When free agency opens on July 1, the Toronto Maple Leafs face the challenge of whether to buy now or wait it out.
History shows waiting might be the best course of action.
Leading up to the 2004 NHL lockout, few teams fared better than the Maple Leafs in the last years of the pre-salary cap unrestricted free agent signings. Curtis Joseph (1998), Gary Roberts (2000), Alexander Mogilny (2001), Joe Nieuwendyk (2002) and Ed Belfour (2002) all were unquestionable successes who became integral parts of the Pat Quinn era.
Those teams not only made the post-season every year, but made a habit of winning as well (just ask Ottawa Senators fans).
Post-lockout it has been the total opposite. Hal Gill (2006) was a decent signing on a two-year contract for a little over $2 million per season. He was a plus-11 in his first year as a Leafs defenceman and a trade deadline deal to the Pittsburgh Penguins in his second.
After that it is truly slim pickings.
Jason Blake (2007) was 34-years-old and coming off a career year with the New York Islanders. His 40 goals and 69 points earned him a five year, $20 million contract with Toronto. He actually wasn’t a complete bust in 2 1/2 seasons, averaging an underwhelming 20 goals and 55 points before being traded to the Anaheim Ducks.
The Maple Leafs were bidding against themselves when they signed Jeff Finger (2008) to a four year, $14 million contract. He had only played 94 career NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche before GM Cliff Fletcher took a chance on him.
Finger proved not to be a diamond in the rough that Fletcher hoped for — spending the last two years of his windfall contract playing with the Toronto Marlies, and wasn’t one of their top four defenceman.
Mike Komisarek (2009) was a more popular signing than Finger when the Leafs inked him to a lucrative four-year contract. It was maybe not well known that he was suffering from significant lingering shoulder problems from his last year in Montreal. Komisarek couldn’t regain his healthy form and Toronto bought him out of the final year of his contract.
Tim Connolly (2011) also spent the last of his two-year Leafs contract with the Marlies where he was making about $5 million per season.
The cherry on the sundae, unfortunately, would be David Clarkson’s (2013) seven year, $36.25 million contract that seems to cement the case for Toronto not being jumpy when free agency opens.
On the flip side, former Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis did an admirable job with the lesser known free agents the past two seasons.
Mason Raymond, Mike Santorelli and David Booth all signed one-year contracts worth $3.5 million combined, and were pleasant surprises on the ice in their short times with Toronto.
If this management team lives up to its claim of never being impatient, they should certainly avoid the free agent mistakes made over the past decade. Hopefully they can still find a pleasant surprise or two. It won’t make the big splash with the media, but all is good if it makes a positive on the ice.