Maple Leafs Should Look to Address ‘Killer Instinct’ in Free Agency

At the end of season press conference, Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan mentioned that something was missing with this group that led to their monumental 3-1 series lead collapse. There was a lack of “killer instinct” that the team failed to provide and close the series out. 

Head coach Sheldon Keefe previously alluded to this instinct being a factor as the series progressed. In the end, they still failed to find that aspect of their game, as it was noticeably absent in the elimination games. 

Sheldon Keefe
Sheldon Keefe (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

With the Maple Leafs management and players still looking for answers, there’s only one thing they can do. Head back to the drawing board and find players that can address that instinct as the players they signed in the offseason didn’t do their part in the playoffs. Joe Thornton didn’t look like the player we saw down the stretch of the regular season and Wayne Simmonds proved to be ineffective in providing a spark. 

The bottom six needs to be retooled to make their depth more competitive. While the Maple Leafs can address this internally, there are three intriguing options they can pursue in free agency. 

Blake Coleman

If there’s one player that is the epitome of killer instinct, it should be Blake Coleman. As a pending unrestricted free agent and the Tampa Bay Lightning already over the salary cap (I know it doesn’t exist in the playoffs), it would be hard to re-sign one of their top depth players. Coleman was acquired by the Lightning last season at the trade deadline and is in the final year of a three-year contract at $1.8 million a season. 

Blake Coleman Tampa Bay Lightning
Blake Coleman, Tampa Bay Lightning (Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images)

With Alexander Kerfoot possibly in danger of being exposed in the expansion draft and Alex Galchenyuk becoming a UFA, their combined cap hit of $4.55 million could create some space to bring someone like Coleman in. Having him in a third line winger spot is the perfect place to start improving this roster.

As we’ve seen in the playoffs last season, Coleman plays with a lot of energy and intensity. He’s always engaged with battles and makes life difficult for the opposition, as he’s able to close in on the puck carrier with his speed and apply pressure. He’s relentless and never gives up on a play. If you need convincing, watch this goal. 

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After back-to-back 20-goal seasons with the New Jersey Devils, Coleman took on a different role with the Lightning but it didn’t change his ability to find the score sheet. With 14 goals and 17 assists this season, Coleman managed to make an offensive impact seeing third line minutes. He would provide much needed pressure on the Maple Leafs penalty-killing unit as he ranked fifth in short handed time on ice with 2:13 in the regular season.

During the regular season at five-on-five (minimum 200 minutes played), when Coleman was on the ice, the Lightning had a 55.69 Corsi For percentage (second overall) and a high danger goals for percentage (HDGF%) of 68.75 (third overall). These are some strong numbers for a third line winger. 

Knowing his style of play, he would fit right in with the Maple Leafs as he can do a lot of damage at both ends of the ice. Add in his Stanley Cup into the mix, he would be an asset to help provide this team something that they lacked in the playoffs as they could sign him to a three-year deal.

Brandon Saad

If the Maple Leafs are looking for an improvement over Galchenyuk on the second line, Brandon Saad could be a viable option. While he only had 15 goals this season, his goal scoring is on another level in the playoffs as he has five goals in six postseason games. A trade that’s paying off for the Colorado Avalanche at the moment.

Call it a make up attempt for the Maple Leafs after failing to draft Saad with one of their two first-round picks in 2011, he could be signed at a cheaper price as his production has declined recently. Once a consistent 50-point producer, Saad hasn’t hit the mark since 2016-17 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but is still good for at least 20 goals.

Brandon Saad Colorado Avalanche
Brandon Saad, Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s possible that he may not see an increase over his current cap hit of $5 million or even another deal with the kind of dollar value after he recorded 24 points in 44 games with the Avalanche. With captain Gabriel Landeskog set to become a UFA himself, the Avalanche would love to have as much space as possible to re-sign him.

Despite the low production, Saad still brings a strong offensive presence that will thrive in the Maple Leafs system. He always drives to the front of the net to battle for loose pucks or be in the perfect spot for a quick tip-in goal. His versatility in the offensive zone could benefit the Maple Leafs as he’s also a threat with his shot. In the regular season, the Maple Leafs were dangerous in the high danger area at five-on-five as they had the third best HDGF% percentage with 58.27%. The Avalanche were first with 61.11% and Saad was at 60.71% when he was on the ice.

His drive and net front presence could be a really great asset for the Maple Leafs if they can get him below his current cap hit. He could potentially be a great addition. Signing Saad might be a stretch, but with goalie Frederik Andersen’s $5 million contract ending, they do have some cap space.

Andrew Cogliano

The Maple Leafs brought in a veteran who was a Toronto native in Jason Spezza and they now have a chance to bring in another in Andrew Cogliano.

It’s evident that Cogliano doesn’t have the point production like Saad or Coleman as he hasn’t had 30 or more points since 2017-18 with the Anaheim Ducks. Like Spezza, he could see an increase in offensive production. He does have a feisty side to his game as he’s able to be aggressive on the forecheck and play a simple style on the fourth line. His speed would make the Maple Leafs more dangerous as we saw Thornton’s age catch up to him during the postseason.

Andrew Cogliano Dallas Stars
Andrew Cogliano, Dallas Stars (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He’s coming off his latest contract where he averaged $3.25 million. He’ll definitely come at a cheaper price and would provide more intensity if the Maple Leafs were to sign him. His playoff experience would also be a great asset as he’s had some success with the Dallas Stars and Ducks.

Cogliano joined the 1,000 games played club last season against the Maple Leafs and had an iron man streak of 830 consecutive games played. However, that came to an end due to a suspension in 2017-18.

Whether or not the Maple Leafs have these players on their radar or other potential names to address the issue of their lack of “killer instinct”, this is the main priority for them in the offseason. They looked to have addressed that problem last season but it ended not being enough in the end. Will they find a group of players that have this aspect this time around? 

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick and Contract information from CapFriendly.

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