There is a far different feel from last offseason to this one for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Part of it is the compounding and fatiguing effects of failure, but the real difference between the club’s offseason retooling efforts and the corresponding and overall response from fans has been management’s means to address issues. Both last offseason and this, Kyle Dubas and the hockey ops team has experienced costs associated with winning without actually doing the winning. What’s different is the ease to which they could fill perceived holes and add talent. Whereas they once had expandable assets and the financial flexibility to engage in arms races, this summer the Leafs were forced to sit back and sort through the remnants after a wild spending spree on the opening day in free agency.
Dubas had big holes to fill but had to treat these positions as if they were the margins. The overall outlook has improved substantially in less than a week since a rather disappointing opening day (and somewhat concerning press conference), but the Leafs are still rolling the dice regardless in another all-important season with unproven assets expected to take on major roles.
Let’s review, now that most of the heavy lifting is done.
Priority 1: Complete the top nine puzzle
The Leafs arrived in a similar predicament through different means this summer. After recouping assets while shedding salary with trades involving Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, the Leafs just allowed high-end forward talent to walk out the door this summer. Zach Hyman’s departure left a massive hole at an already weak spot on the depth chart, which necessitated that Dubas bring in at least two competent top-nine left wingers.
For obvious financial reasons, the Leafs could not compete in the markets involving top-end free agents like Gabriel Landeskog, Brandon Saad, Blake Coleman, or even Hyman, for that matter. So instead the Leafs laid in the weeds — but not until signing one free agent to a surprisingly cheap contract.
As expected based on connections to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and his hometown of Toronto, the Leafs landed winger Michael Bunting on a two-year deal worth less than $1 million per season. It’s hard to knock the deal given the salary cap number and the industrious nature of his game. He seems like a far better bet to contribute compared to, say, Jimmy Vesey, who signed for a similar number last offseason and simply didn’t have the breadth of talent to consistently contribute in the middle six.
Whether it’s digging out pucks for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner or working on a shutdown third line, Bunting seems like a cost-effective add.
The next deal was a surprising one, though the rationale now seems sound. Desperate for a strong defensive centre to take key faceoffs and work on the penalty kill, the Leafs identified a specialist of sorts in David Kampf, signing him to a two-year deal with $3 million total. Committing a sizeable section of their available capital to a player coming off a one-goal season seemed strange in the moment, but the Leafs have not shied from the fact that they want to support their high-end scoring lines with a reliable checking unit. If Kampf can be the anchor of that, helping ensure that other players in a third-line function like Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall or Bunting are contributing to something with tangible benefit, he’ll meet the value on that deal. Still, it’s no sure bet.
It seemed as though we would have to wait a few days or maybe even weeks for the Leafs to add a few more options for the top two lines, but by the weekend management filled those gaps. Deals for two former Boston Bruins (and Anaheim Ducks) completed the puzzle, with Nick Ritchie signing a two-year agreement worth $5 million and Ondrej Kase agreeing to a one-year deal worth a shade over $1 million.
Ritchie seems like an obvious fit to run the flank with John Tavares and William Nylander — at least to start. A big-bodied presence, Ritchie was surprisingly not issued a qualifying offer by the Bruins after scoring a career-high 15 goals in 56 games. He was somewhat reliant on the power play to hit those totals, which may or may not be an option in Toronto, and his role did diminish after piling up those goals early. Kase is the more talented of the two but has had serious issues staying healthy, and for that reason should be considered a flier. He was limited to 25 total minutes — not games — last season after suffering the latest in a string of concussions and appeared in only nine regular-season outings for the Bruins across parts of two seasons after being acquired for a first-round pick (and David Backes).
Ritchie and Kase are each unproven quantities in their own ways, and it seems imperative that at least one of them meets — or grossly exceeds — expectations for the Maple Leafs to avoid making concessions in their top six.
It should be noted that the Maple Leafs have a Hail Mary built into the playbook with the ultra-skilled Josh Ho-Sang ready to compete for a roster spot on a professional tryout. Ho-Sang has stagnated in a major, major way since the New York Islanders spent a first-round pick on him in 2014, appearing in only 53 NHL games.
Priority 2: Support Jack
Toronto was competitive in one free-agent market, and ended up spending fairly big on a backup or platoon option to compete with now-establisher starter Jack Campbell. Committing $3.8 million annually on Petr Mrazek is by no means a discount, and has wound up being one of the more expensive goaltending additions of the offseason behind only Philipp Grubauer, Linus Ullmark and former Leafs No.1 Frederik Andersen.
Mrazek is a streaky, streaky netminder. He’s had prolonged stretches of elite contributions, and he’s also coughed up starting roles on multiple occasions throughout his career. He also seems to have many similarities to Campbell beyond the fact that he doesn’t have a long record as a workhorse starter. Like Campbell, Mrazek is a reactionary netminder who doesn’t necessarily lean on size and fundamentals to stop pucks, but does so rather on instinct. This almost seems deliberate, given the clash in styles with Andersen, who just so happens to be replacing Mrazek in Carolina.
There’s valid reason to be skeptical about this signing because Mrazek is neither of the things the Leafs would logically covet in the goaltending position. He’s not proven to be a dominant lead option in parts of nine seasons in the league, nor does he arrive as a cost-effective and clear No. 2 to support Campbell as needed.
Money and role is a clear issue here, with Mrazek set to double up on Campbell’s earnings in the 2021-22 season. If it all goes as planned and the Leafs have strong goaltending with Mrazek in a support role — what does the next contract then look like for Campbell, an unrestricted free agent next summer? It has to be at least $4 million, doesn’t it?
It feels like the Leafs have welcomed a goaltending problem here. The long-term cost to keep both should be at minimum $8 million — a total which seems impossible to work around given their enduring salary cap squeeze.
Priority 3: Replace Bogosian
This is the one bit of outstanding business left for the Dubas. After Zach Bogosian cited lifestyle reasons for returning to the Tampa Bay Lightning on a three-year deal, the Leafs need to find a competent right-shot defender for the third pairing, preferably one who brings experience and can kill penalties.
It’s believed they were outbid for Jani Hakanpaa, who we outlined as an option heading into free agency. Most other candidates have found new homes in what turned out to be a wonderful (and likely regret-filled) market for bottom-pairing or depth defencemen.
For that reason it seems exceedingly likely the Leafs look internally before potentially trading for help on the blueline once the season begins, which is the preferred option over throwing too much money and term at a replacement-level asset.
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