Maple Leafs must get cost-creative as free agency starts

Were this 2000 and not 2020, before any team worried about the salary cap or COVID-19, the Maple Leafs would think nothing of breaking the bank in the first hours of NHL free agency.

But already near their spending limit, just $5,406,467 US to play with and no games or future revenues in sight, talk of toughening themselves with a hired gun or two must proceed slowly. When the market bell rings at noon Friday, the shelves might be full, though shoppers, including general manager Kyle Dubas, might not get past the window.

To match the most serious bidding for impact defencemen such as Alex Pietrangelo, Dubas must trade a high-profile ticket or two; William Nylander, Frederik Andersen or maybe Andreas Johnsson. However, Dubas hinted this week that’s unlikely to happen. He drew a line between a bad contract and an expensive one, giving Andersen a vote of confidence in net and staying out of the Matt Murray sweepstakes as a cheaper option. The goalie market will be flooded anyway come Friday.

So, as Dubas said Wednesday after the draft, he might wait a few days beyond Friday, perusing names to fill bottom-six roles with those seeking new homes or are suddenly unemployed after not getting qualifying offers from their teams. Some, particularly family men looking to settle ASAP, might test the waters and quickly drop their price if the current landscape looks as bleak for them as the GMs.

“We are heading into the great unknown,” said agent Allan Walsh, co-director of Octagon Hockey in an e-mail to the Toronto Sun. “We’ve had free agency heading into a lockout, free agency coming out of a lockout, but the situation we are in now is totally without precedent.

“NHL teams, players and their agents are all looking over the horizon trying to prepare for (Friday). I expect there will be a somewhat restrained frenzy as teams move forward filling holes on their roster. However, the flat cap for next season, and perhaps several more years, will place great restraint on what teams can spend as the market searches for an identity.”

Part of Dubas’ remaining cap space must be used on two restricted free agents, defenceman Travis Dermott and forward Ilya Mikheyev, the latter with arbitration rights. With scrappy winger Kyle Clifford not expected to circle back to the Leafs, Dubas has to hope someone will emulate Jason Spezza and take a discount. Not right to the bare-bones salary of $700,000 as the 37-year-old Spezza, but the Leafs seek a player comfortable with the spotlight of the Leafs who might even be from this area.

That could appeal to UFA Wayne Simmonds, the 32-year-old from Scarborough, who has publicly mused about coming home to give the Leafs more jam. While not a $5-million signing anymore, he won’t drop his price too low.

Pietrangelo, from the 2019 Cup champion St. Louis Blues, would get a hero’s welcome in King City and beyond, but as things stand, won’t be looking north. Zach Bogosian, on his way out of Tampa Bay, would be more of a blueline target, given the Leafs did investigate him when he was released by Buffalo earlier last year.

Unqualified RFAs from the GTA, presumably affordable and with some ingredients the Leafs need to steel their lineup, include forwards Brett Ritchie (let go by Boston), Mark Jankowski (Calgary), Andreas Athanasiou (Edmonton), Devin Shore (Columbus) and even a Cup champion former-Leaf pick, Carter Verhaeghe. From further afield, defenceman Troy Stecher, who played under new assistant coach Manny Malhotra in Vancouver, is now available, as is Matt Benning, cut loose by Edmonton. Both are the desired right-handed shots.

But Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe still like their Marlies as a Plan B, despite not offering new deals to forwards Frederik Gauthier and Jeremy Bracco. They have Egor Korshkov and defenceman Mikko Lehtonen active in the KHL to look at whenever training camp resumes.


“For us, being hard to play against can be defined many different ways,” Keefe said. “It’s not just the physical pieces, there’s a number of physical teams who are hard to play against, who don’t make the playoffs. What I look at are the playoff-caliber habits, having those things standard every single day from whenever we get together.

“(But) we can’t play the playoffs now or get over that (first-round) hump now. All we can do now is prepare as best as possible, have a great camp, great habits and a great exhibition season, whatever that might look like. We have to develop the confidence in our process so that when playoffs come along, we’re ready for that challenge.”

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