Toronto Maple Leafs general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas had himself a… decorated offseason, to say the least. With starting goaltender Jack Campbell and forward Ilya Mikheyev taking long-term deals with the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, respectively, there were some holes to fill. The Maple Leafs did that, both through free agency and trades.
The move(s) he undoubtedly took the most heat for was the revamping of the team’s goaltending situation. He swapped out Campbell and the injury-riddled Petr Mrazek with Matt Murray, acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators, and Ilya Samsonov, signing the former Washington Capitals first-round pick to a one-year contract after a couple of rough seasons with his former team. So far, both newcomers have statistically been better than the guys they got rid of, but that’s a conversation to be had a different day.
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Outside of the goaltending overhaul, Dubas signed forward Calle Jarnkrok to a four-year contract, and sprinkled in a few depth signings including the likes of Zach Aston-Reese and Denis Malgin among others. There’s still roughly three months of hockey left to play, so the value of these signings could very well change, but to close out the year of 2022, I’m going to grade each of the Maple Leafs’ free agent signings based on their performance thus far.
Ilya Samsonov (1 Year, $1.8 Million Average Annual Value (AAV) ): A
The timing of this is pretty poor, because Samsonov is currently in his first mini-slump of the season, but when you look at his numbers as a whole, they don’t lie. In 14 games so far, the Russian netminder is 11-3-0 with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.20 and a save percentage (SV%) of .920. He’s also yet to lose a game at home, and he’s only allowed more than three goals in five of his 14 starts. For a little cherry on top, he’s good for a funny sound bite in the post-game press conference every now and then.
I wrote an article before the season started about why Samsonov’s contract carries sneaky value, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that he’s a restricted free agent (RFA). This means that if another team wanted to sign him and the Maple Leafs weren’t willing to match their offer, they would receive a draft pick (or multiple) as compensation. And, the more he asks for, the higher the compensation would be.
This is all great to know for security purposes, but as of right now, it’s just the icing on the cake that has been his season so far. Samsonov had to take on a heavier workload than expected right off the bat, with Murray suffering an injury ahead of the third game of the season, and he gave the Maple Leafs more than they could have asked for. Despite suffering a minor injury himself and struggling in these past few games, he’s been one of the better goalies in the league to start the season, which gives him an “A” in my books.
Calle Jarnkrok (4 Years, $2.1 Million AAV): B
No, Jarnkrok wasn’t the big, tough, power forward winger that some fans wanted this summer, but when you’re getting a reliable middle-six forward who’s strong defensively, on the forecheck, and good for 30-40 points a season for that kind of a deal, it’s hard to argue against the value. Jarnkrok was shuffled around the lineup in the first few weeks of the season and took a little bit to find his footing, but he’s looked like an entirely different player ever since the Maple Leafs put him on the second line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner.
Despite a slow-ish start to the season with only nine points in 25 games prior to his injury, Jarnkrok has turned it on in recent games and now has 15 points in 28 games on the season, a 21-goal, 39-point pace, good for a career high in both categories. The Swede likely won’t be in the top six all season assuming the Maple Leafs upgrade their forward group towards the deadline, but if he can maintain this sort of production, he’ll be providing just about everything asked of a middle-six forward.
Zach Aston-Reese (1 Year, $840,000 AAV): C+
Aston-Reese was somebody I believed the Maple Leafs would sign in free agency, which they ended up doing, only it took about three months longer than I expected it to. The team expressed interest in signing him early on, but didn’t have the space for him until training camp, when he was invited on a professional tryout (PTO) and ended up signing a one-year contract. Once an offensive juggernaut in college, he’s vastly transitioned his game since making the NHL, now specializing in strong defensive play and hard forechecking.
Aston-Reese, or “ZAR” as the fans refer to him as, has played pretty much exactly as advertised this season. His offense has been extremely limited, with only three goals and four points through 34 games, but he’s leading the team in hits with 75 and has started in the defensive zone 63.5 percent of the time, citing the trust his coaches have in him. The only thing keeping him at a “C” is the fact that his lack of offense this season has been low even for his standards, currently on pace for nine points in 80 games. But, scoring help or not, he’s been effective in the role that he’s being paid to be effective in, so no complaints on my end.
Jordie Benn (1 Year, $750,000 AAV): C
Similar to Aston-Reese, Benn was brought in to do one thing and one thing only: provide depth, with a little extra heaviness and bite than his teammates. He likely isn’t on the team with a fully healthy defensive corps, but he’s been able to step in and play some important minutes for a team whose defensemen have been hit hard by the injury bug so far. Between Timothy Liljegren missing the first month of the season and all of Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie, and Morgan Rielly feeling the effects of it as well, it hasn’t been an easy go for the back end. Hell, even Benn himself spent some time on the injured reserve (IR).
Beyond his ability to step in when called upon, and the unorthodox big goal he scored in his season debut to end a rough stretch of games for the Maple Leafs, Benn has been your standard depth defenseman, so it’s hard for me to give him anything higher than a C. And that’s not a knock on him at all. If anything, it’s a nod to his ability to step in and do what he’s paid to do.
Victor Mete (1 Year, $750,000 AAV): C
I don’t have a whole lot to say about Mete that I haven’t already said about Benn, so I’ll keep this short. Despite battling some injury issues of his own, he’s been just fine in the role he’s been expected to fill. He only has 11 games to his name on the season, and when the team is fully healthy, he’s probably eighth or ninth on the depth chart when it comes to defensemen.
But, having the team fully healthy has evidently been a massive ask in 2022-23, so he’s still gotten a chance to dress with the team and show what he can bring. What he’s shown is pretty much identical to what Benn brings, with less physicality and more mobility. So, like Benn, he gets a C. He hasn’t played bad enough to warrant any lower, but hasn’t really done anything to warrant a higher grade, either.
Nicolas Aube-Kubel (1 Year, $1 Million AAV – Claimed by Capitals on Waivers): F
When the Maple Leafs signed Aube-Kubel on day one of free agency, it was for the exact same purpose that the team ended up signing Aston-Reese for. Not to bring offense and goal scoring, but to be a ball of energy that hit everything in sight. To his credit, he did throw the body in his limited tenure with the team. But, throwing the body will only get you so far in the NHL if you don’t bring anything else to the table, and Aube-Kubel felt the effects of it.
After playing six games without tallying a single point and finding himself as a scratch more often than not, the Maple Leafs waived the former Colorado Avalanche forward and he ended up getting claimed by the Capitals. There wasn’t much to write, if anything at all, about his tenure with the Maple Leafs, so I’m giving the signing an F, especially since he only lasted six games in Toronto.
Denis Malgin (1 Year, $750,000 AAV – Traded to Avalanche): F
We’ve written about Malgin and why there’s a cloud of controversy around him a million times here, so there’s no need to get back into it. We know who he was traded for and why he probably had a tougher go in Toronto because of it. After his initial tenure in Toronto didn’t amount to anything, there was a shred of optimism that he’d be able to contribute in a bigger way after he tore up Switzerland’s top league two years in a row. So, the Maple Leafs took that chance and signed him to a one-year deal.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. There was hope for him after he had a stellar preseason, but it was really over for him after the Maple Leafs recalled Pontus Holmberg, who’s contributed more both offensively and defensively. Malgin finished his second tenure in Toronto with only four points in 23 games, and they ended up trading him to the Avalanche in exchange for another depth forward in Dryden Hunt. He didn’t really bring anything to the team in his time here and is now on a different team, so like Aube-Kubel, he gets an F.
Adam Gaudette (1 Year, $750,000 AAV): N/A
I didn’t want to leave Gaudette off of this list considering he’s a player with NHL experience who the Maple Leafs did sign in the offseason, but it’s hard for me to give him a grade considering he’s spent the whole season in the American Hockey League (AHL).
Granted, he’s been one of the Toronto Marlies’ better players with 12 goals and 19 points in 21 games, and will likely get a look in the lineup this season depending on injuries, so his grade for the season is yet to be determined.
Overall Outlook: Good Offseason, But More is Needed
In the offseason, the Maple Leafs addressed most of the holes in their lineup, but there are still a few to be looked at, with the most glaring need being a true top-six winger. I know what Dubas was aiming for, in giving players such as Alex Kerfoot, Nick Robertson, and Malgin an opportunity to compete for that spot, but none of those players worked out in that role. Jarnkrok has looked good there, but I can’t imagine this team wants to go into the playoffs with him on their second line.
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If Samsonov can keep up his play to some extent this season, he’ll almost certainly be their best signing of the offseason, but like I said before, there’s lots of hockey left to play. The season isn’t going to get any easier as we get closer and closer to the trade deadline, and eventually the playoffs, but it’s important that he and Jarnkrok at bare minimum remain consistent contributors to this team for the signings to be seen as successes at the end of the season.