Are the Maple Leafs Becoming an Unfavorable Destination for UFAs?

Maple Leafs (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

John-Michael Liles is the latest in a series of Maple Leafs demoted to the AHL to save cap space (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

A day ahead of their regular season opener at Ricoh Coliseum, the Toronto Marlies unveiled their leadership group for the 2013/2014 campaign. While there may not have been many surprises, there was surely one player named to the group that had no expectation of ever being there. John-Michael Liles was named as one of four assistant captains for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate on Friday, capping a strange year and a half for the American defender.

Gone are the days when NHL General Managers could simply bury their mistakes in the minors, absolving their squad of an unfavourable salary cap hit. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement only $925 thousand can be removed from a club’s salary cap when demoting a player to the AHL. Call it the “Wade Redden Rule” if you like, but all it means is that players can no longer be unduly punished for somebody else’s mistake, unless of course, the mistaken party has more money than it can spend.

John-Michael Liles had a good, if unspectacular start to his career as a Maple Leaf, as he was a contributing piece to former coach Ron Wilson’s blue line before suffering a concussion in December of 2011. During his time on the injured list, Brian Burke signed Liles to a four-year contract extension that would pay him just shy of $4 million per season.

Fast forward almost two years later and neither Ron Wilson nor Brian Burke are anywhere to be found in the halls of the ACC and Liles has been passed on the depth chart by several younger, cheaper defenders. On September 29 the inevitable occurred, as the 32-year-old veteran was placed on waivers for the purpose of sending him to the minor leagues, part of an effort to ease the Maple Leafs’ salary cap squeeze.

Sure, the move makes complete sense. As part of coach Randy Carlyle’s “the best players will play” mantra, Liles may have been on the outside looking in. The part that is troubling is the optics of the whole thing. It would be different if this was an isolated incident, but it isn’t.

Before Liles came many others including Jeff Finger, who was a casualty of blind spending and an old CBA that didn’t have his back. He spent two years in the AHL for the crime of signing on a dotted line. For what it’s worth, his career has never recovered.

More recently however, were last season’s after thoughts in Tim Connolly and Mike Komisarek. Both spent the majority, and in Connolly’s case the entirety, of the lockout shortened season in the AHL. Again, they were victims of an old regime’s spending, and perhaps more so, their diminished value as players.

In a time where the Toronto Maple Leafs are finally returning to the ranks of playoff contenders and the organization seems like it may be moving in the right direction, the need to attract free agents and sell them on playing in Toronto is paramount. If free agents look at Toronto as a place where they could potentially be embarrassed, they may be less likely to sign up.

Sure, David Clarkson didn’t seem to mind all this when choosing the Blue and White over several other suitors, but he also had a pre-disposition to wanting to play in his hometown.

David Clarkson Toronto Maple Leafs (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

David Clarkson didn’t seem too worried about the Leafs’ history of burying contracts (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

For his part, John-Michael Liles will undoubtedly be a professional and accept his new role within the organization with class and respect, much like the players that travelled a similar path before him. Who knows, with Mark Fraser going on Long-Term Injured Reserve (LTIR), and Morgan Rielly’s nine-game tryout potentially ending before he returns, Liles may once again find himself in a Leafs sweater this season.

This may have been the right move for the organization in the dollars and cents way, but it never felt quite right in a moral kind of way. Liles didn’t necessarily deserve a top-six spot with the Leafs, but he also didn’t deserve a demotion to the AHL. He was a victim of circumstances that were out of his control.

It may never come up, as the Maple Leafs will be more focused on re-signing their own players in the upcoming off-season, but management has to hope that potential unrestricted free agents don’t begin to see them as “that franchise.”

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