mogilny, Joe Niewendyk, Gary Roberts, Owen Nolan, Nik Antropov, and a still-pesky Darcy Tucker lead the offense, while Brian Leetch, Bryan McCabe, and Tomas Kaberle headed up the back end.
By the time the league started back up again, many of these well-known threats were gone. Worse, because the Leafs were one of the highest-spending teams prior to the lockout, they were one of the most cap-strapped once play resumed. Last but not least, the Leafs had traded important draft picks in the 2003, 2004, and 2005 drafts, and the prospect pool suffered later as a result.
But this time will be different, right? I'd most definitely like to think so.
As it stands, the Leafs have been relatively quiet on the free agency scene, and haven't made any blockbuster deals that eat a lot of cap space. Sure, a trade for Roberto Luongo might yet happen, but for the moment, the Leafs are sitting 14th in the league in total payroll (read: cap hit) for next season, and have a slew of expiring contracts for the following year. They are definitely in better shape, there.
OK, so the Leafs gave two first round picks and a second round pick away for Phil Kessel. Over the course of the last 5 drafts, the Leafs have still managed to select 5 times in the first round via trades. To be fair, it was still Cliff Fletcher at the interim helm for the Leafs at the 2008 draft table, but to his credit, "Trader Cliff" still had 8 selections in that year. It's also true that picking Tyler Biggs 22nd overall isn't the same as picking Dougie Hamilton at 9th, but Brian Burke has managed to cobble together a decent set of young players that may very well contribute down the line.
OLD PLAYERS TURNING TO DUST:
Not having an all-star goalie or center isn't usually something to brag about, but the fact that the Leafs' core players are all in or on the cusp of their prime makes it all the more likely that the players who remain after a hypothetical lockout year could still contribute well thereafter.
Mikhail Grabovski (28 years old), Phil Kessel (25), James van Riemsdyk (23), Jay McClement (29), Matt Frattin (24), and Mike Brown (27) are the only NHL regular forwards to be signed through the 2013-14 season.
On defence, the group would remain largely the same, with only Carl Gunnarsson and Cody Franson needing new deals by then. The only player that could fall off the wagon a bit here is John-Michael Liles.
In goal, the Leafs currently have a pair of youngsters in James Reimer (24), and a restricted free agent in Ben Scrivens.
There may be a lot of turnover, but it certainly doesn't look like a year off would prevent these players from competing.