Ranking the Maple Leafs’ Next Contract Priorities

General manager (GM) Kyle Dubas’ heavy lifting is largely complete. Since Dec. 1, 2018 when he and William Nylander finally found middle ground on his restricted free agent (RFA) deal, Dubas has inked Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, Alexander Kerfoot and Cody Ceci to RFA deals as well. Add in the wealth of summer depth signings and he has been a busy man on the contract front over the last 10-plus months.

So, naturally, it’s time to talk contracts again, right? A fact of life in the GM universe is never-ending contract negotiations, considering NHL clubs are allotted a maximum of 50 standard player contracts (SPC) on top of entry-level deals that do not count against the SPC limit if the player is a junior of 18 or 19 years of age with fewer than 11 games of NHL experience in a single season.

That’s why they are paid the (largely undisclosed) big bucks. It’s a never-ending gig and contract negotiations are a constant. Keep in mind that these rankings are not the importance of the player to the team, but rather the order in which Dubas is likely to address these priorities. With that in mind, let’s rank the contract priorities and decisions staring him in the face as we get set to kick off the 2019-20 NHL season.

1. Travis Dermott

Dermott won’t be available to the Maple Leafs for the first 12-14 games of the season, however his contract situation is of the utmost importance to Dubas moving forward.

Travis Dermott #23 of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Young Maple Leafs defender Travis Dermott is the next important player to hit restricted free agency when the 2019-20 season ends. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Dermott, 22, is the clear-cut top RFA on the books at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season. He’s carved out an important role on the Maple Leafs’ blue line since debuting midway through the 2017-18 season. While his offensive figures have yet to break out, he has been an advanced metrics beast with a 54.9% Corsi For% (CF%) at even strength through his first season and a half in the NHL. He’s become a valuable penalty killer to head coach Mike Babcock and a raise on his 17:18 of average ice time from a season ago is a near-certainty this season.

Just don’t expect Dermott to break the bank. With Morgan Rielly, Ceci, Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie locked into the top four — at least to begin the season — Dermott will most likely find himself back on the bottom pair and in a vital penalty killing roll again in the 2019-20 season. These roles, along with middling raw offensive numbers, don’t lend themselves towards an eye-popping raise. The Maple Leafs will be able to extract plenty of value throughout his next contract.

As a result, the upcoming negotiations between Dubas and Dermott’s camp won’t bring nearly the same level of stress that we have seen in RFA negotiations over the last year. Look for a mid-season extension for a player that could soon find himself in the top-four given the Maple Leafs contract situations on the back end.

2. Tyson Barrie

Barrie slides into the two-spot on this list as he is set for unrestricted free agency at season’s end, one of many Maple Leafs’ blue liners set to do so. While the Maple Leafs would surely like to bring him back as a staple on the right side of their defense, his reported asking price is a tough one to swallow for a team paying more than $40 million to four players for the next five seasons.

Tyson Barrie
New Maple Leafs defenseman Tyson Barrie is set to hit unrestricted free agency after the 2019-20 season. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

That’s not to say an extension won’t be explored. Barrie’s ask certainly isn’t an outrageous one as he ranks sixth among NHL defensemen with 116 points over the last two seasons and tied with Norris Trophy-winning Brent Burns for third with 55 power play points in that time. He’s a sure-fire No. 1 power play defenseman on most NHL teams — just not the Maple Leafs.

All of this is barring a fit in Toronto, of course. The Maple Leafs revamped their blue line in the summer with a pair of significant trades, including the one that brought Barrie to Toronto from the Colorado Avalanche. Whether his issues at the defensive end hinder the team’s blue line remains to be seen. There’s no doubt he’s a gifted offensive defenseman, but his play on the back end has been questioned at times.

Dubas has a decision to make on whether or not Barrie fits into his long-term vision of the team. The evaluation process is soon to begin, and if there’s a fit, an extension will be discussed. With most of their defense off the books for next season, there might just be money available, too. However, UFA status is what NHL players work their careers for, and with that light at the end of the 2019-20 tunnel, there’s a very realistic chance Barrie will want to at least test those waters.

3. Cody Ceci

Like Barrie, Ceci is an offseason trade acquisition that is set for a one-year tryout with the Maple Leafs to see if there is a long-term fit that can potentially trigger extension talks.

Cody Ceci
New Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Ceci is another Maple Leafs defenseman to hit unrestricted free agency at the end of the 2019-20 season. (Amy Irvin/ The Hockey Writers)

There’s one notable factor in giving Ceci more attention than someone like Muzzin this season, and that’s his age. At 25, Ceci is very much a work in progress on the blue line. Sure, he’s already played six seasons in the league after the Ottawa Senators took him 15th overall in the 2012 draft. Most NHL defensemen don’t mature until their late 20s, so there’s potential growth to be had here. He’s also never played with a forward group this talented in his NHL tenure.

Ceci is going to get every opportunity to earn a mid- to long-term deal with the Maple Leafs (or another NHL club) alongside Rielly on the team’s top pair. His abilities will be under the microscope of team management, Leafs Nation and many other executives around the league looking for breakout defenders on the right side. If he can display a fit, you can bet Dubas will want to work out a long-term deal with the Ottawa, Ontario native before he can negotiate with the other 30 NHL clubs.

4. Frederik Andersen

There’s a general consensus that Frederik Andersen has been the Maple Leafs’ MVP since arriving on the scene via trade in June 2016. The team immediately signed him to a five-year deal to become the goaltender of the future in Toronto. However, with just one year remaining on that deal after the 2019-20 season, that future is closing in fast.

Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen only has one year remaining on his contract after the 2019-20 season. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

One can only wonder what that extension would look like. With just a $5 million cap hit, Andersen is well aware of the value he’s given the Maple Leafs in his three seasons to this point. The term “hometown discount” is greatly overused; he is due a raise and a big one at that.

Remember, a 30-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky just signed a seven-year, $70 million deal with the Florida Panthers as a UFA this summer. Of course, that deal carries a $10 million annual cap hit, twice what Andersen is currently costing the Maple Leafs. Sure, Bobrovsky has two Vezina trophies on his mantle, but with the salary cap climbing every season, teams will have more spending room moving forward. Andersen is set to hit UFA status at age 31 in July of 2021, and he could be in Vezina consideration sooner than later.

Given his meaning to the Maple Leafs, you could easily slot Andersen up the rankings, especially without a true replacement currently in the organization if the Maple Leafs decided to not pay top-dollar for goaltending when that decision inevitably rolls around. However, if we are ranking priorities, time is the biggest factor, something the Leafs have more of with Andersen than they do Dermott, Barrie or Ceci.

5. Ilya Mikheyev

I don’t mean to jump the gun on a player that has yet to skate in one NHL regular season game, but early indications are that Mikheyev is a lock for a roster spot up front and given his RFA status at season’s end, his contract will likely become a priority for Dubas at the end of the season.

Bernhard Ebner, Ilya Mikheyev
Russia’s Ilya Mikheyev signed a one-year deal with the Maple Leafs after spending past four seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Artur Lebedev)

Mikheyev, 24, enjoyed a career-year in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League with Avangard Omsk in 2018-19 with 23 goals and 45 points across 62 regular season games before adding 4 goals and 11 points in 13 postseason contests. He was selected as a KHL All-Star and named a KHL First-Team All-Star as well. He signed a one-year deal with the Maple Leafs in May. You can learn more about Mikheyev and his story here.

Experiments with lesser-known European players can go either way. The Maple Leafs cut ties with Par Lindholm at the 2019 trade deadline after the Swede scored just once in 61 games with the club. The Nikita Zaitsev experiment worked for a year before two down seasons and the eventual trade to the Senators. If Mikheyev can find a spot on the Maple Leafs’ third line and show some offensive upside to go along with his attractive 6-foot-3, 195 pound frame, you can bet Dubas will look to garner some value out of him moving forward.

The Others

There are others that are going to get new contracts moving forward. Jordan Schmaltz and Ben Harpur are cheap RFA-eligible defensemen at season’s end. Presumed backup goaltender Michael Hutchinson is a UFA after the season. Frederik Gauthier, who seems destined for a fourth-line role again this season, is another strong candidate.

There’s also Muzzin, who I didn’t include above. He is a 30-year-old defenseman playing out the final year of a bargain deal signed while with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014. However, for a team against the cap, I can’t see them paying a deserved raise to an over-30 player who lacks footspeed. With Rasmus Sandin’s sure-fire ability to play a full-time role in 2020-21 and likely sooner, the left side of the blue line has many options moving forward, including Dermott. As a result, Muzzin’s looming UFA status is completely on the backburner as Dubas’ imminent focus will be on the five men above.