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Plenty of work ahead for Maple Leafs with free agency looming

·6-min read
TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - JULY 24: General Manager Kyle Dubas of the Toronto Maple Leafs attends rounds 2-7 of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft at OVO Athletic Centre on July 24, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Alana Davidson/NHLI via Getty Images)
Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas faces what appears to be his most challenging offseason yet. (Photo by Alana Davidson/NHLI via Getty Images)

Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs have proceeded with an abundance of caution to begin this ever-important offseason.

Yet to be truly involved after a feverish last week and change that featured two major team-building opportunities in the expansion and NHL drafts, there is a ton of work still to do as the franchise prepares to rebuild again around the core Dubas is determined to win with.

His staunch belief in the $40-plus million quadrumvirate up front remains extremely and incurably handcuffing. Its accumulated cost will now pinch an elite utility man and local kid in Zach Hyman from the equation, while also presumably denying Frederik Andersen of any opportunity to return to a tandem with Jack Campbell — losses making things that much more difficult from a roster-creation standpoint.

The Leafs were relatively unscathed through the expansion process, for better or worse. While they did lose a valuable player in Jared McCann, the net loss is really just his modest price tag in the trade market: a middling prospect and a late-round draft pick. Still, it’s worth wondering if the Leafs should have welcomed a selection from the expansion side given their severe salary cap issues and general inflexibility.

All told, the Leafs have just short of $9.5 million at their disposal with numerous deals needing to be brokered with free agency set to open Wednesday.

Here’s what they’re dealing with:

Up front

Toronto has four clear top-six forwards, four clear bottom-six forwards, and a rover in Alexander Kerfoot as a flex in the middle six ready to be deployed based on preferred positioning. It leaves the Leafs with a minimum of three vacancies to be filled within their forward mix.

There are several internal options to fill those positions. Those options include Nick Robertson, who will be given every opportunity to fill a top-six role with the Maple Leafs. However, Robertson's readiness alone cannot change the fact that the Leafs need:

  • A Hyman replacement

  • An established third-line centre OR a better fit for Tavares and Nylander

  • An impact bottom-nine forward

The biggest question is: who’s going to play with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, assuming the two remain a package deal? Hyman was in many ways a perfect complement to the superstar pairing, being first into corners, taking contact, winning possession, and being a positive influence from a defensive standpoint. Can the Leafs find a cheaper option through trade or free agency?

We heard rumblings earlier in the offseason about a Tyler Bertuzzi trade, though that seems to have fizzled. There’s now talk about Nick Foligno returning after his ill-fated acquisition, which might be better for optics than it would be for Matthews and Marner. Unfortunately, the truth is that few can match the entire breadth of contributions that Hyman will now bring to the Edmonton Oilers, reportedly. Dubas must find a modest earner, and preferably one who’s cost controlled, to provide a reasonable imitation.

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It seems the Leafs sorely need a middle-six centre added to the equation. Toronto's depth at that position was exposed in the opening-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens; it crashed like a house of cards not long after John Tavares was knocked out of the series.

Ironically, it seems the Leafs will be chasing what they briefly had in McCann, who is now a member of the Seattle Kraken. A forward who can hold down the centre-ice position or help facilitate elite players in the top six — much like Kerfoot — seems like a reasonable target.

Perhaps it's best the Leafs find a centre who eliminates the guesswork altogether. If there was an obvious fit to hold down the third-line centre position, or an acquisition which would allow for Kerfoot to make a permanent move to the wing or perhaps become expendable, it might be that crucial step toward optimization. It's possible that player is Mikael Granlund, an unrestricted free agent who has long been connected to Toronto, though there's reason to be skeptical over that being the right move.

Finally, the Leafs need something more than veteran experience (and Joe Thornton-esque vibes) at the low end of the lineup. Far too often the Leafs found themselves relying exclusively on Jason Spezza to provide tangible impact with depth minutes. Some of that utility lost in Hyman needs to be redistributed to lower in the lineup with a cheap but impactful third- or fourth-line player.

Potential free-agent targets: Blake Coleman, Casey Czikas, Nick Ritchie, Mikael Granlund, Brock McGinn, Michael Bunting, Joel Armia, Nick Foligno, Sean Kuraly, Tomas Nosek, Corey Perry.

Back end

Fortunately, the heavy lifting for the Leafs from a defensive standpoint won’t likely be required until next summer when Morgan Rielly is up for a new deal. Having preserved four blueliners in the expansion draft, wile also sneaking Travis Dermott through and not having to protect Rasmus Sandin, the Leafs are pretty much set on the back end after adding T.J. Brodie last offseason. The only real need is a replacement for right-shot, third-pairing defender Zach Bogosian, who is apparently set to depart due to lifestyle concerns, not hockey ones. In an ideal world, the Leafs land an upgrade on Bogosian, but a Luke Schenn type — or a player Sandin and Dermott are likely to win a roster spot over — seems more likely.

Potential free-agent targets: Jani Hakanpaa, Luke Schenn

In goal

Despite Campbell’s emergence as a legitimate starter and the unseating of Andersen, the Leafs’ most important bit of business may turn out to be the goaltender they acquire to work in tandem with the new 1A. It’s possible Andersen returns at a significant pay cut, but at this point it seems more likely a better offer is out there than the one the Leafs might provide. Besides, the dynamic likely demands some sort of personnel change. 

Linus Ullmark might be the one free-agent option that would push Campbell for the starter’s role, while Petr Mrazek, Jaroslav Halak, Jonathan Bernier and Antti Raanta are each free agents with experience working in platoons. The most cost-effective option, though, might be to avoid the free transfer and pay a little extra for a netminder under contract and therefore eligible to have a portion of his salary stomached by the seller. Darcy Kuemper is a goalie at the top of many wish lists, and is likely destined for a change of scenery as the Coyotes continue to liquidate assets.

Potential free-agent targets: Linus Ullmark, Petr Mrazek, Jaroslav Halak, Jonathan Bernier, Antti Raanta

To wrap

With an estimated $9.5 million in play, it seems possible that the Leafs could sign five free agents, including three potential impact left wingers in Bunting, Ritchie and Nosek, a right-shot Hakanpaa type on right defence, and a backup of Halak's pedigree in free agency. 

It's hardly a masterpiece, and the team won't be as good as it was last season, but the roster should be competitive and reasonably balanced.

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