Now that the Leafs‘ most important pending free agent — goaltender Jonas Gustavsson — has been signed to a two-year contract extension, it is time to take a look at their remaining free agent players.
Notably, the list of expiring contracts includes pending RFAs Nikolai Kulemin, Christian Hanson and John Mitchell. Pending UFAs on the Leafs‘ roster include Wayne Primeau, Rickard Wallin, Jamie Lundmark, Garnet Exelby and Mike Van Ryn.
A quick note on Gustavsson
It has been somewhat erroneously stated, in many forums, that Gustavsson’s new contract (averaging $1.35 million per season) will pay him less than he was paid last year. Â That is not entirely accurate — his salary last season was actually $810K plus a $90K signing bonus, although some salary-tracking sites suggested potential performance bonuses could take the grand total up to $2.5 million.
The additional $1.6 million in bonuses are believed to be what are known as “Schedule A” bonuses — namely, set categories which, if reached, have a maximum bonus value of appx $200,000. Â There are 8 such categories for goaltenders (1800 minutes, less than median GAA, above median SV%, above median shutouts, 20 wins, All-Rookie Team, All-Star Game, All-Star MVP), hence the 1.6 million dollar amount mentioned in the bonus talk.
At a glance, it appears Gustavsson only qualifies for one of those bonuses this season (that being minutes played; the all-rookie team will probably to go to Jimmy Howard), meaning he would have made just over $1.1 million all told.
So, in short, he is indeed getting a raise next season.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, on to the pending free agents …
Nikolai Kulemin (RFA)
78 GP — 16 G — 20 A — +/- 0Â — 16 PIM — 0 PPG — 1 SHG — 16:22 TOI
Obviously, Kulemin will be the most-discussed of all Leafs‘ players whose contracts are up. The top-line winger’s game grew by leaps and bounds this season, as he transformed himself from a checking-unit grinder into a legitimate offensive threat while maintaining his steady defensive play.
Working in Kulemin’s favor is the fact that on many nights during the second half he was the Leafs‘ best forward, from both an offensive and defensive perspective. Â Working against him, however, are the numbers: namely, 36 points and no PP goals. Â There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Leafs‘ fans have seen only the tip of the iceberg; the question is, how much should the team pay for potential? Especially with the threat of the KHL on the horizon?
Leafs‘ GM Brian Burke made it clear where he stands: if the KHL numbers that are being rumoured ($4 – 5 million per) are true, and Kulemin’s agents demand the Leafs match, he will not be back. Â However, to his credit Kulemin has downplayed KHL rumours and made it clear he would like to remain in Toronto. Â That’s nice to hear, but how it translates into a contract negotiation remains to be seen.
Kulemin’s cap hit was appx $1.49m last season (850K base + 640K bonuses), and given his development into a scoring-line winger, he certainly does deserve a raise. Â The trick is determining exactly how much. One of the problems with making statistical comparisons is a number of players in his production range were either on rookie contracts themselves (Bailey, Setoguchi, Galiardi, Wheeler), didn’t play a full season (Fillipula, Grabovski, Ruuttu), or were considered disappointments (Rolston, Horcoff, Sturm, Legwand, Little). Comparables in terms of full season production might be Dustin Byfuglian (82 gp, 34 pts, 3.00m), Andrew Ladd (82 gp, 38 pts, 1.55m, pending RFA), or Raffi Torres (74 GP, 36 pts, 2.25m, pending UFA) — all of whom are two-way players who have shown the ability to fill a top-six role on their respective clubs.
By way of the aforementioned comparables, there is little doubt the Kulemin camp will look to Byfuglian’s contract — which is based largely on player potential — as a sample of his NHL worth. The Leafs will likely look closer to the contract of Torres, who was a consistent 15-20 goal, 30-40 point player at the time of his signing (Ladd’s contract may not be the best example as it is too close to what Kulemin made this season, and few would dispute that both are due a raise). Â Hence the talk that has circulated around about a contract possibly falling into the 2.5m range.
My own sources have suggested that the 2m – 2.5m range is realistic based on the going rate for Kulemin’s production (1.5m – 3m) and the potential he flashed this season, especially over the second half. Â For Kulemin to agree to an amount in that range, the contract would likely have to be no more than 2-3 years, which — similar to Gustavsson’s contract — would provide him the opportunity to prove he is worth the larger salaries earned by many regular top-six forwards across the league.
GB’s Estimate: 2 years, 4.5 million (1.75m, 2.75m, cap hit 2.25m per).
Christian Hanson (RFA)
31 GP — 2 G — 5 A — +/- -2 — 16 PIM — 0 PPG — 1 SHG — 13:22 TOI
Hanson, signed out of the NCAA for $925K per season ($875K + $50K bonuses), developed far more slowly than anticipated. Although he did show flashes of previously-dormant offense with increased ice-time during the final weeks of the season, and of learning to use his body to be an effective player at the NHL level, his overall play suggested his future may lie in a bottom-six role. While the Leafs are obviously hoping this will ultimately prove not to be the case, he arguably has not shown enough flashes to offer a significant pay raise based on projections of future development. Â On the flip side, one could argue his measurables make the prospect of retaining his services much more valuable than the mid-round pick the team would receive via offer sheet, so it is likely some form of raise will be offered.
Similar to Kulemin, Hanson may be offered a shorter-term deal to allow him a chance to increase his earning power if he is able to raise his level play. Â It is difficult to foresee there being much of a raise involved — although this being a second contract there will likely be some. Â As noted above he made 875K before bonuses (925K with) last season; it would not be a stretch to see a contract offered in the $1m per neighbourhood, perhaps at staggared amounts in anticipation of improvement moving forward.
GB’s Estimate: 2 years, 2.2 million (975K, 1.25m, cap hit 1.1m per)
John Mitchell (RFA)
60 GP — 6 G — 17 A — +/- -7 — 31 PIM — 1 PPG — 0 SHG — 15:49 TOI
Mitchell is a tough read. He is a very good skater, has shown flashes of offensive potential, yet hasn’t been able to put it all together during his two seasons in Toronto. Â Defensively, he is a liability (-23 in 136 career games), and hasn’t been consistent enough to crack the top two lines on a regular basis. Â Yet at $487,500 he was a bargain for a regular NHLer last season.
Although Mitchell took a lot of heat this season for what appeared to be a regression in his game, the one thing people tend to forget is the knee injury that put him on the shelf for the better part of two months early into the season. When Mitchell returned, he was not the same player and never did fully regain his skating abilities (which, given the nature of the injury was of little surprise). Â When healthy, Mitchell is a tremendous skater, plays with a great deal of energy, and adds a great deal of roster flexibility with his ability to play either centre or the wing.
At 25 years of age, but with only two years’ NHL experience, Mitchell may still have some untapped potential in his game, and his progression through the minor-league ranks does follow the pattern of the classic “late-bloomer”. Â With a full offseason to get back to full speed, he may prove to be a contributer yet. Â Or, the team may see more of the same. But given the setback caused by the injury last year, and the versatility and energy he adds to the lineup, it may be worthwhile for the team to take a flyer on him in as a depth player. Similar to Hanson, he may prove more beneficial to retain, than to not qualify him (rendering him UFA), or garner a late pick via an offer sheet.
GB’s Estimate: 1 year, 600K on a two-way contract.
Unrestricted Free Agents
There are five pending UFAs on the Leafs’ roster (Primeau, Wallin, Lundmark, Exelby, Van Ryn), and most observers agree it is doubtful that any of them will return.
Wayne Primeau and Rickard Wallin have already been told by Burke that he doesn’t want to discuss contracts until he has had a chance to explore his options (free agency, trade, Marlies), a sensible move given that neither made the impact desired when brought aboard. Primeau is a decent faceoff man and brought a veteran presence to a young team, but it was clear that he had lost a step. Â Wallin came over touted as a defensive specialist who could contribute offensively; while his defensive play was not nearly as bad as some have suggested, his offensive game never did materialize.
Of the two, Primeau has the best chance of returning, but if he does it will come at the cost of a paycut from the $1.4m he made this past season (1 year, $1m might be reasonable). However, the general consensus seems to be that both will likely be replaced with younger, more physical players.
Jamie Lundmark was acquired as a gap-filler following the trade with Calgary that opened up a couple of roster spots up front. He was picked up largely to be given a chance to show that he can still play in the league, but likely doesn’t fit into the team’s long-term plans. Â As a $600K depth player, he can be easily replaced from within.
Exelby was a victim of numbers for much of the season, often exchanging roster/pressbox spots with fellow defender Jeff Finger, before settling into a semi-regular role in the season’s second half. Although he brought some physicality to the blueline, Komisarek’s return from injury, Gunnarsson’s development and the immovability of Finger’s contract will leave little room for Exelby on the roster. Â As for Van Ryn, his status remains up in the air. If he can show that he has recovered from a career-threatening knee surgery, it would surprise few if the team were to offer him a 1 year deal at the veteran minimum (appx $500K). Â But at this point in time, a timetable on his return — if he is able to return — is anyone’s guess.
The Minor Leaguers
The Leafs also have a number of pending free agents in their minor league system. Pending RFAs include Tim Brent, Phil Oreskovic, Alex Foster, Ryan Hamilton, Andre Deveaux, Kyle Rogers and Matt Jones. Â Of these, the Leafs are expected to qualify — and attempt to resign — Brent, Oreskovic, Hamilton, and Deveaux. Â All of these would be two-way contracts, with none of the players expected to make an immediate jump to the next level.
UFAs among the Marlies include Ben Ondrus and Jonas Frogren. Â Frogren, an NHL roster depth casualty, is unlikely to return after spending the entire season in the AHL. Â Ondrus, the Marlies’ captain and a future coach-in-waiting, is likely to be retained.
Looking forward to your thoughts as always,