As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look towards the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
The first batch of Offseason Primers will feature Atlantic Division squads. Today’s edition delves into the possibilities surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs offseason.
Toronto Maple Leafs Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
While the Maple Leafs don’t have any hugely important contracts up for discussion, they still have a lot of intriguing younger pieces that are in need of new deals. It should prove to be a hectic offseason once again for general manager Kyle Dubas. His unrestricted free agents include Cody Ceci, Tyson Barrie, Kyle Clifford, Jason Spezza, Miikka Salomaki, Garrett Wilson, Kevin Gravel, Tyler Gaudet, Matt Lorito, and the dead-weight contracts of Nathan Horton and David Clarkson. Kasimir Kaskisuo is a Group Six UFA.
Toronto’s also got some interesting names in the RFA department. Those eligible for arbitration include Ilya Mikheyev, Denis Malgin, Frederik Gauthier, Max Veronneau, and Pontus Aberg. Their non-arbitration-eligible RFAs are Travis Dermott and Jeremy Bracco.
Salary Cap Outlook
The Maple Leafs are another one of those teams who may have significant troubles navigating a flat cap world. They come into this offseason with only $4.59 million in salary-cap space for next season. It’s entirely possible Toronto may need to move on from a forward in order to free up some salary. This may not be too challenging considering their plethora of skilled wingers.
Historically one of the better offensive defensemen in the league, Barrie was one of the league’s most disappointing offseason acquisitions this past season. Acquired via trade from the Colorado Avalanche in the Nazem Kadri deal, Barrie had one of his worst offensive campaigns in recent memory. His goal total of five was his lowest ever in a full season, and his 39-point campaign was a 20-point recession from last year.
He simply never quite fit in with Toronto’s system even after their coaching change and was a strong defensive liability on the ice as well. However, it’s likely that he’ll be able to rediscover his game elsewhere, as both parties involved likely won’t be interested in a contract extension.
Ceci had a disappointing year in Toronto as well, even by his standards. Also acquired by trade before this season from the Ottawa Senators, Ceci had the worst offensive campaign of his career. While he isn’t known for his point production, he still saw a sharp drop from his 26-point 2018–19 season. Ceci only scored one goal and eight points, even worse than his nine-point rookie season all the way back in 2013-14. He was abysmal in terms of possession as well, posting a 49.7 percent Corsi For and a -3.7 percent relative Corsi For.
Ceci could revitalize his career on the open market, but he won’t be doing so with Toronto.
While not a pending free agent, Toronto will need to move out one contract this summer in order to retain some of their other pending free agents. Johnsson presents himself as a clear candidate. While the former seventh-round pick has impressed at times, he suffered a serious sophomore slump this season. His point totals dropped from 20 goals and 43 points last year to only eight goals and 21 points this year, albeit in an injury-shortened campaign.
Still, the pending emergence of Nicholas Robertson makes Johnsson expendable as Toronto can fill his role internally. Johnsson’s $3.4 million cap hit will now leave Toronto with $7.99 million in cap space.
Acquired midseason from the Florida Panthers, Malgin was expected to help bolster the team’s penalty kill and provide additional depth scoring. He did neither of the two, as he went pointless in eight games as a Maple Leaf. Toronto can likely find cheaper options in free agency to fill his role or might fill it internally, making Malgin an expendable piece. Don’t expect him to receive a qualifying offer from the team.
In an injury-abbreviated rookie season, Mikheyev quickly proved himself as a valuable contributor to the Leafs’ offence. Tallying 23 points in only 39 games, he showed immediately that he’s NHL-ready and then some. He factors in as an important middle-six forward for the Leafs for the long-term, and Toronto likely gives him a sort of bridge deal as he looks to prove himself over the long-term. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool (subscription required) pegs the Mikheyev extension at three years and $3.09 million a season, bringing the Leafs down to $4.9 million in cap headroom.
A former second-round pick, the Leafs have gotten three solid seasons out of Dermot. Largely playing in a third-pairing role, Dermott’s offensive game hasn’t turned heads but he plays a solid transitional game. He’s one of Toronto’s better defensemen in terms of actually limiting offensive opportunities against, and they’ll certainly want to have him around again.
Evolving-Hockey projects a fair two-year deal valued at $1.79 million a year. Toronto is left with $3.11 million in space.
A wily veteran of ten NHL seasons (and a two-time Stanley Cup champion!), Clifford brought his rough and tumble game to the Leafs this season after he was acquired via trade from the Los Angeles Kings. He fits nicely on any NHL team’s fourth line and brings a physical presence that Toronto sorely lacks. For that reason, the Leafs will extend Clifford this offseason. Both he and the team are interested in an extension, and Toronto will have the room to make it work after trading Johnsson. After Evolving-Hockey’s projected two-year, $1.46 million deal, Toronto has $1.65 million in space left.
Spezza and Clifford are almost in the exact same situation here. Spezza plays a more offensively-oriented game but is still more suited for that fourth-line role. He’s a cheap veteran depth piece who provides leadership and stability to a young team. Spezza wants to stay with the team, and the team wants him to stay.
Evolving-Hockey projects a one-year, $1.65 million extension, bringing Toronto directly up against the salary cap.
Potential Free Agent Additions
Like their Atlantic Division rival Tampa Bay Lightning, the Leafs will have little to no room to add via free agency. Luckily for Toronto, they have plenty of cheap young players like Robertson, Mikko Lehtonen, Alexander Barabanov, and others that will be able to fill some of their holes internally.
Check out the other Offseason Primers for the Atlantic Division:
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