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Leaflets: Tkachuk fallout, the right fit for Nick Robertson, and how deep will the free agent discounts be?

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
4 months ago
The Leafs wrapped their development camp and now have all but Rasmus Sandin signed. I wouldn’t doubt that this week we could be looking at some Kyle Dubas vacation time kicking in and while I’m sure he takes his phone with him, there’s a strong likelihood that we are in for some slower news weeks. That said, there’s still plenty to react to, so let’s do that.

Two Tkachuks in the Atlantic now

It seems like Atlantic Division teams deserve some form of hazard pay for having two Tkachuks, Marchand, and a Bertuzzi in the division. It’s not a fun place. Maybe the Canadiens will do everyone a solid and ship out Anderson and Gallagher before the season starts.
The Tkachuk trade deserves a few moments of analysis and some appreciation. Kudos to Bill Zito who saw that he had two tough pending UFA contracts coming up next season and flipped to incredibly good players for a 24-year-old 100-point scorer who is a bit of a unicorn when you consider his size, skill, and agitation. They paid a considerable price, but didn’t make their team too much worse (although losing Weegar sucks) in the short term and set their team up for a whole lot of long term success.
Kudos to Bill Zito for taking a risk like this, and honestly this is what I’ve always hoped we’d see out of Kyle Dubas but got the exact opposite. Zito seems cold and calculating about what he wants from his team and will make big splashes to put Florida in the best place to succeed. Toronto appears to be very content with what they have and is now waiting for stars to align in their favour rather than take control of their destiny. While there is a lot I like about Kyle Dubas and the team he has built, he’s settled on this being the best he can do and won’t try for anything better. That doesn’t sit right with me and seems like it could be his undoing.

The importance of Nick Robertson

In a year where the Leafs had to give up Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase, and possibly Alex Kerfoot there is going to be a need to address some of their offense that is heading out their door. Calle Jarnkrok, Nicholas Aube-Kubel, and Adam Gaudette certainly don’t do much of that, so it seems like the burden of scoring will fall on Nick Robertson, who has had some difficulty producing in the NHL in his earlier attempts. Nick Robertson’s struggles (mind you those struggles are his first 16 NHL games) might come down to finding a situation that works best for him and while I can appreciate the push to see him in the top six because that’s where scorers are supposed to live, the reality is there isn’t any interest in taking Bunting off Matthews left side, and Matthews will also be the shooter on his line. Similarly, with the second line, Tavares will be the shooter on his line, and with Tavares taking a step back defensively attaching an offensively driven rooking to his side would pretty much require a defensively inclined third member of the line like Engvall or Jarnkrok. It’s not out of the question, but setting up Robertson might be a challenge.
Robertson should be getting a start in the bottom six and working his way up. Let him get some sheltering rather than thrown to the wolves and that’s where the results will come, it’s just a question of if the Leafs have enough tertiary offence to put with Robertson to make it work. It’s one thing to make him be the line’s shooter, but he needs someone to set him up, or at least another option that warrants the goaltender not just completely squaring themselves to Robertson and having him fire a wasted shot into the goaltender’s chest.
I’m not going to go and throw out line combinations in July, but it feels like if the plan is to keep the separation of Nylander and Tavares permanent, Robertson might do better with Nylander. It’s just in that scenario really need someone capable of being defensively responsible.

Bargain veterans

When you look at who is left in free agency the list is littered with recognizable names of players who were stars or superstars over the past decade. PK Subban, Phil Kessel, Paul Stastny, and (for the purpose of adding a fourth) Loui Eriksson are all still available and not likely to come at too high a cost. Considering the position the Leafs are in of (A) being a great regular season that people feel they can work with, and (B) the Leafs not having any cap space in order to do anything other than add ‘swing for the fences’ type players who might show something in the final years of hockey, this seems like a match made in heaven.
Of course, Paul Stastny has been pretty vocal about his distaste for Canadian COVID policies, and as an American-born player those two elements will probably see him land on the other side of the border. Phil Kessel, I wouldn’t exclude from the Leafs because he’s American, I’d exclude Phil Kessel because I can’t imagine he has any interest in talking to the Toronto media again. Loui Eriksson is a tough sell, so I’m not going to try and make it, but I think now that we’re not talking about $6M AAV Loui Eriksson he does have some value and he clearly has an interest in playing still as he has been fielding offers from European teams.
That brings us back to PK Subban, and it seems like we always wind up here. To some degree, the Subban camp might be waiting out the John Klingberg situation and feeling he could receive a better offer after the top RD option is off the table. We’ll see if that materializes, but it seems to be fairly quiet on the Subban front so far in free agency.
As for other potential bargain vets, Anton Stralman played 74 games last year averaging 21:40 TOI, Victor Rask is a decent blend of tertiary offence with reliable defensive play that could be a suitable center option for someone like Nick Robertson, Michael Raffl seems like he was born to play beside David Kampf on what could be the stingiest line in the NHL, and there’s the possibility that Evan Rodrigues overplayed his hand when looking for a payday and a team like the Leafs that showed interest in him before might get him on a short term bargain.
It is a bit premature to shut the door on free agency, but the catch is that the Leafs would need to free up some contract spaces as well as some cap space. The Leafs are sitting at 48 out 50 contracts (once Kressler and Voit’s contracts slide) and with Rasmus Sandin being the 49th contract, that leaves one space left for the Leafs to fill. As bizarre as it seems that they’d fill it and not maintain that minimal flexibility, the need to improve the core roster dictates that they’ll probably want to use it.
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