Why are the Leafs scaring off free agents?

Over the past eighteen months the Leafs have had their share of headline-making moves, no doubt. The biggest was the addition of Babcock on a record-setting coach’s contract, then they followed that up with the lower-magnitude but perhaps more shocking hiring of Lamoriello. Let’s just get that housekeeping out of the way. 

From there, notable trades happened, they quietly trudged through the season, and then the Auston Matthews lottery was won. It almost started to feel like under this Shanahan-run show, even beyond the high-profile management changes, Toronto was starting to make its own luck. And they still had room to grow quickly, with two free agents out there – both big names in different ways – with major ties to the team.

It was easy to get wrapped up in that hype and picture both Steven Stamkos and Jimmy Vesey as part of the Leafs’ core going into this fall. You could just keep going back and saying things “I thought they wouldn’t get Babcock either, but they did…” or “Phaneuf seemed unmovable, but they traded him…

A lot seemed to be breaking right, and considering how the situations were playing out with those mentioned free agents – a 26-year-old elite player from Toronto going all the way to open free agency, and half Vesey’s family working for the Leafs – it wasn’t unreasonable by any means to see things leaning in their favour again.

But for some reason, they didn’t. The rebuild that seemed to be accelerating ran over a board of nails, and we all got a bit of a reality check.

And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a post about dark clouds settling in on this club again. You can be pleased with the overall direction of the organization and still ask questions when something unfortunate happens. Both are indeed within everyone’s abilities.

The Stamkos story is easily the strangest of the two. It seems simple: A player totally within his rights to explore the market wanted to see how playing for his hometown team might look, then decided they wouldn’t be good soon enough, and stayed put. But if you believe some of the reports out there, he left the biggest cap hit in the entire league on the table to do that. Toronto had the money, the family, and the god status to offer, and didn’t make Stamkos even think hard about it. Or put another way, made him very quickly think hard about how awful a decision it would be. There were even rumblings that the Leafs including the CEO of Canadian Tire in their pitch was key in driving him away. That seems unbelievable at first glance, but then almost too believable when you’ve lived in the world of MLSE like we have. Either way, something bizarre happened there, and the Leafs struck out. Actually they barely got to the plate.

While not as grabbing as Stammergeddon, the Vesey saga played out with some surprises as well. The teams with their names connected to the college free agent the most over the last year seemed to be Boston (where he’s from) and Toronto (where his father works, and brother plays). What was a two-team race grew as he actually hit free agency last week, with Chicago and others joining in. Then the Rangers seemed to pop in out of nowhere and scoop him up.

Yes, I know the Leafs weren’t the only team to miss out here. But I’m only focused on them, and I’d love to know how a pitch from the Rangers pushed Toronto out of the running. New York has been a fine team for a while, but anyone with a brain sees them on their way down, prospect pipeline empty, and juggling some cap hits that will keep hurting. There isn’t a ton to sell, but they sold it, somehow, and the Leafs couldn’t.

The argument could be made that Toronto couldn’t offer Vesey a guaranteed top six role, but that’s sort of a bullshit out. No team can fulfill a promise like that, they can just say they will, and then however things play out over the next three years is how they play out. Hockey isn’t baseball, few players nicely fit into set positions for any amount of time. The Rangers may have told Vesey he’s getting top six minutes, but they could toss him to the AHL by year two for all we know. I don’t buy that as an excuse for the Leafs, at all. Sign the guy, worry about your lines at game time. 

I realize bringing all this up doesn’t offer any answers to why the shine has seemed to wear off the Leafs a bit, but it’s a question I’m asking. Is their approach in these negotiations too much about playing selflessly, something we’re told Lamoriello swears by? That would be strange considering he landed Kovalchuk, the best free agent of the last decade. Is MLSE too involved here, making these meetings seem a little too corporate and bland? Could there be too many voices in the room, creating an overwhelming atmosphere?

It’s probably unfair to speculate too much, but it’s just truly surprising to see that the success the Leafs have had in securing the eye-popping names for management hasn’t really translated to doing the same for on-ice talent. Especially when it appeared the free agent targets they were after had Toronto written all over them.

  • G2

    I wouldn’t say the Leafs are scaring off free agents just based on Stamkos and Vesey signing elsewhere. If you look at each situation individually, each player selected the best situation for them. Stamkos definitely made the right decision to stay in Tampa. He’s the captain of the Lightening, the lightening have assembled a great team, and he’s settled in the area. As for Vesey, it was widely reported that he wanted to stay near Boston and like it or not, the Rangers were the best option (as he likely felt the pressure would be too great if he joined the Bruins). The fact the Leafs were one of a select few teams to be involved on either player speaks to how attractive the Team is becoming to free agents.

  • CMpuck

    No need to get into a bidding war for someone (Vesey) who is likely to be a mediocre player. The guy milked the system perfectly, and chose the Big Apple because he has bigger things in mind down the road. Good for him. Good for the Leafs to not buy high. Just as in the stock market you buy low and hold, or sell high later. Leafs won that war.

    As for Stamkos, he’s peaked and looking down the hill. Huge injury to his leg, and now blood clots. C’mon, there’s a lot of risk with the Stammer and it comes with high price. It’s like buying because you want to reward Stamkos for what he’s done in the past rather than buying at a proper discount for the risks.

  • G2

    Leafs have too many kids fighting for a position at LW on this year’s team. Vesey & his agent/s didn’t like his chances.Too big of a challenge to make it to the NHL with the leafs. Rangers on the other hand have lots of holes for Vesey to slide into. Home town Boston would only be added pressure as that team will be hard pressed to make the post season. Looking forward to seeing how he makes out with the Rangers, a team that will be fighting tooth and nail for a play off position. I believe he’s put himself in the cooker now, and the script hasn’t been finalized.

  • Capt.Jay

    I think the fact that Vesey short listed the leafs over 26 other teams and had the best chances out of any team in Canada should speak volumes on its own. In my opinion it isn’t a Leaf problem, it’s a Canada problem. Climate, taxes, and pressure factor into decisions. For many, it’s too much.

  • FlareKnight

    I don’t know where to start here. The silly idea that the Leafs are scaring off free agents? The idea the Leafs haven’t been able to sign free agents? Or just the paranoia in general?

    Why did Vesey go with New York? Probably a number of reasons. For a young American player there is likely a big pull to New York. It’s New York! One of the biggest cities a guy could play in (maybe not the biggest hockey city on the planet, but does well enough popularity wise). Money probably helped too. If he was really focused on cashing in for his second contract then it makes sense to go somewhere that both is willing to spend and will have less competition for that cash. Nash will leave the cap by the time Vesey is getting a new deal. And New York doesn’t have a great prospect pool (result of gunning for the Cup, but that is the current situation). He doesn’t have the competition to get his money. Not like he would here where he’d be up against guys like Matthews, Marner, Nylander.

    And yeah New York is still a playoff team. He can compete right now.

    What is shocking with Stamkos? Guys do tend to stay where they have spent a lot of their career. Kessel despite the media signed a long term deal in Toronto because he wanted to stay.

    And have the Leafs failed to sign anyone this year? Zaitsev was a big grab and one that everyone knew for most of the year would sign in Toronto. That was a huge pickup for the Leafs. Finding an extremely skilled European D-man and getting him to come here. That’s at least as big a pickup as Vesey would have been. Did make some minor signings. Got their RFAs signed, got Andersen locked up long term which he didn’t necessarily have to do.

    The Leafs did what they needed to this Summer.

    This site is basically just turning into the regular hockey media. “Negativity Sells.”

  • Stan Smith

    Yes Virginia it is the doldrums of August so Ryan creates a fantasy story. Maybe It will get a visceral reaction from leaf fans. Sorry Ryan, as a previous poster pointed out Tampa is a serious cup contender NOW, Stamkos is the freaking captain of this club. He has had two serious injuries including a blood clot. He doesn’t know how long his career will be but I’m sure like any Canadian kid he wants to win a cup. In my humble opinion he weighed the options and realized the leafs are 3 to 4 years away from challenging for the cup.

    Now in the Vessey case he is now 23 and what better market to advertise himself, yesiree New York, the big apple. Again perhaps he has observed the Rangers having had success of reaching the final four and realizes that it is an aging team which means he could fit prominently in the future of the development of the team as it goes through the rebuild.

    With the leafs he realizes that there are a number of talented prospects better than him including Marner, Nylander and Matthews.

    So am I surprised. Nice fabricated story Ryan but to use an analogy of a previous story, you stick handled an article with a break away on an empty net and sadly YOU MISSED BIG TIME.

  • G2

    Kevin Hayes is Vesey’s childhood buddy may have lots to do with him signing with the Rangers. It’s not like there isn’t a connection.

    You at least acknowledge the Leafs depth at LW but state it’s a cop out for an excuse why the Leafs didn’t sign Vesey. Well think of it this way… Nolan Vesey plays LW like his bro. If Jimmy signed with the Leafs, it is possible his signing could sabotage his bro career with the Leafs due to LW depth.

    Finally the title to your article is pure hyperbole. Just because the Leafs were unable to sign Stamkos or Vesey isn’t evidence Toronto is blackballed as FA destination.

  • Capt.Jay

    they need to keep it simple and have shanahan do the talking. he convinced Babcock. once mlse and Canadian tire get involved, it becomes too much. shanny knows how to sell the sh*t out of something. lamoriello isn’t needed as a voice in these meetings. maybe have Babcock say a few things about the team but shanahan should do the pitch plain and simple because I think there are too many voices and they’re selling too much. it’s overwhelming.

  • Newleafs

    So if the leafs don’t get everything they want that is something to be concerned about?

    I think we are taking this center of the hockey universe thing a little too far here.

    Joking aside, you cannot oversimplify here. For example what if Stamkos just wanted to test the market but was already happy in Tampa? It doesn’t mean he doesn’t like Toronto just means he likes Tampa better. As the captain he would have a certain emotional connection with “his” team would he not?

    I’m not concerned about Vesey. Seems like every year these kinds of players are getting over hyped. A certain Edmonton defensemen who got traded/run out of town to Pittsburgh and won the cup last comes to mind.

    Making assumptions and oversimplifying isn’t typically a good way to lead to unbiased analysis. Each situation is unique. Vesey did say he liked the NYR pitch better. Maybe TOR was honest about the fact we have a boatload of Young LW players that would be competition with him. Or maybe he used his Harvard educated brain and figured that out himself by looking at the depth chart of the team. Not really hard to speculate on good reasons why he didn’t choose TOR.

    Oh yea, what ever happened to that Bailey that signed last year… We traded him. The competition for roster spots in TOR is going to be tougher than a lot of people are making it out to be.

  • Capt.Jay

    I wish Vesey all the best! Toronto already has a very rich prospect situation. nice to have … certainly…Imperative…No! What I do find a little disturbing is that a Scribe is suggesting that a Top Flight Management Team LIE to an elite prospect, throw him in the mix and if he doesn’t quite make it, so what?…pitch down to the AHL…disillusion him,maybe dump his attitude!! I don’t think that is the MO of this organization…It was that type of mentality that scared off Free Agents….Perhaps you didn’t see Polak’s remarks about the honesty he got from Uncle Lou!!! Thankfully you are just writing your opinions and not running the Toronto Maple Leafs!!

  • GigHarborLeafFan

    This is the first time that I have ever posted a comment on this or any site about the leafs. However, I was so disappointed to see an article of such poor quality on this site. I agree all the other posts. In fact, I would go further to say this is really bush-league reporting. Ryan, I really don’t want to waste my time on such dribble.

  • Gary Empey

    The plan was to rebuild through the draft. We acquired prospects and draft picks who last year, excelled in their junior, European, or AHL.

    Why would we now change and start rebuilding through free agency and abandon those prospects?

    Since free agency opened there has been a constant hue and cry from Leaf Nation to go out and sign FA’s or trade for players other teams are having trouble signing because of their cap. Some even suggesting we make offer sheets to RFA’s.

    I am all for sticking with the Shanaplan.

    I also think Lamoriello is a straight shooter when it come to negotiations. He tells the players he signs where they will stand in the organization. He also signs them to a fair and reasonable contract.

  • CMpuck

    I actually like this article it reminds me of Helene Elliot writing an excellent article on the Kings inability to sign free agents and she laid out a pattern of failures when NJ won the Kovalchuk sweepstakes.

    The question of why such a great market struggles. To be in a league where big name UFAs routinely sign with the Wild and the Rangers always do well in this regard.

    Losing out on Stamkos and Vesey sucks, Leafs are still in a good position and happy to them continue to build through the draft but getting that gravy piece from market would be a nice luxury. Even a fun seal of a deal like the ROR trade.

  • Trevor5555

    Two main points illustrate why I think the premise of the article is totally false.

    Toronto was the only team to get a meeting with Stamkos so clearly he thought highly enough of Toronto to meet with them in person. Nobody knows what was discussed there so to assume Toronto did something wrong by bringing the CEO guy and and in turn infer that the Leafs methods are scaring off free agents is just unprofessional.

    Tampa was always going to be the favorite given that he is established there, he likes the city, team, staff and has a comfort level with the people he plays/works with. The tax breaks and climate are just two more perks. Tampa being such a strong team and Stamkos being 26 makes it a perfect fit for him to chase his Stanley Cup. Toronto had to overcome a lot of factors that favored Stamkos staying in Tampa and they werent able to do it. That doesnt shine a negative light on Torontos managment group, team or city and saying it does shows a lack of understanding about how these things work. A good excercise is putting yourself in the players shoes and asking why would I want to change teams vs stay put.

    Looking at the Vesey situation its even more clear that Toronto didnt fail in its attempt for any reason other than player preference. Immediately I thought….How cool would it be to live in New York and play on Broadway? How many more business relationships would there be for a Havard grad in New York vs Toronto? Not to mention Vesey might have a hard time cracking the Marlies top 6 given Torontos depth on the wing.

    Toronto has 6-8 wingers making under 1 million who are very close if not better than Veseys skill level. Any one of Hyman, Rychel, Soshnikov,Leivo, Brown, Leipsic, Kapanen and Lindberg could turn out as good or better than Vesey. Marner, Nylander, JVR and Komarov are all better right now and likely in the top 6. Vesey would be fighting 6-8 good prospects for a NHL roster spot and I think that is the most likely reason why Vesey chose New York over Toronto.

    So its likely the strength of Torontos team on the wing that detered Vesey not anything that Toronto did wrong.

    • Gary Empey

      Trevor some astute observations on your part especially the marketing possibilities for Vesey in the big apple. The Rangers are thin in their farm system so naturally Vesey would have a much better chance in cracking into the Rangers line up including the possibility of the top six.

  • G2

    Stamkos and Vesey choose the easy way – neither of them wanted to ‘compete’ for a spot. It’s that simple. They chose to get paid and a guaranteed spot. What we want is guys that look at the competition on our roster and take on the challenge. These guys are not it. That’s probably ‘the offer’ they were given by Lou: come here and compete and if you win you can have it all but nothing will be given to you. They chose to go/stay where they were promised that they’re ‘the one’. There’s nothing wrong with our management.

  • G2

    I think the thing is that clicks beget advertising dollars. Once a thing becomes about the dollars you get the type of desperate crap that has been on display on this site all summer. I’m no fan boy but I certainly don’t think this cynical negativity in pursuit of clicks is anything worth reading. In addition, smug and condescending corrections of a commenter’s word choices doesn’t look good on anyone.

  • G2

    My goodness. I am a big leaf fanand have stumbled on this site for the second time. What a bull crap article. Ryan, stick to something you know about, because it certainly isn’t the leafs. It’s so sad to see now a days all the bull….that’s comes out of all these so called…. I don’t know what they are but please stop writing articles on the leafs, when you have no idea what you are talking about.

  • Whoa, comments have gotten pretty intense. But it’s all good.

    Just wanna say the article seemed pretty tame when I wrote it, so I’m surprised by the talk of it being too negative. I’m not really worried at all about the overall direction of the club (which I’ve said many times here). They’re in fine hands. Just think it’s fair to question why, when it seemed the odds were so stacked for the Leafs with these two players, they didn’t land either. Maybe they’re not doing anything “wrong”, but there’s a reason those FAs went elsewhere. That pitch that pried Lamoriello out of Jersey and Babcock from Detroit/Buffalo obviously didn’t hit the mark with the players this go-around.

    [Btw, the accusation of this being clickbait is silly. Pieces like this (opinion, rant, whatever) don’t usually drive traffic, and I published this on a Saturday afternoon – typically a bit of a dead zone in that regard]

    • CMpuck

      The pure joy on landing 1OA blinds people.

      You know what would make a good article, how would this summer be received if we didn’t win the lottery and drafted say Dubois? People would have taken offense to ever other pick the Leafs made, Polak and Martin, losing Stamkos, Vesey and the contract Andersen was handed.

      Matthews literally is making it all better.

      • Muskoka's Own

        People have taken offence over those moves! I don’t think this management team has ever been questioned as much as this off-season, and rightly so. But with all the legitimate criticisms that have been discussed, draft choices, martin and Polak, Andersen contact, the criticisms in this article seem baseless. With Stamkos, it was always going to be an up-hill climb, TBay had lots going for them. There isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a guaranteed spot on the big club for Vesey, so he went somewhere there was. Cases closed imo!

  • I might expect the question posed in the article’s title to be asked in the other non-PPP Leaf blogs, or even in MSM. I think other TLN readers are of the same opinion.

    The better question to explore is “Are the Leafs scaring off free agents?” Citing why Stamkos/Vesey were better off with TB/NYR respectively while Zaitsev chose TOR, then you could quite easily conclude the answer is “no”. I mean, it’s a natural question for us to ask after not signing 2 high profile players. However, asking “are they” instead of “why are they” steers clear of the near-hyperbolic tone of this article.

    That’s what I’d like for TLN readers.

  • Stan Smith

    The Leafs are back to scaring away free agents again? If most of the reports I read are true, if you add Stamkos and Vesey to the list of other “big” free agents that didn’t sign with them, it would bring the total to 2.

    You state the Leafs offered Stamkos the money. From what I read they basically offered him the same after tax money that Tampa offered him, and then he went back and got a half million more from the Lightning. We don’t even know if he was serious about leaving Tampa, or was just testing the waters to see how big a deal he could get. Once the Leafs didn’t come through with substantially more than he was already offered, he went back the where he was comfortable.

    As for Vesey I can see the Leafs opening the conversation telling Vesey he would play this season for the Marlies, and that was that. At least I hope that is the way that conversation would have started.

    In the recent past the Leafs couldn’t get name players to sign with them. Now it appears more like they don’t need them. Before they dealt from a position of weakness. Now they are dealing from a position of strength.

  • Trevor5555

    The Rangers got vesey because they signed another college free agent (Kevin Hayes) and they have a track record of making it work with collage free agents