Maple Leafs’ 5 Most Valuable 2021 Free Agent Signings

When the Toronto Maple Leafs suffered yet another first-round exit last season, fans wanted little to do with any of general manager Kyle Dubas’ offseason plans, unless it involved firing someone or trading a core player.

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Obviously, the Maple Leafs were never going to make a knee-jerk decision like that, so neither of those moves happened. However, Dubas did make multiple free agent signings, most of which were cheap with low-risk, high reward potential. It’s a smart tactic that he seems to exercise every offseason. Some of these players pan out, others don’t, but the bottom line is there’s typically no way to lose when you sign these types of players. Either you get a productive player for your team, or you end up trading/waiving them.

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Now two and-a-half months into the season and amidst a pause in the season stemming from league-wide COVID-19 outbreaks, I’m going to revisit the Maple Leafs’ five notable free agent signings and rank them from least valuable to most valuable. Well, so far at least. It’s still too early to really nail down which contracts have been most valuable, especially since some of them have more term than others. But seeing where we are now and what we’ve seen from the new faces so far, here’s my take on which contracts are looking the most valuable so far.

5. Petr Mrazek (3 years, $3.8 million average annual value (AAV) )

It almost seems unfair to be putting Mrazek at the bottom of this list since he’s only had three games to prove his worth to the Maple Leafs. But needless to say, he’s had a rough start to the season. Despite missing most of the 2020-21 season due to a freak thumb injury, Mrazek posted Vezina-calibre numbers in the games that he appeared in, with a .923 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.06 goals-against average (GAA) in 12 games.

While Mrazek’s injury history and durability were concerns heading into the 2021-22 season, his performance last season provided hope that he could serve as a 1B option to Maple Leafs’ starter Jack Campbell and take some of his workload. But Mrazek’s injury history has caught up to him to start the season, and he hasn’t been able to play the role he was brought in to play thus far. Luckily for the Maple Leafs, Campbell has been one of the best goalies in the league so far this year, so it hasn’t hurt them all too much.

Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs
Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Mrazek started the Maple Leafs’ second game of the season against the Ottawa Senators, and despite letting in three goals, he made some key saves behind a Leafs team that didn’t give him much help. Unfortunately, he pulled his groin near the end of the second period and didn’t come back for the third.

His next start was against the Detroit Red Wings on Oct 30 in a 5-4 win, but evidently he wasn’t ready to come back, because he then proceeded to miss another month before making his return against the Chicago Blackhawks in another 5-4 win on Dec 11. Through his three games, Mrazek has a 2-1-0 record with a SV% of .880 and a GAA of 4.13. These numbers are unflattering, but in my opinion, they don’t necessarily define his play so far this year.

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Overall, I had to put Mrazek here because he’s making the most money out of any of the Leafs’ free agent signings this year, and unfortunate circumstances or not, he’s contributed the least. Still, there’s hope that he can rebound and have a strong second half of the season.

4. Nick Ritchie (2 years, $2.5 million AAV)

It seems like there needs to be at least one scapegoat every year in Leafs Nation, and while Justin Holl and Mitch Marner have both taken their fair share of heat from the fans, Ritchie has seen some flak of his own. Coming off of a 2020-21 season that saw Ritchie score 15 goals in 56 games, there was potential for him to be the type of player Maple Leafs fans tend to fall in love with. Somebody with a scoring touch and an edge.

Ritchie’s 2021-22 season got off to a rocky start. He only managed one assist through his first 13 games of the season, and didn’t score his first goal until the 27th game of the season against the Columbus Blue Jackets. As of right now, he still only has one goal and eight points through 29 games this season.

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In my opinion, a lot of the reason Ritchie’s season started the way it did was because he was being misused. With the loss of Zach Hyman to the Edmonton Oilers, Ritchie started the season on the top line with Marner and Auston Matthews in an effort to provide the same sort of physical presence that Hyman did. But the elevated ice time seemed to have a backwards effect on Ritchie. Oftentimes he looked like he was having trouble keeping up with the pace of the game, and after going so many games without providing anything offensively, his confidence seemed to take a hit. With that, he wasn’t playing as physically and just looked like he didn’t belong where he was.

Nick Ritchie Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Ritchie, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since then, Ritchie has found a new role in the Maple Leafs’ bottom six that seems to be working for him. He has six points in his last ten games, and seems to have gotten his edge back. Sometimes all a player needs is a change of scenery to get him going, and Maple Leafs seem to have found that change internally. Ritchie is the type of player who could play a crucial role in the playoffs, so hopefully his recent production is a sign of things to come.

3. Ondrej Kase (1 year, $1.25 million)

Remember at the very start of this piece when I talked about how Dubas loves his bargain bin signings? This is a perfect example of that, and honestly, now that I’ve moved past Mrazek and Ritchie, you could realistically make a case for any of the next three players to be the Maple Leafs’ most valuable signing.

A former 20-goal scorer with the Anaheim Ducks, Kase has been through it over the past two seasons more than anybody. Despite staying relatively healthy in 2019-20, he was dealt to the Bruins at the trade deadline, and only appeared in six games for the Bruins before the season was postponed due to COVID. Then, in 2020-21, Kase suffered a concussion in only the second game of the season. This forced him to miss essentially the entire season, only appearing in three games for the Bruins.

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Keeping all of this in mind, there’s a reason the signing of Kase came with some concern and for such a cheap price. Sports fans naturally tend to turn on players who have trouble staying healthy, especially in a big market like Toronto. But after seeing the way he plays, I don’t think any fan can hold a grudge against him for his durability. He’s arguably the most intense, fearless player the Maple Leafs have. Constantly driving the net, going into the corners, and throwing his body in front of the puck to block shots.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Kase Getting Career Back on Track with Early Season Success

And so far this season, the injury bug has seemingly avoided Kase. He’s only missed three games due to wear and tear, and has 15 points in 27 games on the year. He’s shown the ability to play and produce all around the lineup, be it in a third line checking role or on the top line in the absence of Mitch Marner.

Ondrej Kase Toronto Maple Leafs
Ondrej Kase, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The best part of Kase’s contract is that since he’s only 25, he’s a restricted free agent (RFA). The Leafs get the first crack at negotiating a contract with him, and if he chooses to sign elsewhere, they will receive some form of compensation depending on how much he signs for. If I’m Dubas, I’m doing everything I can to keep Kase in a Maple Leafs uniform beyond this season. But if he leaves, there’s a nice consolation prize.

2. David Kampf (2 years, $1.5 million AAV)

If you read this and went to look at Kampf’s point totals on the season, you would probably question why I have him second on the list. Like I said, any of these top three players could be interchangeable. But so far this season, Kampf has become one of the Maple Leafs’ most important players. Which makes it all the more interesting considering the reaction when he got here.

In 56 games with the Chicago Blackhawks last season, Kampf managed only one goal and 12 points. He was never known as an offensive player in Chicago, but still, you typically don’t want any of your forwards to be black holes offensively, and that’s what Kampf looked like he was going to be.

David Kampf Toronto Maple Leafs
David Kampf, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While Kampf’s Blackhawks didn’t make the playoffs, the Maple Leafs were busy being shut down by Phillip Danault and the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. Like Kampf, Danault isn’t an offensive player, but boy, did he ever make his presence known in that first round. We’re talking about limiting the reigning Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner to one goal in that first round, and keeping him and Marner, who both finished top five in league scoring to one goal between the two.

So far this season, Kampf has been just what the doctor ordered for Toronto. He already has four goals this season, compared to only one last season, and has nine points through 30 games. And, ironically enough, two of those goals came against his former team in the Blackhawks. When you consider that 87.5% of Kampf’s zone starts have come in the defensive zone, this offense is even more impressive.

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Fact of the matter is, the Maple Leafs have been clamouring for a guy like Kampf for years, and now they’ve got one. As we saw in last season’s playoffs with Danault, having a strict defensive third line centre who shuts down opposing team’s stars is crucial, and his presence could be a game-changer for the Maple Leafs in the playoffs this year. And the fact that he’s on a two-year deal makes his contract even more valuable.

1. Michael Bunting (2 years, $950,000 AAV)

Bunting is the definition of a feel-good story, and a player that I think every Maple Leafs fan was rooting for. The Scarborough native is another textbook example of Dubas’ bargain bin types of players. Considering Bunting spent the better part of the last four seasons with the Arizona Coyotes’ AHL team, nobody would have batted an eye if the Maple Leafs signed him and it didn’t work out.

But after Bunting received a call-up at the end of last season and scored 10 goals in 21 games, the Maple Leafs deemed him worthy of a look with a good opportunity in place for him. And when the lifelong Maple Leafs fan met with media and listed off Wendel Clark, Tie Domi, and Darcy Tucker as some of his favourite players, he won over the fanbase.

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Fast-forward to where we are now, and Bunting has 19 points through 30 games for the Maple Leafs. He’s spent most of the season playing in the top six, but like Kase, has demonstrated the ability to play up and down the lineup. Not only has his offense been a pleasant surprise this season, but he also plays with an edge and tries to get under the opponents’ skin. Oh yeah, he compared his play style to that of Brad Marchand’s over the summer as well.

With Bunting spending most of the season alongside Matthews, naturally, some comparisons to Hyman were going to happen. And as of right now, Bunting and Hyman have the same amount of points. He brings around the same amount of hustle that Hyman did, but he also has the pest aspect to his game, which Hyman didn’t have.

As it stands, Bunting is no longer just looking like a successful throw on the dart board. It would appear the Maple Leafs have found themselves a legitimate top-six forward who’s doing exactly what Hyman did for roughly $5 million cheaper. That’s not meant to disrespect Hyman at all, as he earned every penny he recieved from the Oilers, but between the offense, the peskiness, the money, and the term, Bunting’s contract is the most valuable so far without a doubt in my mind.

Maple Leafs Doing Great Job of Extracting Value From Contracts

Bunting, Kampf, Kase, and Ritchie accumulate a total of just over six million dollars annually. The former three players have exceeded expectations, in my opinion, and Ritchie looks like he’s starting to come around as well.

Like I said, no disrespect to Hyman, but the fact that the Maple Leafs were essentially able to add a top six forward, a shutdown third line centre, an all-situations utility player, and a bottom six physical forward with a sneaky scoring touch for roughly the same money he got in Edmonton is a masterclass on how to get the most value out of your free agent signings.

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Toronto fans are obviously tired of hearing the same narrative every season that this is finally the year they get over the hump in the first round. But all of the aforementioned players could be pivotal down the stretch for them, and so far, they’re reaping the rewards of their busy offseason.

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