The Toronto Maple Leafs will not be making any roster transactions on July 1st if Mitch Marner’s contract situation drags on, but the organization’s front office will certainly still be hard at work as they look to stock up their AHL affiliate.
The #leafs have used the UFA window to speak with a number of players who may be willing to come in on minimum/near-minimum contracts. Kyle Dubas feels they'll get some value shopping done.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) June 28, 2019
The Marlies are an integral part of the Leafs’ development operation in Kyle Dubas’ regime. The organization has made a concentrated effort to exploit the fact that the AHL doesn’t have a salary cap by signing marquee AHL talent to coincide with their young prospects and help maintain a winning culture.
According to one AHL source, the Marlies paid, on average, around $562,500 to each of their six veteran players – Chris Mueller (NHL one-way, $650,000), Vincent LoVerde (NHL one-way, $750,000), Steve Olesky (NHL one-way, $650,000), Josh Jooris (NHL one-way, $650,000), Colin Greening (AHL one-way, $425,000), Rich Clune (AHL one-way, $250,000) – last season.
As it stands right now, Clune (who likely won’t be a regular in the Marlies lineup anyway) is the only veteran under contract for next season, meaning the Marlies have some free agent shopping to do this summer.
Here’s what the Marlies’ depth chart looks like right now.
Marlies Depth Chart
Extras: Richard Clune, Colt Conrad, Riley Woods, Justin Brazeau, Ryan Moore
Rasmus Sandin-Timothy Liljegren
Andreas Borgman-Joseph Duszak
Extras: Teemu Kivihalme, Jesper Lindgren
As you can see in the depth chart above, the Marlies need two top-six forwards, one top-four defenceman and probably two bottom-six pieces to really round out their lineup. With the Leafs deciding not to extend qualifying offers to Gabriel Gagne, Nic Baptiste, Jordan Subban and Eamon McAdam, it’s clear that the Marlies are going to be flexing their financial muscle as they try to piece together a championship calibre squad.
Let’s take a look at some of the players Toronto could pursue.
First Line Centre
The ideal player to fill in this role is the one who manned it the year prior; Chris Mueller.
Paired alongside Jeremy Bracco for the majority of the 2018-19 season, Mueller, who recorded 65 points in 60 games, was a consistent force for the Marlies at five-on-five and proved to be a staple in front of the net on the man-advantage. Mueller developed as strong of a bond with Bracco on the ice as he did off of it and the established AHL veteran’s guidance was a big reason why the 22-year-old forward was able to dominate (Bracco’s 79 points on the year was the second most of any AHL player).
While the Marlies did not have a captain last season, it’s without question that Mueller was one of the most respected voices in that locker room.
To retain Mueller, the Leafs would have to offer him a one-way NHL contract worth at least $700,000 which shouldn’t be a problem, even if Mueller were to want a tad more cash than the NHL minimum. But If for some reason Mueller doesn’t sign, there are a couple of names on the market that could make a lot of sense for Toronto.
Cal O’Reilly, 32, is an unrestricted free agent coming off a point-per-game campaign with the Iowa Wild last year. O’Reilly, a Toronto native, suited up for 15 games with the Marlies back in the 2016-17 season and perhaps could be inclined to return to his hometown team.
One NHL source confirmed to The Leafs Nation that O’Reilly was on a two-way AHL contract last season ($700,000 in the NHL, 375,000 AHL) and with that being said, surely a one-way deal from Toronto would peak his interests. O’Reilly has established himself as a top-flight AHL talent and for players like him, at this stage of his career, there aren’t many better financial options than a one-way NHL contract.
While O’Reilly could pursue more money overseas, one would have to believe that the idea of returning home would be enough to convince him to ink a one-way deal, were it to be presented to him.
Tanner Kero, 26, is an unrestricted free agent who just completed a 57 point campaign (in 67 games) on a Utica Comets team that was starved for offensive talent. Toronto could make sense for Kero for a lot of reasons. The first of which being that Kero, known for his 200-foot game and strong face-off ability, could very well beat out Frederik Gauthier for the Leafs’ fourth line centre spot at next falls training camp. And in the event that Kero does not crack the Leafs roster, there really isn’t a better place to play in the AHL than the Marlies.
Other notable names that, on paper, could make a lot of sense to fill in the role are; Mike Sgarbossa (Hershey) and Brendan Gaunce (Utica).
Top Six Forwards
One NHL source suggested to The Leafs Nation that there is some mutual interest between Toronto and forward Darren Archibald.
Archibald, 30, split his time between the NHL/AHL last season with both the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators organization, suiting up for 12 NHL games in that span. As the Newmarket native evaluates his options, coming home to Toronto appears to be the most logical move for a player whose hockey career has taken him all over North America for the last eight seasons.
Archibald, a left-shot who plays on the right-wing, is a prototypical power forward with some offensive upside that would mesh well with the likes of Mason Marchment and Adam Brooks, among others
Garret Wilson is another unrestricted free agent who seems to check off many of the boxes Toronto is looking for.
Wilson, 28, spent the bulk of last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, recording eight points in 50 NHL games. Wilson is one of those AAAA players, sitting right on the bubble of being NHL-ready and too-good for the AHL (he had 18 points in 18 AHL games last year), who could add some good competition to Toronto’s training camp and ultimately some firepower at the AHL level.
Wilson isn’t the fastest skater, but he makes up his lack of speed with his competitiveness and solid offensive instincts.
Now, a third name that makes sense for the Marlies is a player that’s under contract with an NHL team and would have to be pried out via trade.
Buddy Robinson, who recorded 42 points in 65 games with the Stockton Heat (Calgary’s AHL affiliate) last season, has a versatile skill set to go along with his 6’6 frame. Robinson can play on both special teams units, he can play in a checking role and provide some offensive upside or he can be relied upon to provide offence. He wears so many hats and his size and experience may even incline Toronto to bring up the 27-year-old forward before bringing up a prospect who is not yet ripe.
Top-Pairing Left-Handed Defenceman
While the Marlies have two top-four left-handed defencemen in Rasmus Sandin and Andreas Borgman, they also have two right-handed defencemen in Mac Hollowell and Joey Duszak that need some support in their early AHL years.
By adding another left-handed defenceman, the Marlies could give themselves three reliable pairings and a little extra bit of depth to brace for the inevitable roster turnover that comes in a given AHL season.
And do you know who would make a lot of sense for the Marlies? 31-year-old Andrew Campbell, once a long-time fan favourite from years past.
Campbell, who was the captain for Team Central at the 2019 All-Star Game, plays as stable of a game as you can find at the AHL level. Adding a veteran player of his calibre who would be familiar with his surroundings would help offset the loss of veteran defenceman Vincent LoVerde, who a source confirmed to The Leafs Nation won’t be re-signing with the Marlies.
26-year-old defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon would fit in nicely with the Marlies, as well.
Wotherspoon, a responsible defender in both zones who can move the puck well, recorded 22 points in 70 contests with the San Antonio Rampage last season. Wotherspoon won’t be able to command a one-way contract, but Toronto could offer him a two-way deal that carries a rich AHL salary.
Julian Melchiori, 27, is another name that could provide some much-needed experience to the Marlies’ blue-line.
While Melchiori has only 30 NHL games on his resume, he spent quite a bit of time with the Winnipeg Jets, as a healthy scratch, during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 seasons. Melchiori’s game is far from flashy at the AHL level, but with an ability to log big minutes and play in all situations, he’s able to get the job done at the end of the day. He’s the type of player that could provide a sort of safety net, per se, for the likes of Mac Hollowell or Joseph Duszak.
Bottom Six Forwards
With so much talent on their roster year after year, the Marlies typically find themselves rolling four solid forward lines. Last year, it was the likes of Colin Greening and Josh Jooris who were staples on the fourth line. Sheldon Keefe turned to that line quite frequently.
Veteran experience throughout the lineup is of the utmost importance, which is why Toronto won’t shy away from giving out big money for players who will be in the bottom-six.
Perhaps Greening and Baptiste, who are currently unrestricted free agents, could return on AHL contracts. Greening was another leader whose presence proved vital to the team inside the dressing room and, by all accounts, the 33-year-old seemed complacent in his role last year – but perhaps he finds a better opportunity elsewhere.
Baptiste wasn’t fantastic after being acquired by the Leafs before the trade deadline, but he’s a player who can forecheck effectively and play with pace. He’d fare well in that bottom-six, but I don’t suspect Toronto will be bending over backwards to retain him.
One guy that makes a lot of sense is Lee Stempniak.
Stempniak – a.k.a Mr Trade Deadline Acquisition – has moved around a lot over the course of his NHL career. Toronto can offer him some stability for a year and, in return, Stempniak could provide some secondary scoring – he recorded 18 points in 20 games last season – and some insurance, in the case of injuries.
Travis Morin, who you may recall from when he and the Texas Stars faced off against the Marlies during the 2018 Calder Cup Championship, is coming off a one-year AHL deal ($250,000) that Toronto could surely top if he decides to leave Texas.
Morin, 35, has been with the Stars for the past decade and I’ve got no idea if he has a desire to leave or not. But if he does, you ought to think Toronto would be interested in bringing someone like Morin, who has compiled 87 AHL playoff games through the course of his career, to push and mentor the young guys.