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Leafs’ low-risk free agency moves signal the future

In the flurry known as July 1st in the world of the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to make moves that were not seen as especially game-breaking, but will certainly have an effect on their success next season.

Through multiple league-minimum contracts that are just for one year, Dubas has been able to cement some roster depth and take minimum risk doing so. If the unlikely scenario of every single signing absolutely bombing and not looking like NHL-level talent ever happens, then they can be sent down to the Marlies or scratched with no major repercussions.

On this star-heavy team, the Leafs will need to continue doing this process through their years of contention. Unless a major change happens in the CBA or the cap structure, trying to find these small diamonds in the pile of trash when free agency opens is what Dubas will have to do.

It might seem harsh, but using these undervalued players for one season and then letting them walk might be a thoughtful strategy with the current makeup this Leafs team has. They have no problem with skill at the top, and they paid for it, but towards the bottom of the lineup, there is extreme risk in spending any amount of cap dollars above league minimum.

Length (Years) Cap Hit
C Jason Spezza 1 $700k
LW Kenny Agostino 2 $700k
C Nick Shore 1 $750k
D Kevin Gravel 1 $700k
D Martin Marincin 1 $700k

All five of the signings made today and in the past week reflect what is necessary in the spot this team is in currently. They had to pay with a pick to clear up cap space to make this team better, take on Ceci for one season to make this team’s future better, and will eventually lock-up one of their star forwards in Marner to continue his success on this team.

These moves aren’t to try and cheap out and sign players for no reason — they make the team better and should be an upgrade on what the previous Leafs’ lineup looked like.

If past performance is any indicator of what these players can do in Toronto, it looks like their contracts will end up being bargains.

Of course Jason Spezza is not the player he was while in Ottawa, but was still solid enough last season with the Stars to score 27 points in severely cut minutes. The past two seasons in Dallas, Spezza has averaged just over 13 minutes — the lowest mark since his rookie season 16 years ago.

Dubas and the Leafs organization profited off Spezza’s desire to come back to his hometown team, but it’s not like he will be on this team for novelty and sentimental reasons. He will provide valuable depth throughout their bottom forward lines — a significant improvement down the middle where they were a year ago.

The centres don’t even stop there. Underlying numbers beauty Nick Shore is coming back from one season overseas in the KHL and has signed with the Leafs for again, close to league minimum. Probably the most savvy move of them all, Shore was destined to breakout and had some of the best numbers in a depth role around the league while with the Kings two seasons ago.

Through three season and about 2,100 minutes on the Kings, Shore averaged a 56 CF% at 5v5, in the upper echelon of shot attempt-driving talent in the league. Alhough points isn’t his strong suit — hasn’t hit the 20-point mark yet in his career — Shore’s elite capability to drive play with sub-par teammates is exact what the Leafs need on their bottom line.

Most likely lining up beside Trevor Moore or newcomer Ilya Mikheyev, Shore will probably be playing with the most-talented wingers he has played with in the NHL. Whether or not that translates to more scoring is still to be seen. But acquiring Shore for close to nothing is really a no-brainer for what this Leafs team wants to look like.

These two centres will most likely be swapping spots every now and again but at the combined cost of less than what Connor Brown’s cap hit was, it’s a worthy risk to make. And those moves are what the Leafs will be forced into doing while paying their elite stars top dollar.

All of these signings might seem like taking a handful of darts and seeing what ones stick, but the best thing about these contracts is that they can be buried without any concern. If they all end up not being the player that the Leafs want them to be, then there’s no cap trouble with demoting them.

Filling even just a couple roles on the first team would be enough justification to see the July 1st signings as a success story for the Leafs franchise.

With the hard cap system still in place, every team that with contention in mind has to be mindful of the limit. But with the Leafs locked-up to some of the league’s best forwards, they have to play this game throughout their offseasons for years to come.

Trying to find some undervalued players that will sign for less than they’re worth — it can be tricky but with the resources the Leafs have, it fits. If any team could make this system work, it would be one of the wealthiest hockey organizations in the world.

This is coming out of necessity but not in a negative way. The top talent is going to be paid what they’re worth, among the league and to the Leafs themselves. It’s not as if the Leafs would forego any high-caliber player just because the cap hit doesn’t work out perfectly — sign the player and make it work later.

Whether these signings reflect some extremely shrewd moves by Dubas and the Leafs’ management team, or they end up just being depth to make the Marlies more fun, these present no risk at all.

There are still solid NHL players in free agency that will play for league minimum, now it’s just up to the Leafs to find them every July 1.

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