Maple Leafs Can Address Missing Killer Instinct in Free Agency

With the Toronto Maple Leafs already starting to make some offseason decisions, the notion of killer instinct came up once again during the end of season press conference. Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan alluded that the team is still trying to locate that aspect that was missing in their playoff series loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 playoffs.

The effort and ability to show that instinct was evident during their series loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning this time around. However, the team fell just shy of advancing to the second round of the playoffs and knocking off the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions. 

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General manager Kyle Dubas has already hinted that he would make a move if it makes sense for the roster. The Maple Leafs second line was hit and miss down the stretch and was quiet in the first half of their first round series. In Jan. and Feb., John Tavares produced 18 points in 23 games, but went goalless in Feb. William Nylander produced the same amount in that time, but at times didn’t have the energy he had at the start and was demoted to the third line. 

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To add another quality top-six player through free agency shouldn’t be out of the question for Dubas, especially if they want the second line to be a threat again. It’s obvious that moves need to be made and contracts need to be freed up for offseason unrestricted and restricted free agents. If a move does happen and the Maple Leafs move on from names like Jake Muzzin, Alex Kerfoot and Petr Mrazek, they have some room to work with. Here are three options to provide a jolt of energy on the second line. 

Andrew Copp

The Maple Leafs have previously shown interest in Andrew Copp before the NHL trade deadline as he was a potential target, according to The Fourth Period. Even Sportsnet’s Luke Fox also had him as an option should the Maple Leafs look to bring in a viable player that can play in a second or third-line role. 

Andrew Copp New York Rangers
Andrew Copp, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

During the 2021-22 season, Copp had his best statistical season as he had career highs in goals (21), assists (32) and points (53). He also had some strong underlying numbers in terms of his possession metrics and goal production when he was on the ice. The following are his numbers at five-on-five with both the Winnipeg Jets and the New York Rangers. 

CategoryWPGNYR
Corsi For percentage52.5257.89
Goals for percentage49.1869.57
Expected goals for percentage51.3056.44
High danger scoring chances percentage41.4680.00

While his numbers were okay on a Jets team that was slowly losing sight of the playoffs, Copp has been playing to his strengths and making an impact with the Rangers.

A dual positional player who can play the wing or centre, Copp would serve as a very strong candidate to target in free agency as he could be a great spark to the team’s top-six. He has great speed to keep up with the quick pace of players like Nylander, can rotate with Tavares in the faceoff dot, has a great shot and the ability to be a force on the forecheck with his physicality. All of that has been on full display during his time with the Jets and currently with the Rangers.

Copp does a really great job to create space and free himself up as a shooting option. A prime example is his natural hat trick that he scored against the New York Islanders, shows his ability to read the play and maintain space as an option to receive a pass. 

Copp will no doubt be asking for a pay raise over his current $3.64 million. There’s some risk here as he might command more than what he’s making. Is he going to provide the same level of consistency if the Maple Leafs pay up, or will they back off knowing that the price maybe too high? 

Reilly Smith

Reilly Smith might be a bit more of a realistic option for the Maple Leafs. Smith was a fixture for the Vegas Golden Knights’ middle-six over the last five seasons. Given how they’re dealing with their own cap crunch, re-singing him might be a bit of a challenge.

There’s also the injury concerns. He missed the last stretch of this season due to a knee injury and over his career with the Golden Knights, he hasn’t reached 75 games played in four of the five seasons (2020-21 season was a shortened season). He’s coming off a five-year contract where he had an AAV of $5 million. Given the injuries and being in his 30s, Smith could probably be signed to a cheaper deal under $5 million.

Vegas Golden Knights Reilly Smith Florida Panthers Roberto Luongo
Vegas Golden Knights right wing Reilly Smith scores on Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo (AP Photo/John Locher)

When healthy, Smith is a very impactful and skilled player. He’s got the speed to be an offensive threat as he has the positioning and awareness in the offensive zone to force turnovers and be a factor on the forecheck. He makes slick plays to distribute the puck and sneak in behind defenders to drive to the net. 

Overall, the Maple Leafs could be getting a player that can provide great secondary scoring as he had 16 goals and 22 assists last season. He plays a possession style game that Maple Leafs love as he has a career CF% of 54.4 when he’s on the ice at even strength. Let’s not forget that he also logs a lot of minutes on the penalty kill (1:46 per game) and power play (1:48 per game). Smith would be a big addition to an already improved penalty kill and could be a real factor for them on the second power play unit, as it went cold during the playoffs.

If there’s a chance to sign Smith to a little under what he’s making right now, he could be a great addition.

Ondrej Palat

If you want killer instinct, why not try and bring in a player who has played a key part for the Lightning over the last two playoffs in Ondrej Palat. There’s the possibility that he could be another cap casualty of the Lightning and he could be a very enticing option for the Maple Leafs as a second line winger. 

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We’ve seen first-hand the energy, physicality, smarts and presence that Palat brings when he’s on the ice. A reliable 40-point player and gritty winger could be an improvement over Kerfoot. While Kerfoot gets significantly more minutes on the penalty kill than Palat, Kerfoot has gone quiet at times this season and Palat has shown to be consistent every season he’s played in. 

Coincidentally, Palat took advantage of a turnover made by Kerfoot to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead in Game 6. 

If the Maple Leafs are able to get Palat between $4- $5 million, it gives them an upgrade and a player with championship pedigree. 

For any chance to bring in an impactful forward, moves need to happen. It could give the Maple Leafs an opportunity to bolster their forward group, more specifically, their second line as it did show inconsistencies down the stretch. Bringing in a sound secondary scorer, could help out and make a difference for the Maple Leafs after they were close to making a run in the playoffs.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and NHL.com.