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

During this past season as I have covered the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the great storylines for me was the emergence of Tyler Ennis as a contributing member of the team. As general manager Kyle Dubas struggles with the salary cap impact of signing the team’s youthful leader and RFA Mitch Marner to a contract, my question becomes “Where’s the next Tyler Ennis hiding?”

Tyler Ennis Frederik Andersen Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Tyler Ennis congratulates goalie Frederik Andersen (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Although no one really knows what next season’s roster will look like, logic suggests that the team will have, in terms of contracts, a very pricey top six and a very inexpensive bottom six.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Ennis: A Steal of a Deal

In previous posts, I have noted that I believe the fourth line needs to be under $3 million in total salary. I also believe the team is getting to the point where the third line – especially if long-serving Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri is not traded – must find two inexpensive wingers to play with Kadri. Personally, I hope Kadri retains his usual place carrying the third line. As is often reported, he brings value to the team, and his contract is team-friendly.

What’s the Leafs’ Solution?

In his June 11 Maple Leafs blog, Mike Augello made a great point about the team’s need to be scouring the NHL to see what “bargain-basement” players become available who could assume roster positions on the team. Given the way today’s salary cap influences any team’s ability to sign players, that strategy doesn’t seem like the end of the world to me. I believe Dubas can sign solid players to cheap contracts who could add value to the team.

Specifically, both Ennis and Alex Chiasson (Edmonton Oilers) are perfect examples. The Minnesota Wild bought out Ennis’ contract after the 2017-18 season, and Chiasson wasn’t re-signed by the Washington Capitals after his team won the Stanley Cup. However, the fact that neither was re-signed doesn’t mean they were poor hockey players, as both proved last season.

Oilers forward Alex Chiasson
Oilers forward Alex Chiasson (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Ennis had 12 goals while playing sporadically from the first to the fourth line, and Chiasson had his best season ever with 22 goals, 16 assists, and 38 points in 73 games. Both were seen as reclamation projects and were long shots to even make their respective teams. Yet, both gave their teams huge value on cheap contracts.

Whether they stay with the Maple Leafs or the Oilers remains unknown, and both have probably earned the right to sign more lucrative contracts. However, those contracts might be with another team. Although both might become one-and-done players, each helped his team last season and helped solidify his own NHL future.

Related: NHL Rumors: Flyers, Oilers, Maple Leafs, More

I believe there are NHL players who will be either bought out by their teams or not re-signed who could play with the Maple Leafs. During these days of consistent salary cap issues and the nuances each team faces trying to build a roster under the upper limit of the salary cap, players who find themselves team-less are not necessarily bad players. It sometimes simply means their teams couldn’t fit their contracts under the salary cap.

Patrick Marleau Is a Case in Point

Patrick Marleau is a case in point. Although Marleau’s production slipped last season, he added value to the team in other ways that included leadership and the mentorship of younger players.

About Marleau, Brian Burke recently made a good point on Starting Lineup, when he discussed the touchiness of the Marleau situation for the Maple Leafs. He noted that other NHL players are watching how the Maple Leafs treat the future Hall of Fame player they signed to a lucrative three-year contract two years ago. If the team is working to dump his contract, that treatment impacts other players’ desires to sign in Toronto.

Jaroslav Halak, Patrick Marleau
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Patrick Marleau (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

Specifically, Burke noted, “He’s got to be treated with respect … The contract is a problem. Patrick Marleau is not.”

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Marner, Zaitsev, Hurricanes Trade, Marleau

And that’s the point, Marleau is NOT the problem, but his contract is. That same issue is also true for other players. These players might not be the problem, but their contracts are. The salary cap issues the Maple Leafs face are also issues for other NHL teams. Some teams will have to give up players whose contracts are problems. I’m sure the Maple Leafs are watching to see what players are let go.

Who’s Likely to Be Bought Out?

Because NHL general managers are faced with decisions about their team’s individual salary caps, some must decide to part ways with current players. June 15 is the first day general managers can buy out players’ contracts, and some will.

On June 5, The Hockey News’ Jared Clinton wrote a post speculating what players might become candidates for being bought out. Although last season did not see many buyouts, previous seasons did. In 2017, 13 players were bought out. In June 2016, 14 players were bought out and, in June 2015, there were 11 buyouts.

Clinton’s list includes good-enough players like left-winger Milan Lucic from the Edmonton Oilers, left-winger Loui Eriksson from the Vancouver Canucks, right-winger Ryan Callahan of the Tampa Bay Lightning, defenseman Karl Alzner of the Montreal Canadiens, defenseman Brendan Smith of the New York Rangers, defenseman Dion Phaneuf of the Los Angeles Kings, and goalie Scott Darling of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Dion Phaneuf, Jakub Vrana
Los Angeles Kings’ Dion Phaneuf is a buyout candidate. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

What Happens Next?

Within a week, players will be bought out. Once they are bought out, some might retire. However, given the Maple Leafs’ likelihood of success next season, many might choose to sign an inexpensive contract with a Stanley Cup contender. Certainly, the Maple Leafs could find value in a number of the players on Clinton’s list. How much they might sign for is anyone’s guess. But, it’s worth a try.

Related: Maple Leafs on a Roll: Marner, Rielly, Marleau, Johnsson…and Nylander?

If only for a season, I believe some of these veteran NHL players might seek one last chance to get their name engraved on a Stanley Cup. As Boston Bruins’ coach Bruce Cassidy told Sportsnet about his legacy as head coach of the Bruins, “I just want my name on the damn Cup.” Sadly, for him, that didn’t happen. I’m guessing the team’s loss only increased his desire.