The Toronto Maple Leafs continued their rebuild this past week, albeit in classic Lou Lamoriello sleuth-mode as there still hasn’t been an official announcement regarding the status of their 2016 restricted free agents.
Of the nine RFAs currently on the Leafs books, six were reported as qualified by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, with two prospects from the Brian Burke era, including a former first round pick, seemingly not favoured by the new management group.
9. Peter Holland (last contract: two-years, $775,000 AAV; currently arbitration eligible) – Qualified
Seemingly unloved by Mike Babcock, Holland found his starts and ice time limited on occasion throughout the season. That situation improved as time progressed, but with some options at centre suddenly (Bozak, Kadri, Matthews, with Nylander shifting to wing) qualifying the former first round pick could be viewed as an attempt to avoid losing an asset with some remaining trade value. He’s still young-ish at 25, big, has reasonable early-career production, and should get a chance to battle it out for a spot at camp. There, Holland will need to show he’s the best candidate for the 4C position or prove he’s capable of providing value on the wing. Waiver eligible, there is value in his size and ability to provide cover down the middle over an 82-game season, but it is still not a guarantee Holland is here past camp.
8. Frank Corrado (last contract: 1-year, $632,500; currently arbitration eligible) – Qualified
It would have proved a little wasteful to let Corrado walk for free. The Leafs claimed him from waivers last season and then worked hard to mould the young defenseman within the Babcock system through half a season of practice work before he saw any game action. He’s a project who impressed in a conditioning stint with the Marlies before eventually going on to play 39 times for the Leafs, more NHL starts than the Toronto native had managed in three previous seasons. He arguably doesn’t have one standout skill in his repertoire, but at this point the Leafs aren’t in a position to throw away young, right-handed defencemen who could play a shift in the NHL. His possession numbers were promising in his 500-minute even-strength sample last season.
7. Martin Marincin (last contract: 1-year, $700,000; currently arbitration eligible) – Qualified
The defenseman acquired from Edmonton was a steady improver last season in what was a difficult year overall. The Leafs are not replete with defensive depth at the moment, and qualifying Marincin — the only defencemen on this list with significant NHL experience — was a no-brainer. While a divisive subject and a bit of a lightning rod in the silly “game watcher versus number cruncher” debate, Marincin improved as his workload increased down the stretch and provided a positive relative impact on possession in 900+ minutes of even strength ice time. Ugly but effective according to his fans, there is still much room for improvement in a second season under Babcock’s wing.
6. Connor Carrick (last contract: three-year entry-level worth $783,333 AAV) – Qualified
The headline story of the Marlies playoff run, Connor Carrick was a shoe-in to be qualified after showing plenty of promise in the NHL under Babcock’s stewardship. At age 22, he’s one of the younger and more promising RFAs and will be looking to make the Leafs out of camp. He appears pencilled in on the right side of their bottom pair as of now, but he’ll have to earn the spot at camp and may face some added veteran competition depending on what the Leafs do in unrestricted free agency or through trade.
5. Garret Sparks (last contract: three-year entry-level worth $770,000 AAV) – Qualified
With the Leafs goaltending currently in flux below Frederik Andersen, Sparks qualification was in doubt and is somewhat of a surprise. The Illinois native has bounced between all three levels of the Leafs organization with his development fluctuating rather than following a steady upward curve. With uncertainty over Bernier’s future and the option to send a goaltender to the ECHL if necessary, it appears to be a consolidation move regarding the Leafs’ bank of goaltenders. It should ensure there is some pro-level organizational depth at the position. Having just turned 23 yesterday, he’s still considered young as far as goaltenders are concerned.
4. Josh Leivo (last contract: three-year entry-level, $925,000 AAV) – Qualified
To some observers, Josh Leivo was a borderline decision for the Leafs to qualify as the organization has a significant crop of young, up-and-coming wingers with talent. After a disappointing sophomore year, Leivo bounced backed with impressive numbers for the Marlies during the regular season and the playoffs. Twelve outings with the Leafs were his best to date in the NHL and featured a four-game scoring streak. A player with some grit who has shown he can find the net, Leivo will be fighting for a roster berth come September. His signing is as much a piece of asset management as anything, but his rebound last season suggests it’s a bit early to give up on his NHL potential.
3. Stuart Percy – Not Qualified
The 2011 first round selection has proved to be somewhat of a puzzle at times.
Injuries and concussions have hampered his progress, and last season was no different in that regard. The ability to stay healthy is a massive component of player development and it simply hasn’t been there for Percy. The promise of the opening nine games of the 2014-15 season seems like a lifetime ago, although Kyle Dubas admitted that management failed to help his development at that time, as he bounced between levels and his ice time was mismanaged under Randy Carlyle. There could be some interest around the NHL in Percy as a bottom pairing defenseman who is comfortable in possession and owns a quality first pass (and the former first round pick pedigree never hurts). Toronto could still offer him a deal, although it would likely be a two-way contract and not much above league minimum.
2. Colin Smith – Not Qualified
To his credit, Smith couldn’t have done more to earn a contract with Toronto at the back end of last season after coming over in the Shawn Matthias trade. He hit the ground running with the Marlies, posting 22 points in 23 regular season game before falling slightly out of favour in the numbers game when the playoffs came around. At 23 years of age and with just one NHL game to his name, the Leafs believe they have a large collection of prospects with higher upside than the Edmonton native. CSKA Moscow acquired the KHL rights to Smith from Dinamo Riga as recently as May, and there is little doubt that his game would fit well in Europe should he head in that direction.
1. Sam Carrick – Not Qualified
The decision not to qualify Sam Carrick is the least surprising of the nine. An all-action player who never gave anything less than 100%, Carrick adapted his game to fit in with the new Marlie system this past season, but ultimately he’s always been a peripheral prospect since the new management group arrived. There are no guarantees that another NHL team makes the former Brampton captain an offer, and it would not be shocking to see Toronto offer him a fair AHL deal to be a veteran presence in the locker room next season.