Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports
July 1 is upon us.
The unrestricted free agent market will open in a matter of hours. As always, it’s an exciting, worrying, thrilling time for hockey fans.
As the eyes of Leafs Nation turns to the Maple Leafs, the unrestricted free agents Toronto might decide to pursue and exactly how much money and signing bonuses those players will be given; we’re left to wonder: just how busy the club might be this Canada Day?
Let’s round up the latest chatter!
Conservative or Aggressive?
It’ll be curious to see how aggressive the Maple Leafs are on July 1, particularly now that Steven Stamkos is off the board. Though the club carefully stockpiled the necessary cap space to make a superstar player a superstar calibre offer, it’s not a guarantee that the Maple Leafs will use that space to purchase another big ticket item in the free agent frenzy.
“I think they earmarked that money for Stamkos and if it’s not there, it’s not there,” said TSN’s Bob McKenzie during a TSN 1050 hit on Thursday night.
Unrestricted free agency is a fickle beast. The good part about signing a player on July 1, is that the player comes attached to no acquisition cost – at least in terms of assets – aside from money and the contract space that he takes up under the 50-contract limit. The negative of that side equation though is that the player is likely to be overpriced, both in terms of salary and cap hit.
Now I’m not a cap flexibility absolutist, intent on criticizing any contract that isn’t an entry-level deal or a massive bargain. In my view It’s worth overpaying for some players. Here’s a complete list of players worth breaking the bank for almost every damn time: genuine superstars at any position, first-line centremen, very high-end second-line centremen, first-pairing defenseman. And here’s a poorly kept secret: with Stamkos off the board, there are no players on the market that match any of those descriptions.
The Leafs know this, which is partly why it seems they’re expected to pursue a conservative approach when the market opens.
“Not very good (the odds the Leafs will sign anyone for more than three years),” Dreger said on a TSN 1050 hit earlier this morning. “There doesn’t appear to be the perfect fit for the dynamic the Maple Leafs are focused on – the age sensitive young guy with plenty of upside, so I think the odds are pretty low.”
On the only previous July 1 in which in which the majority of the Maple Leafs front office was in place, the club’s modus operandi in free agency saw them favour short-term deals for undervalued players. We’ll see if that holds on Friday.
The Maple Leafs have made at least one trade on July 1 in each of the previous two years. One of those deals was forgettable (Frattin for D’Amigo, wee!), but one of them – the Phil Kessel trade – was an earth shaker.
Could the club be interested in wheeling and dealing this July 1?
Don’t count it out necessarily. There are some pieces worth moving, potentially, and Jonathan Bernier is one of them that becomes a lot easier now that his signing bonus has been paid.
“They’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” Dreger said of the Maple Leafs’ overall approach to July 1. “We all know it’s about developing the youth, but at the same time, you still have to fill some chairs and make sure you’ve got some good balance. So I think the Maple Leafs are going to dabble in a couple of different directions.”
One name that seems to have emerged over the past 12 hours as a potential Maple Leafs target is polarizing defenseman Kris Russell.
READ MORE – Report: Maple Leafs ‘interested’ in Kris Russell
Russell is probably a step back from the top defenseman set to hit the open market in a few hours – certainly he’s not expected to get the payday of a player like Jason Demers – but he’s still likely to cost a fair bit in term and treasure. Will the Maple Leafs be the club to give it to him?
In discussing the matter on TSN 1050 this morning, Dreger suggested that while the Maple Leafs would have interest in Russell, he’d be surprise if they were willing to really break the bank for him.
“(Leafs head coach Mike) Babcock loves those guys who are going to compete every shift – heard that about a thousand times last year – (and) not much has changed in that regard,” Dreger said.
This is a bit of a loaded comment actually. Effectively Dreger is drawing a direct line between high-effort players that Babcock prefers to use – guys like Luke Glendening and Matt Hunwick – and why a player like Russell might interest the Maple Leafs. It’s interesting to note, anyway.
“Their most (pressing) need, of course, is on the blue line,” Dreger continued later in the hit. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to breakdown doors to sign (Russell). They need a right (defenseman), he’s a left shot, not that big, 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, but he’s got that compete.”
Dreger also drew a line between Trevor Daley and Russell, which is a parallel we noted yesterday as well.
“Here’s something that sticks with me. I had a conversation with Babcock a couple of weeks ago and we talked about the type of defenseman or type of player they would look for – if not through free agency, then through trade – and we got talking about the PIttsburgh Penguins and how well Trevor Daley did after leaving the Chicago Blackhawks,” Dreger said. “And he said ‘maybe there’s a defenseman out there like that, who just need a fresh start…’ Russell maybe doesn’t quite fit into that category, but he sort of does, and I think that’s why the Leafs have some interest, but I’m sure they have a lot of interest in a lot of (defenseman) at this stage.”
If Russell collects a big payday despite a tough go around in the Stanley Cup playoffs with the Dallas Stars this spring, perhaps he should send Daley a gift basket.
The Blue Line
One thing we might infer from Toronto’s reported interest in Kris Russell is that the blue line is likely to be an area of priority for Toronto when the market opens. That’s certainly how Bob McKenzie is reading the tea leaves.
“Mike Babcock wants some veteran experience to help insulate Rielly and Gardiner and now they’ve got the kid Zaitsev coming over from Russia,” McKenzie said. “They’ll spend some money there, but I don’t see them going completely crazy, but they’ve surprised us before – they’re a stealth organization.”
There could be some intriguing bargains available. James Wisniewski, for example, and his deceptive right-handed shot could be a nice short-term fit now that he’s been bought out by the Carolina Hurricanes. Other recently bought out defenseman like Barrett Jackman and Matt Carle could similarly fit the bill.
If the Maple Leafs are considering younger options, then perhaps Justin Schultz would consider reuniting with his old Wisconsin Badgers teammate Jake Gardiner. Along with Tom Gilbert, Schlutz is one of the very few right-handed shooters available on the open market, so you could see the fit there if the price is right.
With few options available in free agency and considering the exorbitant cost of top-four defensemen on the trade market over the past couple of months, you can almost understand why Russell might seem an enticing play for the Maple Leafs. I said almost.
Last year we saw the Maple Leafs sign a variety of reasonably useful, but completely unsexy pieces to short-term contracts in free agency. The list was pretty extensive, actually: Matt Hunwick, P.A. Parenteau, Mark Arcobello, Richard Panik, Daniel Winnik, Shawn Matthias.
Are there similarly worthwhile targets available on the market this year?
Because of Toronto’s general aura of impenetrability, it’s hard to say. You’d have to think that a player like Brandon Pirri, who didn’t get a qualifying offer from the Anaheim Ducks, could make sense for many of the same reasons Matthias did (high goal scoring rate, can play top-nine minutes without hurting you).
The Maple Leafs have also been linked by reports to players like Matt Martin and it’ll be enormously interesting to see if they pursue some additional two-way and physical ability for the bottom end of their lineup.