Leafs Can’t Make Same Mistakes This Free Agency

The Toronto Maple Leafs season is all, but over. One can say that there is still over 30 games left in the season, but with so much ground to make up and their offensive game in shambles, positive thoughts will be best looked towards next season.

One thing that the team should improve on from this season is the way they approach free agency. As featured this past week (UFAs: Part 1, UFAs: Part 2), this off-season will see a collection of highly talented players available as unrestricted free agents come July 1st.

Paul Stastny Avalanche
Paul Stastny was the biggest nae available on July 1st last season. (Icon SMI)

How They Approached Last Season

Last season the Maple Leafs entered the summer with lots of money to spend, but the money may not have been spent the way it should have been. The team entered the off-season with roughly $6 million in cap space, sufficient enough money to bring in a valuable and durable piece to a depleted lineup.

Last year’s crop of free agents didn’t have a wide selection of defencemen or centres, the Leafs biggest needs over the past couple season, but more productive players were still available. Paul Stastny (though the Leafs did have interest in him), Matt Niskanen, Jaromir Jagr, Jarome Iginla, Radim Vrbata, and Ryan Callahan among others were available.

Instead the team used their money to sign a collection of players. They acquired David Booth, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, and Petri Kontiola all for less than $2 million each. Winnik has logged the most penalty-killing time for the Leafs this season and Santorelli has been a valuable asset in the role he has been given. But at the end of the day, these players are very deplorable and are not part of the Leafs’ core that has struggled for a while now.

Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maple Leafs, Hockey, NHL, Tom Turk, THW, Team Canada, Olympics
The Leafs will have a lot of money to spend this summer, but need to lockup Bernier and Kadri first. (Tom Turk/The Hockey Writers)

Heading Into This Summer

There have been some talks that the Buds might be interested in signing Santorelli, but the way he has played suggests he could garner some interest from other teams. Winnik was supposedly very close to being dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins this past week, but the deal fell through. With Booth struggling to rekindle his offence from years past and Kontiola failing to even make the team, it looks as though none of these players may return next season.

With early rumours suggesting the salary cap could rise to $73 million next season and with the above four names likely removed from the roster as well as a few others becoming free agents, the team should have in the ball park of $18 million to spend. The team will need to resign Jonathan Bernier and Nazem Kadri as well as youngsters Korbinan Holzer, Petter Granberg, and Richard Panik, but the latter three shouldn’t break the bank, which leaves the team with lots of money for possible upgrades.

Who is Available

This year will see the likes of Johnny Boychuck, Justin Williams, Antoine Vermette, Mike Green, Martin St. Louis, and more available for the taking. Boychuck and Green would be good upgrades on the backend, especially if the team fails to bring fellow right-handed defenceman, Cody Franson.

Rumours suggest that the Leafs have begun contract negotiations with Franson, but he is still included in many trade rumours. If the team loses him to free agency or via a trade, the team will not only have to upgrade their defence, but also fill in the hole left by the team’s most productive defender. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Saturday that Franson had declined a multi-year deal of $4.6 million per year and it seems unlikely that the team would want to pay him much more than that.

Centres seem to be in shorter supply again, if the team is looking to find a number one through free agency. Vermette and Mike Ribeiro are the most productive centres available. However, Vermette is more likely a number-two centre (possibly a number one on Toronto) and Ribeiro has been inconsistent of late and looks to be a good fit with Nashville, so he may want to stay put.

That considered there are still a number of talented players available this year such as St. Louis, Jaromir Jagr, and Mats Zuccarello. Jagr and St. Louis are both coming towards the end of their respected careers, but both have still been proven to be productive and valuable pieces to their team. While Zuccarello had a career year last year and though his production is down this year, no one should think that we have seen the best of the Norweigan.

It is hard to make a team drastically better by simply adding free agents. However, with a lot of players with high-end skill hitting the market this summer now might be time for the Leafs to make a move, a big move and not a series of small ones.