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Erik Gustafsson: Back with the Maple Leafs or gone in 2023-24?

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Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
10 months ago
We’ve spent a lot of time covering the Toronto Maple Leafs’ shocking trade deadline that saw them bring in a crop of experienced, grizzled veterans including Ryan O’Reilly and Jake McCabe. The most perplexing trade they made, however, was the one that saw them deal young defenseman Rasmus Sandin to the Washington Capitals in exchange for defenseman Erik Gustafsson and the Boston Bruins’ first round pick in the 2023 draft.
There had been rumblings for a while about the Maple Leafs parting with Sandin at that point. Between his mini-contract holdout at the start of the season, and the need to upgrade the top-4 and get it ready to face a heavy forecheck team like the Tampa Bay Lightning, it didn’t look like there was much of a path forward for him in Toronto. That said, I don’t think anybody expected the trade to go down as quickly as it did.
The deal was puzzling for some fans, others were flat-out not happy with it. Sure, the team needed an upgrade in the top-4, but did they have to move on with somebody as promising as Sandin? And if so, what was the point in acquiring Gustafsson? The team already had a puck-moving, offence-first defenseman in Morgan Rielly. Where would Gustafsson fit in the lineup?
These questions remained all the way until the end of the season and still linger now. The funniest part is that despite finishing the season with more points than any other Maple Leafs defenseman, at 42 points in 61 games, Gustafsson barely played. He appeared in only nine regular season games for the Maple Leafs, and only two playoff games (one of which he scored a goal in).
The reality is, Gustafsson was probably dealt a worse hand than he should have gotten at the deadline this season. And given that the Maple Leafs are likely heading into next season with everybody besides Justin Holl and potentially Luke Schenn returning, I’m not remotely close to confident the Maple Leafs will bring him back.

Projected cap hit: Somewhere between $1.5 million and $2.5 million

Okay, I know this is a big range. But I have no idea how GMs across the league will view Gustafsson. He made $800,000 on a one-year contract with the Capitals last season, likely because his offensive totals took a massive dip with the Chicago Blackhawks the season before, finishing the 2021-22 season with only 18 points in 59 games.
That being said, Gustafsson is the owner of a 60 point season (albeit back in 2018-19), and his performance in 2022-23 should be enough to warrant him getting a raise. I looked at contracts signed by fellow defensemen last season, including Justin Schultz (2x$3m) and John Klingberg (1x$7m). I don’t think he’s surpassing either of these players, especially not the latter, but I don’t think he’ll be making under a million next season unless the interest from other teams is drastically low.
The only scenario where I can see the Maple Leafs bringing him back, is if Mark Giordano were to retire. But even then, that likely still limits his role to somewhere on the bottom pairing or potentially as the seventh. I’d imagine he’d rather go somewhere where he has a bigger role, and somewhere he’ll be paid more than what the Maple Leafs can give him. For these reasons, I simply can’t see him in a Leafs uniform next season.

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