Monster deal buys time

MIKE ZEISBERGER, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:16 AM ET

All those stinky jerseys and jockstraps inside the Toronto dressing room had barely been packed away for the summer when the Maple Leafs ignited the off-season on a positive note.

If the signing of pending restricted free agent Jonas Gustavsson to the bargain price of $2.7 million US over two years Thursday is any indication, this will be a banner few months for the Leafs, one general manager Brian Burke describes as a “watershed” for the franchise.

Of course, not everything on the team’s summer to-do list will come this easy.

Soon-to-be RFA Nikolai Kulemin needs to be locked up, with various reports suggesting an annual salary in the neighbourhood of $2.5 million might be appropriate. Talks have started between the sides, although Burke vows he won’t get in a bidding war with the KHL, should the Russian-based league start throwing around “silly money” at the young forward.

Mikhail Grabovski, with his neutral zone pirouettes, ideally needs to be shipped out, although moving his average salary of $2.9 million over the next two years will be difficult, even for a latter-round pick.

Will Tomas Kaberle be moved? Will Jeff Finger and his $3.5-million salary become nothing more than a Toronto Marlie with a fat wallet?

And, finally, how imaginative will Burke have to be to land a top-six forward, given the lack of depth in the pool of unrestricted free agent forwards?

So many questions ...

That’s why getting Gustavsson signed this quickly was paramount for the Brian Burke-David Nonis-Dave Poulin hierarchy. And at such a bargain price, too.

Under terms of the pact, Gustavsson becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012. If he can snatch the No. 1 job away from J-S Giguere and run with it next season, he’ll set himself up for a nice payday in two years.

At the same time, the Leafs now have given themselves some valuable time to evaluate a kid who, in the past year alone, dealt with the passing of his mother, underwent two minor heart procedures and fought through a groin injury.

Once healthy, the Toronto braintrust was impressed by Gustavsson’s play down the stretch, a run during which the Swedish rookie reeled off seven consecutive victories.

The key seems to be the modest $1.35-million salary cap hit Gustavsson’s contract carries, one that allows the Leafs to be financially flexible in other areas.

“It’s a fair deal,” Burke told the Toronto Sun’s Lance Hornby. “It’s based on his accomplishments in the second half of the season and not the first. But hopefully, this is the start of a long relationship for us.”

The one aspect of the deal that seems to tip in Gustavsson’s favour: Being able to become a UFA in just two years.

“We knew that (risk) going in.” Burke said. “We knew, based on his age coming over here. If he does well, we’ll have to pay. But in two years, those salaries might seem small.”

As he prepares to join Team Sweden for the upcoming world hockey championship, Gustavsson, 25, is enthused to be back in blue and white. The fact that Giguere will be battling him for the starter’s job in Toronto just whets his appetite even more.

“Watching how hard he works makes me want to work harder,” Gustavsson said in a phone interview Thursday. “He pushes me to be better. He’s had a big impact on me. He’s a good role model.”

Gustavsson went 16-14-9 with a 2.82 goals-against average and .904 save percentage this season. At the same time, he was chosen as Toronto’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which recognizes perseverence, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

“I think two years is great for the contract,” he said. “I know I’m going to have to play well to get an extension. At the same time, it gives me time to develop.”

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca


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