With limited cap space and a few notable holes in their lineup, the Maple Leafs took an interesting approach to filling their roster needs last offseason.
Kyle Dubas went bargain-bin shopping just as we knew he would, but notably, he locked in his low-profile signings to two-year deals instead of one-year pacts. This isn’t an unheard-of strategy; Tampa Bay took a similar approach with their Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Zach Bogosian signings. Boston did, too, with Nick Foligno, Erik Haula, and Tomas Nosek.
Last offseason alone, the Leafs signed:
- Michael Bunting – 2x950K
- David Kampf – 2×1.5M
- Nick Ritchie – 2×2.5
- Wayne Simmonds – 2x900K
- Travis Dermott – 2×1.5
Note: Ondrej Kase signed a one-year deal, but he is an RFA at the end of the season, so the club still controls his rights.
In most cases, guaranteeing the second year helps shave the annual cap hit down a little as opposed to asking a player to take a one-year, prove-it contract. In some cases, this has worked out beautifully for the Leafs this season; in others, not so much. When we look at the overall picture, though, they are clearly netting out ahead.
Bunting has been the jewel of the signings. He has 12 goals and 27 points through 40 games and has fit on snuggly on the top line while adding the extra benefit of drawing penalties at a high rate. He is only 26 and he’s signed for another season at a 900K salary; it was the kind of homerun they needed to hit in order to, at minimum, maintain their forward depth from prior to Zach Hyman’s departure.
If Bunting sustains his 55-point pace while pushing for 25 goals, he’d be in line for a big payday in the summer at his age. At a minimum, I would have to guess he’d be in line for a contract with an AAV upwards of $4 million if he were to sustain his production over 82 games followed by a solid playoff.
As an example, Alex Iafallo – who, in fairness, has a longer pedigree in the league – has never posted a 20-goal season, but he is a good scoring winger who is a few years older than Bunting (he also has 27 points and 13 goals through 43 games this season). He just signed a 4×4 contract.
Another late bloomer, Carter Verhaeghe, recently signed a three-year contract worth 12.5 million total. I’d have to wager the $4 million range would be a starting point.
Kampf wasn’t brought here for his offense, although he has scored a semi-respectable four goals and 12 points in 40 games. He was expected to be a checking center, faceoff specialist, and penalty killer. He’s the exact type of player that teams make the mistake of overpaying (Casey Cizikas is signed long-term at $2.5 million, even if he does have one outlier 20 goal season on his resume; Riley Nash once signed a three year, $2.75 million AAV contract; Jay Beagle is making $3 million per season).
If anything, I’d argue Kampf is making what he should be making, but it’s worth pointing out that signing a player to fair value on the open market is difficult to accomplish.
The other three contracts have not been the same success stories. The Ritchie one speaks for itself; it has not worked out so far, and the contract will need to be moved if he’s unable to figure it out this season.
Simmonds has been a fine-enough fourth-liner even if he has slowed down after a good start, but even if we label him as replacement level, he’s paid a replacement-level salary, so there’s no risk here.
Travis Dermott is the clear seventh defenseman on the team, and while he’s a reasonable enough seventh, he’s making a lot of money ($1.5 million) for the role. There are a number of players the Leafs could sign for less that can do the same. With the buriable amount sitting at $1.125 million, the gap between the two numbers is notable knowing it remains on the team’s cap books no matter what.
The value of Bunting alone makes up for any issues (and then some) that the two — potentially three — other two-year contracts bring on the books. The fair-market value Kampf adds tips it over into a clear and easy win for management.
The team’s cap structure means the Leafs are always going to have to have shop for discounts beyond their core five (with Morgan Rielly now included). In that vein, tacking on an extra year to squeeze the annual average value is an approach that has paid dividends so far this season.
– January will go down as Jack Campbell’s weakest month of the season — he gave up 23 goals on 207 shots for an .889 save percentage over seven games. In his last five games, he has given up three goals twice and five goals three times. In December, Campbell posted a .909 save percentage over five games.
In November, Campbell was at .959 over 11 games after an October in which he posted a .918 over seven games. It is difficult to find a groove with the way the schedule has played out, but there has only really been one month – in which he did play a lot, hence the scheduling note – where he has been fantastic.
– For what it’s worth, Petr Mrazek posted a .914 save percentage in January. He did give up four goals against Detroit, and there were a couple that he acknowledged he’d like to have back, but he also made several big saves to keep them within reach or to help preserve a lead.
– With all their forwards healthy the past two games, the Leafs‘ primary penalty killers have been Ilya Mikheyev, David Kampf, Mitch Marner, and Alex Kerfoot. They only took one penalty against Detroit, and the Wings did score on the power play. Against Anaheim, the Leafs took two penalties and the duo of Pierre Engvall and Ondrej Kase picked up some penalty kill time as well. That said, it seems pretty clear who the Leafs’ top two penalty-killing units are when everyone is healthy.
– Through 40 games, William Nylander is up to 40 points. His career-high is 61 (though he did have 59 in 68 in the season cut short by COVID), so he seems well-positioned to surpass it. This season, he’s also on pace to finish with a career-high in average time on ice (18:57).
– As part of the line experimentation, Sheldon Keefe united a William Nylander – John Tavares – Mitch Marner trio at times against Anaheim, and even though the Leafs scored all of their goals on the power play (or shootout) in that game, the line was buzzing and creating chances. All three players finished the game with six shots on net each and two points apiece. That is not a trio we’ve really seen used before, but the early signs were promising.
– Another player about to hit a career-high? Pierre Engvall. His 15 points through 37 games match his career-high (he had 15 in 48 his first season and 12 in 42 in year two).
Engvall has settled in as a player who can produce at a 30-ish point pace, kill penalties, handle checking line responsibilities, and provide spot duty at center. That’s a handy player to move around the bottom six.
Alongside Jason Spezza on the fourth line, the duo is controlling over 59% of the shot share and 61% of the expected goals, albeit it in under 80 minutes of 5v5 play.
“I think our organization does a good job getting ahead of it. I think most of the things that you hear are kind of reactionary, and we want to be more proactive. Especially in the Maple Leafs organization, we have a lot of different cultural backgrounds that work within MLSE and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and we don’t stand for that.
Obviously, Johnny starting his scrum without you guys even asking questions is an unbelievable sign. I personally feel the most comfortable I felt in an NHL locker room. Once I joined the Maple Leafs, I know every single man in here has my back. For me, that’s a comfort level.
I think the goal is to build that out to every organization across the NHL – it starts here, but obviously, going into grassroots in the minor leagues and stuff like that. I think everyone — any player of colour — feels that way.”
– Wayne Simmonds on Tavares’ comments about racist incidents in the hockey world
Although for different reasons, when Olli Jokinen was briefly a Leaf at the end of his career (remember that?), he commented on how the organization is first class in its treatment of its players. We’re not privy to what is happening behind closed doors, but the Leafs have generally done a very good job of using their influence and financial resources to treat players — and everyone involved in the organization — with the utmost class.
“I thought this was their best night here in a while. I really liked their contribution — not just the goal they scored in the first period; I thought they had good energy shifts for us and good legs.
Pierre has been good for us for a while now. We thought his presence down on that line with Spezz and Simmer would give them another element that could help them. I thought it did tonight.
That was a good line for us today. I wanted to keep them involved. I thought they were definitely positive contributors in the game tonight, and that includes the first and second periods. Those guys were good.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the Engvall – Spezza – Simmonds fourth line
Jason Spezza played 10:36 and picked up an assist – it was his first time playing over 10 minutes in four games. As Keefe noted, Pierre Engvall has been good for quite some time and the element of adding another puck carrier alongside Spezza has worked as many thought it would.
Now, they were playing a scrappy-but-not-good Detroit team — it has to be taken with a grain of salt — but it was a good game for a line that has been struggling. Something to build off of.
“On the forecheck, he goes balls to the wall. And he ain’t afraid to go in the corner.”
– Michael Bunting on Ondrej Kase
It has only been two games, but Ondrej Kase hasn’t had the same jump since coming back from injury (he played under 15 minutes in the first game, and under 14 in the second; he played 20+ in three of the four games before missing time). Part of his game at this point has to be about preservation due to his injury history. He seems to be easing back into the lineup at the moment. Honestly, it might be for the best.
Tweets of the Week
Rich Clune played in his 700th pro game in the #Marlies win. 139 NHL, 561 AHL. He has appeared in 223 games with the Marlies and 19 with the Leafs.
— Todd Crocker (@ToddCrocker) January 29, 2022
You don’t have to be a full-time NHLer to have an incredible pro hockey career. There is no better example than Rich Clune.
He has battled through a lot on and off the ice, but the perseverance he has shown is commendable. It’s nice to have him around as an example for the young players finding their way in the organization. Kudos to Clune for all he has accomplished in the game and with the organization so far.
I know "shit don't mean shit until the Playoffs" but the Leafs are on pace for their most wins in their 105 year history. Just some perspective on the season.
— Flow Jerguson (@JoeyFerg) January 27, 2022
I understand the trepidation about this team from the fan base – after they lost in the first round five seasons in a row, they have fully earned it. But if any and every potential sign of trouble is going to turn into a referendum on the team, it’s going to be a miserable 82-game regular season.
My stance at this point is pretty simple: The Leafs are an elite team. Unfortunately for them, they happen to be in a division with three other elite teams. That means the margins are going to be paper-thin, but they deserve some credit for what they are doing in the regular season.
Morgan Rielly has 32 points in 32 games since signing his contract extension.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) January 30, 2022
Super impressive run for Morgan Rielly since signing a massive contract – which is not always the way we see it go for players after signing those types of deals. It’s an eight-year contract that hasn’t even started yet — we’ll see how it ages — but this season has been his most complete to date. Plus, he took a little less to stay in Toronto in the first place. That’s a good way to endear yourself to the fan base.
This season, Rielly is averaging a career 24:21 per night; he’s added regular penalty-killing duties to his portfolio to go along with the offense.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I would not abandon the recent line experiments. Last week, I wrote that the top line is kind of locked in and everything else is up for debate. Of course, Sheldon Keefe went and shook up the top line immediately afterward.
Against the Red Wings, we saw why I believe the top line is locked in – simply put, they are very good. The rest of the lines leave something to be determined, though, and that’s where the experimentation really needs to take place.
I would keep the top line together and shuffle the rest, but if Keefe insists on going this route of shaking up the top line, too, then at least we have the opportunity to collect more data and analyze it with a larger sample size.
2. If the lines are going to continue to be shuffled, I think I’d really like to see John Tavares and Ondrej Kase paired up together. They have only played 19 minutes together at 5v5; I believe a good chunk of it comes when caught on the ice together during line changes. Tavares is great once the puck is on his stick, so pairing him with a player who can forecheck well enough to get it back for him in the offensive zone has potential for success.
3. I think some recognition is in order for sticking with the top power-play unit. There were a lot of calls to take Mitch Marner off it, but he has returned with a vengeance. The power play has looked as dynamic as I’ve ever seen it – and while the Leafs have not always been a great team over the years, they have had some very good power-play units.
As much of a storyline as anything else throughout the Leafs’ playoff failures has been the team’s power play going off the rails. It is absolutely humming — currently first in the league — and they’ll need it to continue to gather momentum in the second half of the season rather than stumble into the playoffs like last Spring.
4. I think I liked the Justin Holl and Rasmus Sandin pairing. It took the burden of making plays with the puck away from Holl, who ironically picked up two points against Detroit.
Holl has really struggled carrying the puck, seemingly bobbling it and/or losing it under little-to-no pressure. His regular partner, Jake Muzzin, has also struggled with the puck on his stick. With Sandin, Holl doesn’t have to worry about it as much since Sandin is so good with the puck and can take charge of moving it up the ice.
I wouldn’t be so quick to write off Holl, by the way. At only $2 million per season, there’s no real obligation to force him into the top four.
5. At this point, I think neither goalie is giving the Leafs a reason not to alternate back and forth. Jack Campbell had a great first half of the season, but he has cooled down a bit since, and Petr Mrazek has yet to really get himself on track. It kind of is what it is at the moment; both need starts to work through it.