The Leafs already did a pretty good job of flipping the majority of their unrestricted free agents for assets at the Trade Deadline, but there’s still a number of players who will need new contracts before they take to the ice next season. Below, our TLN Roundtable discusses Toronto’s current restricted free agents, and decides who’s worth keeping and who’s worth letting go.
Let’s get this out of the way first, since it’s obvious that Toronto shouldn’t be letting Nazem Kadri or Jonathan Bernier go by way of free agency. Kadri is the kind of player the Leafs should be signing for four-plus years at as low a salary as they can, and I’m still not convinced it’s time to give up on Bernier. That’s not to say I wouldn’t trade him and roll with James Reimer if the offer was right, but you can’t simply let him walk. Both of the Leafs’ big fish RFAs need to stay.
The role player and minor leaguers are a different story, with some of them certainly earning an extended look and new contract, while it’s going to be easy to pass on others. It makes a lot of sense to re-sign players like Sam Carrick, Greg McKegg, Richard Panik and Tim Erixon- exactly the kind of players you want to keep around during what will likely be some tough years in Toronto. All four could very well be full time NHLers next year, as the Leafs move out veterans and give youth a chance. Panik and Erixon, both 24, don’t have the luxury of many development years ahead of them, but I’d have no issue in handing both of them two-year contracts on the cheap.
Petter Granberg is another player I’d offer a short contract to, even though I have my doubts that he’ll be much more than a seventh defenceman at the NHL level. Still 22, Granberg doubled his point production in the AHL this season with 15 points, and in 20 less games than last year. Even if he doesn’t crack the Leafs’ line up, the Marlies will still need warm bodies, so it’d be smart to keep Granberg around a little longer.
Lastly, the Leafs will need to move on from Andrew MacWilliam, Eric Knodel and Brad Ross. MacWilliam, 25, and Knodel, about to turn 25, have pretty much reached that point where we’ve all seen enough. Despite seeing action in 12 games with the Leafs this season, MacWilliam plays a tough, shut down game that offers little in today’s NHL. Knodel couldn’t stick in the Marlies lineup and spent a good deal of time in Orlando this year, so that’s pretty self-explanatory. Ross, who hasn’t done much since turning pro three years ago, missed 20 games this season due to a banned substance suspension. The Leafs have good reason to move on from all three of these players, and open up roster spots and ice time for younger, higher-potential projects.
To say I want to see this roster blown up is an understatement, and while they’d be relatively easy to bring back, I’m not sure I want to see too many of the RFAs return. Having the Leafs begin the season comfortably under the 50 contract limit would be a huge advantage, and achieving that begins with not qualifying Ross, Knodel, Kozun. I’d also say that two out of three of the Erixon, MacWilliam, and Granberg group can be cut loose. I confess to not knowing if Richard Panik holds any kind of arbitration rights, but with any award under $3M required to be accepted by the team, I would let him walk as well if it avoids a Mark Fraser type blunder. McKegg and Carrick seem like easy decisions to bring back. McKegg is still young enough that he can fit with the Marlies core, and Carrick should be a very affordable fourth line option or 13th forward for the Leafs.
That leaves the big two: Bernier and Kadri. Kadri is the easy one. Long term for as cheap as you can possibly get him, please. Bernier, you obviously qualify, but I don’t see much point in being a bad team with an expensive goaltender during the rebuilding process. There aren’t a lot of 26 year old (27 at season’s start) starting goaltenders available via trade, and there aren’t any restrictions on where he can go. I’m not going to speculate on what the return would look like, but there’s no reason to believe it would be less than what the Leafs gave up for him as a less proven backup.
Much like Jon, I’d like to see most of this roster sent to the moon, and the Leafs would be smart to get out from under some of these players – not from a cap hit standpoint, but simply to gain breathing room. If next year is a “development year” they’ll want the flexibility.
There’s basically no upside in Ross, MacWilliam, or Knodel, so the Leafs should consider moving on from those three.
Kozun I think they’ll keep around because he had that Bochenski preseason last year. Everyone loves a scrappy little underdog, and the Leafs might feel he deserves a chance to bounce back from a season derailed by injury. I’m a fan of Carrick, and McKegg is worth keeping around, though both top out as fourth-line NHLers. The Leafs are probably looking to tank next season but they’ll want a couple vets on the team, and Erixon is someone they might keep around to fill that role as a depth blueliner, which I’m okay with.
As for Bernier and Kadri, I think you just sign Naz as long as you can to keep his cap hit down, and trade Bernier’s rights. At worst Kadri is going to be a skilled second-line center through his twenties. Bernier likely has some value on a goalie market that’s otherwise not good for sellers, so you strike on that now. A 5-million dollar goaltender who hasn’t clearly shown to be above average is not really something you need going into the Auston Matthews tank wars, or in general really, plus the new folks in management simply don’t appear to be the types to bog down cap dollars in the crease.
While the Leafs and myself want to scorch the earth and trade every player for picks and prospects, there are – gasp – some players worth keeping. A few of those are RFAs. The big one is Nazem Kadri, who for my money, is the best player on the team. As much as people harp on him for what he isn’t, what he is is a gifted high-end 2C (that I believe could be a 1C if given the long-term opportunity), that has improved defensively. Additionally, for a team and city that preaches compete so much, it amazes me that Kadri doesn’t get praised for his – few players try as hard as him night after night. I’d love to lock him up long-term, and with this past season, you could probably do so at a great price.
After Kadri, there are few RFAs of consequence. Jonathan Bernier would be the big one for many, but I don’t think he fits long-term here and would trade him to the highest bidder at the draft. Getting a 1st for him would be fantastic. I’d probably re-sign Carrick and McKegg for the Marlies, with Carrick getting an occasional look as the 4C on the big club. I’d re-sign Panik as well. He is a great utility guy that I think can be a nice bottom-six piece here, and he’ll come cheap. I’d also give Tim Erixon some thought. He’s probably a 6-7 d-man, but he’ll be cheap as well, and when next year promises to be a development year, giving guys like Erixon a shot to develop can only mean good things.