The rebuilding of the Toronto Maple Leafs has begun.
The Leafs traded defenceman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli to the Nashville Predators in exchange for a first-round pick, prospect Brendan Leipsic and soon-to-be-free-agent centre Olli Jokinen.
“We feel that the pieces we got are good, they’re quality pieces,” general manager Dave Nonis said on a conference call Sunday. “We just felt it was the right time to act on it.”
Franson was Toronto’s best trade chip ahead of the March 2 deadline as he’s a pending unrestricted free agent. The right-handed-shooting blue-liner topped the rental market around the NHL.
Santorelli, a versatile forward, was on a one-year contract and wasn’t expected to be back. Nonis said the team wasn’t close to agreeing on extensions with either player.
“You’re talking about two players who were going to be unrestricted,” Nonis said. “We felt that we couldn’t risk not getting something for them in the event that we couldn’t re-sign them. It was important that we got some assets back.”
The trade leaves forwards Daniel Winnik and David Booth as the remaining Leafs expected to be dealt in the next couple of weeks. Jokinen, 36, could join them on the way out.
Nonis said the immediate plan was to get Jokinen, who has just six points in 48 games, playing, starting with Tuesday’s game against one of his former teams, the Florida Panthers.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are playoff teams that will be calling us before the 2nd to see if we’d move him,” Nonis said. “He’s a quality veteran who would provide a team that has a chance to win with some depth.”
The first-round pick the Leafs got in the trade is in this year’s draft. With 82 points, Nashville is atop the league, so it is expected to be a late-round pick, depending on the playoffs.
In Leipsic, a 20-year-old Winnipeg, Man., native, the Leafs get a 2012 third-rounder to begin re-stocking on prospects.
“He’s a gifted young man that’s going to take some time,” Nonis said. “We’ve got time with him. … We’ll try to bring him along slowly, but we like his upside in terms of his offensive ability and the way he competes.”
Franson, who was on his second straight one-year contract with Toronto after a contract dispute in the summer of 2013, said last week there was no bad blood between he and the organization. Going into the season with free agency pending, the Sicamous, B.C., native knew getting traded was a possibility.
“It’s a part of the business,” Franson said Feb. 9. “At the end of the day it’s a numbers game and they’re going to make choices that they feel is best for the team.”
Franson, 27, has six goals and 26 assists in 55 games this season, and those 32 points are tied for 18th among defencemen.
Santorelli, 29, had been enjoying a strong season on a similar one-year contract after some success under John Tortorella with the Vancouver Canucks in 2013-14. A shoulder injury ended that season, but he was healthy and producing in Toronto with 11 goals and 18 assists.
“Honestly I think my game’s kind of taken a step forward since last year,” Santorelli said last week. “Last year was definitely a big bounce-back year for me. I think I’ve carried it over and gotten better. That’s the mind-set. I just want to keep getting better.”
Santorelli had been playing with Winnik and impending restricted free-agent centre Nazem Kadri on the Leafs’ new-look top line.
Predators general manager David Poile didn’t want to wait until the deadline to get his team ready for the stretch run.
“In preparation for the 2015 playoff run, our goal was to add a veteran defenceman who could play in all situations and a proven forward who could move up and down lineup based on the situation,” Poile said in a statement.