It’s a month until the Free Agency period opens, and with it the expectation that
Dave Nonis does something incredibly stupid the Leafs remain relatively quiet. Of course, that doesn’t mean the Leafs will have anything close to a full roster based on who they will likely let walk and their intention to properly develop their prospects in the minors. While it’s likely that most of the current holes in the roster can be filled by taking on contracts being dumped from other teams via trades, there will likely be a need to at least dip their toes into free agency at some point and attempt to find some hidden gems (a la Mason Raymond, Clarke MacArthur, Daniel Winnik, and Mike Santorelli.)
There are certainly some worthwhile players who may come available like Andrej Sekara, Mike Green, Justin Williams and Michael Frolik, but overpaying for well known names isn’t where the Leafs are at today, instead here are ten players that the Leafs could consider without blowing the budget and could potentially flip in deals similar to the Winnik and Santorelli/Franson deals pulled off this season. At least three of the names on this list are incredibly familiar to Leafs fans.
Like I said, the names are going to be incredibly familiar, and giving Tlusty an honest look with the Leafs is one of the better options. Tlusty had a CF% of 54.15 in his time with the Canes and Jets, but is one of the more sheltered players on this list with a ZSO% of 54.16 and just over 13 minutes of even strength ice time per game. His eight even strength goals last season leave a lot to be desired, but is capable of scoring in the teens when you factor in powerplay time and depending on future changes to the Leafs roster may have an opportunity to take on more of a top six role with the Leafs. At 27 years old, Tlusty may be a decent target for a longer term deal and that could benefit the Leafs with a lower cap hit and potentially make him a more attractive trade chip if he pans out in anyway. He’s still a better option than Phillippe Paradis
Bergenheim is one of the older names on the list, but one of the ones that might be one of the more marketable ones if the signed to a reasonable short term contract. Bergenheim has acquired the reputation of being a playoff performer and player willing to do the little things so he’s marketable to Brian Burke as well as competent GMs who are more interested in things like actual performance. Bergenheim had a 53.5% CF while only starting in the offensive zone 49% of the time. His nine goals aren’t likely to turn into more than that since he’s much further into the downward turn of his career than Tlusty, but does add that minimal offense to the bottom six role he’ll likely fill. He’s a strong winger to put with someone like Carrick or Holland who could benefit from having someone who can cover for their inexperience. Bergenheim also has the lowest number of Corsi events per minute of any player on this list at 1.7.
Blake may have benefitted from playing in the ideal situation of the Penguins top six, but since Pittsburgh was doing everything in their power to move him out of there, it’s likely his stock won’t be too high come free agency. Comeau has the highest ZSO% (54.3) of anyone on this list, and given his frequent linemates his 52.88 CF% and 1.55 Corsi Rel are less impressive. Still, the Leafs are better off with cheap complimentary players in their top six than retaining all of their current talent and Comeau’s 16 goals (14 even strength) are the best of anyone on this list.
After years of trying to move Fleischmann’s contract the Panthers were finally able to send to Tomas to the Ducks so he could enjoy a press box view of Anaheim’s playoff run. His lacklustre performance in his time in Anaheim and his swift decline after his health issues in Florida probably make for a pretty short suitor list for Fleishmann this summer. Fleishmann is one of the few players on this list with a negative Corsi Rel, but had a 52.1 CF% in 51% Offensive Zone Starts. Fleischmann has the second lowest Corsi events per minute of anyone on this list with the exception of Bergenheim, and like Bergenheim may be reasonable insulator for players like Holland or Carrick.
This is likely Eastern Conference bias showing, but Matt Irwin seems like an off the radar option for a reasonable contract with a bit more term. Irwin benefitted be on a strong San Jose team and a bit of sheltering, but his 51.5 CF% is the best of any free agent defenseman not named Sekera or Green (or Volchenkov, but he was even more sheltered and his age puts him out of consideration for this list.) Irwin’s size are what people typically look for in a defenseman, and at 27 he is on the younger side of unrestricted free agency. He played more even strength ice time than the other defensemen on this list, and at just under 20 points on the season, and with averaging around 1.88 Corsi Events per minute he can probably handle some special teams time as well. The knock on Irwin may be that he’s another left handed shot, which doesn’t appear to be anything that has bothered Mike Babcock in the past.
It seems like a forgone conclusion that any worthwhile Bruins free agent will likely be quickly picked up by the Oilers, but I’ll mention Soderberg here anyway. Carl was on the ice for 2002 Corsi Events last season, more than any forward on this list, and wound up on the positive side of CF%, but -.52 Corsi Rel. He’s another in the series of Bergenheim, Fleischmann, but his 44 points make him an offensive juggernaut on this list compared to pretty much everyone but Tlusty. Soderberg also carries the benefit of being a center, which the Leafs would likely need if A) they trade Bozak B) don’t view Sam Carrick as an everyday option C) Want to give Babcock a lineup that isn’t completely terrible. Soderberg may cost a little more, but may be one of the free agents worth actively pursuing because he actually addresses a need.
Remember when the Leafs did the thing with Daniel Winnik a few months ago? Remember how Winnik was the Leafs best player for a stretch? Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that again? Odds are Winnik isn’t looking to sign only to be flipped again, and would probably like more than a one year commitment after a solid year in Toronto. Like Soderberg, Winnik provides a bit more offence than the typical 3rd line player, and a year where Winnik had 48% Offensive Zone Starts, his 50.7 Corsi For % is impressive, even more when you consider time served on the Leafs. I don’t know what value Winnik would offer the Leafs if they aren’t going to flip him at some point, so it’s likely a wait and see game if he doesn’t get signed and that opportunity presents itself later on.
For all the reasons and more that you bring back Winnik, you bring back Franson. While Franson may be eye test sadness for many, but that is likely due to the high number of events that occur when he’s on the ice, as he averaged 1.88 Corsi Events per minute, even after he took on a more sheltered role in Nashville. His age certainly makes him a target worth considering, and his right handed shot is a rarity in this limited free agent market.
Justin Fisher has looked at Franson’s return to the Leafs, and I agree with his conclusions that if it can be done for below market value I’m all for it, but if he pursues the same money that Petry, Green, and Sekera will be chasing, he’s probably not worth the trouble of bringing back.
Schlemko is an excellent case and point for where the bar is currently set on Leafs roster acquisitions. Bringing in a 28 year old who bounced around the waiver wire last season seems perfectly reasonable. He had a very high Corsi event rate, averaging 1.92 per minute of ice time, but he was just under even, at 49.33 CF% which is passable when you played on the Coyotes, Stars, and Flames last season. Schlemko is another left handed shot which will earn him some detractors, but he’ll be a reasonably priced option that can keep Stuart Percy developing in the AHL until he’s 100% ready for a full time gig. Certainly you can make a case for Brennan over Schlemko, but if the organization isn’t interested in seeing if they can turn around Tim Erixon, Schlemko is a decent depth option that likely won’t require much commitment.
I feel it’s necessary to include a goaltender on this list, since there is a strong possibility the Leafs choose to move a goaltender out and there’s no reason to believe that anyone in the organization will be stepping up to fill one of the NHL openings anytime soon. Greiss would have an opportunity for a greater number of starts in Toronto than with probably any other team, especially if Bernier is the goaltender cut loose. His adjusted save percentage 92.69 was better than either Leafs goaltender last season, albeit with a better team in front of him and with only 20 starts. He is likely the most under the radar option for a significant short term goaltending solution
With a month to go until Free Agency, it’s entirely possible that this list will be reduced to Cody Franson and Tomas Fleischmann and we’ll have to get even more creative in finding players that make sense. The bigger ticket options for the Leafs are likely Mike Reilly and Zach Hyman assuming that the NCAA prospects make it to Free Agency in August.
With the risk of higher than desired arbitration rewards becoming a reality (remember Mark Fraser) it is also entirely possible that a worthwhile crop of RFAs will become UFAs in July as well and could provide the Leafs with a better alternative for free agents and give them the opportunity to think longer term.