Canadian hockey fans will continue their annual July 1 tradition tomorrow: Celebrating the birth of their nation by debating overpayments on the mediocre talent that fills the modern-day NHL unrestricted free agency pool.

You know there isn’t a whole lot out there when the identity of the Clarkson Cup winner — who overpays Matt Beleskey and by how much — is going to be the most intriguing storyline as far as signings go.

Leafs contacted Cody Franson during Interview Period

Cody Franson played 55 games for the Leafs this season; the team was so bad down the stretch that he still finished first among their defence in scoring and fourth on the team in points.

Franson got drowned out in Nashville (who had a number of good right-side defencemen already; that acquisition was a mystery), and that will shave off some dollars from his contract. Franson, at the end of the day, can point to the fact that he’s 25th in scoring among defencemen since 2012 as a pretty convincing argument he’s worth big money. He didn’t just feast on powerplay opportunities in Toronto, either, as he’s in the top 20 in even strength points per 60 over the last five seasons.

Franson isn’t the only decent defenseman around the FA market this year; there is some blueline talent on the open market – certainly a better crop than the forwards – but there is also no shortage of teams with cap space to act silly with. According to James Mirtle, the average team has 11 million and change in cap space to work with tomorrow.

Andrej Sekera shoots left, as does Johnny Oduya, Christian Ehrhoff, Paul Martin, and Francois Beauchemin. It’s Mike Green, Franson, Marek Zidlicky (38) and Zbynek Michalek (turning 33, hasn’t been offensively productive in a number of years) leading the FA class of right-handed defencemen. Franson is the youngest of that group by a couple years (Green is turning 30), and, as a second-pair right-handed guy who can produce, is going to be in demand.

We know the Leafs‘ analytics department will like Franson, it seemed their overall management group was a fan of him as a player and a person, and Franson is known to love Toronto.

Of course, the issue is Franson knows he needs to strike gold this summer. For a team in the Leafs position — not that they couldn’t use a good right-side defenceman at the right price — they have to ask themselves if they think it’s wise to sign a defenceman with Franson’s average mobility, who probably slots in as a number four if they’re ever ready to contend, to a contract with term when Franson is going to be over 30 by the time the Leafs are turning the corner. It’s not like Franson is definitely going to be worthless by the time the Leafs are good, but it may take $5 million-plus per season over five years. It’s safe to say his best remaining hockey will be in the next two or three, and less-than-stellar skaters tend to age less gracefully.

It’s more of a splashy-type signing than what Brendan Shanahan seemed to be hinting at for the Leafs’ strategy this FA season, but the two sides do like each other.

Buy Lows on Buy Outs

The soon-to-be-bought-out Cody Hodgson will likely be taking a one or two-year deal this offseason. Buffalo was a joke last season, so Hodgson may have checked out, and the buy out should be a kick in the butt for the Toronto native. After a 20-goal, 44-point season in 2013-14 and still just 25, this is a prime rebound candidate and the Leafs can offer minutes and opportunity with their nonexistent center depth.

Especially if Bozak is moved and the center group the Leafs end up going into the season with is Kadri-Holland-Carrick deep, someone like Hodgson or the recently-unqualified Mark Arcobello (9 goals in 27 games for Arizona) could come in with minimal term commitment and play high minutes in the Toronto spotlight.

The Leafs could also go hunting for cheap buy-lows on the right wing given they don’t have much behind Phil Kessel, who may not even be here next season. Arcobello has played down the middle and on the right wing. The Florida Panthers are also going to buy out right-winger Brad Boyes.

The thing with Boyes is that some team might give him a couple years on a new contract. It’s not like his production was poor last season (he’s been in the 35-40 point range for the past two seasons); Florida just didn’t like his contract.

Anyway, the idea here is obvious: FA buy lows followed by deadline sales is the cycle the Leafs must continue while they rebuild. It’s buying draft picks, in essence. Unfortunately, given the Leafs were a playoff team at the time of the 2014 deadline, they didn’t cash in the Mason Raymond trade chip. Because the Leafs got their tailspin underway early in 2015, the Leafs turned the expiring contracts of Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson into Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco and Martins Dzierkals. Daniel Winnik was flipped for a second round pick in 2016.

Dumpster Diving

Anthony Petrielli compiled a list of other buy low options for the Leafs a few days back.

  1. Sean Bergenheim – 31 years old, 56GP-9G-10A-19PTS, 53.6 CF%

He was a healthy scratch in Florida before putting up just one point in 17 games with the Wild. He has traditionally been a versatile top nine winger capable of handling tough assignments and chipping in at .35PPG.

  1. Tomas Fleischmann – 31 years old, 66GP-8G-19A-27PTS, 51.8 CF%

The scoring has fallen off from the top six forward he once was, but he’s always been able to take a positive shift and the Leafs are in a position to push a guy up the line-up like this, increase his value, and then sell.

  1. Shawn Horcoff – 36 years old, 11G-18A-29PTS, 52.6 CF%

The veteran center can handle some defensive zone starts, provide some leadership to a rebuilding group, and is still a good bet to hit double digits in goals.

  1. Marcel Goc – 31 years old, 74GP-3G-6A-9PTS, 50.0 CF%.

Coming off of a 9-point season, he is firmly a 4C now, versus the 3C he once was. Goc can handle some secondary defensive duties and can move to the wing if need be.

  1. Tomas Kopecky – 33 years old, 2G-6A-8PTS, 48.0 CF%

He has had issues staying healthy the last few years and his scoring has fallen off a cliff, but he scored double digits in goals four years in a row prior and can play every forward position.

  1. Kyle Brodziak – 31 years old, 73GP-9G-11A-20PTS, 44.8 CF%

A defensive zone start specialist, he isn’t a shutdown center by any means, but he can push play up ice, chip in some scoring, and make life easier on the younger centers.

  1. Eric Fehr – 29 years old, 75GP-19G-14A-33PTS, 50.4 CF%

Fehr struggled the one time he left Washington, but he has shown he is capable of playing center, scores goals in double digits, can score roughly 30 points, and is 6’4.

  1. Erik Condra – 28 years old, 68GP-9G-14A-23PTS, 50.7 CF%

A right-handed Daniel Winnik, essentially. Strong at pushing play up ice, penalty killing, being a checker, and struggles to score (has never hit double digits in goals).

  1. Steve Downie – 28 years old, 72GP-14G-14A-28PTS, 49.6 CF%

The agitating winger had 14 goals and over 200 PIMs last year. His CF% was fine in a vacuum, but poor compared to his teammates, although he played with Brandon Sutter for the majority of the year, which is a tough assignment defensively.

  1. Jay Beagle – 29 years old, 62GP-10G-10A-20Pts, 50.0 CF%

You might remember him as a Dale Hunter favourite when Hunter coached the Capitals. Beagle is a right handed 4C capable of moving up the line-up and playing wing, and can score a little, too. (Re-signed).

  1. Steve Bernier – 30 years old, 67GP-16G-16A-32PTS, 47.4 CF%

Bernier almost played his way out of the league in 2013-2014, before responding with 16 goals last year. He is a solid forechecker who is a good play-driving bottom six forward.

  1. Jason Akeson – 25 years old, 13GP-0G-0A-0PTS, 38.0 CF%

The 5’10 forward would be a complete shot in the dark, but he has 117 points in 127 AHL games the last two years, had a good showing in the playoffs two seasons ago in the NHL, and struggled to score this year. The Leafs are in a position to take gambles like this.

  1. Matt Bartkowski – 27 years old, 47GP-0G-4A-4PTS, 49.9 CF%.

He played top four minutes last season and handled them adequately. Bartkowski has some untapped game, and even if he never improves he can take a regular shift adequately.

  1. Matt Irwin – 27 years old, 53GP-8G-11A-19PTS, 51.6 CF%

A big, good skater who scores at a productive rate, he has only played 153 NHL games. Irwin has some upside and is already a solid NHL defenseman.

  1. Matt Donovan – 25 years old, 12GP-0G-3A-3PTS, 49.0 CF%

The once highly touted prospect has shown well in the AHL, and in the NHL in limited minutes. After a strong showing in 2013-14, Donovan was a healthy scratch the majority of the year after the Isles beefed up their defense in training camp.  He played well when he was forced into playoff minutes this year.

Signing-Bonus Payouts

It’s well known both Phaneuf and Kessel are receiving significant signing bonus payouts tomorrow (in that respect, they’re not alone across the league).

It doesn’t sound like the Leafs are sitting on a trade that is imminent and are simply waiting for the bonus payout to take place with Phaneuf or Kessel before pulling the trigger. It can’t hurt their attempts to move either for value, but at the moment it more looks as though the Leafs are trying to hold firm on their stance on not retaining salary on either player for the duration of their contracts.

The Phaneuf and Kessel signing bonus factor seems overblown given they get a fairly sizeable one each year and the pair have a lot of term remaining.

What’s been less talked about is the fact that Tyler Bozak’s contract features $10 million worth of signing bonuses on his five-year, $21-million deal, which he enters the third year of this season. Loading up the bonus component of a contract makes it far easier for a cash-rich team like the Leafs to pay it and deal a player on July 1st to a team that is just as worried (or more) about their budget as they are cap space.

That could be why the Leafs didn’t push too hard on dealing Bozak at the draft. Teams can pick over what little there is in the way of half-way decent centers in free agency, and those who don’t get what they want can circle back and inquire on Bozak, who will have to be paid a significant chunk of money less than he did a week ago.

Phil Kessel traded to Pittsburgh Penguins

Maple Leafs Depth Chart

JVRNazem Kadri (RFA)Phil Kessel
Joffrey LupulTyler BozakWilliam Nylander
Leo KomarovPeter HollandConnor Brown
Richard Panik (RFA)Sam CarrickMatt Frattin
Josh LeivoZach HymanCasey Bailey
Brendan LeipsicFrederick GauthierNikita Soshnikov
Morgan RiellyDion Phaneuf
Jake GardinerRoman Polak
Martin MarincinStephane Robidas
Tim ErixonTJ Brennan
Stuart PercyPetter Granberg