Maple Leafs’ 4 Free Agent Defence Targets

At this point, the Stanley Cup would have been awarded, we’d know where Alexis Lafreniere has ended up, and we’d be at the start of the free-agent frenzy period. Unfortunately, the world had other plans.

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While the NHL schedule has been thrown off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, like the draft, the free-agent period has been postponed for the time being. TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that the Free Agent Frenzy would begin on November 1st, once the season has finally come to a conclusion.

With the salary cap potentially staying at $81.5 million over the next three seasons, this puts a damper on the free-agent plans of many teams, especially the Toronto Maple Leafs who are already dealing with a cap crunch themselves. However, they could look to bring in some helpful names, particularly on defence.

With Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie being unrestricted free agents and their combined $7.25 million coming off the books, the Maple Leafs could sign one, maybe two right-shot defensemen at a reasonable price while still addressing a positional need. As this season showed, the defence is still their main weakness, as they seem to be set up front with the offensive weapons they have. All eyes will be on Alex Pietrangelo, but here are four other free-agent options for the Maple Leafs when the frenzy begins.

Dustin Byfuglien

2018-19 cap hit, $7,600,000

When the Winnipeg Jets and Dustin Byfuglien decided to part ways in April, many speculated on his return to play. While nothing has been determined about his future, he’s still considered to be a really big commodity on the free-agent market with many teams lining up for his services if he’s healthy and able to play. One of those teams should be the Maple Leafs.

Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien
Former Winnipeg Jets’ defenseman Dustin Byfuglien could be helpful to the Toronto Maple Leafs defence. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Jeff Roberson)

Byfuglien is one of the most feared players on the ice. He brings a physical presence that the Maple Leafs lack as well as being a consistent, offensive contributor while eating up big minutes in a potential top-pairing role. The Maple Leafs have been looking for a top right-handed, point-producing defender and Bfyuglien fits that description.

It’s very unlikely that Byfuglien would get the same contract that he initially had before his contract with the Jets was terminated. No one would give up that much money for a player who missed out on a full season recovering from surgery to repair a high ankle sprain. If anything, teams might be willing to give him a short-term deal, around the same term that Kevin Shattenkirk got when he signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning after the New York Rangers bought him out.

While it may be risky, a cheap deal for a player potentially capable of playing big minutes and known to score 20 goals seems like a good risk to take if you’re the Maple Leafs.

Dylan DeMelo

2019-20 cap hit, $900,000

Probably one of the most underrated players heading to free agency, Dylan DeMelo is certainly a name that could benefit the Maple Leafs, both on the ice and managing their current cap situation.

Dylan DeMelo Winnipeg Jets
Dylan DeMelo, Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Offensively, DeMelo may not find himself on the score sheet as often as Byfuglien, but his decision-making with the puck and ability to be in great position in his own end is what might make him sought after when the market opens up. Despite the lack of offense, with a minimum of 200 minutes played, DeMelo ranked second on the team in CF% (team’s Corsi percentage when that player is on the ice) with 52.37 and first in Shots For percentage (52.93) when he was on the ice.

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Those are good numbers considering he was on a poor Ottawa Senators team before being traded to the Winnipeg Jets. He’s a great playmaker and is able to make accurate long stretch passes to his teammates.

DeMelo has proved to be effective at shot suppression and minimizing the chances against when he is on the ice. According to Natural Stat Trick in descending order, he ranked 13th on the team in both Scoring Chances Against (338) and High Danger Corsi Against (135). DeMelo’s ability to provide an excellent two-way presence on a team that desperately needs help in their own end will certainly benefit the Maple Leafs as possibly a third-pairing player.

Chris Tanev

2019-20 cap hit $4,450,000

The Maple Leafs, through rumours, have been linked to Chris Tanev for quite some time. Much like Byfuglien, he fits the description of a shutdown defenseman, only he tends to focus more on the defensive side of things.

The Maple Leafs have been lacking in defence for years and Tanev brings a steady presence in his own end. For years he’s been one of the Vancouver Canucks’ go-to players on the back end, earning big minutes while playing relatively well against tough competition in the past.

Since 2013-14, Tanev has averaged over 20 minutes per game five times, while falling short of the mark twice with the Canucks. This year he ranked sixth on the team in time on ice per game and first in shorthanded time on ice with 3:25 per game. His five-on-five on-ice possession numbers have fallen off over the past few years, but he still manages to get the job done in a shutdown role. He’s able to get into good position and block the puck from getting to the net, as his 159 blocked shots rank fourth in the league.

Vancouver Canucks defenseman Chris Tanev. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s also worth noting that Tanev and Morgan Rielly were paired with each other during the 2016 World Hockey Championship, so there’s some familiarity with the two. They really seemed to complement each other during the tournament as Rielly was able to push the play forward, while Tanev provided his defensive style and was able to back up his defensive partner.

The only knock on Tanev is his ability to stay healthy, as he hasn’t managed to play a full 82-game season throughout his career since his first full season in 2013-14. In addition, he’d probably be more suited in a second- or third-pairing role as opposed to a first with Reilly. The Maple Leafs could give him less than what he’s making now knowing his injury history, or just pass on him altogether.

Radko Gudas

2019-20 cap hit, $3,350,000

He has a long list of being fined and suspended, but having a fierce, physical player like Gudas on the Maple Leafs blue line will make teams second guess making a questionable play.

There is more to Gudas than just physicality and big-body presence. Like Tanev, he’s capable of good shutdown, defensive coverage in his own end and is difficult to go up against in front of the net. You would not think it, but his possession numbers are pretty good for a player of his abilities.

Radko Gudas Washington Capitals
Radko Gudas, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This year at five-on-five, his Corsi For per 60 is at 58.06 and his Individual Corsi For per 60 is at 12.57. Throughout his career, his possession numbers have been consistent in terms of his CF% and his Goals For percentage.

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Gudas would most likely serve in a third-pairing role while being able to see some minutes on the penalty kill. Gudas ranked third on the Washington Capitals in shorthanded time on ice per game with 2:44. A depth piece and his ability to bring a physical, shut down style will go along way for any team, including the Maple Leafs.

The Maple Leafs’ cap situation just got tougher with the cap remaining the same for three years. They can use all the help they can get by adding affordable and reliable depth options in order to stay under the cap and put forth a steady blueline as defence remains an area of improvement. Who do you think should be a free-agent target for the Maple Leafs?

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick.