There were some questions and doubt in regards to the Toronto Maple Leafs depth forwards as it went quiet during the playoffs. With Ilya Mikheyev signing with the Vancouver Canucks and Ondrej Kase inking a deal with the Carolina Hurricanes, Maple Leafs general manger Kyle Dubas had to fill the void and bring in quality depth pieces to have a competitive bottom-six.
As we saw with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche having a strong core of depth players will go a long way in the playoffs. Although the Maple Leafs lost two key players with speed and skill, Dubas did a great job bringing in Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Calle Jarnkrok and Adam Gaudette as strong role players. And let’s not forget the re-signing of Pierre Engvall.
Some may continue to question the signings, but the Maple Leafs depth appears to still be in tact even with two key names heading to other destinations. Despite losing them, the Maple Leafs continued to address that and more with their free agent signings as they still have valuable players at affordable price tags.
Aube-Kubel Will Spark Fourth Line
Aube-Kubel displayed great speed and tenacity last season between the Philadelphia Flyers and Avalanche. He finished with 23 points in 74 games last season with majority of those points coming with the Avalanche. Despite being used mostly in a fourth line role, he does have the ability to move up and down the line up and provide some secondary production when given more minutes.
Aube-Kubel can attack hard on the forecheck swiftly while also providing a physical element the team lacked for some time. He was second overall on the Avalanche in hits last season with 123. While that’s nice to see some grit, he’s still impactful offensively. According to Puck IQ, when playing against middle tier competition he had a Corsi For percentage of 51.4% and a goals for percentage of 66.7% overall. Not bad for being in a bottom-six role.
He’s responsible in his own end and has the ability to be play shut down defense when called upon. The kind of play expected when making a deep playoff run. Even though he didn’t register a point in the playoffs, he was effective and noticeable every time. Hopefully he can provide some consistency in a fourth line role and excel just like he did with a high-octane offense like the Avalanche.
The Maple Leafs needed a spark to their bottom-six and Aube-Kubel is more than capable of providing that.
Jarnkrok Replaces Mikheyev
Mikheyev was extremely effective moving up and down between the second and third line. Jarnkrok serves as a perfect replacement at a cheaper cap hit of only $2.1 million over four years.
As fellow THW writer Alex Hobson describes Jarnkrok, he’s a “utility-knife” type of player where you can insert him anywhere in the lineup and you know what you’re getting instantly: energy, speed, compete and consistency. He’s been a consistent 30-point player over his career hitting the mark five times. Most recently last season where he split time with the Seattle Kraken and Calgary Flames.
Don’t let Jarnkrok’s zero goals and four assists with the Flames fool you as that was a small sample. Even though he only played in 17 games without scoring a goal, his underlying numbers show that he was consistently generating chances. With over 100 minutes played at five-on-five, his 57.59 CF% had him fourth on the team and his shots for percentage was seventh overall with 56.50.
Since his days with the Predators, he’s an effective middle-six forward that plays with pace and can play that quick puck possession style of play the Maple Leafs are known for. Could he be a key factor alongside John Tavares and William Nylander? It’s possible.
Engvall & Gaudette: Breakout Goal Scorers?
The Maple Leafs have two players that have the potential to breakout offensively. One they’re familiar with and have seen major improvements in his game.
When Engvall signed his one-year extension, he’s banking on building on his strong 2021-22 season. After a somewhat disappointing 2020-21 season, Engvall bounced back in a big way with his best production of 15 goals and 20 assists. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, he is extremely quick with his long and smooth stride and has improved on his ability to constantly battle and engage physically. We’re starting to see him utilize his size to his advantage.
The 2017-18 Hobey Baker Award winner as the top player in the NCAA, Gaudette could serve as another reclamation project who could have some upside. After having a productive 2019-20 season with the Canucks posting 33 points in 59 games, he’s struggled to find any consistency, production and ability to stay in the lineup with the Chicago Blackhawks and Ottawa Senators.
Gaudette brings a steady all-round game, who can engage offensively and be responsible defensively. While the production has been a concern, Gaudette was a top-three player for Team USA at the 2022 World Hockey Championship, scoring six goals and finishing with eight points in 10 games. That offensive upside could be what benefits Gaudette to find a home and be an offensive factor for the team’s bottom-six.
Uncertainty with Mikheyev and Kase
As great as Mikheyev and Kase were last season, there might have been some hesitation to keep them in the fold for a few reasons. Consistency and health.
Even though he reportedly requested a trade before the 2021-22 season, Mikheyev had his most productive season as a Maple Leaf , scoring 21 goals and finishing with 32 points in 53 games. He was a staple on the penalty kill and 5-on-5 and it showed with his lightning quick speed and defensive positioning. He missed significant time last season due to a wrist injury that kept him out until December, but when he was in the lineup, he was effective when he was healthy. His shot improved tremendously and took advantage of situations like breakaways, converting on them compared to previous seasons.
As great as Mikheyev was, he played himself out of a contract range that the Maple Leafs saw fit. As productive as he was, to give $4.75 million over four years after just one strong season, is a really big gamble given his health and inconsistencies in the past. His 14.3 shooting percentage was way above his career average of 10.2%. Even though he’s only played three seasons, seeing that as being sustainable is tough given how he had his ups and downs with the Maple Leafs.
Could things work out with the Canucks? Absolutely. Though if the Maple Leafs signed him to that contract, many wouldn’t be too thrilled as a result. We’ve seen how contracts like these played out for the Maple Leafs as the production never matched the value of the contract.
The same goes for Kase. When he was healthy, he was extremely impactful with his relentless ability to attack with speed and force despite putting himself in dangerous situations. He’s dealt with a long list of injuries over his career and over the last three seasons he’s only played in 59 games.
He had his second most productive season of his career with 27 points last season and even then, he only appeared in 50 games as he dealt with multiple injuries including a concussion. Although he didn’t sign a massive contract like Mikheyev, for him to be a key piece and still miss time is a big loss given his work ethic and energy.
The Money Ball Playbook
Once again, Dubas went the Money Ball route to try and find replacement players with high impact at a cheaper price tag that fits their contract situation.
Aube-Kubel, Jarnkrok, Engvall and Gaudette all have the potential to maintain what they lost in free agency as key pieces for this team going forward. With the season around the corner and much more to be done, this isn’t the end for Maple Leafs as they continue to improve their roster.
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Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.