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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

5 Potential Bargain Forwards the Leafs Could Pursue in Free Agency

Free agency is always a wild time in the hockey world, especially in recent years considering we’ve actually had a few big names make it, like John Tavares, Artemi Panarin, Alex Pietrangelo, and potentially Dougie Hamilton (technically Alex Ovechkin as well but I think everyone knows he’s going to stay in Washington).

It’s also a time for when teams can gain or lose a ton of value by bringing in players depending on the contract you sign them too. The latter happens more often, and we’re already lined up for a ton of those with the Barclay Goodrow contract, and the rumours surrounding Zach Hyman and Blake Coleman. Teams are overvaluing size again, and they’re going to hand out a lot of bad contracts to get what they want.

Because of that, it creates some smart opportunities for the former in bringing in good players on bargain deals, something that Kyle Dubas has done a pretty good job of in his tenure with the Leafs. Tyler Ennis was an effective player on the fourth line, Spezza has been great on his league minimum deals, and even Travis Boyd was pretty good in his brief time with the Leafs before he was lost on waivers.

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In a flat cap era, and as much money tied into the big four as the Leafs have, bringing in bargain forwards is essential to this team having success, as it adds much needed depth that they don’t have the cap space to pay up for. It was something that bit them in the playoffs last year, as we saw that once Matthews and Marner are shut down, they’ll need more than just Nylander and Spezza to put up points.

That’ll be my primary focus here, as while the Leafs had a lot of depth scoring in the regular season last year, it shallowed up in the playoffs, partially because going all in on the veteran presence approach basically meant a good chunk of the lineup was given to guys who were fatigued and couldn’t score anymore. I think filling out the roster with guys with good scoring rates could really help improve the depth scoring, and give the lineup more threats and make teams have to spread out their shutdown pairs.

Of course, looking at scoring rates means some of these names aren’t going to be the most sexy picks, so just hear me out. Also, I’ll be using Evolving Wild’s contract projections to get the basic sense of who are bargains because it’s the closest thing we got right now, and even then, who knows, NHL teams are dumb and will throw money at literally anybody.

Tomas Tatar

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So, I’m stretching a bit with the “bargain” part when I talk about Tatar, because currently his projected contract is around $5.2 million for three years. That’s definitely not cheap, but I also think that that might not be what the market value for Tatar is at this point. He had a really strong regular season with 30 points in 50 games, but he was a consistent healthy scratch for the Habs in the playoffs, making it into just the first five games of the playoffs and never playing again.

So, it’s possible he could not go for much in free agency, or even that he’s willing to take a cheap, one year deal on a good team to improve his value and cash in next summer, and while there might be better options if he wants to win a Cup, the Leafs could tout their development staff, and use Galchenyuk’s resurgence with the Leafs as a selling point to turn around his game. He’d be an extremely useful asset to the team if he did join, as his 2.47 5v5 points per 60 rate over the last three years is the best out of every unrestricted free agent this season, including Ovechkin, Landeskog, and even random players who played like 20 minutes and scored a goal. He also had really strong underlying numbers these past few years (see the chart above), and even if you wanted to say it was because of playing with Gallagher a lot, it at least shows that he could play in the top six and not drag those lines down.

The salary will be the big thing because who knows what some GM might throw at him regardless, but if he’s cheap, Tatar is honestly my top depth option this offseason, especially with his history of 20 goal seasons. He’s such a good fit for this team.

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Michael Bunting

Bunting has gone from being an unknown to being on a decent amount of Leafs fans wish list this offseason, and there’s definitely reason for that. He had a bit of a breakout this season, scoring 10 goals and 13 points in just 21 games this season with the Coyotes, after playing only four games otherwise.

That said, there’s definitely a downside with him, and that’s the sample size involved. With Tatar, we have 10 seasons that tell us he’s a top six forward. With Bunting, we have 21 games, and he had a 26.3% shooting percentage as well. He’s currently projected to get one year at around $1 million, so it certainly wouldn’t be an expensive gamble to make if he turns out to be not much of a goal scorer, but there’s definitely intrigue with him.

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Derek Ryan

Ryan was super popular around these parts three years ago, and apparently he was pretty close to signing with the Leafs if they didn’t end up with that bum John Tavares. And for good reason, as he’s a very strong defensive center. He’s 34 at this point, so hoping for him to put up high 30s point totals at this point is optimistic, but at the very least, it gives the Leafs another center option and can allow them to move Kerfoot up the lineup if they want to.

Even then, 1.8 5v5 points per 60 isn’t anything to scoff at, so he could probably be a reliable producer in a third line role on this team, and if Keefe still wants to put together a shutdown line, he’ll be great in that role as well. His current contract projection has him at just under $2 million for two years, so that would be a solid deal for a third line center.

Ondrej Kase

While Tatar is my dream UFA acquisition, Ondrej Kase is probably my favourite option out of the unqualified RFAs. He’s a pretty strong play driving forward, and his scoring rates are also really strong at 1.84 points per 60 minutes. That shouldn’t be a huge shock, as the fact that his career had a promising start as his second and third NHL seasons saw him score at a 24.8 and 30 goal pace.

Of course, the reason why I had to use pace here is because he has significant injury concerns that come with him. He has yet to play a full season in his career, and he only got into three games this season as well, so there’s immediate concern there. But, the potential is there and at 24 you still might be able to squeeze a bit of value out of there, and worst case scenario, he gets hurt again, and you can give that spot for Robertson to try or something. Evolving Hockey currently has him making league minimum on a one year deal, so that would definitely be a gamble worth taking.

Pius Suter

Like Tatar, I’m stretching the “bargain” part here as he’s projected to make $4.5 million a year on a four year deal, so again, we’re betting on the market not being high on him here. It’s probably less likely with Suter than Tatar, because he’s coming off a 14 goal, 27 point rookie season which also saw him get four Calder votes. There’s a bit more recognition for his talent here, and being a bit younger might mean he might be more of a hot commodity.

But, like I said at the start, the league is valuing size right now, so there’s potential that the market might not be there for him. (Yes, I know I’m stretching here, I just REALLY want this to happen)

Salary data from Puckpedia.com. A full list of unrestricted free agents can be found here.