Should the Leafs be active in Free Agency?

The say the answer to the headline is almost always no, and
in this situation we’ll clear that up immediately, and say that’s correct. The
answer is no. Of course, this is assuming the conventional approach, where the
Leafs go and throw too much money at a player who has impossible expectations
attached to them and will receive more money than God for the next seven years.
Yeah, we don’t need another Clarkson, Komisarek, Blake, Finger, or (insert the
name of one of the other many of other players this applies to).

That being said, there are two interesting options that make
me reconsider completely sitting out the opening of free agency.

The First:
Unqualified RFAs and Buyouts

Cat Silverman and Ryan Fancey have both recently run posts
on some players being bought out and how they could potentially fit as cheap
options for the Leafs in the short term. Stalberg, Richards, and Parenteau all
could be good short term options who could show they aren’t as bad as their
last deal, and could be worthwhile rental players by the time the trade
deadline rolls around.

In the case of Hodgson, he’s a 25 year old that is young
enough to get still get in on the ground floor of a Toronto rebuild, and as a
cheaper offensive option he could add some value to a Leafs team that will be
hopefully moving out some of its other offensive players. Hodgson is certainly
short on defensive zone ability, and that’s pretty indisputable, but if the
intention is to move out players with similar deficiencies (I’m looking at
Bozak and Lupul to start that argument, but it certainly applies to van
Riemsdyk and Kessel too) perhaps the Leafs can absorb some sloppy defensive
play while not continuing to have a top six that is a complete black hole once
the puck travels south of the red line.

The quality of unqualified RFAs has improved in recent
years, thanks largely to the new CBA and to the Leafs Mark Fraser blunder
around the understanding of the new rules of the CBA. With arbitration eligibility
moved up for RFAs, and teams required to accept any arbitration ruling under
three million dollars, there is the potential to get stuck with potentially a
worse outcome than paying Mark Fraser $1.3M a season (thankfully the Leafs just
had to overpay prior to arbitration, that number could have been real ugly.)

With potentially expensive RFA arbitration rulings looming,
teams are more likely to avoid qualifying players with arbitration rights. None
of these players are going to be amazing, in fact it’s a guarantee that they
won’t be, because you’d happily pay an amazing player more than $3M or risk
paying them that through arbitration, but what you do get is a crop of players
who might add some value in depth roles and in wonderful cases, are still
developing enough that they can be moved up in your roster. Players like Riley Nash, Scott Glennie, and Mark Barberio might not be the players that turn
around the franchise, but their the names of players that are all capable of
filling a role on the Leafs with some upside of beyond sitting at the bottom of
the roster

The Second Option:
Big Fish, Small Term

Our own Shawn Reis has informed we that what I am about to
suggest is very much an EA NHL GM type move, so I’ll apologize in advance for
suggesting it, but I feel it has a lot of merit for a team like the Leafs that
aren’t shy about spending money and this moment, still have the ability to
retain salary on two contracts.

The idea is essentially pretty simple, the Leafs go out into
the free agent market and offer excessively high contracts to top free agents.
(So far this should be sounding like the Burke or Nonis status quo). The
difference this time is that the contracts are only 1 year deals. And the deals
are offered with the promise that when the trade deadline rolls around the
Leafs will be willing to retain as much salary as possible in order to trade
that player to a playoff bound team. For an example, let’s say Mike Green is
seeing offers on longer term deals of around $7M average annual cap hit, the
Leafs offer him $9M for one season, and then will eat half of his salary to
trade him to a contending team willing to give up a first round pick or whatever
the player’s value dictates at trade deadline time. The player gets a big
payday, a chance to play on a very good team (at some point) and will get to be
a free agent again next season when they can chase a long term deal. The trade
off is of course that there is some level of risk involved regarding injuries
or drop off in play and I still can’t imagine top free agents in their prime
going for this.

However, there are a few exceptions that it may apply to.
For one, Cody Franson, who has expressed an interest in returning to Toronto.
If he’s interested in a short term return with a nice little payday attached,
he may have a chance to show he’s better than his last couple of months in
Nashville. There may also be interest with the older free agents on the market.
While Matt Cullen, Daniel Briere, and Erik Cole might not bring back the return
of a first round pick like I suggested with the Green scenario, rolling the
dice on veterans like these with the intent to give them a shot at the cup next
spring may be appealing for them and still gives the Leafs a means to
essentially buy more draft picks.

The Leafs of course are assuming some risk in this as well. With
entering into this situation with the intent to use their salary retention
spaces, that may tie their hands on any other deals involving salary retention
or require another team to take on the full salary of the player the Leafs have
signed. There is also the more obvious risks of players underperforming and not
having a market or injuries preventing the player from being traded. These are
smaller risks when you acknowledge the Leafs won’t be in a position to be good
next season anyway and the whether they are traded or not the contracts will
expire next June.

What to Expect

It’s much more likely that the Leafs lean towards going with
the first option in Free Agency. There are still too many moving pieces in the
organization to really look at option two until some current salary is moved
out. With the Leafs already having rumoured interest in Andy Miele and Sam
Gagner, it’s safe to say we can expect an unconventional free agency period
which is nice because it keeps Matt Beleskey out of Toronto.

  • CMpuck

    No better way to flush all that good will of a rebuild, now a ‘hybrid rebuild’ given no one is getting traded if they sign a typical MLSE horrid July 1st contract, the gong show will continue.

    Cody Franson come on down…

    • Gary Empey

      I don’t think you really have to worry about the “hybrid rebuild”.

      Babcock didn’t come here to waste his time. He is a very hard worker. He expects all his players to work hard as well and improve their game. If the veterans don’t show up ready to play hard then they will be on the bench or not even dressed. I don’t believe he is afraid of management in regards to who he wants on the ice. If management wants to pay guys to sit around to watch the game and count their money, then that is what will happen. If this forces management to deal some players before they are ready, That is not Babcock’s problem.

      I really do believe with the firing of Carlyle a new era began.

      I don’t expect to see the team tank this year. They may not win as many games from lack of experience. With the emphasis placed on compete level, speed, skill and quickness the players Babcock uses are not going to be satisfied with losing. They will want to get better and smarter after every game. How long this takes is hard to say. It could be halfway through next season or a couple of years down the road as the new prospects get their chance to play in the NHL.

      Look out veterans “The Hanson Brothers” are on their way and they want your jobs. Their just waiting for the coach to send them over the boards.

    • Man, it is always doom and gloom with you.

      Nobody is getting traded? I might believe it if any member of management came out and said “we are not trading these guys.”

      Instead, all I’ve heard is “we are not giving these guys away”, which is the politically correct way of saying “we are trading these guys as soon as we get a fair offer.”

      The start of the season is months away. Becoming a playoff contender is years away. If you’re this impatient about a Kessel or Phaneuf trade now, I worry for you.

      • CMpuck

        Doom and gloom….

        Like when we ‘rebuilt’ with Shenn and Kadri? Or are we going to buckle in to another 4 years of Kaberle watch so we can hold out for Percy & Colbourne. No way it’s going to get derailed.

        Doom and gloom, ok, I was the guy saying rebuild from day one of last season.

        Words =/= Actions

    • TGT23

      Okay… I know you’re smart enough to know the Leafs HAVE to be active on July 1st… And that doing so doesn’t mean the rebuild is a failure or they’ve abandoned it…

      They still have to ice an NHL team this season. All indications are they want to keep the kids in the minors through the season. Have them develop in the system before being brought up.

      So, unless you think the best idea is to have all the kids in the NHL well before they are ready, then you have to agree the best idea is to bring in 1-2 year contracts full of veterans and reclamation projects.

      Then trading whoever they can at the deadline for picks and prospects heading into Year 2 of the rebuild.

      That is where I fully expect to see most of the big guys traded. If not, I’m fully on your side with the doubting of the Shanaplan.

      But, for now, I think it’s a flimsy excuse for anyone to think the rebuild is being given up on 7 months into it simply because not every move they are going to make has been made and they are making strides to ice an NHL team while developing kids in the minors.

      What this season is meant for, IMO, is to have Babcock coach the guys the team is going to keep long term (Kadri, Reilly, Gardiner, maybe Holland, Panik, etc) and not waste a year while the kids develop.

      All the FA’s brought in around them are just noise. Time to get the future of the team put into the roles and developed into the roles they are going to have in 3-4 seasons when it’s time to make a push.

  • Gary Empey

    Players will be mostly developed at the AHL level. They also will have to be developed by Babcock at the NHL level.

    We need to keep some roster spots open.

    The only way I can see value in picking up a free agent this year is to move him at the trade deadline for more draft picks.

    I think these picks are eligible to join the Marlies right away. I am not sure of course if they will, but they just might. Jeremy Bracco, Martins Dzierkals, Jesper Lindgren.

    I think Babcock is going to take the best 23 players who show up at training camp regardless of age, experience. Then he will let management deal with those who don’t make the team.

  • Brooksterman

    I expect the Leafs will sign a few guys on 1 year deals like the Parenteau, Richards, and Stalberg looking for chances to prove their value/worth. If there are open roster spots it will be for the prospects like Percy and Leivo who have been with the Marlies for 2 years and have already shown they can play at the NHL level. Nylander, Brown, Leipsic, and Gauthier will all go down to the Marlies as Hunter and Dubas have both said they believe in the over-ripening model that Detroit employs with their prospects. Marner will be back in London next year as Hunter said on the fan590 that while he didn’t want to destroy the kid’s dream, it would basically take an unrealistic achievement on Marner’s part in camp for him to actually make the team. Babcock will have no say in whether the Leafs prospects make the team or not just like when last year he wanted Mantha to make the Red Wings out of camp and Holland said no.

    • Gary Empey

      Anthony Mantha- Has Detroit given up on him….

      The Red Wings’ first-round selection (20th overall) at the 2013 NHL Draft broke his leg back in September at the team’s rookie tournament in Traverse City.

      When he finally returned to game action in mid-November, the 20-year-old struggled to find his groove.

      After consecutive 50-plus goal seasons with Val d’Or of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Mantha finished the 2014-15 season with 15 goals and 18 assists in 62 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins. He added two goals and two assists in 16 playoff games.

      His poor first season in Grand Rapids led to some brutal honesty from longtime Red Wings executive Jim Devellano when asked about Mantha last month.

      “Very, very, very disappointing,” said Devellano. “And I say that with a lot of sadness. Coming out of junior, we had such high hopes for him.”

      Following the season, Mantha agreed many areas of his game need improvement heading into the 2015-16 season.

      “I need to work on my strength, for sure,” Mantha said in May. “I need to work on a lot of aspects of my play, like getting quicker on my skates … I got better as the year went along but I need to keep growing for the summer.”

      Despite the rough rookie campaign in Grand Rapids, Wings’ coach Jeff Blashill believes as soon as he learns the daily attention to detail and the daily work ethic it takes, with his skill set, he’s going to be a special player.”

      • Brooksterman

        My point still remains that Dubas and Hunter have stated they believe in over ripening their prospects and would rather send said prospects like Nylander and Brown back to the AHL and have even talked about signing enough guys to allow that to happen. Hunter again said that baring a miracle on Marner’s behalf he’s going back to London with specific instructions to his brother Dale Hunter that Marner is to play centre next year not the wing.

    • STAN

      But keep this in mind – Babcock is pretty much the only management type o the Leafs staff with actual NHL management experience.

      So I say he has MUCH more sway with this group that he had with Holland.

      • Brooksterman

        And yet the final decisions always end with Shanahan and he must decide what’s best long term for the organization and even Babcock admitted in front of Shanahan he thinks short-term not long-term benefit. That makes me believe Shanahan will listen to Hunter especially.

  • STAN

    I may be the only one in TLN who thinks a guy like David Booth is definitely worth keeping around at a million bucks.

    He’s still fast, with good hands, can score when given a chance and can help the team through the next couple of seasons of rebuild.

    So if they can pick up a couple more useful guys like him, I’m in.

  • jasken

    Yes and no the first players they should be looking at are the undrafted. No offence but we all know what the unqualified and buy-outs are all about. This management thinks outside the box there is no further out of the box than finding that really cheap gem looking to just be given a chance. You find those in players who were never drafted then you really done something.

  • Jeremy Ian

    What Jon is proposing is less about the individual FA’s than the concept — which is brilliant. Use the comparative advantage the Leafs have, which is cash and we’re not cap-strapped at this stage, to offer a couple of big, very short-term contracts to guys who they trade at the deadline (and make tradeable by eating the a portion of the remaining salary).

    This is not hybrid.

    This is the same model just being super strategic.

    We saw the effects of the Franson and Perron deals allowing teams to sweep up more draft picks. Keep this going for at least one more year to restock.

    This is brilliant.

  • MatsSundin#13

    Either Brad Richards or Justin Williams – they have cap hits of $2 M and $3.65 M respectively and would be veteran presences on the Leafs, who need a veteran forwards accustomed to winning.

  • silentbob

    Who is likely to be here next year from the current roster?

    JVR, Kadri, Booth, Bailey, Holland, Komarov, Pannik

    Phaneuf, Rielly,
    Gardiner, Erixon,
    Robidas, Marincin

    And probably 1 of the goalies.

    And remember if/when they do move Kessel and Bozak and Lupul and Polak and Reimer/Bernier, and maybe Phaneuf….they will have to take some players back so the other team can make their cap situation work. So lets say they get 1 roster player per trade…..thats a full roster (assuming they manage it correctly). So while I wouldn’t be surprised to see them sign a couple UFA’s (I hope mostly to add the kind of veteran presence they want & need) they aren’t in a position where they need to hit the UFA market just to ice a team.

  • silentbob

    Option 2 is fan fiction. Its a concept/plan that gets brought up every year by fans of some team, but in reality its not a realistic option for teams.

    The top UFA’s aren’t going to accept 1 year deals, there is no guarentee that any of them would be in demand at all at the trade dead line, and god forbid the group actually clicks, at best you blow up your draft position, at worst your management tries to build around that group.

    Any UFA the Leafs go after will be a player they like and believe can/will contribute to this team.