It’s that time of year again where we wonder who we’ll probably be saying goodbye to for good this summer. As always, the Leafs don’t have a lot of cap space, they have RFAs to re-sign, which likely means UFAs are mostly leaving for other teams.
We may have seen the last of several of them:
He had a checkered career as one of the best undrafted free agents signed by the Leafs. Injuries, including a horrific one, a heater that didn’t return the following year, and questions about his abilities led to a hugely successful season when his contract expired. This contract came out of tight pressure from the Leafs during negotiations and surprised many people how low it was. As detailed in Amazon’s All or Nothing series, Mikheyev wanted a bigger role or a trade last season.
He didn’t understand either. He’s played 30 seconds more per game this year at even strength, and a minute more in all situations, thanks to a one-second power-play time — the full extent of his modified use.
What he did was play significantly better in the offensive zone. I saw him written off as just having a shot radiator, which is partly true, but he also created better shots with his game, increasing his expected individual targets by a significant amount. I take that as a sign of real growth and improvement, and it’s not something you see every day from someone who’s about to turn 28 at the start of next season.
The Leafs, however, will struggle to afford it. He will demand between $3.5 and $5 million, depending on how long it takes and his agent’s ability to find him a team that really needs his skills.
I don’t think he’s coming back, and the consolation is that the Leafs probably got their peak years on the cheap — at least last season.
Acquired at the deadline, Blackwell brought speed and skill in the depth of the attackers. Most of the fans seemed to like him and he would be very useful on the team, but Sheldon Keefe didn’t seem to like him on his third line. This doesn’t bode well for his future in the team.
He had signed a two-year minimum wage deal with Rangers in 2020 and was taken by the Kraken in the expansion draft. In his two years with three teams, he’s proven to be a bargain at this price and will likely edge closer to the million mark with a new contract. If he wants to stay in Toronto, he will have to take a pay cut on what he could get elsewhere.
His situation is strange. The Leafs picked up Lyubuskin from Nick Ritchie’s junkyard and then… used him on top pair. We all expected a defensive player who could rely on the big hits, and we got that and a surprising amount of skill with the puck (in the offensive zone). His big flaws were too many penalties and stone hands at zone exits and transition. Playing him with Morgan Rielly meant his transition skills were rarely put to use, and so the Leafs got away with a Ron Hainsey-style use for a player who’s probably a good fourth-to-fifth defenseman. He’s going to be sought after now that other teams have seen his full range of skills.
However, he won’t be a player getting a huge raise like Mikheyev because he’s not scoring points. He’s affordable for the Leafs, but not really necessary, given that their two young defenders both owe new RFA contracts. It looks like other choices will be made, and Lyubushkin will be surplus to requirements.
Speaking of additional defensemen, signs point to Mark Giordano returning to the Leafs to take on his role as a mentor to Timothy Liljegren. The only question is how far will he go on the contract. Turning 39 next year, he probably doesn’t expect anything like the $6.75 million contract he just got out of.
He looks like the man who will flesh out the depth of defense as the two young players continue to progress.
He would no doubt accept minimum wage again, but I don’t think Jason Spezza has another full season of top hockey in him.
When asked if he could foresee Spezza with the team in a non-playing role, Kyle Dubas gave a surprisingly odd answer. He seemed almost taken aback by the question and said he had never experienced this before with a player. He went on to mention that Ron Hainsey went to work for the NHLPA after his career, but he couldn’t think of any other of his players who had done something similar.
There is an incredibly long tradition of players retiring straight into managerial or coaching roles. In Europe, it’s not uncommon for a player to do that in one season as a player/coach. In the AHL, I can think of many examples of players who moved right behind the bench of the team they just finished with. But at the NHL level? It is perhaps more unusual.
On the other hand, perhaps the game here is to bring Spezza back late in the season as a signing deadline, making him extremely affordable with a pro-rated minimum wage. We’ll see what the decisions are, but I think the Leafs would be silly to lose him entirely.
The only other UFAs with real NHL experience are three very different goaltenders. Jack Campbell is a complicated conversation for another day, Michael Hutchinson left after failing to improve the Marlies this year, and 36-year-old Carter Hutton, who has only played one Marlies game as a substitute, must first decide if he can still play before he decides where it will be.
There are a few potential players who could be traded. Talk of re-signing Giordano seems to signal the end of Justin Holl’s tenure with the team. Given how Lyubushkin was used before Holl, at the very least the Leafs would be willing to trade Holl and re-sign Lyubushkin, but they’re more likely to be done with both players. Bringing in prospects is tricky, but they don’t want to rule out Sandin and Liljegren from taking the top four spots full-time.
Alex Kerfoot is the only traded player fantasy more than William Nylander, and while I think the chance of the Leafs making a major move like Nylander’s trade is very small, Kerfoot is another story. He’s versatile, has come in handy as an extra center more times than I can count, and yet as UFA in 2023 on a good salary, but not advantageous, I think he’s gone. His role can be filled in combination by Michael Bunting and David Kämpf at the moment, and other players need increases. I think this time it’s real, and Kerfoot is gone.
Pierre Engvall is more likely to be re-signed, but he could be too expensive for the Leafs. An arbitration award for him will not be less than $2 million. I don’t think the Leafs want to trade him. But I don’t think that’s how that decision will be made. Once the important roles are filled, is there room for him? There may not be. The same story goes for Ondřej Kaše, and he might be even less likely to return.
And that brings us to the player everyone left off of: Petr Mrázek. It’s a tough call to make. Everyone, including GMs, gets extremely emotional when goalkeepers are incredibly bad. They lose all perspective and just want them to disappear! Kyle Dubas just picked Mrázek with a run over Andersen for a saving of less than a million, and it doesn’t seem like a smart move in hindsight. For many GMs, this kind of mistake is all the more reason to get rid of the player.
Maybe Dubas will make Mrázek disappear. I don’t think it’s as sure a thing as most people expect.
These are the UFAs and a few other suspects who may have left the building for the last time. It’s a sign of a mature squad that the players leaving are good players, worthy of their contracts and valuable in peripheral roles. Usually mature teams have wins to console themselves when this happens.
Next week, I’ll dig deeper into the cap space, the goalie conundrum, and in the meantime I’ll wonder for the 11 millionth time who will be the Leafs’ 1RW next season.
#played #game #Maple #Leaf