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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports

10 players that the Leafs should walk away from this summer

We’re now less than four weeks away from July 1st, which means… expired contacts! Younger players will typically be handed qualifying offers to retain their rights while the rest is sorted throughout the summer, while veterans become a race against the clock to get signed before the end of June, lest they test the market.

This means that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a handful of players due for contract renewal over the next few weeks, like every other team. But in a league with a salary cap, a roster limit, and a need to consistently get better, not everybody is worth latching onto for another tour of duty. Here are a few that have likely seen their time expire in Toronto:

Brooks Laich & Milan Michalek

These two are probably the most obvious, seeing as their last few months have basically amounted to being here on paper and little else. Laich came to the Leafs in a salary dump trade that sent Daniel Winnik to the Washington Capitals and also included Connor Carrick and a draft pick coming to Toronto, and while he finished out the year as a veteran on the big club, he spent this season with the Marlies, much to his own dismay. The same went for Michalek, who came as a salary-balancer in the trade that sent Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa; finished last year with the Leafs, even started this year, but found himself to simply be broken down and unable to keep up.

Both players finished the season on injured reserve with zero expectation of a future in Toronto. The positive news for the Leafs here is their departures return a lot of dead cap space to the team: the two combined for a hit of $8.5 million, and while they were able to bury some of that through sending them down, they’ll still be freeing up nearly $7 million through walking away.

Colin Greening

Greening fits into the same origin story as Laich and especially Michalek, having also been in the big Ottawa trade. But I’m including him in a separate spot for a few reasons. For one, the salary coming off the books for him isn’t quite as steep; it’s about $1.7 million after burial.

More importantly, though, he’s leaving on much different terms. Greening went down to the Marlies but maintained a very positive attitude, stayed healthy, and did just about everything he could to help his team, including converting from left wing to centre, alleviating the pressure from a team that was very shallow down the middle and contributing night in, night out.

What I guess I’m saying here is that he deserves a lot of praise for how he handled the year, and he’s someone that I hope gets an NHL contract. He looked more than capable of being a utility forward at the top level based on his play this year, and he’s still got some gas left in the tank at 31 years old. I don’t see a fit for him in Toronto, but I really hope this isn’t the end of his career.

Curtis McElhinney

This will surely come with some controversy, given that many were very pleased with McElhinney’s best performances this season. There were definitely some nights where the mid-season waiver claim kept the Leafs in games; most notably, his 37 save shutout against Carolina on February 19th.

But he can’t be the locked in decision for next year. There’s simply no way. This 0.917 season of his was the best of his career by a pretty clear margin, most of his best performances came in Columbus, and he’s 34 years old. He was a good soldier in a time where Mike Babcock wanted somebody taller than Jhonas Enroth with more experience than his Marlies options, but the Leafs need to at least look at some other options before spinning back to him.

Sergei Kalinin

Kalinin was brought in back in February in a trade that was more Marlies-centric than Leafs-centric. Swapping Viktor Loov for him was an attempt to use a position of strength (left defence) to fill one of weakness (centre), and while the 26-year-old Russian filled that void, his 5 points in 30 regular season and playoff games simply weren’t up to anybody’s hope, even if you expected him to be a shutdown forward.

Interestingly, he’s an RFA next year. I couldn’t even bother with sending him a qualifying offer; the Leafs are at a stage now where they shouldn’t be using contracts on veteran AHLers unless they’re an elite talent in that league.

Dominic Toninato

Toninato was a co-subject in one of my articles a few weeks ago, about unsigned prospects that have fallen behind in a rapidly ballooning and bottlenecking prospect pool. I stick by that train of thought; Toninato’s 29 points in 42 games simply aren’t enough to commit an ELC to at 23 years old. If he wants to sign an AHL deal, so be it, but his agent believes that he’ll be able to get an NHL team to bite. Toronto loses his rights in mid-August if they don’t sign him, and I really doubt that they will.

Steve Oleksy

There are a lot of cap dump players here, eh? I guess that’s the value in weaponizing money during a rebuild. Oleksy isn’t the same as the trio we started this list off with, though; Eric Fehr drove the salary bus in this transaction, while the 31-year-old defenceman came over in part to shed a roster spot, and in part to help the Marlies in a position of need; in this case, it was right-handed defence.

Oleksy, to his credit, was quite good for Toronto’s AHL affiliate in the 31 games he played, scoring 12 points and giving them someone other than Justin Holl or William Wrenn to man that side on their natural hand. But as brought up with Kalinin, it would be preferable to stay away from using up ice time and contract space on minor league veterans unless they’re serious game changers. I’d consider an AHL contract here, but only if the team struggles to find rightie replacements and isn’t comfortable with moving anyone to their off-side.

Andrew Campbell

Campbell is a tough one, given that he’s been the Marlies’ captain for a couple of years now and that he’s performed relatively well in his role as a minute eating shut down defenceman and mentor to his teammates. I’d really prefer to keep him around, but with the Marlies set to have Travis Dermott, Andrew Nielsen, Rinat Valiev, Calle Rosen, and Andreas Borgman on his side, it’s, again, hard to justify a contract. I’d get it if they did, but given that he’s far away from the NHL pecking order at this point, I’d be leading with a hefty AHL contract instead.

His two-year deal with the team had a very interesting structure: an AHL salary of $250,000 in the first year, and $400,000 this year; essentially saying that if he was held back for an extended period of time, they’d give him something extra for his trouble. Few teams are going to offer an AHL sweetener like that on a two-way, so unless he’s able to get a one-way contract with someone (doubtful at his age and reputation), offering him $400-500,000 again on a minor league contract may be the most lucrative route for him. So, in this case, the Leafs should walk away from him, but maybe not the Leafs organization.

Antoine Bibeau

This will surely cause debate, with many believing that Bibeau is the Leafs’ best young hope in net still. I don’t quite understand why that continues to ring true; with over 100 AHL games played, he’s still yet to cross the 0.915 mark in a single season, and has actually seen his save percentage drop on a year-by-year basis.

This year, Bibeau finished 42nd out of 46 goaltenders in save percentage with a minimum of 1440 minutes played (the AHL’s definition of regular), and second-last to Justin Peters with a cutoff of over 1600 minutes. Even as Garret Sparks fell to injury, the team shied away from giving Bibeau a chance to redeem himself, playing just once (in relief) after mid-March.

Bibeau’s a good kid and it would be nice to see him succeed, but he’s just not getting results. The Marlies would likely be best off to look through the undrafted goaltender pool in a few weeks, and if there’s nothing to be found, perhaps look towards a veteran backup for next year or promote Kasimir Kaskisuo on a more full-time basis.

Roman Polak

We’ll save the in-depth dive into Roman Polak for his day in our Season in Review series. Some fans see him as the worst defenceman on the team and a massive net detriment. Some see him as the glue that held things together, a veteran workhorse who left it all on the line and managed to get things done in the end. There’s no convincing either side of the others’ arguments; every Polak debate ends in everybody having a sore brain.

One thing is for sure, though; he’s not the most fluidly mobile player on the planet, and his leg injury, which required surgery and will require months of recovery, will take even more off of that.

It’s too early to say he’s “done”, especially given the chances that players are afforded in this league. But if he was already struggling to keep up with this group before his injury, he’s got little to no hope now. Combine that with the Leafs aiming towards upgrading on right-side defence anyway, and it’s likely time to move on.

  • Kevin

    This list is pretty much bang on. One could make an argument to give Bibeau one more year before cutting ties and Polak may be useful depth, however, there should be better options in free agency for a replacement that brings the same elements (and who is not coming off a series leg injury). McElhinney may be a good secondary option but there should be better backup options and I’d like to see the Leafs target Condon or Nillson.

  • Stan Smith

    As soon as I saw the title and who wrote it, I figured I was going to wade in a pretty much disagree with the whole thing, but (unfortunately. lol) I can’t.

    The only one I would put up a mild argument for is McIlhinney. Backup goalie has to be one of the hardest positions to play, if not the hardest. McIlhenny did a superb job this past season, and he comes cheap. One thing with goalies, is some blossom late, some can go from hero to zero in one start, and vice versa. I think he earned a shot from his performance last season. Plus playing in TO comes with tremendous pressure. Some players can handle it, and some can’t, especially goalies. McIlhenny handled that just fine. Anyone else they sign, and I mean anyone, might not be able to handle that pressure. On the plus side, if I am wrong, he is easily replaced.

    If he wasn’t injured, and doubtful to start the season, I might press to re-sign Polak as well, but as a third pairing guy, he was never going to be a make or break player anyway.

    • Gary Empey

      That back up goalie job really is a tricky one. I am not sure if anyone noticed or not, but as Andersen got better and better he ended up having a lot of players running into him accidentally on purpose. It that continues it is only a matter of time before Andersen ends up with a serious injury. I don’t have a good answer for when and if it happens. All I know is we shall be up the proverbial creek without a paddle if we don’t have someone who can step in for 20 or so games in a row.

    • Gary Empey

      The Polak question is also a bit tricky. On one hand we need some physical presence on the back-end, on the other hand there is a compelling need for more speed and skill back there to compliment our forwards. Last season by bringing Polak back on a one year contract, I think the Leafs anticipated they would have a better replacement for him after this season. So have we got his replacement yet?

      • Stan Smith

        One thing too, is if you noticed, as the season went on, Polak and Hunwick got more involved with the rush. Polak isn’t as slow as some would have you believe. The book on him with the Blues was “quick on his feet for a big man”.

        Also it’s interesting that you made both of those comments back to back. Your first comment is why I think the Leafs Defence needs to get bigger. Part of their job is to protect the goalie.

  • DukesRocks

    Pretty much agree with most of what Jeffer. The only thing I would mention is the Leafs backend lacks size and toughness. Some has stated the league has moved from the rough and tough dman, going with smaller, more skilled puck movers. This maybe true but hockey is a physical game, and you need guys to clear the crease and win puck battles along the board. This is the key reason why Polak was needed. We’ll need to see what the Leaf’s do during the drafts and summer to address backend toughness, until then, Polak is still needed.

    • The Russian Rocket

      When it’s all said and done, he played a role and he was a “pro”. His season was decent but he was supposed to be a depth guy so I don’t think the Leafs want to roll the dice to see if he can play that well again.