Leafs have been quiet on free-agent front

Tim Connolly headlines the Maple Leafs' off-season signings. (Eric Bolte/QMI AGENCY)

Tim Connolly headlines the Maple Leafs' off-season signings. (Eric Bolte/QMI AGENCY)

Lance Hornby, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:34 PM ET

When the free agent list is released every July 1, many Maple Leafs fans automatically start fitting the top players for Toronto sweaters.

To the die-hards, it seems a no-brainer for someone to take the millions and work in a great city, where they’ll be treated like gold when the team’s fortunes eventually turn for the better. But a week into the shopping season and there’s only one Leafs signing of consequence, centre Tim Connolly, two if Philippe Dupuis can win a third or fourth-line spot.

Not to say there hasn’t been a significant roster adjustment, with a favourable looking trade that netted Cody Franson and a potential skill centre in concussed Matthew Lombardi. Taking on Lombardi’s $3.5 million US salary if he plays was a creative way of utilizing the extra cap space.

But the Leafs weren’t really serious contenders on the first day for UFA Brad Richards and though “plugged in” to use a Brian Burke phrase, they didn’t land anyone else until their own Plan B on Connolly kicked in. It’s true that prices were inflated and the UFA crop wasn’t the best, but useful players such as Richards, Max Talbot, Tomas Fleischmann, Michal Handzus, Christian Ehrhoff (whose rights were acquired in a trade) and Tomas Vokoun were available at positions where Toronto needed help.

They all said no, some for reasons other than money. The Leafs have missed the playoffs six straight years and with the improvements that other Eastern clubs have made, there’s no guarantee they can reverse that in the next year or two. For some, winning a Cup in a shrinking window takes precedence.

Becoming a Leaf also means co-existing with the often caustic Ron Wilson for eight months. He isn’t likely to change his stripes at age 56, and while his honest assessment of some players should be welcomed, some players don’t thrive on being needled in public, in particular, a market where it’s likely front page news and lead off the all-sports TV and radio coverage.

In comparison, Richards could walk the streets of Manhattan and not get a second glance. He might get called out by Rangers coach John Tortorella for some reason, but you’d have to wade through the Yankees, Knicks and Giants’ coverage to get details. How long Wilson lasts if Toronto stumbles at the gate might also affect a player’s decision to choose Toronto.

And believe it or not, not all Canadian males born since 1967 were snapped in the crib dressed in Leafs sleepers. And unlike Hogtowner Mike Cammalleri, who arrived at the ACC on the first day of his free agency hoping to be a Leaf, there wasn’t a lineup at 40 Bay St. last Friday.

“I came down with my agent and met with them,” Cammalleri told the Toronto Sun in 2010 long after he went to the Habs. “I always loved the city and had a passion for the team here, too. It is what it is, and I didn’t end up in Toronto. That stuff will stay behind closed doors.”

Such players now have roots and allegiances with other teams and cities and different priorities. Until the Leafs show tangible proof of climbing the ladder, playing in the centre of the hockey universe just isn’t that big a deal for some.

Should Burke get bolder?

We used to get on Pat Quinn’s case every July for the perception he was fighting the NHL’s battle on salary restraint at the expense of improving the Leafs. In the pre-cap days, the Leafs could have spent their way to better contend for the Cup, but GM Quinn objected to what certain players were demanding. After three rounds of the 2002 playoffs, the Leafs were never close, but Quinn’s prediction of “Armageddon” came true with the ’04-05 lockout.

Burke was probed a couple of times at his summer state-of-the union address on Thursday about taking the radical approach to free agents which some of his peers attempted. Why not, Burke was asked, front-load a long-term deal and pay a pittance in latter years when a player hits his late 30s. Or go all out on the offer-sheet route.

One-time league exec Burke flat out called the multi-year deals an attempt to circumvent the salary cap, even though GMs have learned something from the Ilya Kovalchuk ruling. On going after an RFA such as Steven Stamkos, Burke is more open-minded to such a bold gesture (one was considered in ’09 for Phil Kessel). But not this year, despite so many eager people seeing it as a way to fast-track the Leafs’ recovery.

Burke would no doubt be sensitive to criticism that he’d be abandoning his principle after making such as fuss when the Oilers snatched Dustin Penner from his Anaheim Ducks in 2007. His vocal stand is part of the reason offer sheets have not flourished in the ensuing years.

But there are 30 NHL teams looking for an edge and a lot of them no longer care who they offend in the process.

Loose Leafs

Fired assistant coach Keith Acton hopes to catch on with another team after more than a decade with Toronto. He has not yet commented on being let go. “I know he’s been working the phones pretty hard,” said his son Will, who had a productive week trying out at forward at the Leafs’ prospect camp. “He’s my father and you want the best for him” ... For those wondering, the Leafs say new forward Dupuis is not related to NHL veteran Pascal Dupuis, even though both were born in Laval, Que., and played midget hockey there ...Defenceman Franson is 0-for-2 trying to pick a new sweater number. He wanted his No. 4 from Nashville, but concedes that elder statesman John-Michael Liles will ask for his old Colorado single digit. Franson’s next choice was six, but he knows that’s Ace Bailey’s retired number. Joey Crabb wore 46 last year, but 64 is open.


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