Predictions for Maple Leafs’ 4 Unrestricted Free Agents

Although the Stanley Cup Playoffs are still ongoing, the Toronto Maple Leafs are once again on the outside looking in at this time of year, with a head start in considerations relating to the draft and free agency. For the second year in a row, they are faced with at least one big-name unrestricted free agent (UFA) in need of a new contract. Last season, it was Zach Hyman, who left the team for an eight-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers carrying an average annual value (AAV) of $5.5 million per season.

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This season, the top name on the list is goaltender Jack Campbell. The Port Huron, Michigan native just wrapped up his first full 82-game season with the Maple Leafs as their true starting goaltender. The initial plan for him was to serve as the 1A in tandem with Petr Mrazek’s 1B. But when Mrazek’s season took a poor turn in every possible way, Campbell assumed starting duties whenever healthy despite battling struggles of his own at times. Although his numbers were solid in the end, carrying a record of 31-9-6 with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.64 and a save percentage (SV%) of .914, there are questions surrounding his durability and consistency going into next season.

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But, as we all know, Campbell isn’t the only name the Maple Leafs need to consider heading into the offseason. The team has four notable UFAs that they need to consider re-signing, but with multiple players in the system looking to take the next step and push for full-time spots on the roster, it’s safe to say that not everybody will be returning. In this piece, I’m going to try and predict which players stay and which players end up signing elsewhere.

Colin Blackwell: Goes

The Maple Leafs acquired Colin Blackwell from the Seattle Kraken in the package that brought veteran defenseman Mark Giordano to the team at the 2022 Trade Deadline. While he wasn’t the most sought-after piece in the deal, he brought a different sort of value to the team and added a spark of energy to the bottom six. Although he wasn’t an everyday contributor on the scoresheet, he did a good enough job to ensure he was noticed whenever he was on the ice.

Colin Blackwell Toronto Maple Leafs
Colin Blackwell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

With that being said, his ice time and offensive production both took a dip as he joined a Toronto team that had much more talent up front than the Kraken did. While I doubt any raise Blackwell asks for would be out of the Maple Leafs’ budget, I don’t think he’s somebody they’ll prioritize re-signing unless he genuinely wants to stay with the team. Especially if there’s an opportunity for a raise and perhaps some more guaranteed ice time to be had elsewhere.

Jack Campbell: Stays

I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out how I feel about Campbell’s odds of staying in Toronto, and truth be told, I still don’t know how confident I am in my prediction here. I truly believe that his odds of staying versus going are close to even. But in the end, I find myself leaning more towards the possibility that he stays on a short-term contract with a pay raise in the realm of $3.5 million to $4.5 million.

Ultimately, I feel like Campbell and the Maple Leafs are too familiar with each other. As much as he may not have stood on his head the way somebody like Igor Shesterkin is doing for the New York Rangers right now, they know him. And if they’re not chasing a proven elite goaltender such as John Gibson or Connor Hellebuyck via trade, I’d have to believe they’d rather stick with the option they know rather than end up with another Mrazek situation.

As for Campbell’s side, I still don’t know that questions surrounding his durability and consistency are worth overlooking for other teams. His playoff performance wasn’t spectacular, as he found himself on the injured reserve yet again last season, and had a stretch in January and February where he was one of the worst goaltenders in the league. It sounds silly talking about offering a 31-year-old goaltender a “bridge deal”, but I don’t know if any team would give him a long-term contract at this stage of his career.

I think it takes until free agency opens, but I think the Maple Leafs and Campbell settle for a small extension in the range stated above. He loves playing in Toronto, and despite the fallbacks previously mentioned, he was a reliable option more often than not with flashes of greatness last season. A deal like this would give Campbell free range to prove he’s worthy of that long-term extension in an environment he’s comfortable with, and the Maple Leafs an opportunity to decide whether or not he’s worth signing after seeing him in the starting role for more than one full season.

Ilya Lyubushkin: Goes

Ilya Lyubushkin was an unexpected but welcomed addition to the Maple Leafs’ back end this season. After the Nick Ritchie experiment went about as poorly as it possibly could have in Toronto, they managed to not only shed his contract but also add Lyubushkin in the process. He immediately took on minutes alongside Morgan Rielly and added a presence of sandpaper that the Maple Leafs desperately needed.

It’s unfortunate to say, but I don’t think the Maple Leafs re-sign Lyubushkin for the sole reason that they have too many defensemen on their roster right now. With Rasmus Sandin and Jake Muzzin fully healthy, and Giordano back on a two-year contract, the Maple Leafs have five left-handed defensemen along with Timothy Liljegren and Justin Holl on the right. While I don’t know that Holl is a sure bet to return next season, he still has a year left on his contract, so he’s there unless Kyle Dubas works out a trade.

Ilya Lyubushkin Arizona Coyotes
Ilya Lyubushkin with the Arizona Coyotes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A few weeks back, I wrote an article on why I believed the re-signing of Giordano could lead to Muzzin’s departure from the back end. If that happens, along with a potential Holl trade, I believe that’s the only scenario where Lyubushkin returns. However, Muzzin holds a no-trade clause, and there are surely other teams that could guarantee Lyubushkin a full-time roster spot. I’d love to see the Maple Leafs work out an extension with him, but there are too many questions on the back end to justify it.

Ilya Mikheyev – Goes

Ilya Mikheyev became the centre of attention last summer when it was reported that he had asked for a trade. After suffering a wrist injury in December 2019, he missed the rest of the eventually-cancelled 2019-20 season, and never really found his footing in 2020-21. Although the trade request left a sour taste in fans’ mouths, it made sense seeing that his ice time decreased and his offense never really picked up where it left off the season before.

However, Dubas and the Maple Leafs reaffirmed Mikheyev of their belief in him, and to his credit, he delivered. Despite missing the first chunk of the season due to a thumb injury, he notched his first 20-goal season and finished with 32 points in 53 games. He also established himself as a force on the penalty kill and routinely made an impact whether he was in the bottom six or the top six.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The problem with players like Mikheyev is that, eventually, they price themselves out of town. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be looking for a raise from his current $1.645 million AAV, and as much as the team would probably love for him to remain a member of the blue and white, it won’t be doable for the price and term he’ll be asking for. Considering he was on a 30-goal pace over a full 82 games, there’s going to be a team that will offer him more in free agency than the Maple Leafs. And with players like Nick Robertson, Alex Steeves, and potentially even Pontus Holmberg looking to make the roster full time, it’s a move that’s probably better off for both sides.

Maple Leafs Free Agency Approach Still Unknown

The great thing about this time of year is that there’s always non-stop speculation. For some, it may get tiresome, but it’s hard to deny how entertaining it can be. It’s only been three weeks or so since the Maple Leafs were eliminated, and we’ve already heard about a potential “summer of Kawhi” move they could make. I personally don’t think that’s a worthy comparison, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that there are once again very few leaks as to how the Maple Leafs are going to approach this offseason.

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As I stated earlier, the Maple Leafs have lots of internal forward options that could push to replace some of the players I mentioned above, and how much cap space they end up with will depend on what they do with certain players like Muzzin, Mrazek, and Alex Kerfoot. It certainly isn’t out of the question that the Maple Leafs end up spending on a bona fide top-six winger or a true elite starting goaltender, but a move like that will depend on how negotiations with Campbell and the rest of the UFAs go. Bottom line is, that there are lots of pieces that need to fall into place, and we’re barely scratching the surface.

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