NHL Free Agents & Leafs of Faith

NHL free agents who want to win the Cup with the Toronto Maple Leafs can get in line at 40 Bay Street.

The Leafs and NHL Free Agents

Fans of other clubs may throw waffles at that suggestion, but that appeal has existed as an undercurrent of the signings of many NHL free agents by the Leafs over the years. To deliver the Cup to Toronto’s championship-starved hockey fans would be akin to winning the World Series for the Chicago Cubs, or the FIFA World Cup for England. Or winning just about anything for one of Buffalo’s big-league teams.

One thing is for sure: the Leafs roster that ends Toronto’s Stanley Cup drought will be enshrined in team lore like no other squad the franchise has seen. The player who scores the winning goal will be immortalized in picture and song. God help the poor soul if it happens in overtime.

The argument is dismissed by non-Leafs fans as being superfluous or silly.

What cannot be argued, however, is that a Stanley Cup win in Toronto would elevate the profile of every player involved to stratospheric heights. Do Toronto fans overvalue their players? Let’s remember that fan-favourites Nikolai Borschevsky played a mere 142 games in blue and white; Bill Barilko barely 100 more.

Leafs of Faith

In the Harold Ballard era, signing NHL free agents to play in Toronto was problematic. The former president of the Leafs was notorious for maintaining a bare minimum budget for players; high-priced talent need not apply.

The Pat Quinn era was notably different. The Leafs kicked off six years of post-season appearances by signing free agent goalie Curtis Joseph in 1998. The team had an impressive playoff run that season and again in 1999-2000, attracting free agents Gary Roberts and Shayne Corson to sign with the team. Alexander Mogilny (2001), Ed Belfour (2002) and Joe Nieuwendyk (2003) followed in the next few years, as the Leafs built on a record of relative success.

The Leafs lack of playoff appearances between 2005 and 2012 coincides, unsurprisingly, with an inability to sign top NHL free agents. During that stretch, the most prominent signing was probably Eric Lindros, who by that time was a mere shadow of his former self.

Bleeding Blue

The most recent NHL free agent of any note to sign with the Leafs was David Clarkson in the summer of 2013. Clarkson topped the list of the most sought-after NHL free agents, and he chose to come home to Toronto. Why?

The Leafs had finished the lockout-shortened 2013 season a respectable fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. The team made its first playoff appearance in eight seasons, in which they impressively pushed the Boston Bruins to seven games. While the series is memorable for Toronto’s collapse in that final game, it should be remembered that the Leafs were just 13 minutes from eliminating the eventual Eastern Conference champs.

In the immediate aftermath, the mindset of Leafs management was to consider what had been missing in that final period. Prominent among the conclusions they came to were to add playoff veterans and improved goaltending.

And so after Boston went on to lose the Stanley Cup to Chicago on David Bolland’s late goal, the Leafs promptly scooped up the veteran Bolland. Not long afterward, they acquired the most prized backup goalie in the NHL in Jonathan Bernier from Los Angeles. Bernier had twice won gold medals for Canada in international play, but was stuck behind Jonathan Quick on the Kings depth chart.

Clarkson could be forgiven, then, for looking at the activity in Toronto and taking a leap of faith. Certainly Dave Nonis’ willingness to pay $36 million to a 39-year-old third-line winger was a motivating factor. But he must also have chosen to believe the Leafs to perhaps be on the cusp of something special, if not immediately as special as the Cup run he’d been a part of with the New Jersey Devils a year prior. One wonders if he otherwise would have signed with Toronto, merely on the strength of being able to “come home”.

Steven Stamkos and The Shanaplan

In the execution of the rebuilding plan affectionately dubbed the “Shanaplan”, the role of the NHL free agent has been to fill gaps in the lineup on a short-term basis. It’s been a methodical clearing of the decks as undesirable contracts and personalities have been jettisoned, and holes patched temporarily.

Expect this approach to evolve somewhat, as those holes in the roster are filled by prospects with talent that should translate to staying power; names like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander.

The wooing of Steven Stamkos might have, on the face of it, seemed to throw this patient approach out the window. Stamkos is an outlier, however; his availability was a rare chance at a star player in his prime, and a hometown kid at that. That a coveted free agent in the prime of his career even met with a last-place team suggests that the appeal of playing in Toronto is alive, even if perhaps not as strong as it has been.

Stamkos’ signing in Toronto would have required an enormous leap of faith on his part. To leave a team with two Conference final appearances and one trip to the Cup final in the last two seasons would be one thing. To leave it for a team arguably still in the early days of a rebuild would be quite another.

As it is, the Leafs major free agency activity thus far in the summer of 2016 has been to bring Roman Polak back into the fold, and to ink fourth-line banger Matt Martin. That most fans applaud the quiet passing of July 1 in Leaf land is an indication of their ongoing vote of confidence in the current management group and its plan.

A Work in Progress

Past Leafs seasons are littered with NHL free agents who didn’t pan out. The current team, however, is being constructed largely from the inside out. It’s no wonder Mike Babcock felt comfortable leaving Detroit for Toronto.

The Leafs rebuild is still very much a work in progress. It remains to be seen how the club’s up-and-coming prospects will adjust to big-league hockey in a big-league market.

For fans and NHL free agents alike, it takes a leap of faith to invest oneself in the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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