The NHL Entry Draft (Oct 6-7) and Free Agency (Oct 9) are quickly approaching, and, spoiler alert, Alex Pietrangelo isn’t about to be a Toronto Maple Leaf.
Can I say that with any kind of certainty?
Yes. Yes, I can.
You’ve read it all before but I’ll do a quick recap anyway.
Yes, technically they can move out enough money to make room for him….if this were NHL20.
Yes, technically they can keep the core together and get it all done, they just need to make 8 simple trades and sign 10 veterans just like they did with Jason Spezza and everything will be just fine.
Then you add Pietrangelo and…. what? Win the Stanley Cup? With Rodrigues, Spezza and Barabarov as your 3rd line? Sure thing sparky, good luck with that.
Would it be easier to move Mitch Marner or William Nylander to open up the space necessary to fit the big right shot defender? Most definitely, yes. Then you get to keep your 3rd line, add to it with what you get back from the trade and probably add some high picks as well.
There’s definitely value in that point of view.
Too bad Kyle Dubas doesn’t share it.
So what’s the most likely course of action? Well, nothing big if we’re being honest.
I predict they take a player at the draft instead of dealing the #15 selection for immediate help, and I also predict they have a slow and steady free agency. So, with that said, here are some players that I think you should watch for going forward:
Yaroslav Askarov (G)
If you had asked me about the Leafs’ chances at landing Askarov a few weeks ago I would have said they were good to great. That was before he played 3 games in the KHL and posted a 0.74GAA and 0.974SV%.
Three games is a small sample size but that’s a terrific start for an 18 year old in a men’s league. The stock of kids that are playing in Europe right now will really be helped if they get out to a fast start. They’re about to showcase how much they’ve grown since hockey was put on hold due to COVID19, so we should expect some jumbling of the rankings.
Either way, if this kid is on the board when the Leafs get to the podium at #15 they would be foolish to let him slip any further.
Dawson Mercer (LW, C, RW)
My man from Newfoundland.
This kid is the little engine that could. He’s a player that has a motor that always runs hot and he puts in that work ethic with a smile on his face.
He can play a grinding game or a finesse style. He can kill penalties and help your power play. He can defend and he can set up plays. He can play all three forward positions. He’s everything you want in a hockey player, a coaches dream and if you see a map of where his goals come from you’ll smile, they’re all from in tight as he loves to spend as much time as possible around the net.
If you’re of the belief that the Leafs don’t play with enough grit, heart, and determination then this is the pick you want Kyle Dubas to make.
Seth Jarvis (RW, C)
Seth Jarvis is generally ranked just inside the top 10, but every year there’s a player that drops in the rankings so I decided to gamble here and say that this year it would be Jarvis.
Standing at 5’9” and 165lbs Jarvis would be a prototypical Kyle Dubas draft pick. He is a terrific skater, a great goal scorer and helps kill penalties for his Portland Winterhawks.
Braden Schneider (RD)
Best player available is generally considered to be the proper way to draft. So drafting Braden Schneider because he’s a 6’2” 210lb stay-at-home right shot defender and that’s exactly what the Leafs need on their roster right now would be foolish.
Or would it?
With defenders such as Rasmus Sandin, Joseph Duszak and Mac Hollowell in the system this type of player isn’t just a rare commodity on the big club, Schneider would be a rare breed within the Leafs system.
After Yaroslav Askarov this might be my top choice if I were making the selection for the Leafs.
Dylan Holloway (C, LW)
A power forward that can bring grit, determination and toughness to the lineup is what the Leafs would get from this pick.
With 17pts in 35 games as a NCAA freshman, Holloway has shown great promise. He started his year slow but made great strides as the season went on. He has great hands and will find ways to produce at the next level.
All of these players would help the Leafs down the road and they’d all bring something a little different to the table. But right now there is a need for immediate help.
To start the discussion about free agents I’d like to start by mentioning the expansion draft at the end of the year.
The Seattle Kraken will choose one player from each roster at years end and enter the NHL to begin the 2021-22 season.
Each team will have the option to protect 7 forwards, 3 defenders and 1 goalie OR 8 skaters of any position and 1 goalie.
Each team will also have to expose:
- One defenseman who is a) under contract for the 2021-22 season AND b) played in at least 40 NHL games the prior season or has played in at least 70 NHL games in the prior two seasons combined.
- Two forwards who are a) under contract for the 2021-22 season AND b) played in at least 40 NHL games the prior season or have played in at least 70 NHL games in the prior two seasons combined.
- One goalie who is under contract for the 2021-22 season or will be a restricted free agent at the end of his current contract immediately prior to 2021-22. If a team elects to make a restricted free agent goalie available to meet this requirement, that goalie must have received his qualifying offer prior to the submission of the team’s protected list.
- Players with potential career-ending injuries who have missed more than the previous 60 consecutive games (or who otherwise have been confirmed to have a career-threatening injury) may not be used to satisfy a team’s player exposure requirements unless approval is received from the NHL. Such players also may be deemed exempt from selection.
Aside from that all players with No Movement Clauses in their contracts must be protected unless they agree to waive those clauses and all first and second year NHL players and all unsigned draft choices are exempt.
With this info in mind we the Leafs should be able to go into free agency with a better idea of what they’ll need to improve their roster immediately and to satisfy the rules of the expansion draft.
At this moment I would expect the Leafs to go with a 7-3-1 protection list. This list, in my opinion, would look like this today:
Protected Forwards: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, Alex Kerfoot, Andreas Johnsson, Pierre Engvall.
Exposed Forwards: At this time the Leafs don’t have any forwards signed that meet the games played requirements for exposure.
- This list doesn’t include current RFAs Frederik Gauthier, Evan Rodrigues and Denis Malgin, exempt players such as Ilya Mikheyev, or current UFAs such as Jason Spezza. It’s just as well to leave them off anyway because they are either exempt or shouldn’t be protected over the list provided.
- This list also doesn’t include Zach Hyman. Hyman doesn’t need to be protected because he’ll be a UFA at the time of the expansion draft. If the Leafs wait until after the expansion draft to sign him they won’t have to protect him and he’ll be ineligible to be drafted by Seattle. This should be their strategy.
Protected Defense: Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott
Exposed Defense: Justin Holl
- This list doesn’t include Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. They are exempt.
Protected Goalies: Jack Campbell
Exposed Goalies: At this time the only goalies the Leafs have in the system that aren’t in the NHL are Joseph Woll and Ian Scott, both will be exempt from the expansion draft.
- This list does not include Frederik Andersen. Andersen is in the same situation as Zach Hyman. If he isn’t dealt this offseason then they shouldn’t re-sign him until after the expansion draft is over or else they’ll risk losing Jack Campbell.
This actually gives the Leafs a bit of a checklist when it comes to shopping for UFAs. They need 2 forwards and a goalie to expose to Seattle or else they risk having to expose more valuable assets. Also, if they bring in a big UFA defender they’ll eventually have to trade Travis Dermott or Justin Holl (or both) or risk losing them for nothing. Obviously the other option is to trade Dermott or Holl in a package for an upgrade on the blueline but this is supposed to be about free agents and not trades, so lets get back to business.
Free Agent Forwards
There are a few forwards that are primed to hit the market that would a) help the Leafs this year and b) satisfy their expansion draft requirements. Some names to consider are:
Wayne Simmonds: A player that has already expressed interest in playing for the Leafs, Simmonds would add an element of toughness and veteran leadership to a squad that’s in need of both. He isn’t the same scorer that he once was but the Leafs have a hole at 3RW that he could fill for a year and possibly two. You need to offer him 2 years in order to expose him to Seattle, and that shouldn’t come at a massive cap hit due to the current financial climate and his current production.
Riley Sheahan: I’ve been asking the Leafs to trade for and/or sign Riley Sheahan for a while now and this offseason will be no different. He’s a solid energy player that would help your penalty kill and is good on the walls and in the corners. He isn’t about to produce the 30+ points that he did for a couple of years but he is a good veteran that can help a team. The Leafs should take a shot at this player.
Brad Richardson: Sticking with the theme of 3rd and 4th line players, I’ll mention Brad Richardson. This Belleville, Ontario native logged over two and a half minutes a night on the penalty kill last year for the Arizona Coyotes and was a very respectable 54% on the dot. The only sad thing about signing Richardson to a 2 year deal would be knowing that you might only get him on the team for one of those years.
Tomas Nosek: Another responsible veteran, Nosek is a safe, no frills type of player that would provide good depth. The sad thing is I can’t come up with a ton of great things to say because he just plays a good, but not spectacular game. Nothing to rave about but nothing that would make you hate him either.
Matt Martin: You know him, you love him, and he’ll likely get more on the open market than the Leafs would be willing to give. He may also be hesitant to return to a team that is run by the same GM that ditched you as a cap dump not so long ago.
Michael Frolik: This seems like the type of player the Leafs would give one last shot to. He may have just enough skill left in the tank to allow him to move around the lineup for another season as well as just enough veteran smarts to make him a 4th line forward at the very least. Either way, it wouldn’t take a ton of games in the lineup this year for the Leafs to include him in their exposure list as he already played 57 games last year. Just 13 more and he’d be expansion draft eligible.
There are a few things to keep in mind after reading the above list.
- I didn’t include big ticket UFAs like Taylor Hall because the Leafs simply don’t have the cap space to sign them.
- I didn’t include second tier UFAs like Evgeni Dadonov or Carl Soderberg because I think they will demand a few million dollars at the very least. If the Leafs are going to spend anything more than 1 million on players this offseason it should be on blueliners.
- There’s a lack of tough, gritty UFAs that can keep up with this team. Players like Pat Maroon and Corey Perry would be great to have but might cost a little more than Simmonds. Their stats and usage are all similar but it’s the fact that Simmonds has already said that he would like to play for the Leafs that makes me think he’d be an option to sign to a hometown discount.
At the end of the day if Kyle Dubas managed to sign Brad Richardson and Wayne Simmonds to two year deals they would likely lose one to Seattle at the end of the year, but would get two useful players for the year ahead.
It’s the bottom of the forward group that needs the most help right now, so that should be easy to upgrade. The real task for Kyle Dubas this year will be to upgrade the blueline.
The Leafs need an upgrade here. Anything short of adding a legitimate top 4 defender to the group this year will be seen as a massive failure on the part of Kyle Dubas. So, with that said, lets consider his options.
Alex Pietrangelo: Just shut up already.
Radko Gudas: This right shot defender has been rumoured to be on the Leafs radar. His advanced numbers are solid. He would be a player that both the eye-test and numbers-test people could agree on as he plays a tough, gritty game, but can also advance the puck and suppress shots well. For what it’s worth I think Gudas is their big signing this year and there will be little else done to improve the group. Let’s hope I’m just pessimistic because it will take more than this addition to fix what’s wrong with this defensive group.
Sami Vatanen: An all situations player that can play in your top 4, Vatanen would help the Leafs in all aspects except for adding size and grit. He has good positioning and good offensive instincts. He’s a two-way defender that could fit well alongside Morgan Rielly.
Travis Hamonic: Stay-at-home defender that you would think would fit in flawlessly alongside Morgan Rielly, Travis Hamonic brings a ton of what the Leafs are missing. A top end penalty killer, shot blocker, and defensive stalwart, Hamonic would be a terrific addition to the group.
Andy Greene: A seldom mentioned veteran in the same thread as Ron Hainsey, Greene is a left shot defender that can play the right side efficiently. His veteran leadership and steady play would be a welcome addition to the team.
There are a few things to keep in mind after reading the above list:
- The Leafs may have to make additional moves (such as trading Andreas Johnsson or Alex Kerfoot) if they intend to add the type of contract that a player like Hamonic or Vatanen would command.
- I tried to avoid the same old players being mentioned. So I left out Chris Tanev, TJ Brodie, Dylan Demelo and only included Alex Pietrangelo as a joke because you, the reader, have heard their names mentioned ad nauseum.
My ideal situation would be to add BOTH of Radko Gudas and Andy Greene. That’s likely a long shot at best. However, if the Leafs managed to pull it off they would have a top 6 defense that includes Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Radko Gudas, Travis Dermott, Justin Holl and Andy Greene. They would also have Mikko Lehtonen, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren as depth options. You would hope that this would mean not having to watch Martin Marincin play in the playoffs again but this is a team that is being controlled by Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe so I wouldn’t rule anything out. At years end you would make additional decisions. If Radko Gudas works out and is a fit next to Morgan Rielly then moving Travis Dermott to a team that can protect him before losing him for nothing is an option. If Gudas isn’t a fit you can expose him and hope to lose him to Seattle.
At the end of the day I would expect Justin Holl to be the best option for Seattle. There are options to keep him if he continues to play well alongside Jake Muzzin. Trading assets (nothing massive I would hope) to steer Seattle towards taking veteran forwards that you have signed for the sole purpose of exposing them would be a solid course of action. You could also allow Seattle to draft Holl if the belief is that Timothy Liljegren is ready to take on his role.
It appears that Kasimir Kaskisuo won’t be brought back for another year with the Marlies. He thanked the Leafs on twitter for his time here so it would appear that a conversation about his future, or lack there of, took place after the season ended. This means the Leafs will need to sign a goaltender to help the Marlies and one they can eventually expose to Seattle.
I won’t go into depth about the options out there because it shouldn’t have a real effect on the main roster. Unless there’s some serious injuries this player shouldn’t see much, or any, NHL playing time.
Some players they should consider signing are Keith Kinkaid, Louis Domingue, Jared Coreau, and, my favourite, Jon Gillies.
Gillies is still young enough to have some NHL upside and can help settle down the Marlies crease. Solid option in my opinion.
There should be some minor signings at the very least. Depth players that can help bring different elements to the team. The Leafs bottom six didn’t help at all in the play-in series against the Blue Jackets, so adding to that group without spending a lot of money needs to be high on Dubas’ to-do list.
Above all else they need to improve the blueline. Expansion draft be damned, getting better players there and pushing for a cup needs to be priority #1.