Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Gardiner, Buyouts, Zaitsev, Fantasy Hockey

The Mitch Marner watch continues. However, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has been busy. He seems to be close to trading Nikita Zaitsev, and he’s actively trolling for veteran players who have been bought out or are unrestricted free agents (UFAs). Within two days, the action begins and we will start to get an inkling about how the team might shape out.

Related: Should the Red Wings Trade for Nikita Zaitsev?

In this post, I will review some of the news surrounding the team.

Item One: Jake Gardiner Is Gone

Dubas reported that, because the team has limited salary cap space, it would not be very active on July 1. For fans of Jake Gardiner, that announcement almost seals the deal. Gardiner won’t be back with the team next season.

Obviously, that decision was not unexpected. However, in terms of roster players, it means one less experienced body on the Maple Leafs’ blue line. Dubas did say, however, that he would like to bring back unrestricted free agent Ron Hainsey.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ron Hainsey Buffalo Sabres Sam Reinhart
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey and Buffalo Sabres centre Sam Reinhart fight for the puck. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

However, perhaps to the amazement of Maple Leafs fans who think Hainsey is old and slow, signing the 38-year old defenseman might be tough. Because the Maple Leafs lack salary cap space, they will be limited in what they might offer Hainsey and he might get more on the open market than Dubas can spend.

If that’s the case, I will be sad to see him go. I agreed with coach Mike Babcock about Hainsey’s experience and value. As Babcock said during the playoffs, Hainsey knew where to stand.

Item Two: Building the Maple Leafs Roster on a Budget

In a post on Saturday, Maple Leafs blogger Mike Augello did a nice job listing a number of the kind of players Dubas might be looking for. These were players who might be willing to take a short-term, league-minimum for the chance to resurrect or extend their careers or, as Dubas noted, have a legacy opportunity with a competitive team. Obviously, Tyler Ennis did that last season after being bought out from the Minnesota Wild.

Dubas as much as gave a sales pitch inviting players to consider playing with the Maple Leafs:

“We are trying to do some creative things on the edges, with players that perhaps look at the chance to play in Toronto as a legacy opportunity for them or look at it as a chance to rebound.”

Related: Ennis Was Maple Leafs’ Bargain Hero: Who’s Next?

“I think Ennis was a great example last year, so that has captured the attention of others. If you are a forward, you have the ability to play with some excellent players and if you are a defenseman, you look at the opportunity and the ability to compete and think that in our marketplace, if you come in and perform, all the attention you are going to get is going to be generally positive.”

Toronto Maple Leafs' Tyler Ennis
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Tyler Ennis scores (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

A number of once highly-paid veterans were bought out recently by their teams. Two include Corey Perry and Dion Phaneuf. Although some of these players might have multiple suitors, others might fit the Maple Leafs’ needs and would sign cheaply. And, given the Maple Leafs likelihood of success with a chance of going to the Stanley Cup, signing with them could be quite attractive.

Augello’s post named players who might accept a one-season contract at a reduced rate. For example, forwards Jason Spezza and Riley Sheahan are free to move.

Spezza wasn’t re-signed by the Dallas Stars. He’s from Toronto and, at 36 years of age might want a crack at playing for the Cup.

Jason Spezza, David Rittich
Former Dallas Star Jason Spezza (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Sheahan is an unrestricted free agent who played with Babcock in Detroit. He’s only 27 years old, but had a less-than-stellar season in 2018-19 with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers and might want a chance to get his game back on track.

More interesting are the defensemen who could help fill the Maple Leafs biggest trouble spot. Such defensemen include Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Luke Schenn, Marc Methot, and Alex Petrovic.

Girardi is from near Toronto and is a UFA. Although he’s 35 years old, he seems young compared to Hainsey. Girardi has had a solid career. He’s also a right-shot defenseman, which makes him prized.

Del Zotto is an Ontario-guy who had a solid season in 2017-18 with the Vancouver Canucks, but kicked around with three teams last season and played only 19 games. He too might see playing with the Maple Leafs as a chance to keep revive his career. He’s only 29 years old.

Related: Maple Leafs Need to Trade Nylander to Keep Johnsson & Kapanen

Petrovic was underwhelming with the Edmonton Oilers. He’s never been a full-time player in any stop, but he is a right-shot defenseman, has the experience, and is only 27 years old. He might be a solid bottom-pair player and the team needs bodies on the blue line.

Perhaps more intriguing is Schenn, who was drafted by the Maple Leafs but never became the star he was projected to be. Still, he’s only 29 years old but with tons of experience. Last season, when the Canucks were desperate he came in, played well, and gained the reputation for being a good mentor for Quinn Hughes. His contract was well under $1 million last season and he has already played four seasons in Toronto.

Luke Schenn Leafs
Luke Schenn, former Maple Leafs defenseman (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

Similar to Ennis last season, Dubas will likely find a number of bargain-basement players who crave one more a chance to play or who might see the Maple Leafs as their bus to a Stanley Cup opportunity. It will be interesting to see who will sign a league-minimum with the team.

Item Three: Nikita Zaitsev to the Ottawa Senators?

It looks as if something is stirring on the Nikita Zaitsev trade front. Elliotte Friedman reported that the Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators have agreed on the bones of a trade that would send Zaitsev to Ottawa with Cody Ceci coming back in return.

Even if the trade is in place, the deal might be held up until Zaitsev gets his $3 million signing bonus, which will be paid on July 1. That makes Zaitsev’s real salary for the Senators only $1.5 million. If Zaitsev plays well, his $4.5 million cap hit is a bargain and will be in place for the next five seasons.

On the other hand, Ceci has a $4.3 million qualifying offer but is eligible for arbitration. In reality, Zaitsev is the better player although their contracts numbers seem close. Both are overpaid, especially Ceci.

Auston Matthews, Nikita Zaitsev
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews celebrates his goal with Nikita Zaitsev (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

As well, both are right-shot defensemen. However, because the Maple Leafs really wouldn’t save much salary cap space on the trade, which is the team’s priority, there’s a chance Ceci will likely be traded quickly.

Item Four: Top 100 Forwards in 2019 Fantasy Hockey

Although I have never reported about Fantasy Hockey before, when I was looking at the NHL Fantasy Hockey’s Top 100 Forward rankings for 2019-20, I noticed four Maple Leafs were listed in the top 100. 

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Marleau, Johnsson, Kapanen, Marner, More

The list of Maple Leafs includes Auston Matthews (#9), Mitch Marner (#11), John Tavares (#17), and William Nylander (#69). For sake of comparison, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov was ranked #1, the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin was ranked #2, the Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid was ranked #3, and the Colorado Avalanche was ranked #4. Matthews ranked just ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby at #10.