If Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans were expecting a big splash on the first day of unrestricted free agency this summer, they were setting themselves up for disappointment. Although Leafs GM Kyle Dubas added eight new players – nine if you count the professional tryout contract awarded to former Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang – only one, goaltender Petr Mrazek, is considered a high-impact acquisition. The rest of the eight – forwards Michael Bunting, Kurtis Gabriel, Michael Amadio, David Kampf, Brennan Mennell and Ho-Sang, and defensemen Carl Dahlström and Alex Biega – are depth pieces and/or reclamation projects in the same vein as forward Alex Galchenyuk was for Toronto last season.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, given that Dubas has already come out publicly and stated his belief in the Leafs’ core four forwards (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander) and a defense corps that has a solid top-two pairings and opportunities for youngsters Timothy Liligren, Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin. Similarly, the Leafs are setting up a competition for their bottom six forwards, with Amadio, Gabriel, Kampf and Bunting vying with youngsters Nick Robertson, Adam Brooks, Pierre Engvall, and Joey Anderson for a spot playing alongside veterans Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds.
When the Leafs’ cap crunch kicked in, it meant there was next to no chance last season’s trade deadline acquisition Nick Foligno would return. Foligno signed with the Atlantic Division rival Boston Bruins, and that hurts in some ways, but Foligno’s new ticket – two years at $3.8 million per season – was far out of the Leafs’ grasp. They’re paying center Alex Kerfoot $3.5 million to serve as their third-line center, and even if the expansion Seattle Kraken had selected Kerfoot in the expansion draft, Dubas had already found his cheaper replacement when he traded for former Penguins forward Jared McCann. In short, Toronto management knew Foligno was going to be too rich for their lineup, and prepared for him playing elsewhere in 2021-22.
Similarly, when the Leafs went to the UFA market seeking a goalie to compete with starter Jack Campbell, there was no way they were going to spend as much money or more on one as they did on longtime No. 1 Frederik Andersen. Even if they wanted to bring Andersen back – and really, they clearly were uninterested in that prospect – Andersen would’ve had to take a sizeable pay cut (and as it turns out, he did have his $5 million-per-season deal with the Leafs reduced to $4.5 million a year with his new team, the Carolina Hurricanes). So when Dubas was able to sign former Canes starter Petr Mrazek to a three-year deal at $3.8 million per season, it made sense salary cap-wise, because it freed up $1.2 million per year to spend on one of the eight players he signed Wednesday. The departure of forward Zach Hyman to Edmonton also opened up $2.25 million in cap space, and Dubas used that on some of the eight players as well.
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The Leafs finished the first day of free agency essentially capped-out, with just $855,000 in cap space, according to CapFriendly.com. That gives Dubas a sliver of flexibility to make in-season trades, but Dubas’ public support for his core group means there’s little likelihood of a blockbuster deal before next summer rolls around. For better or worse, Dubas and Leafs’ president Brendan Shanahan are going to give Matthews, Tavares, Nylander, and Marner the entire regular season to work themselves into playoff shape, and give Campbell and Mrazek opportunities to assert themselves as the best option in Toronto’s net.
The end result is the Buds may not be as dominant in the first 82 games they play – particularly now that they’re back in an Atlantic Division that includes the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the veteran Bruins, and a Florida Panthers team that is already dangerous and still improving – but they still should be a playoff team. Missing out on a post-season berth would be an utter disaster, but there’s still more than enough sheer talent in Toronto for the Leafs to expect to be in the playoffs. The pressure is squarely on the four highest-paid players to lead this team to new heights, and nothing that happened Wednesday was going to change that.