Maple Leafs Should Target Brandon Saad in Free Agency

After another season of thinking they finally did it right, the Toronto Maple Leafs suffered yet another embarassing loss to end their 2021 playoff run.

How many times have you seen that sentence written? The Maple Leafs and their fans should be veterans to the offseason process at this point. But this year, the difference is that they’re left questioning what they even need to add to make the roster better.

In previous years, the Maple Leafs had glaring needs to address that ultimately contributed to their early demise. But it seems as though Kyle Dubas has addressed every single one of these needs. Defense, goaltending, veteran leadership, and grit, you name it. Every single issue that needed a fix got one. But the 2021 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games was purely a mental issue, and different from the rest.

Now, heading into yet another offseason left feeling disappointed and wondering what could have been, the Maple Leafs may have more questions for their roster than they originally anticipated. According to James Mirtle of The Athletic, forward Zach Hyman may not be wearing the blue and white next year.

Hyman Could Be on His Way Out

Mirtle said, “Multiple sources said they didn’t believe any talks of substance had happened, going back months. No progress was made on extension talk at any point, really, going back to when Hyman first became eligible for a new deal last year.” (from ‘Mirtle: This appears to be the end for Zach Hyman as a Maple Leaf’, TheAthleticNHL – 6/16/21)

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman
Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman speaks to reporters after a locker clean out at the Scotiabank Arena in 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

If this holds any truth, losing Hyman would be a huge blow for the Maple Leafs. Since he became a full-time NHLer in 2016-17, he’s blossomed into a bonafide top-six power forward. After registering back-to-back 21-goal seasons in 2018-19 and 2019-20, he arguably had a career year in 2020-21 with 15 goals and 33 points in 43 games. His elite ability to create space on the ice often found him paired on the top line with Auston Matthews, and could make him an attractive free-agency target for many teams.

Well, should the Leafs lose Hyman, they will surely be in the market for somebody around his caliber to take his spot. The team is looking extremely thin on the left side, with the departure of Andreas Johnsson last year and potentially Hyman this year. One of the players they should be targeting is Brandon Saad, an unrestricted free agent for the Colorado Avalanche.

Why Saad Would Fit in with the Leafs

A second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011, Saad is a veteran of nine NHL seasons split between the Blackhawks, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and most recently, the Colorado Avalanche. The 28-year-old is coming off a successful 2020-21 season with the Avalanche that saw him finish with 15 goals and 24 points in 44 games. He also exploded in the playoffs for Colorado, scoring a whopping seven goals in 10 games.

Saad was most effective towards the tail end of his first stint in Chicago and during his time in Columbus. His career year came in 2015-16 when he scored 31 goals and finished with a career-high 53 points. Since then, his production has dipped ever so slightly, but you can still pencil him in for 20 goals over the course of a full 82-game season.

But it isn’t just Saad’s offense that intrigues me in this case. Of course, getting a 40-point player to make up for Hyman’s offense would be nice. But then you would still have to make up for Hyman’s two-way game and hustle. Well, good news. Saad carries both of those aspects with him as well.

In 44 games for the Avalanche, Saad carried a Corsi-For percentage (CF%) of 57.1%, meaning that his team had the puck nearly 60% of the time he was on the ice. During the 2021 playoffs, he often found himself in the same role Hyman occupied for the Leafs. Playing on the top line with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, he was in charge of getting to the net and banking in rebounds. Just like Hyman did with Matthews.

Saad also fits into the Maple Leafs’ age demographic, as he’ll turn 29 in October. Obviously, he doesn’t fit in with the general age of the core, which is early 20s, but he’s young enough that if he signed in Toronto for a couple of years, there wouldn’t be much of a concern that his age would catch up to him.

Addressing That Killer Instinct

The Pittsburgh native also has two Stanley Cups to his name. This year, instead of hearing “the Leafs need defense” or “the Leafs need a goalie”, the recurring line was “the Leafs need to address their killer instinct“. Like I said before, the loss in this year’s playoffs had nothing to do with a roster need, it was purely mental and a result of the top players not showing up.

You want somebody who shows up in the playoffs? Saad has 50 points in 91 total playoff games. He scored eight goals in 23 games en route to the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2015 and had 16 points in 19 games in 2013-14 before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings. And he was second on the team in goals behind only MacKinnon during the 2021 playoffs.

Between his energy, hustle, and goal-scoring ability, Saad’s game pretty much epitomizes what the Leafs need to address this offseason. And while adding him wouldn’t be a one-step fix, it would certainly contribute to the mindset shift this team desperately needs.

What Kind of Contract Would He Demand?

Saad is coming off a six-year contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $6 million. Given that he’s won two Stanley Cups, you could make the argument that he’d use that to ask for equal value to his last contract or more. However, because his offense has dipped and he isn’t a guaranteed 50 point player like he was when he signed the contract, he may settle for less.

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Regardless of what Saad’s financial demands are, the Avalanche have to worry about re-signing star forward and captain Gabriel Landeskog this summer, as well as star defenseman Cale Makar and star goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Obviously, signing Landeskog will be a top priority, and I’d imagine GM Joe Sakic wouldn’t want to be tight for money during the negotiation process.

Gabriel Landeskog Colorado Avalanche
Gabriel Landeskog will be an unrestricted free agent this summer (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Aside from Morgan Rielly, the Maple Leafs don’t really have any big contracts to worry about until 2023-24, when Matthews and William Nylander‘s deals expire. Because of that, there’s some serious pressure on Dubas and the Leafs to assemble a Cup-winning team in that timeframe. And if I’m Dubas, I’d try and sign Saad to an extension within that window. If he could get him on a three-year contract in the ballpark of $4-6 million, he would be a huge addition to the forward core.

Overview

Considering the aftermath of the 2021 playoffs, it’s evidently going to take a big shakeup of some sort to drill the idea that playoff performances like that are simply unacceptable. And while I’ll maintain that the shakeup won’t come as a result of needing to fill a roster spot, the dressing room desperately needs a mindset shift, and Saad would be a great first step to achieving that.


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