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Maple Leafs cap situation, needs, and options heading into day two of free agency

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
11 days ago
The Leafs were active on the opening day of free agency. Chris Tanev, Jani Hakanpaa, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Anthony Stolarz have replaced TJ Brodie, Joel Edmundson, Ilya Lyubushkin, and Ilya Samsonov. While Chris Tanev certainly looks like he has the potential to be a short-term upgrade, the Leafs haven’t exactly lived up to the promise of a radical new direction for the team and finding a replacement for Tyler Bertuzzi still looms large (Jeff Skinner, hello?)
So where does that leave the Maple Leafs heading into Day Two of Free Agency?
The salary cap is always the biggest barrier to success and the Leafs still have some room there. The Leafs appear to be maxed on cap space CapFriendly which would be a bummer, but that number becomes less of a bummer when accounting for Connor Timmins, Cade Webber, and Matt Murray potentially being Marlies bound, and suddenly the Leafs are looking at $2.05M of space. There are a lot of other moves that can make the Leafs cap compliant, but that isn’t an urgent requirement as the Leafs can spend 10% over the cap in the summer. That gives Toronto essentially $10.85M to spend if the Leafs feel they can cut that salary down afterward. I can think of one way the Leafs could clear $10.93M but we’ll see if it comes to that.
Without making a further move the Leafs likely have enough cap space to bring back Connor Dewar and dress one of their rookie forwards, either Cowan or Minten. Brad Treliving also hinted at some depth signings forthcoming. They too will be competing for the last roster spots.
So let’s start there when looking at who is left.
When it comes to depth signings the most interesting name out there is Calen Addison. It might seem odd to go with another defensive option but I am not convinced that Timothy Liljegren’s future in Toronto is 100% guaranteed and he might be shopped while under contract. The Leafs also benefited from having a strong 8th defenceman option and Addison might be more appealing than Conor Timmins based on health, age, and larger NHL sample size. He would add a bit more speed to the Leafs backend which is now looking on the old and slow side and offers someone else who could skate the puck out of trouble besides Morgan Rielly. Another defensive option might be bringing back Travis Dermott in that depth role more suited to his abilities. And Adam Boqvist at 23 years of age is another option that finds an age and development balance for the Leafs.
On the scoring forward side there are a few interesting options left and the name that stands out the most is Alex Nylander. He had a nice late-season emergence with the Blue Jackets but it doesn’t seem like it was enough for anyone to throw big money at him. Perhaps playing on his brother’s team on a ‘prove yourself’ deal gets him on track. If Nick Robertson is truly planning on moving on, Nylander gives the Leafs the tertiary scoring they’d miss, and the upside was starting to show.
Lias Andersson is a similar story to Nylander without the late-season emergence and notable brother on the Leafs. Instead, he’s been a good “AAAA” player in the AHL but has the upside of being a centre, something the Leafs could use from a depth perspective and the Marlies could use for every game perspective. If Andersson hasn’t decided to just pack it in and return to Europe, he’d be a strong depth signing.
Kailer Yamamoto is another option begging to be considered. He’s a high-energy option that can play in the top six on his good days but you don’t feel guilty about sitting when he’s off his game or when he’s recovering from an injury. Yamamoto doesn’t seem to be aware of his size but does play hard and has shown promise. He’s young enough that the Leafs could make it work with him and he’s another option if Nick Robertson is moving on.
Finally, if toughness is still the name of the game for the Maple Leafs, Jujhar Khaira would be an excellent fit. He might bounce back and forth between the Marlies and the Maple Leafs, but he could fill a role similar to Kyle Clifford’s role last season.

Best of who is left

Tyler Johnson has the potential to be an affordable third-line centre who can put up some points with the right linemates. The issue as it is with pretty much every “centre” that is left in free agency is that they are better suited to the wing at this point of their career. He could handle spot duty in the role similar to how the Leafs have used Domi and Nylander in the middle and the Leafs have options like Minten and Holmberg who could step up into the 3C spot and make this a non-issue. Of course, in an ideal world, the Leafs would have targeted a 2C and pushed Tavares down to 3C. Johnson started out his career as a distant Selke candidate and maybe that suits him to being an affordable part of the Leafs bottom six.
Jack Roslovic is another winger who has played centre in his time and could fit in on the third line of the Leafs either as a support to a developing centre like Holmberg or Minten, or someone the Leafs can put in that role to start to see if he can still be a pivot in the NHL. The expectations for Roslovic are lower than in previous seasons but with the right supports around him, he could be an affordable option who might not even require the Leafs to make any drastic changes to accommodate him.
Finally, you have to consider Vladimir Tarasenko, who just so happened to win a Stanley Cup with Craig Berube. He’s the best natural scorer left in free agency and the Leafs need to consider how to replace Tyler Bertuzzi’s offence as well. While the plan might be the offence gets better through Holmberg, McMann, and Knies gaining experience as well as hoping for the best from one of Cowan or Minten, the Leafs need to consider a better option like Tarasenko at the cost of moving out some salaries like Kampf, Reaves, or even Jarnkrok or Liljegren. Tarasenko is a long shot, but the Leafs need to find a way to go big.

Trades likely the best bet

More than any other year in recent history the NHL was quick to get business done on July 1st. An absolute flurry of 180+ signings (at the time I wrote this) seemed to signal that teams wanted to negotiate quickly without giving players the opportunity to compare prices and feel panicked about getting locked into roster spots fast. Some comfort can be taken that teams that currently have the illusion of cap space are going to be dealing with more significant RFA contracts in the coming days and perhaps we’ll see some of the always elusive hockey trades taking shape as there is no way that all teams can be happy with what they’ve accomplished this summer and teams like the Leafs have more work to be done. With Nick Robertson already putting himself out there in the trade market on behalf of the Leafs it will be interesting to see what else develops.

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