Some Leafs Thoughts on Late Free Agency Eve

Unrestricted free agency begins on Wendesday afternoon, and understandably, many are extremely excited about this. It’s the most active non-hockey time of the hockey season, after all! One team that’s been relatively quiet, though, is the Toronto Maple Leafs, which has some frustrated. After another tough first round exit, many want to see wholesale changes in the organization, though there’s little agreement on what those changes should be. One thing there is agreement on is the fact that the team looks relatively secured at this moment is dissatisfying. As we go into the first day of changes, I figure we’d tie up some loose ends and plant some seeds.

Moving On

Not everyone is sticking around with the team, of course. Many are likely to move on to greener pastures. Let’s touch on a few of those.

  • Zach Hyman is having a pretty awkward final lap here, as many bicker about his final cost and the potential of trading his rights to the team who appears to have secured him, the Edmonton Oilers. It really is a shame that it has to end with many of his biggest fans arguing about why exactly it makes sense to let him go, which I did myself a few days back. He’s been an incredible solider for the organization over the past half decade and I hope he gets a nice ovation the first time he returns to the rink (assuming we finally have fans for that night, obviously).
  • I feel bad about Nick Foligno not working out here – he clearly had his heart in it and it would’ve been a great story had it worked. All that said, the fit was never there and his injuries only made things worse. Some reports have suggested that the Leafs have kicked tires on brining him back – at this time, I don’t suspect that to be all that likely. Look to him joining his brother Marcus in Minnesota or returning back to Columbus as the most likely outcomes.
  • Joe Thornton will almost definitely not be back. I could end up looking like an idiot here, but everything I’ve heard in the past couple of weeks suggests that, as fun as this year was to attempt, the Leafs were just a year or so too late on their plan to add him to the team. Going back to San Jose could be an option, some have floated Boston, but I also think calling it a day in the NHL could be in the cards – if this happens, though, don’t be shocked if he keeps lacing them up in Switzerland, a place where he’s said he’d like to end his career.
  • Zach Bogosian is all but gone – not so much due to salary or fit, but a personal decision based upon current Covid restrictions. With his family still by and large in the US, it’s hard to blame him for that – it’s been a tough year and a half.
  • I’m kind of disappointed that we haven’t heard about a push to keep Alex Galchenyuk in the fold. Maybe he wants to see if anyone wants to take a pricier gamble on him first, but if I were the Leafs, I’d entertain keeping him at a low salary. He’s still got flaws to fix, but he’s a rare depth option that can game-break from time to time.
  • Lastly, it’s a shame that this is likely how things end with Frederik Andersen. From the sounds of it, he is interested in returning to the team, but after the last couple of seasons of mediocre to bad performances, the Leafs will likely want to look elsewhere unless Andersen comes in at a backup’s price tag, rather than a 1B’s. Maybe this is a situation where they spin back at each other in a few days if they’re not getting the respective bites they want, but I think its done. Andersen was an addition to the team that exceeded my expectations more often than he didn’t, and delivered on his steep cost – I’m rooting for him to find his way.
  • Also of note: Ben Hutton, David Rittich, Stefan Noesen and Riley Nash will all go to market. Veini Vehvilainen and Nic Petan weren’t provided qualifying offers and will move on as well. Scott Sabourin, Kenny Agostino, and Calle Rosen are three more Marlie-inclined UFAs who I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if we heard about new dals for, but I also wouldn’t bet too hard on them either.

Coming In

This leaves the Leafs with a few holes throughout the organization – mostly depth roles once you get past Hyman and Andersen, but holes nonetheless.

Many will look at the Hyman departure and want to move towards getting a player that matches him as close as possible by style, and hopefully a little bit in substance. With $9 million in cap space, it’s unlikely that the Leafs can do this in a direct sense. Think the oft-cited Moneyball scout war room scene – trying to replace Jason Giambi isn’t going to work here.

Toronto needs offence, they need it cheap, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be high profile and singular – just thorough and encompassing. First, for some highly-likelies:

  • Michael Bunting is a name that’s come up a ton over the past few months. He’s going to free agency early via Group 6, a qualification based on age and games played. Bunting had 10 goals and 13 points in 21 games with the Arizona Coyotes this year, his first real cup of coffee in the NHL – though it must be noted that his shooting percentage was sky-high at 23.3%. He’s a Scarborough native and he’s played under Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe at the OHL level. Bob McKenzie strongly suggested today that Toronto is the likely landing spot, and my understanding is also that this will be the case, barring a sudden sweep of big money. Remember, though, that these guys can get away just before the finish line, something this organization knows from prior experience in pursuing a younger Yanni Gourde.
  • David Pagnotta suggested this morning that Toronto might also be in on Joshua Ho-Sang, looking to give him a fresh start. Ho-Sang is another 25-year-old Toronto native who is raw in NHL experience and will likely sign at a very low cost. I wouldn’t put expectations too high on him at this stage, but his offensive talent is undeniable and if they can unlock a part of him that appears to have faded from him in recent years, this could be a steal. My own understanding is that Pagnotta’s report is likely accurate and this will get done.

Toronto likely still would like to add 1-2 more forwards to the NHL roster at this point, especially if they’re looking at moving other pieces. So, a few other names to think about here:

  • I have a feeling that Seattle already has their toes dipped in this, but man, if there’s a way to get Tomas Tatar at a decent price after a season where he had an awful PDO, and a playoff run where his team inexplicably scratched him most of the way, I’d hope Toronto is interested. He scores like a first liner, drives play like an elite forward, isn’t overly physical but isn’t shy, and did all of this last year while playing among the toughest competition in the league. If there’s a way to somehow make this work on a short-medium term contract, I’m all for it.
  • Matthieu Perreault has been long underrated, despite decent production and great play-driving results throughout his career. Teams will be looking to Philip Danault as the prized shutdown centre, but Perreault could be an alternative to look at. The biggest issue is that it’s been years since he’s played centre, making him in a lot of ways a second Alex Kerfoot-type option, but if there’s interest here, that might explain why Kerfoot gossip began to ramp up again in insider circles earlier today.
  • The Leafs seem to be somewhat tied to Nick Bonino right now. I’m kind of curious there, as he’s been a quality contributor to teams in the past. My concerns there would be that his production might be slightly greased by on-ice shooting percentage, and extremely sheltered use over the past season. Also, while physicality isn’t a must for me, the fact that he’s near the bottom in both throwing and receiving hits does make you wonder about tougher games just a little. The models like him, and that’s enough for me to defer to “if the price is right, sure”, but I’m not as married to him.
  • The most oddball idea: If they want a pure powerplay specialist that they can toss on an old-man line to replace Thornton? I wonder how cheap you could get James Neal after his buyout today. It’d have to be basically nothing, but stranger things have happened.

On the blue line, the team looks pretty largely unchanged going into next year, save for Bogosian. Their current group of seven: Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, Justin Holl, Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren, might honestly be enough to roll with, but Kyle Dubas has mentioned wanting to have a depth piece to solidify the group.

Personally, I don’t like think the team needs to commit too much more to the blue line, as the current group is good and I’ve always felt that investing too much into defence is counter-intuitive. I’d go as far as to say that, unless they have a sweetheart deal lined up, that it might just be best to wait a few weeks to let whatever has possessed these GMs to pay a gazillion assets for mediocre to okay defencemen on the trade market to pass, since the big fish will likely be in bidding wars for marginal options. All the same..

  • The most fun scenario would be Alex Edler coming in as a cheap vet. I doubt this one will happen – if he’s not getting paid, why leave Vancouver – but it would be cool to get a proven option who still has a little bit of gas left in the tank.
  • If Montreal doesn’t hang onto him, Jon Merill might be a a player to look at if sparing shutdown/PK use is the mission. While he didn’t play much PK with the Habs, Detroit’s shorthanded unit was significantly better at preventing shots with him on the ice than off of it this season, and the same thing can be said about even-strength; though not to the same extent with the Habs. I can’t imagine he comes in at much more than his $950,000 cap hit given his lack of significant ice time and obvious production, but he could fit that 6/7 role here.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, we have goaltending. Finding the right netminder will be difficult given the seeming randomness & voodoohood of it all, but it’s imperative that the team finds someone who can eat games at a decent level. Jack Campbell’s story last year was incredible, and I thoroughly hope it’s the start of a permanent return to expectation for the once hyped super-prospect, but the Leafs are going to need to be prepared for the possibility that it goes wrong.

The free agent goaltending pool doesn’t afford them many safe options, though. The two top names, Philipp Grubauer and Tuukka Rask, will almost definitely be sticking with their current teams for ticket prices beyond Toronto’s range. This leaves the situation pretty thin. Skimming through the other UFA goalies that played more than 18 games (a third of the 56-game season) doesn’t give you a great list. I’ll put it this way: Of the 12 UFA goalies that fit this cutoff, five had lower save percentages than David Rittich, and Frederik Andersen had a few names below him in his worst career year as well.

The names that hit at least a 0.905 that haven’t already been mentioned are Jaroslav Halak, Linus Ullmark, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier. Ullmark is a target I like a lot, but I suspect a bidding war might get in the way – though I know Toronto has had interest in in the past and has years of AHL and NHL game tape on him. Halak would be an awesome veteran to add, but there are already reports linking him to Vancouver. Bernier and Reimer would be hilarious, but I’m not sure either would want to come back after how things ended.

An interesting option that is below that games played threshold is Petr Mrazek, who is seeing a three-year stint in Carolina come to an end. While his 0.923 save percentage in the regular season and 6-2-3 record were among the best of all these UFA goaltenders, he had his thunder stolen by Alex Nedeljkovic’s rookie run and, combined with injuries, played just a dozen games. He’ll likely be the best bang-for-buck bet available.

Were I to bet on any two names to end up in Toronto when the dust is settled, my eyes would be on Mrazek and Ullmark. Though, nothing is a given.

On top of all of the above, there will also be a myriad of AHL veterans who join the fold over the coming days and weeks – players that they can get on either premium two-way deals or league minimum 1-ways to be leaders and drivers for the Marlies as the minor leagues get back to regular structure. Keep this in mind as you see smaller transactions on the board in the next few days – not every NHL deal is really an NHL deal, and you might lose unnecessary sleep trying to figure out the secret plan for them.

I expect Toronto to have a few of these deals done right out of the gate, particularly on defence, as the team took a year off from restocking those cupboards for obvious reasons.

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