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The “Unqualified” Free Agents could provide the solution the Leafs salary cap woes

I don’t think this is my worst quality, in fact I know I have much worse ones, but I’ve noticed I have a character flaw. I am overly attached to formerly can’t miss prospects who have most definitely missed. It’s because of that I spent yesterday closely watching as team after team released the names of the restricted free agents that they would not be submitting qualifying offers to. You can find the full list of them on PuckPedia.

There are a few reasons that teams don’t qualify their free agents. The one that has popped up most recently is the realization that arbitration rights are a difficult thing to deal with, especially since it’s pretty binding in most cases, especially for players that end up at the bottom of the roster.

12.10 Walk-Away Rights for Player-Elected Salary Arbitration.
(a) If a Club has elected to arbitrate a one-year SPC, and the award issued is for
$3,500,000 or more per annum, then the Club may, within forty-eight (48) hours after the award
of the Salary Arbitrator is issued (or, if a Club has any other Player still eligible for salary
arbitration at that time and for whom a decision has not been rendered by a Salary Arbitrator at
that time, and the Club still has a walk-away right available to it in such League Year pursuant to
paragraph (c) below, forty-eight (48) hours after the award of the Salary Arbitrator for such other
Player is issued or that Player’s salary arbitration case is settled), notify the Player or his
Certified Agent, if any, the NHLPA and the NHL in writing, in accordance with Exhibit 3
hereof, that it does not intend to tender to the Player an SPC based on the award as determined
by the Salary Arbitrator. Upon receipt of that notice, the Player shall automatically be deemed to
be an Unrestricted Free Agent

The idea of locking in on a ruling up to $3.5M seems bad enough, but of course as the cap goes up…

(d) The dollar amount of $3,500,000 set forth in each of paragraphs (a) and (b) above
shall be increased on an annual basis at the same percentage rate of annual increase as the
Average League Salary, with the first such increase occurring based upon a comparison of the
2014/15 Average League Salary to the 2013/14 Average League Salary. By way of example, if
the Average League Salary for the 2014/15 League Year has increased by ten (10) percent from
the Average League Salary for the 2013/14 League Year, then the figure of $3,500,000 stated in
paragraphs (a) and (b) above shall be increased by ten (10) percent to $3,850,000.

Adjusting for salary cap inflation, teams are now locked in on all rulings under $4.4M and that’s potentially a lot to commit to the bottom of the roster, and we’ve certainly seen GM’s like Burke and Nonis get burned by these decisions in the past. There are probably a number of teams that are still actively trying to sign their players that they didn’t qualify, but had worries about a potential arbitration going sideways on them. The names that seem to best fit this group this season are Nathan Beaulieu and Ben Hutton who are very serviceable defensemen, and should potentially be targets for the Leafs, but also players like Brandon Leipsic, Ryan Hartman, and Pontus Aberg who are capable bottom six forwards, though ones that you don’t want to pay too much for.

The second group of free agents that didn’t receive qualifying offers are the players that teams just straight up don’t think are good enough to play in the NHL and they are ready to cut them loose. This is the largest group and there is an important divide on how we look at those players. You could look at them from the perspective that in many cases the player has been a part of the organization for 3+ years and that organization has assessed that they are not capable of taking the next step. Or you could look at it from the perspective that the organization that has them has done them dirty in their development, and a fresh start can change them. I am guilty of believing the second one far too often, especially when it comes to players I loved in junior, like Curtis Lazar.

The aspect that is most appealing about this group is that there is still some wishful thinking on a late bloomer, or someone reaching the potential people envisioned for them when they were drafted, and getting that for pennies on the dollar. To some extent the Leafs attempted this last season with Jordan Subban, and it didn’t workout beyond him continuing to be a capable AHL defenseman, and that’s also okay. The Leafs have a number of departures from the Marlies this season including Subban, LoVerde, Oleksy, Gagne, Baptiste, and Jooris, and backfilling them through swing for the fences free agents is probably the way to go. Let Gilman have some fun and try to build a championship team out of the remains of the 2013 draft (seriously, half the players without qualifying offers seem like they came from the 2013 first round) and potentially the Leafs will have some worthwhile camp invites and call ups out of the process.

10 to target

Markus Granlund is one of the few centers with NHL experience in the mix. He’s proven to be a steady NHLer, and capable two way player that can fit nicely into the bottom six of the Leafs forward group. His 12 goals last season point to him being a definite upgrade offensively over Freddie Gauthier, and he had favourable xG and CF relative numbers on a bad Canucks team, although that’s largely going to be driven by the competition he faced. Since Granlund made $1.475M last season it’s likely that he’s going to be looking for similar money again this season, and that might be a little rich for the Leafs when they’ve already got Gauthier and Petan as 4C options, but if the intention is to move out Kadri, Granlund could be a cheap 3C backfill as long as you are comfortable with the downgrade at the position.

Ben Hutton is another Canuck who has been made available and looking at his numbers it’s probably easy to tell why. He has absolutely abysmal numbers when it comes to goal differential, expected goal differential, and shot differential, but this can likely be attributed to playing 22 minutes a night on a bad Canucks team. Hutton probably shouldn’t be a top pairing defenseman the same way the Ron Hainsey had no business in that role either. Hutton’s numbers start to look better when you look at previous seasons where he was more sheltered and had a stronger team around him. Perhaps on a reasonable cap hit Hutton could provide a bit of stability to the Leafs blueline playing as a light version of Jake Muzzin further down the roster, and taking on the bulk of the Leafs penalty killing duties.

Tobias Reider didn’t have a single goal last season, and as bad as the Oilers were, that’s at least a little on Tobie. That being said, Reider is a defensively responsible forward and that skillset isn’t overly prevalent on the Leafs. On a cheap contract Reider would be a penalty killer, and has a good chance to play beyond his contract. The biggest worry with Reider is that he’s the type of player Mike Babcock tends to fall in love with, and seeing him overused might cause our eyes to bleed.

Curtis Lazar is a personal favourite. He’s probably best known for eating a cheeseburger off the ice in Ottawa* (*Kanata), but before that he was the captain of the Memorial Cup winning Edmonton Oil Kings. He’s former first round selection from the cursed 2013 draft, and hasn’t been able to find success in either Ottawa or Calgary. Nothing about Lazar’s pro hockey career to date says that he’s going to breakthrough but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a personal favourite that I want to prove the world wrong. Similar to how Jordan Subban was worth a look, I’d say that Lazar is a low risk, potential high reward player if he puts it all together. If not, he’s positive guy who should benefit the Marlies.

Nikita Soshnikov and Brendan Leipsic are a couple of blasts from the past that are worth mentioning. Soshnikov was working out with the Marlies during their playoff run, so immediately put some stock in that, and with Mikheyev and Korshkov coming over from Russia this year, it might be nice to have someone who has lived the experience on the Leafs and Marlies there to guide them, especially since it looks like Zaitsev might not be the resident Russian for much longer.

Leipsic deserves mention since he’s got a bit of that sour pain in the ass to his game, and that’s certainly an element the Leafs could be looking to build into their lineup. He be an affordable 4th line placeholder and give us all the chance to see what could have been.

Pontus Aberg looks to be an affordable scoring winger option, albeit a much slower option than the rest of the Leafs “speed kills” forward group. If the Leafs move on from Connor Brown and don’t think that Petan or one of the Marlies is the right fit, Aberg is a cheap option along the lines of what Tyler Ennis provided, although you could just bring back Tyler Ennis instead.

Brett Ritchie is really big. That’s probably enough to be interesting. Nothing to date says that he’s particularly good, but being 6’4 and being one of the NHL regulars on this list make him somewhat interesting. He’d be a reclamation project, and some work, but if the Leafs think that size of forwards is an area that needs to be addressed, I’d prefer they go the build your own route with Ritchie rather than paying a premium for Ferland.

Ryan Hartman is probably the better, but more expensive version of Ritchie, though the fact that he’s burned through a number of organizations lately doesn’t offer up a lot of enthusiasm about him. The Stars just recently acquired him for Tyler Pitlick, which doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to sign him, but I’d imagine they’ll certainly be key players in negotiating with him for his services. We’re still not that far removed from Nashville hilariously trading a first round pick for Hartman, so there is bound to be a team out there that will roll the dice on Ryan, but while he might be one of the safer bets, I’m not sure he’s the best fit for Toronto.

Dmitrij Jaskin is another intriguing option along the lines of Tobias Reider. He’s got a bit of size. He’s been a solid shot suppressor, and defensive forward in the past, and he certainly could be a solid fit for the bottom six of the Leafs, again with the cavaet that Mike Babcock isn’t allowed to adopt him. Jaskin is what we want to believe Freddie Gauthier could be, except that Jaskin isn’t a center. I’d argue the Leafs would be better off with Jaskin and closing the door on the goat.

Other Names worth mentioning: 

  • Nathan Beaulieu is another capable defenseman, but likely priced too high for what the role he’d play on the Leafs.
  • Ryan Murphy would be an interesting Marlies option at this point, but counting on him to play in the NHL seems like a ship that has sailed. He shoots right, so that will keep him around pro hockey a little while longer.
  • Rourke Chartier is a potential strong candidate for a depth forward or potential challenger for 4C role, but would certainly add value to an AHL roster.
  • Nikita Scherbak has enough size and skill to warrant a look from another team.
  • Brandon Gaunce and Marko Dano are a couple of centers available, but seem destined for AHL careers at this point.
  • Mason McDonald was the one time goaltender of the future for the Flames, and if the Leafs are moving on from Sparks and/or Kaskisuo, McDonald could be worth throwing into the mix with Scott and Woll.

To summarize…

The Leafs have some decent options available to them beyond rushing Marlies into the NHL due to cap constraints. Additionally, if the Marlies play beyond any of these players, the AHL roster can adequately be backfilled from this newest crop of unrestricted free agents as well.

Players like Hutton, Hartman, Beaulieu and Granlund certainly point to worthwhile bottom of the roster options being available, and players like Ritchie and Jaskin suggest there are interesting projects to be had for development teams and inspired coaching staffs.

In a year where we’re hearing that Tyler Myers could be making $8M per year because of the lack of high end talent in free agency, focusing on the forgotten lower tier seems like the savvy move for GMs, and Toronto could start off the summer by establishing strong organizational depth.

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