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Photo Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

3 Toronto Maple Leafs that could have great seasons given their cheap contracts

It’s finally September and that means preseason hockey is at the end of this month and the actual season gets underway in just a bit over a month as well. Whether you’re excited about another Toronto Maple Leafs season or stressed about the chance of them repeating history for the sixth straight year, this season should be interesting to watch, to say the least for multiple reasons. The Maple Leafs went out in free agency and made multiple adds to the roster up front, depth pieces on the back end and even a brand new goalie to partner with Jack Campbell after the departure of Frederik Andersen.

This season we could be in store to watch not just the Maple Leafs’ best players continue to be great and grow as they get older, but we could watch some players have pretty underrated seasons in the blue and white. I say that because all of the attention is obviously going to be on players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly, and that leaves barely any attention to some of the other players on the team.

Before I start, I decided to leave Jason Spezza off this list simply because we all know what we’re going to get in him every season. For the past two seasons, he’s made well under a million dollars and produced greatly for a fourth-liner that sees little to no ice-time. I felt like it was more necessary to kind of give him an honourable mention and allow me to name three other players who aren’t making a lot of money that could produce greatly for the type of contract they have.

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1. Rasmus Sandin – 21 years old – LD

2020-21 stats – 9 GP – 0 G – 4 A – 4 PTS – 14:40 TOI

Career stats – 37 GP – 1 G – 11 A – 12 PTS – 14:24 TOI

Contract – $894K x 1 year (ELC contract)

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Now I know Sandin is on his ELC, but I decided to throw him in here. This season may very well be the season where we see Rasmus Sandin break out in a bigger role for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Over the last two seasons, Sandin has only played in a total of 37 games for the team and when you hear that you might be thinking, only 37 games over two seasons and he only has one year left on his ELC? I know, it sucks they burnt two years of his ELC for just 37 games, but it was also unfortunate for Sandin as he broke his foot at the beginning of the season and it ultimately ruined his chance to start on the Maple Leafs, but then towards the end of the season, he suited up for nine games which was great to see.

Sandin is a young two-way defenseman that can produce on the power-play and will definitely be a great addition full time for this group next season. Over two seasons in the NHL, we’ve seen Sandin slowly grow into a better player, and despite only having 37 career games under his belt, more than not when he’s out there on the ice he looks like he’s been doing this for years now.

He’s only averaged roughly 14 and a half minutes of ice-time throughout his career, but I think it’s safe to say next season, we could be seeing that number rise a bit with him more than likely being a full-timer on the third pairing to start the season and obviously getting some power-play minutes once again. Whether that’s on the first unit or second unit, that’s still to be decided.

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In his rookie season, Sandin skated in 28 games putting up one goal, seven assists for eight points while averaging 14:19 of ice-time. Last season, in only nine games, Sandin registered zero goals, four assists for four points while averaging a slight increase in ice-time with 14:40. We also got to see him on both power-play units throughout his time with the Maple Leafs last season as the coaching staff kept trying to juggle the units to find the right mix after the team went dry for almost half the season.

This upcoming season, we could definitely see Sandin break the 30 point mark in his last year of his ELC if he’s given the opportunity to stick in the lineup for the majority of the season while playing on one of the power-play units again. With an offence like Toronto’s and if you’re on a power-play unit with guys like Matthews, Marner, Nylander etc, you’re bound to rack up the points, unless they go bone dry on special teams again somehow.

 

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2. Michael Bunting – 25 years old – LW

2020-21 stats – 21 GP – 10 G – 3 A – 13 PTS – 16:42 TOI

Career stats – 26 GP – 11 G – 3 A – 14 PTS – 15:19 TOI

Contract – $950K x 2 years

This might be the best or one of the best bang for your buck contracts in the NHL next season with Michael Bunting. Bunting, who recently signed a two-year contract carrying an AAV of $950K with the Toronto Maple Leafs is coming off a rookie season with the Arizona Coyotes where he suited up for only 21 games but posted 13 points, 10 of them being goals. Yes, I said 10 of them being goals. Now, he was shooting at a ridiculous rate and his shooting percentage will definitely take a dive next season, but he showed that he can play at the NHL level and with his playstyle, he’ll fit in nicely with the team next season.

Bunting isn’t a giant when he’s out there, but that doesn’t stop him from playing a certain way out there on the ice. He stands at 5’11 and 197 lbs and plays a style that is hard on the puck, willing to go into the corners, willing to drive the net hard to score in those areas and he doesn’t shy away from opponents. Mhm, that sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Oh yeah, Zach Hyman. With Hyman’s departure to Edmonton, he’s going to be missed a ton, but I can’t stress enough how excited I am to see what Michael Bunting can do on this Maple Leafs team for the next two seasons.

With Bunting’s playstyle, he can easily play anywhere in the lineup in my opinion and will honestly fit in well on any line like Zach Hyman. If you put him alongside Matthews and Marner on the first line, then you’re going to get a line basically like what we saw last season, Bunting who will work hard down low to retrieve pucks and go to the net, Marner who will set his linemates up and of course, Matthews who will score the majority of the time.

You can say the same thing with the Tavares and Nylander line as well as both the first and second lines have similarities. However, if he doesn’t slide into either top two lines, then the third line is a line that is very intriguing to me if he is out on it. The third line could become a shut-down line again for Sheldon Keefe’s Leafs as that’s something he’s always wanted on this team. A potential third line of Michael Bunting, David Kampf and Ilya Mikheyev? Those are just three names I put out there, the Maple Leafs have a lot of players that will be fighting for a spot in this lineup so it’ll be very interesting to see who gets in on the opening night lineup and where everyone is slotted.

With Bunting’s production in a small sample size last season and the chance to play on either top two lines beside some world-class players, I honestly can see Bunting hitting the 40 point mark next season, and if that is the case, then having Bunting for two years at $950K per year is a great contract for the team and great production as well.

 

3. Ondrej Kase – 25 years old – RW

2020-21 stats – 3 GP – 0 G – 0 A – 0 PTS – 8:30 TOI

Career stats – 207 GP – 43 G – 54 A – 97 PTS – 14:15 TOI

Contract – $1.25M x 1 year

The signing of Ondrej Kase this off-season honestly came out of left field and surprised me a bit, but I’m all for it if Kase can stay healthy for the full season or at least a good chunk of the season. He has all the tools to be a very good top-six winger in this league but has been hit with countless injuries throughout his young career, most of them being concussions, so you have to be careful with a player like Kase.

Toronto is now his third team in just seven seasons. Drafted in the 7th round by the Anaheim Ducks in 2014, he spent four seasons with the organization before being traded to the Boston Bruins which saw the Bruins acquire Ondrej Kase for David Backes, Axel Andersson, and a 2020 1st round pick and now with Toronto as a free agent signing. He’s yet to play in a full 82 game season or at least reach the 70 game mark in a season throughout his career due to his injury history, so that’s a big risk signing a player like Kase, however, if he can stay healthy as I said, this signing will be a huge win in my books for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He signed a one-year, $1.25M contract with the Maple Leafs, and the initial thought was it’s a huge high-risk, high-reward signing for Toronto, but that’s the risk they’re willing to take on a talented player with an injury history like Ondrej Kase. Where Kase could slot in the Maple Leafs lineup is not something I know just yet as there are countless players fighting for a spot in this lineup and no one really knows where anyone will be slotted except the obvious ones like Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander.

If Kase is granted a spot in the top six alongside two of those players I just named and he can stay healthy, this season is going to be a treat. If he’s slotted on the third line, which is definitely a possibility if Keefe goes the route of slotting two of Bunting, Kerfoot or Ritchie in the top-six then I think he could even thrive in that role too. It’s honestly just whether he’s going to be on the first line, second line or third line to start next season and where he’ll end up throughout the season.

Kase’s career-high in points in a single season is 38 which he set back in the 2017-18 season with the Ducks. He’s only had two other seasons with 20 or more points but that’s obviously due to injuries. He has a total of 97 points in 207 career games giving him a career point per game of 0.47 which isn’t terrible by any means, it’s actually pretty good for someone who has faced a lot of challenges throughout their young career. With a team like Toronto and a player like Kase, I think it could be a win-win for both the team and the player if he can remain healthy and truly show what he is capable of doing in a full season or at least somewhat of a full season.