One area where the Leafs have been very successful over the past two seasons is in signing undervalued veterans to short-term contracts, then trading them for draft picks or prospects at the trade deadline. For a team that badly needed to stock the cupboard with some prospects, it was a smart way to go about building future value off the back of short-term investments. Toronto is still firmly in rebuild mode, having finished last in the NHL this season, so they may decide to go that route again, building up value and then moving players at the deadline for futures.
But even if they aren’t looking to flip veterans at the deadline any more, finding players who are under-priced by the market is still an important tactic for teams to pursue in a league with a hard salary cap like the NHL has. In a sense, the NHL has become an efficiency competition, so adding players who provide value on-ice above what they’re being paid is wise for contenders and rebuilding teams alike.
The Leafs have a bit of a logjam at forward right now, with eight veterans under contract for next season and a large group of prospects who will be fighting for ice time. For that reason, it’s possible that they don’t look to add to the forward group in free agency at all, preferring to give ice time to younger players to see how they perform in the NHL. It’s a bit difficult to game out the roster at the moment since there will almost certainly be trades between now and July 1. At any rate, I’ve identified some players who I think the team could consider if they look to shore up the depth via free agency.
I’ve found nine players who are worth taking a look at. My primary criteria for this list was 5v5 points per 60 minutes of ice time over the previous two seasons. Two seasons seems like a good window because it helps identify players who may be better than their numbers looked last season, while being short enough that aging shouldn’t be a significant concern. As a general rule, about 1.8 P/60 or higher is a 1st line forward, while 1.5 P/60 and up is a second liner. Since the goal is to find players who will play above their cap hit, I’ve used that 2nd line cut-off as my target. It’s easy to find depth players, but finding guys who can perform well in a top 6 role is more of a challenge. Anyone who can do that on a cheap, short-term contract makes a good target.
It’s possible that some of these players will re-sign with their current team prior to July 1, in which case they won’t be options for the Leafs. And there may be new players to add to the list after the buy-out window closes; for example, P-A Parenteau only became available last year because the Canadiens decided to buy-out the remainder of his contract. I also can’t guarantee that these players will actually all sign cheap contracts; who knows what GMs will do. Nevertheless, this list is a good snapshot of players who currently look like they’ll be available at a bargain.
|Player||Last AAV||2 Yr Corsi Rel||2 Yr P/60|
A lot of these names would have also been on a similar list last season. Guys like Lee Stempniak and Brad Boyes seem to be continually under-valued by NHL front offices.
Other names here are probably not very familiar to many hockey fans outside of the city in which they play. Justin Fontaine, for example, is just 5’10” and 174 lbs, and he’s been given minimal ice time in his three seasons in Minnesota. And yet his scoring rate has consistently been rather good. He doesn’t have much of a history of driving possession, but some of that may be due to his low quality of linemates and difficult zone-starts. He’s certainly a guy worth looking at, as he looks to be worth considerably more than the $1 million per season he made last year.
The most attractive name on the list is a player who played for the Leafs last year: P-A Parenteau. He has by far the best relative possession of any of the players on this list, and he scores points at a rate that’s only just outside the 1st line cut-off. There have been reports that the Leafs would like to keep him, and if they’re looking for under-valued veterans, it’s likely that Parenteau is the best they’ll find.
After Parenteau, the aforementioned Fontaine is definitely worth a look. Leafs fans may have bad memories of Lee Stempniak on account of the Alex Steen trade, but he’s another guy who frequently performs above the expectations that front offices seem to have of him.
Jonathan Marchessault is also worth a look if the Lightning aren’t able to keep him. He has very limited NHL experience (just 49 games), but he’s been nearly a point-per-game player across a large sample size in the AHL, and his numbers are good in limited NHL minutes. He’s likely been overlooked primarily on account of his size, as he’s listed at just 5’9″ and 174 lbs. But if Marchessault hits the UFA market, he could wind up being a bargain for a team willing to take a chance.
The other names on the list are also potential targets, though one suspects that Brad Boyes isn’t likely to be back in Toronto despite his high-quality play since Mike Babcock didn’t seem to like giving him much ice time.
It’s entirely possible that the Leafs will not pursue many players in the free agent market this summer. They may prefer to get as many young guys as possible into the lineup to see who is able to perform in the NHL. But if they’re looking to do what they’ve done the past couple of seasons and add a couple of under-valued veterans, these nine players are all good options to consider.