While the focus on defence appears to be on the right side of the ice for the Toronto Maple Leafs, a notable name from across the province has come up in discussions. According to a report in the Ottawa Sun, there’s a greater-than-zero chance that 25-year-old Patrick Wiercioch is fast tracked into unrestricted free agency.
While qualifying offers to restricted free agents aren’t due until the end of June, the indication in NHL circles is unless the Senators have a change of heart they won’t tender one to the 25-year-old defenceman. This means Wiercioch will have to shop himself around as a unrestricted free agent on July 1.
With a cap hit of $2 million last season, the Senators would have to hand over a $2.7 million qualifying offer to retain Wiercioch’s rights because that’s what he made in real dollars in 2015-16. It’s believed Senators general manager Pierre Dorion told Wiercioch in his exit meeting in April it was doubtful the club would keep him.
First off, it’s a little funny that once again, a plan by Eugene Melynk to keep from spending money in the moment has backfired on his team. This disproportionate qualifying offer is entirely a result of back-loading Wiercoich’s contract.
The particularly interesting part comes later in the article, though. Garrioch goes on to state that the Sens will try to trade him before it becomes time to qualify him, but that they don’t find the odds of that working out to be likely. Most shocking though is the suggestion that the native of Burnaby might not even be able to find a one-way contract, and could have to settle for a deal that pays him less if he were to head to the AHL for the first time since the lockout component of the 2012/13 season.
As horrific as Ottawa’s defence has been for the past few years, Wiercoich has been one of the more consistent exceptions. In every year that he’s donned the Red, Black, and White, he’s had better than team average possession numbers. In particular, he has been consistent in helping move the puck into the offensive zone and generating shots; only Erik Karlsson and Dion Phaneuf (who only played 20 games in Ottawa) had a higher rate of on-ice shot attempt generation this season.
His most frequent defensive partner over the span of his career in Ottawa has been Cody Ceci. Ceci gets the lion’s share of the praise between the two, but interestingly it’s Wiercoich who benefits most from
Wiercioch’s struggles are mostly on the offensive side; though that’s the zone where he’s best at putting his teammates, he himself had no goals and just five assists last year, a career worst despite playing 52 games. He was third among Senators defencemen in on-ice Goals For Percentage this year, despite having the third-lowest on-ice shooting percentage at 5-on-5. Decreased usage on the powerplay didn’t help his cause either; Wiercioch went from being involved in approximately 45% of Senators powerplay minutes (with Erik Karlsson, no less) to being on for just 19 minutes of man-advantage time this year.
If Garrioch’s presumption that Wiercioch could be picked up for a contract low enough to warrant a two-way deal (so, likely under $950,000) is true, then the Leafs should be all over this. While the Leafs have quite a few defencemen in the system, giving the younger ones another year to ripen while adding a play-driving large (6’5) body who is still before the age of decline sounds like a pretty solid idea. He would make Matt Hunwick more expendable than he already was, and can either be re-signed or flipped as necessary.
With that said, I’d be shocked if there weren’t teams with plans in place. The Florida Panthers are one that I could see making a serious pitch; the organisation kicked tires on him at the trade deadline but ultimately weren’t confident enough as a group to move forward with the decision to give up assets for him. With their deck chairs being rearranged to make room for the more analytically-inclined members of the board and the potential to pick him up for free, I wouldn’t be shocked in the slightest him in their jersey next year.
At this cost, though, it’s worth it for the Leafs to at least look into it.