The Maple Leafs have continued their offseason activity by signing right-winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel to a one-year, $1 million contract.

Aube-Kubel is just 26 years old and went unqualified as a restricted free agent by the Colorado Avalanche. This is a market we speculated the Leafs should and would target, and so far they have with both of their signings (the other being goaltender Ilya Samsonov). Unlike regular unrestricted free agents, this offers an opportunity to sign players a little younger (theoretically with more upside) than the traditional talent available on the open market. Last year, the Leafs signed David Kampf, Nick Ritchie, and Ondrej Kase as unqualified RFAs.

Aube-Kubel has played 169 NHL games thus far and is coming off of a career-high 11-goal, 23-point season in 75 games split between Philadelphia and Colorado. In November, he was claimed off waivers from Colorado, so most teams in the league passed on the opportunity to add him for free. It turned out to be an excellent development for Aube-Kubel, who was a regular on one of the best teams in the league last season (played 67 games in the regular season) and appeared in 14 playoff games, etching his name on the Cup in the process. He did tally zero points in the playoffs, though. 

Aube-Kubel (who should wear 47 so we can simply call him AK47) is only 5’11, but he’s feisty. He was second on Colorado in hits last season and is known for his forechecking ability. 

For the Flyers, who drafted him in the second round, there were times when he looked like he carved out a role for himself as a pesky agitator who is great on the forecheck. They put together a nine-game win streak right before COVID shut down the league that he was a huge part of. He fell out of favour, though, after he didn’t build on his play and carry it forward, which led to a healthy scratch and ultimately landed him on the waiver wire

That said, the Flyers are a mess, and when Aube-Kubel went to a properly run franchise, he settled into a depth role and put together a strong, productive season as a fourth liner that chipped in 11 goals, physicality, and forechecking (note: he did not penalty kill on Colorado, and compared to their other fourth-line options, it contributed to him being in and out of the playoff lineup). That’s the exact kind of thing the Leafs are looking for on their fourth line — and not from players who are over-the-hill but players who are actually in their 20s. 

In Colorado, Aube-Kubel’s primary linemate was Alex Newhook; admittedly, they did not fare well together, controlling 44.24 percent of the shot share at 5v5 and 46.21 percent of expected goals. In fairness, he was on the ice a lot with Jack Johnson, and when he was away from Johnson, his numbers were much better (as are most players’). In the playoffs, he played primarily with J.T. Compher, with whom he controlled over 56 percent of the shot share and roughly 48 percent of the expected goals.

Kyle Dubas mentioned that he wants (realistically, needs) a few Marlies to start breaking through onto the roster. Aube-Kubel can’t exactly anchor/drive the line, but he can support young players in that role as a “young veteran” while providing some forechecking — a staple of his game — and support for their young players as a credible NHLer with some experience. He’s a role player who knows his role.

If a player such as Alex Steeves is ready for an NHL job, you can start to picture a potential forechecking duo that knows their role and can give their fourth line an identity, which is something they have largely lacked over the years. The fourth line has been a tug of war between skilled veterans such as Jason Spezza and Joe Thornton and grinders such as Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds. Hopefully, this means the Leafs have an actual direction for their fourth line now and stick to it.

It’s noteworthy that Aube-Kubel is primarily a right winger (and is a right-handed shot). Does that mean the writing is on the wall for Wayne Simmonds? Ideally, neither should play on his off-wing, and neither should be playing higher than the fourth line.

When Aube-Kubel wasn’t qualified, Mile High Hockey described the move like so

Nicolas’ game doesn’t typically show up on the score sheet, but he is a depth player that can throw his body and be strong on the puck. NAK is a quality player but an affordable loss with recent acquisition Ben Meyers entering the lineup.

He was a fan favourite in Colorado and at times in Philly when he was on his game (but was awful when he wasn’t). On a one-year, prove-it deal at only $1 million, they can easily send him down if it doesn’t work out, but he has the potential and has shown the ability to be a good forechecker in the league who can chip in a little offense and provide a spark from down the lineup.

Nicolas Aube-Kubel RAPM

Nicolas Aube-Kubel Statistics

2016-17 Lehigh Valley PhantomsAHL7199185510|Playoffs4000
2017-18 Lehigh Valley PhantomsAHL721828468624|Playoffs10000
2018-19 Philadelphia FlyersNHL900001|
 Lehigh Valley PhantomsAHL5416143069-2|
2019-20 Philadelphia FlyersNHL367815191|Playoffs13213
 Lehigh Valley PhantomsAHL26538204|
2020-21 Philadelphia FlyersNHL50391244-3|
2021-22 Philadelphia FlyersNHL70116-3|
 Colorado AvalancheNHL671111224114|Playoffs14000