When the Mitch Marner contract finally hits the Toronto Maple Leafs’ books, their need for cheap, effective, talent will increase significantly. The Leafs are, by no means, in cap hell, which is reserved for teams against the cap who boast a roster of bad contracts. It’s a term often mistakenly placed on teams, like the Leafs, who have a number of expensive but good players. Their only bad contract, that isn’t a long-term-injured-reserve paper transaction, is Cody Ceci, and he shouldn’t expect to be around next July.
There’s no danger in the Maple Leafs falling off the map for talent, but there’s always a need to keep the system fresh with options. The Leafs have a history of signing free agents who have been either passed over in the draft or have become unrestricted free agents over time. This group includes Andreas Borgman, Calle Rosen, Nikita Zaitsev and Ilya Mikheyev. It’s a good way to do business, whether you are up against the cap or not. There’s no need to waste a roster spot on a player who has been proven ineffective in the NHL.
There’s little to no risk in seeking help from outside the NHL. Here are three players the Leafs should scout in 2019-20 who could be reasonable and effective options for the following season.
Malte Strömwall – HC Sochi (KHL)
Strömwall is a winger who was given a professional shot in North America by the New York Rangers, but it didn’t pan out for either side at the time. The Rangers signed Stromwall in April 2016, but he never saw time in the NHL. Instead, he played for the Hartford Wolf Pack in the American Hockey League. There, he scored two goals (shooting 3.6%) and added four assists in a disappointing showing. Before heading to Finland in 2017-18, Stromwall scored one goal and one assist for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits of the ECHL. Fast forward to 2019-20, and he’s entering what should be the final step for his comeback to North America.
Since suiting up for 44 games for the Wolf Pack in 2016-17, he’s made great strides in development playing in Finland with KooKoo Kouvola. He recorded 14 goals and 6 assists in 37 games during 2017-18, and 30 goals and 27 assists in 52 games during 2018-19. In his 30-goal season, he had the highest points-per-game average of any player who appeared in at least 15 games.
Strömwall struggled to find the back of the net consistently in his rookie season in Liiga, posting a forgettable 6.5% shooting percentage. That number increased during his second year to 9.5% – a more respectable number, with room to improve. He also scored 17 of his 30 goals in 2018-19 on the power play. It’s unlikely he sees much, if any, power-play time on a team like the Maple Leafs, so the focus should be on his 5-v-5 play in the upcoming season.
He’ll make the leap to the more competitive KHL this season, and he’s worth paying attention to as he could provide the Leafs with scoring depth for pennies on the dollar. It will be interesting to see how he’s utilized in the KHL given how offensively starved HC Sochi was last season. They had one player score more than 13 goals, and only two players exceed 29 points, during 2018-19 en route to a 12th place (out of 25) finish during the regular season. There is an excellent opportunity for Strömwall to prove he deserves another shot at the NHL.
Karel Vejmelka – Brno Kometa (Czech)
Vejmelka has enjoyed success in the Czech league since being drafted by Nashville Predators in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. This wouldn’t be a ground-breaking signing, but it could give the Leafs a dirt-cheap backup goaltender. He’s a 23-year-old who has yet to see his save percentage dip below .900 in varying samples of professional hockey.
Maintaining this kind of stability through these age groups is quite a feat in the goaltending world. Buried behind Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros, as well as sitting unsigned in a group with the five other goaltending picks (from his selection through the 2019 NHL Draft) that would follow, Vejmelka never had a realistic shot at making the Predators’ lineup. He’s worth keeping an eye on this year to see if his trend continues now that the Predators have let his rights expire.
The Leafs aren’t looking for a future starter, that’s a problem for a different time. They’re looking for anyone who is effective for close to the league minimum salary. This is true for every position for the Leafs. With Frederik Andersen entering the final year of his contract in 2020-21, and how the cap picture looks for the Leafs, finding cheap stability in the backup role is important.
Whichever way the Leafs’ future goaltending situation plays out (re-sign Andersen or find another starter), they’ll likely need to use all of Andersen’s current wage, and maybe more, to secure adequate talent in the crease. They can’t be wasting any amount of money where it doesn’t need to be spent. There are constant options within the NHL to replace backup goaltenders, but even the average recycled backup will want more than a player like Vejmelka could command.
Nikolai Demidov – Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)
Demidov hasn’t found his way onto many NHL teams’ radars, but he’s another player who’s worth watching this season. He’s entering his third season with Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL after making good strides in development through his first two.
He went from four goals and eight assists in 50 games during 2017-18 to 10 goals and 15 assists in 2018-19. It’s a respectable jump for a player given an increased role. His eight even-strength goals in 2018-19 were good enough for third among defenders in the KHL, and he finished 15th in total points. Demidov also led Sibir in scoring among defensemen.
The 23-year-old should have more responsibility this season based on his production last year, as well as his ice time trend with Sibir. During his rookie KHL season, he saw 16:15 on the ice. During 2018-19, he saw an increase of 1:33 to bring his average ice-time to 17:48 per game.
Sibir, a team that finished 18th of 25 during last season, needs him on the ice. He was the only defender in the top-30 (points) to average under 18 minutes per game. What could really put Demidov on the NHL’s radar is if he receives that extra ice time via the power play. He’s already proven his growth at even-strength and should be an effective player quarterbacking a powerplay unit in 2019-20.
The Maple Leafs could consider these three players better than many of their non-roster players. A quick look at their RFA/UFA class for 2020 gives several names that they could move on from without any impact now, or in the future. Of this group, Kasimir Kaskisuo, Pierre Engvall, and Ceci stand out as players that the Leafs should have no future intentions with. There’s more value in adding players with the potential for more that can step into an NHL role in the present moment. The Maple Leafs will have spent (including a future Marner deal) just about all they can on multi-million dollar players for the next few seasons, so it’s time to expand the cost-effective talent search.