Toronto Maple Leafs Best and Worst Free Agent Signings

Toronto Maple Leafs free agent signings

Welcome to Last Word on Hockey’s 2022 summer series, exploring the best and worst free agent signings for each NHL team of the post-lockout, salary cap era. With this past offseason seeing some big splashes (and potential gambles) like Johnny GaudreauClaude GirouxJohn Klingberg, and others, it’s time to take a look at how teams have boosted and stunted their progress in recent history. Today, we take a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs free agent signings history.

Toronto Maple Leafs Hits and Misses

Best Signing: Michael Bunting

Last summer the Leafs signed 25-year-old Michael Bunting as a UFA out of Arizona. He had only played 26 career NHL games, 21 of which were just the season prior. But in those 21 games in 2020-21, Bunting had put up excellent results. He had scored 10 goals in 21 games and had amazing per 60 numbers. The Leafs were able to identify a player that could contribute in a greater role.

The Leafs capitalized and not only signed Bunting but were able to get him on a two-year contract for under $1,000,000 per season. Bunting was a near immediate success on the Leaf’s roster. Initially, Bunting started the season with Alexander Kerfoot and William Nylander, but quickly overtook the role of the left wing on the top line. He was a natural fit with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. The line quickly became one of the top lines in hockey. While Bunting was the third-best player on the line, his role was still crucial. His ability to retrieve the puck for the other two players, while being able to pass and shoot the puck himself, was crucial. In addition to this, Bunting was excellent at drawing penalties so Matthews and Marner could shine even more when on the power play.

Bunting was able to bring incredible value to the roster, playing as a top-6 calibre player for the cost of a fourth liner. His inexpensive contract and continued on-ice success are crucial for the Leafs.

Best Signing Honourable Mention: John Tavares

When the Toronto Maple Leafs signed John Tavares on July 1st, 2018 it shook the hockey world. Usually, franchise players played out their entire careers with the team that drafted them. This was the first player in the salary cap era that really left for another team in their prime. And he even took less than what was offered elsewhere to do so. It really paved the way for others to begin doing the same thing, like Artemi Panarin or Johnny Gaudreau.

While the contract may be a little rich today, there is no denying the impact acquiring a player of Tavares’ calibre can have. The Leafs were able to secure one of the best centres in the league at the time, their future captain, and a player to guide the young Leafs without giving up anything except cap space. At that time, Tavares was the biggest UFA of the cap era to go to a new team. The impact of this signing really cannot be understated.

Worst Signing: Jeff Finger

The Leafs have had many terrible UFA signings in the salary cap era, but the Jeff Finger contract was especially bad. It’s not that the term or salary numbers were terrible (though they were). Nor that he performed poorly enough to get sent to the AHL just two seasons into his four-year contract (though he did). It’s the story that came out afterwards that makes this contract so egregious.

During the off-season of 2008, the Leafs were looking to add a defenceman to help bolster their blueline and have someone play the shutdown role. On the first day of free agency, the Leafs went out and signed 27-year-old Jeff Finger. But after quotes came out about why they made the signing, it appeared they had gotten him confused with his teammate, Kurt Sauer. Cliff Fletcher had signed the wrong player.

It’s not that Sauer would have been much better on that contract, but he at least would have filled the role of shutdown defenceman the Leafs intended to acquire.

Worst Signing Honourable Mention: David Clarkson

In 2011-12 and 2012-13, David Clarkson really had a couple of phenomenal years. He potted 30 goals in 2011-12 and was on pace for 25 more over an 82-game season in 2012-13. All while having good defensive results. So when he became a UFA in the summer of 2013, he was able to cash in for a big 7-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But once he got to Toronto, his production fell off a cliff. Rather than 25-30 goals, Clarkson scored 5 goals and 6 assists through 60 games in his first season in Toronto. The next season under Mike Babcock was a little better. He scored 10 goals and 5 assists in 58 games, but it was not enough to save him from being traded.

The Leafs were quite lucky to get out of the Clarkson contract for as little as they did. However, this is an honourable mention because years later, Kyle Dubas reacquired the Clarkson deal while he was permanently on LTIR for some cap shenanigans that actually gave the team more cap space to work with for the 2019-20 season. So it all worked out in the end. Kind of.

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