Talk around the water cooler these days seems to revolve around what players the Leafs can sign for cheap and gain maximum potential from. While this is a tough ask for any GM, Kyle Dubas did well last season by signing the likes of Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase and David Kampf to cheap contracts and has spoken about how he will look to keep that trend rolling this summer.
That started with signing Mark Giordano to a 2 year, 1.6M (800K AAV) contract on May 22nd, but it can’t stop there.
The Leafs have just over $9.4M in capspace at the moment, with 9 forwards, 5 defenders and 1 goalie signed for next season (all numbers courtesy of capfriendly). While that doesn’t look too bad on paper, you have to consider that of those 9 forwards I’m including Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds. Both have taken large steps backwards in recent years and now possess the speed and skill of AHLers. I hate to write that sentence, because I have a lot of respect for both players and what they’ve accomplished throughout their careers, but having either one on your roster is tough to swallow considering their level of play of late, while having both should be considered redundant. I believe that so much that I fully expect to see Kyle Clifford waived to begin the year and it wouldn’t surprise me if Wayne Simmonds followed suit. While that would add over $1.5M in capspace, you would have to replace both players on the roster and that could likely come in the form of players that are already in the system and playing for the Toronto Marlies.
In short, for arguments sake, we’ll stick with the idea that the Leafs have $9.4M in capspace and need to plug 3-4 forward positions, 1-2 defensive spots and 1 goaltender. While that averages out to about $1.8M per position (if you go with the minimum 3F, 1D, 1G), it starts to disappear pretty quickly if you want to re-sign current RFAs Pierre Engvall, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren and Ondrej Kase, as all 4 could demand at least moderate raises this summer.
For the sake of this discussion, I’m also going to assume that the team doesn’t move out any contracts to open up cap space. Which means Petr Mrazek, Alex Kerfoot and Justin Holl all suit up for the Leafs once again next year.
I’m going to start here because it’s the most simple position to find help with (which is surprising to hear from a Leafs fan). Pushing aside the debate of whether the Leafs’ top 4 defenders are good enough to compete for a Stanley Cup or not, they do appear to be locked into the current setup. This means that we should expect to see the highest minutes played going to Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl. While it is possible that Mark Giordano could eat into Jake Muzzin’s time on ice, I find it unlikely that the coaching staff will reduce Muzzin’s role all that much. He’ll still be the first defender over the boards when a penalty is called and will play a lot of even strength minutes against tough competition. The same can be said for Justin Holl, who played the second most minutes while shorthanded of any blueliner on the team, behind only Jake Muzzin. While many Leafs fans want to see Holl moved off the team altogether, I simply don’t see that happening based on the trust the coaching staff has awarded him time and again. If there’s any hope it’s in the fact that his overall TOI/GP dropped to under 17 minutes a game in the playoffs this spring, as compared to the over 20 minutes per night he was playing in the regular season. It is possible that his leash is getting shorter, while Timothy Liljegren could be in line to take on minutes that Holl is giving up. This, too, is in part due to the fact that Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren worked well together in the regular season last year. If that chemistry can continue then the Leafs could have a deep, yet unspectacular defensive group.
With all of that in mind, it’ll be no surprise to hear me say that the team is unlikely to add a top 4 defender and may only look for a solid depth option that can move up and down the lineup as needed.
Lyubushkin played fairly well in the minutes he was given. He was often paired with Morgan Rielly, which meant he was higher in the lineup than you’d ideally want to see him. He brought a physical game and is a responsible player on the penalty kill. All elements that are lacking from the team’s lineup. The only issue I see with Lyubushkin will be his contract. Coming off a 1 year, $1.35M deal, Ilya may look to cash in on the biggest contract he’ll likely ever sign. While that won’t be a big contract in the grand scheme of things, it may leave the Leafs on the outside looking in. If he were to sign with another team for $1.8-2M per season I wouldn’t be shocked and that would be more than enough to take the Leafs out of the running for his services.
It’s almost expected by many that we’ll see Subban in a Leafs jersey by October. The Toronto native is a known Leafs fan and would follow the trend of signing veteran players that have made a lot of money in their careers to league minimum deals, in an attempt to bolster team depth and allow players the opportunity to play at home for their childhood team. It started with Jason Spezza, has continued with Mark Giordano and could work for Subban as well.
The thing with Subban is that he isn’t the player he used to be and shouldn’t be looked at as being a guy they’d bring in to play big minutes. Unlike Spezza and Giordano, who could/can still contribute to the lineup on a regular basis, Subban actually fits as a 7th defender that can fill in when needed. While his career has consisted of running the powerplay, he doesn’t need to do that either. Some believe that bringing him in would mean cutting into Rasmus Sandin’s time on the 2nd powerplay unit, whereas I’d argue that Sandin is being hampered there by Giordano and if we did find Sandin and Subban (who, in this scenario are your 7th and 8th defenders) in the lineup at the same time, they could allow Sandin to run the powerplay, with Subban being a trigger man.
To me, the best case scenario here is that Subban comes in revitalized and excited to play for the Leafs, resulting in the best hockey hes played in years. In that situation he’d push players like Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin to play better and earn their minutes, while also putting pressure on Justin Holl to up his game or sit out. Meanwhile, the worst case scenario is you get a depth defender at/near league minimum, that doesn’t dress much but is better than the options that the Marlies currently provide, which stop very short after Kristians Rubins.
At the moment Myers is still under contract to the Nashville Predators for next season, but it’s expected that things will change before long via trade with retained salary, or a buyout. Myers was waived and went unclaimed before the deadline this year and at $2.55M towards the cap it’s unlikely that he’ll return to Nashville. In fact, he ended up playing for the Toronto Marlies after the deadline passed. The Predators loaned him to Toronto in a move that I can only assume was to give Toronto brass an opportunity to see what the 25 year old defender is made of. If they liked what they saw then bringing him back is a solid possibility.
Like Subban, Myers wouldn’t take anybody’s place in the lineup out of the gate, but could earn himself a spot if injuries presented an opportunity. Also like Subban, he wouldn’t be a guy that would run a powerplay unit, but he could be a decent trigger man and could help the penalty kill in time as well. If he can rediscover his game this could be a solid pickup for the Leafs long term.
Honourable Mentions: Anton Stralman, Calvin DeHaan, Markus Nutivaara, Marc Staal…. the list goes on.
I’ll follow up the defense with goalies, because, simply put, there are so few out there and even fewer that can give you actual value on the cheap. Petr Mrazek has tied the hands of management, as they either have to move him out in order to afford a free agent (of which, Darcy Kuemper and Jack Campbell are the best of the lot) or to make room for another option in trade (John Gibson appears to be the best option on the trade market).
Over the past 2 seasons Comrie has been claimed off waivers on 4 separate occasions and traded once. While that would appear to be the story of a player that isn’t in high demand, it’s actually the opposite in this case. Teams simply saw potential in Comrie and wanted him in their organization, but with their own goaltending situations not allowing him any playing time, they continuously attempted to get him onto their minor league affiliates. The end result was Comrie bouncing around the NHL and, eventually, ending up in Winnipeg (who claimed him off waivers 2 of those 4 times) this season as their full time backup goaltender. He rewarded the Jets’ persistence in keeping him around with a season that saw him play in 19 games, sporting a 10-5-1 record with a 2.58GAA and 0.920SV%. At 26 years old this could be the start of good things for the netminder.
When asked, Kyle Dubas spoke about trying to sign players that have earned a bigger opportunity but weren’t granted that opportunity elsewhere. That may just be exactly what Comrie is looking for. He’ll be a Group 6 UFA this summer, no different than Michael Bunting last year. This means that he has played a number of pro seasons, but hasn’t played in enough NHL games to remain an RFA to his current organization. If given the opportunity to play for a contending team, under a spotlight and without any clear starter in front of him, Comrie may take a pay cut now, in an attempt to bolster his earning power down the road.
I’ll keep this one quick, because I honestly don’t believe that Fleury will want to be a Leaf.
The 37 year olds numbers were poor last season, but he played on a bad team in Chicago. They improved slightly in Minnesota, but it’s obvious that Fleury isn’t the starting goalie he used to be. Maybe he has a year or two left in him, but it would be a gamble to say the least. One thing is for certain, he won’t command a massive chunk of capspace, that’s why I’ll include him as a possible value option in free agency.
I don’t know what to tell you folks. The goaltending market is so bad right now that some people are trying to convince themselves that Braden Holtby is the answer. At league minimum and if he played above his head? Maybe he could be okay.
Like the defense, there are a few options here that we could call value picks. I’ll start off with an obvious one…..
You won’t get Max Domi to sign in Toronto at or near league minimum, and nor should he. At 27 years old, Domi still has a lot of hockey left to look forward to. It’s my bet that he’d love to play it out in Toronto and, having earned nearly $20M in his career to date, I think he’d be willing to take a team friendly deal to make that happen. In general, a player that produces like he does (35-45pts per season) can demand at least 3M per season, with increases depending on their special teams play and what intangibles they might bring. I think that could be the general area for Domi on the open market, with the hope that that number would come in even lower considering his passion for the jersey. 3 years @ 2.5-2.75M might be optimistic, but that would be good value for what he brings.
Smith has slown down over the past couple of years, but he still has offense to bring to the table and has a lot of experience in the playoffs. Another Toronto native, he may relish the opportunity to play alongside John Tavares in the top 6 forward unit here. The second line never really got going this year, so adding a player that could mesh well with Toronto’s captain and solve that problem would be advantageous to going deep in the playoffs.
The aging Stastny would be ideal in a 3C scoring role in my opinion. The trick is getting him to sign on the dotted line in Toronto after producing 45pts this season in Winnipeg. It’s likely that he’ll remain with the Jets organization, but if you could manage to have Matthews, Tavares, Stastny and Kampf down the middle you’d have the best centre group in the NHL. With over $80M earned in his career, Stastny may forego a big payday for a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup though and that would have to be Kyle Dubas’ pitch to him. The question is, does he see the Leafs as a better opportunity than the Jets, or another team that would covet his services?
At this point it’s all about selling players on opportunity and, like Stastny, Giroux has to be able to see that there are only a few opportunities to win left in his career. Unlike Stastny, Giroux does have a couple of extra years (he’s 34, compared to Stastny, who is 36) and a lot more game left (65pts in 75 games this year, followed by 8pts in 10 playoff games with the Florida Panthers).
As productive as he is, I wouldn’t expect to see him sign a big contract at this stage of the game. With nearly $80M in career earnings, Giroux is here to win above all else these days. The question is where does he see the best fit to do that?