The NHL’s free agent signing period begins Wednesday at noon, and the Leafs figure to be one of the busiest teams, with several prominent holes needing to be filled ahead of next season.
I have my own ideas of how the Leafs would be best served constructing their roster which includes trading Morgan Rielly for a top-six forward, but for the purposes of this article, I will be working around the parameters that general manager Kyle Dubas established in his most recent press conference.
Among other things, Dubas indicated that the team will be scouring the market for several top-nine wingers to complement their entrenched forward core, a bottom-pairing defence man who possesses penalty-killing capabilities, and a goaltender to challenge Jack Campbell in a competitive time share.
Despite proclaiming their intention to find value through free agency, Dubas made it clear that such signings would not preclude them from re-entering the trade market to supplement their roster if they felt underwhelmed by their free agent pursuits.
With that being said, I’ve tabbed five candidates who meet Dubas’ criteria, and who won’t break the bank for a team dead set on building around their expensive quartet of star forwards. Versatility and cost-effectiveness were key determinants in developing this list and while these won’t be the sexiest names as a result, the Leafs have done the hard part of locking down their offensive superstars and will need to be extremely savvy in filling out the margins with approximately $9 million in cap space.
Each entry is also accompanied by a contract projection generated by the invaluable Evolving Hockey team, and should give you a better idea of what each player will likely command come July 28th. Some of the annual salary predictions fluctuate as the total contract years changes, but they generally remain within the same range.
Now, here are five free agent targets that the Leafs should consider pursuing to fill out their roster.
Top-Nine Forward #1: Pius Suter – Chicago Blackhawks
2020-21 Season: 55 GP, 14 G, 13 A, 27 PTS
Predicted Contract: 4 years x $4.49 million
After a strong debut season for Suter in North America, an extension with the Blackhawks seemed inevitable as the organization continues to rebuild around a new crop of players in the wake of its dynastic run in the early 2010s.
However, the NHL’s restricted free agent qualifying period passed without the 25-year-old utility-man being tendered an offer, making Suter an unrestricted free agent allowed to join any team once the signing period opens on July 28th.
Now, if you take a look at Suter’s HockeyDB page and browse the 2015-16 Zurich Lions roster, you might notice a familiar name headlining the team’s scoring leaders.
I have no idea if Matthews and Suter have maintained any sort of relationship since that season, but it can’t hurt to remind Suter that the left-wing spot on Matthews’ line was just left vacant by Hyman’s exit.
Suter is no stranger to playing with stars as he rode shotgun with Patrick Kane and Alex Debrincat in Chicago during his rookie season and scored 20 points at five-on-five, tied for 129th among NHL forwards. As Toronto possesses similar offensive weapons in Matthews and Marner, his production shouldn’t change all that drastically if he joined the Leafs.
Suter also ranked third among Blackhawks’ forwards in the number of scoring chances he was able to generate off of rebounds, displaying his ability to penetrate dangerous scoring areas. Suter understands his role on the top line, and can act as a target for the Leafs’ stars who love to carry the puck. If required, Suter can enter the zone effectively (54% completion – above league average) but his workload in Chicago was tiny on a line with two of the league’s most creative zone entry wizards.
What is most impressive about Suter’s rookie season is how was the defensive conscience on the Blackhawks’ first line, and managed to post average shot- and chance-share numbers (47% at five-on-five for both metrics) despite playing on the same line as one of the league’s worst defensive forwards in Kane.
Since 2018-19, Kane has been the worst forward at preventing scoring chances against, even after adjusting for his extremely high usage. On a Chicago team that has seen its supporting cast rapidly deplete in talent since their last Cup win, Kane has had to take on even more of the offensive workload which likely leads him to expend less energy on his defensive responsibilities. While somewhat understandable, it doesn’t fully excuse his absolutely atrocious results.
In over 400 minutes played alongside Kane, Suter recorded an abysmal 44% share of expected goals at five-on-five. When the pair was separated, Suter’s shot- and chance-share shot up to over 50% while Kane’s plummeted even further to below 40%. In fact, nearly all of Suter’s Blackhawks teammates posted better possession and chance-quality numbers when playing together, and worse when they did not.
Suter’s clear impact on his line’s defensive metrics should let Keefe and Dubas rest easy knowing that Suter wouldn’t be a liability on their two primary scoring lines, and could somewhat mitigate the loss of Hyman as a result.
If you’re looking at Suter’s contract projection and thinking that it might be a bit rich for a rookie forward, remember that he is already 25 years old, and a veteran of the European game. If he signs for fewer than 4 years, his annual cap hit will dip into the mid 3s, and is well worth locking up Suter through his prime years.
Considering his solid production and defensive impacts in Chicago’s top-six forward group, every franchise should be salivating at the prospect of reigning in a young, two-way forward without giving up any significant assets outside of cap space.
But, as with any free agent signing, avoiding the compulsiveness brought on by a competitive bidding process and ensuring you’re getting commensurate value for the price is the key to navigating the market and emerging relatively unscathed.
That’s much easier said than done, though.
Top-Nine Forward #2: Tomas Nosek – Vegas Golden Knights
2020-21 Season: 38 GP, 8 G, 10 A, 18 PTS
Predicted Contract: 4 years x $2.65 million
Since being selected by the Golden Knights during their expansion process, Nosek has grown into a dependable winger at the bottom of Vegas’ lineup, and enjoyed his most productive offensive campaign this past season with 18 points in 38 games, a 38-point pace over 82 games. To temper expectations, Nosek’s career year came on the heels of an individual shooting percentage that was five percentage points higher than his career average.
That type of finishing should not be expected to continue, but Nosek is among the league leaders at generating his own chances through astute positional awareness and a persistent motor. Since the 2018-19 season, the native of Czech Republic posted the 34th highest individual expected goals rate at even strength among all forwards, just ahead of Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon. If your offensive stars stagnate at key times, as Toronto’s did in their playoff series with Montreal, it pays to be able to rely on your depth to manufacture offence.
Nosek is also strong driver of shot quality at five-on-five, with Vegas posting an expected goals share above 54 percent in all but one of his NHL seasons. It’s encouraging that he was able to maintain his positive results even with a slight uptick in ice-time, although Vegas’ possessional dominance should be acknowledged when discussing any of their rostered skaters.
However, Nosek would likely operate within Toronto’s cadre of bottom-six forwards and the Leafs are no slouches when it comes to generating scoring chances, meaning Nosek could deliver in similar deployment while offering Toronto another dependable forward option with positional flexibility at center. Nosek can be trusted in the faceoff dot, as a 52.6% for his career can give Keefe peace of mind in high-leverage situations.
In a pinch, Nosek could be moved up into the top-six to provide a jolt of energy and pressure opposing defenceman with his forechecking, as his 5.4 recovered dump-ins per 60 minutes are on par with the departing Zach Hyman (6.4), whose willingness to muck it up in the corners was much appreciated by his more skilled linemates.
With the onus of scoring firmly planted on the shoulders of Auston Matthews and co., the Leafs require their depth forwards to pick up the slack on special teams. Since 2018-19, Nosek has played the 105th most minutes on the penalty kill of all forwards, with Vegas’ penalty kill ranking 1st in the league last season. For a Maple Leafs’ short-handed unit that was treading water in the bottom-third of the NHL, even a slight improvement in that department would make a tangible difference in their results.
Although awarding a 4-year deal to a role player would be unwise, Evolving Hockey’s projection for a 2-year contract for Nosek comes in at around $1.7 million, much more palatable in regards to term and cap hit.
Nosek’s history of positive impacts on even-strength play and positional versatility make him an intriguing depth option for the Leafs. On a short-term deal carrying a manageable cap hit, he could be worth a flier.
Top-Nine Forward #3: Michael Bunting – Arizona Coyotes
2020-21 Season: 21 GP, 10 G, 3 A, 13 PTS
Predicted Contract: 1 year x $1.07 million
Bunting? Michael Bunting? A few of you must be wondering whether I’ve managed to sneak a video game-generated player onto this list, one of those players with no actual profile picture once you get several years deep into an NHL franchise mode save. But trust me, Bunting embodies the type of low-risk, high-reward gamble that the Leafs should be making this offseason.
The 25-year-old Bunting stepped into the Coyotes’ lineup in the back-half of last season and immediately made an impact with his finishing. Bunting potted 10 goals in only 21 games, which would put him on pace for nearly 40 goals over a full season. Obviously such a torrid pace would be unsustainable over 82 games especially when you consider he scored on over a quarter of his shots during his brief NHL stint, but his play in the minors warrants an extended look in a complimentary scoring role.
In 126 AHL games since 2018, Bunting scored 38 goals and assisted 71 others, suggesting that his NHL production may be more than a product of skating alongside Arizona’s stars in Nick Schmaltz and Conor Garland. The Leafs can offer even more attacking support in Marner, Matthews, Tavares and Nylander, meaning Bunting won’t be spoiled for choice in the top-six. His on-ice shot- and expected goals-share are both above 50% which indicates he isn’t caught sacrificing his defensive responsibilities for offence.
While it is a luxury for the Leafs to employ one of the NHL’s top snipers in Auston Matthews, his dangerousness can be somewhat curtailed when it is evident that his linemates might not possess the shot or offensive awareness to get into dangerous scoring areas. Bunting can provide that secondary threat while not necessarily cannibalizing the shooting volume that helps make Matthews such a prolific scorer.
During Bunting’s brief NHL audition, he demonstrated patience in waiting to get into a dangerous area before trying to score, rather than settling for a low-percentage shot from distance or a tight angle. According to micro-stat data collected by Corey Sznajder, of all the shots that Bunting took in 2020-21, 52% of them were considered to be scoring chances, a rate which led the Coyotes by a sizeable margin (Kessel was 2nd with 44%) and was good enough for 23rd in the NHL. While his astronomical shooting percentage is likely an aberration, Bunting clearly possesses the wherewithal to pick his spots wisely.
His per 60 minute rates for goals scored (22nd) and individual expected goals generated (98th) place him firmly within the top 100 of all NHL forwards last season, and suggest he has a future as a top-nine forward in this league. Even if Bunting isn’t particularly adept at creating his own shot, being in the right place at the right time is a skill that is difficult to teach and could be an inspired pick to relieve the Leafs’ offensive core of some of their scoring burden.
What may work in the Leafs’ favour for recruitment purposes is that Bunting hails from Scarborough, and played under a Soo Greyhounds regime headed by Dubas and Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe in the OHL. With current and former Leafs in Jake Muzzin, Joe Thornton, Kyle Clifford, Jack Campbell, and Rasmus Sandin having featured for the Greyhounds at one time or another, it would be anything but a surprise for Dubas to return to a familiar well of talent.
There is certainly an element of risk in elevating a player within your lineup that can only claim 26 career games on his NHL resume, but its about time that the Leafs’ enjoy the spoils of a breakout performer of their own, one who can offer surplus value on a bargain at a time when Toronto is scrounging for every dollar.
A meager commitment of around $1 million won’t break the bank and could pay handsome dividends if Bunting continues to exemplify the scoring touch that has brought him success as a late-bloomer.
Bottom-Pairing Defenceman: Mark Pysyk – Dallas Stars
2020-21 Season: 36 GP, 3 G, 1 A, 4 PTS
Predicted Contract: 1 year x $1.12 million
For veterans of the hockey analytics scene, Pysyk could be a prodigal son of sorts for Leafs’ fans exhausted from watching Roman Polak and Nikita Zaitsev aimlessly rim the puck around the boards for countless icings every night. For those long suffering patrons of Leafs fandom, signing a defenceman who isn’t a sieve would be akin to winning the lottery.
When scouring the market for bottom-pairing defenceman, teams should target individuals who can hold their own against the run of play, and keep the team from bleeding chances while they are on the ice. Anything else should be considered a bonus. Luckily, Pysyk has not only excelled when played in sheltered minutes down the lineup, but he likely won’t command much more than $1 million on a short-term deal, an ideal agreement for a team in Toronto’s capped-out position.
While playing a sheltered role on the third pair in Dallas last season, Pysyk was able to emphatically control the flow of play to the tune of a 55% shot share, and a remarkable 63% share of expected goals. A large part of his defensive success is his ability to consistently deny opposing forwards the chance to enter the zone with controlled possession.
Although Pysyk is one of the least frequently targeted rearguards on zone entries, he very rarely concedes a clean entry that results in a scoring chance against. His sound timing and stick-checking prowess work to disrupt opposing teams in their offensive setups and is a large part of his defensive impact.
His robust zone entry defense and propensity to make decisive outlet passes keeps the puck away from his own net, giving his stronger teammates a chance to take a breath and recover. Pysyk’s two-way game leads to an impressive ability to reliably surpress opposing scoring chances. Among NHL defencemen with at least 100 minutes at five-on-five this past season, Pysyk ranked 4th in scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes. For coaches who don’t want defenceman to take any unnecessary risks and move play in the right direction, Pysyk is your man.
Pysyk is not a special teams specialist by any means, but the veteran blueliner has held his own throughout his career when entrusted with penalty kill duties, and new assistant coach Dean Chynoweth should feel comfortable while utilizing Pysyk in short-handed situations. Since 2018-19, Pysyk ranks in the top 50 of all blueliners in terms of expected goals conceded per 60 minutes on the penalty kill, and could rotate in with Toronto’s other defencemen.
His low counting stats (4 points in 36 games last season) will likely depress his asking price and for a million bucks, Toronto could do a lot worse. If nothing else, it’ll stop him from turning into prime Ovechkin every time he suits up against the Leafs.
Backup Goaltender: Petr Mrazek – Carolina Hurricanes
2020-21 Season: 12 GP, 6W-2L-3OTL, 2.06 GAA, .923 SV%
Last Contract: 2 years x $3.125 million
Carolina’s penny-pinching ownership group has already cast out rookie sensation Alex Nedeljkovic in anticipation of a sizeable raise on the $700,000 he was owed last season, and Mrazek will look to re-sign for something near his 2020-21 cap hit of $3.125 million, which might be too much for the Hurricanes to stomach if recent decisions are any indication.
Relatedly, there have been reports that the Hurricanes have given thought to acquiring Arizona’s Antii Raanta who would likely pair up with Bernier (acquired in the Nedeljkovic trade) and form a brand-new partnership in the Carolina crease next season.
Mrazek’s overall body of work suggests that he could provide valuable insurance behind Campbell in the Leafs’ net. Since 2018, Mrazek’s save percentage and goals saved above average (which gauges how many goals a goalie has prevented compared to the average goalie facing the same quality of chances) at five-on-five evaluates him as a top-25 goalie over that time frame, suggesting that he could handle a starter’s workload if required, and should flourish in a rotation.
Where Mrazek truly shines is his ability to save shots in high-danger areas (generally in the slot). Across the same three-season timeframe, Mrazek has posted the 11th highest high-danger save percentage at five-on-five, bailing out his teammates when they concede chances from threatening areas. Although his high-danger save percentage on the penalty kill takes him out of the top-30, it is still higher than that of both Jack Campbell’s and Frederik Andersen. For a poor penalty kill, the Leafs may benefit from a slight improvement in that area.
The most concerning aspect of a Mrazek signing would be his recent health concerns. A thumb injury early into the 2020-21 campaign would require surgery, and Mrazek only featured in 12 games at season’s end. His .914 save percentage following his return in April would still be considered above league average, but it represented a regression from his stellar start to the year.
For the Leafs, a tandem of Campbell and Mrazek should cost them around $5 million, a slight haircut to the tune of $1.5 million from what they were paying Campbell and Frederik Andersen last season, not an insignificant amount for a team seeking to supplement their depth in areas of greater concern. Mrazek has also played in more than half of his team’s games three times since 2015-16, so an injury to Campbell wouldn’t necessarily spell doom for the Leafs either.
Any potential goaltending gamble will be considered a win if Toronto can get an improvement on Andersen’s results last season at a reduced cost, and Mrazek should be a good bet better Andersen’s .895 save percentage in all-situations. Will it be enough to stave off the improved competition from the reconvening Atlantic division? It should, but nothing is a given in the NHL.
This offseason’s goaltending carousel will offer the greatest number of feasible candidates for Toronto as many capable netminders, which I explored in an article that I wrote back in March. Although the market is short on true elite talent, the Leafs will be looking for a goalie capable of working within a tandem and only playing 30-40 games next season, which considerably expands their options.
My opinion on most of the goaltenders discussed in that piece have not changed so re-visit that article for commentary (that is slightly out of date) on the rest of the market.
So, what should we expect?
The Maple Leafs’ financial reality dictates that their “core-four” be continuously supplemented by cheap, recyclable filler which allows them to ice a versatile lineup capable of attacking opponents in a myriad of ways.
Luckily, free agency is a dependable source of such players, and bargains will undoubtedly surface for those willing to wait and avoid the dizzying recklessness often demonstrated by general managers on the opening day of free agency.
In any case, Dubas has repeatedly re-affirmed his belief in the main pieces of his roster, warts and all, which would appear to rule out any seismic alterations to the lineup this summer in spite of impassioned pleas from fans and local media alike.
While there is certainly some logic in banking on efficient contributions from undervalued skaters to buoy the Leafs’ superstars, another early playoff exit could certainly be the death knell for the Shanahan-Dubas era in Toronto, leaving little to no margin for error in their roster construction.
No pressure, eh?