Maple Leafs buy low with Petan deal, hope to ‘maximize his potential’

Watch as Nic Petan beats Linus Ullmark in his first game as a Toronto Maple Leaf to give them the lead over the Buffalo Sabres.

TORONTO — This is good business for a team facing a cap crunch. Kyle Dubas takes Par Lindholm, a free-agent signing and pending unrestricted free agent, and turns him into Nic Petan, who is three and a half years younger and just inked a two-year extension worth $775,000 each season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs projected 2019-20 roster got cheaper, younger and, yes, a little bit smaller in the process.

It’s basically a no-risk maneuver given that Petan’s contract can be sent to the American Hockey League without any cap penalty. About the only pertinent question in the wake of Thursday’s signing, is how much of an opportunity will the 23-year-old find himself with here?

One of the reasons he was excited about the Feb. 25 trade that brought him to the Leafs from Winnipeg is that Dubas has a reputation of valuing players with his skill set higher than some of his peers.

“Yeah, for sure. That’s been the talk around,” Petan said earlier this week. “A smaller, skilled guy that can have the opportunity to play the way he wants. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. It’s just about going out there and doing it.”

The five-foot-nine winger/centre has had limited opportunity to do it. He’s dressed in five games for the Leafs, playing 7:47, 12:09, 5:57, 9:54 and 7:45. That’s after being scratched for 26 consecutive games in Winnipeg prior to the trade.

Leafs coach Mike Babcock seems to be lukewarm about having another diminutive option for his fourth line, saying before Petan’s March 2 debut against Buffalo: “Just putting him in. Our pro scouts saw something they wanted, so we’re putting him in and giving him an opportunity.”

He scored that night and was scratched for the next game.

When Petan returned to the lineup March 6 in Vancouver, he centred a five-foot-nine line with Tyler Ennis and Trevor Moore. Minutes after a 3-2 overtime loss to the Canucks, the coach expressed regret about dressing that trio while putting six-foot-five centre Frederik Gauthier in the press box.

“I couldn’t use it as much in D-zone, you know what I mean?” said Babcock. “Everybody loves players, that’s great, but you’ve got to be able to use lines and everyone’s got to have a role and someone’s got to penalty kill and someone’s got to be able to take faceoffs.

“So I didn’t think I gave our team with that lineup as good an opportunity as I might have wanted.”

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Petan has seen some work on the Leafs second power play and is basically a buy-low bet for the organization. He put up monster numbers for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, won gold for Canada at the 2015 world junior tournament and was a point-per-game player for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose last season.

There’s clearly a tremendous amount of talent there, which Dubas pointed out after completing the trade: “We just feel we need to bring him in, work with him and maximize his potential.”

It’s a plan the player is obviously sold on given that he took the guaranteed $1.55-million, two-year contract now rather than waiting for a one-year qualifying offer in June that would have been worth over $910,000.

He also agreed to a pay cut from the $874,125 he’s earning this season.

During a conversation before Tuesday’s game in Nashville, Petan reflected on why things didn’t work out better for him with the Jets organization after being selected in the second round of the 2013 draft.

“There’s lots of reasons,” he said. “I don’t think it had anything to do with anything personal or anything like that. Great team. First rounders come in every year, get their opportunity and they did well. I think in my defence, I didn’t really get that opportunity to play my style of game … or a role up in the lineup.”

The impending cap crunch in Toronto should open up some roles for budget players next season, given the likelihood an established member or two of the Leafs will have to be shipped out a town after extensions are worked out with Mitch Marner, Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen.

The Leafs could spend as little as $2.225 million total on their entire fourth line in 2019-20 since that’s what Petan, Moore and Gauthier are now due to make between them.

Petan is hopeful that the recent change of scenery will shift the arc of his career. He had never been traded before in his life, but welcomed the move out of Winnipeg.

“Actually, it was probably going on for about a year and a half there,” he said. “So I was kind of expecting at some point [a trade] was going to get done. I obviously didn’t know where, so happy it was here.

“I’m looking forward to a future here.”


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