TORONTO - Luke Schenn always gets a queasy feeling when the National Hockey League playoffs roll around.
“There’s no question we are sick of watching it every year on TV,” the 21-year-old Maple Leafs defenceman said on Friday morning. “No one wants to look outside for answers. Everyone wants to get the job done themselves.”
Schenn officially has the next five seasons in a Leafs sweater to help end what’s now a seven-year-old Toronto playoff drought.
The drawn-out contract negotiations between Don Meehan, the agent for Schenn, and Leafs assistant general manager Claude Loiselle that began in earnest in August ended at approximately 1 a.m. on Friday, with Schenn signing a five-year pact with a salary cap hit of $3.6 million US a season. There had been discussions of a shorter-team deal until approximately 9 p.m. on Thursday night, but the sides decided a five-year pact was in the best interests of both sides. Leafs general manager Brian Burke said that two- and three-year contract possibilities had been on the table.
“I don’t want to embarrass Luke ... what you see is a classic, hard-nosed Canadian defenceman,” Burke said. “Luke plays the game the way we all dream about finding players to play that way. He plays hard, is hard to play against, he finishes his checks.”
It’s agreed that Schenn is a crucial piece of the Leafs blue line. So why did it take so long to sign the restricted free agent?
“As I explained to Luke, in a hard-cap system, it is not simple to arrive at values,” Burke said. “We intend to spend to the cap. We have not spent to the cap since I have been here because I have not seen the value in it. But that is why you have to work hard on these contracts.
“I think the deal that is reached is fair. Every stone was turned over in this negotiation. The key for Luke is the player has to feel he is being treated fairly. For us, we want to pay what is fair, not more than what is fair. It’s not always easy to arrive at that number. It does not mean the team is being greedy, and it does not mean the team is being parsimonious.”
With Schenn’s deal, the Leafs approximately are $2.165 million under the $64.3-million cap.
Though there’s a chance Schenn could improve on the five goals and 17 assists he recorded in 82 games last season, and the Leafs won’t object if he does, it’s his defensive skills that put the onus on Burke to keep him for the long term. Though Zach Bogosian, taken two picks ahead of Schenn in the first round of the 2008 entry draft, signed a two-year pact for $5 million this week with the Winnipeg Jets, Burke said it did not impact the Schenn talks.
Schenn led NHL defencemen with 251 hits last season and had a team-high 168 blocked shots, making him the only player in the NHL to have more than 250 hits and 150 blocked shots. Schenn might be out of position at times, but coaching can help curb that.
For Ron Wilson, Schenn should not change a lot.
“Hopefully he does not succumb to the pressures — I have seen so many players (do that) in the past because of whatever they are making — of trying to do things outside the responsibilities we have for them,” the Leafs coach said. “I’m confident. Luke has been level-headed for someone who is only 21 years old. I expect him to improve the right way.”
If Schenn does that, a playoff berth for the success-starved Leafs will stand a greater chance of happening.
“We’re optimistic like every year, but this one feels a lot different with the way we ended last year,” Schenn said. “I’m still a young guy, and hopefully in the five years I get to peak. We’re definitely on the right track to not only becoming a playoff team, but hopefully going above and beyond that.”