All eyes on Kerfoot, McCann for Maple Leafs ahead of expansion draft

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman talks the latest on where UFA Zach Hyman could land and more surrounding NHL free agency.

Why did the Toronto Maple Leafs trade for another Soo Greyhounds alum, Jared McCann, hours before the expansion draft protection deadline… only to expose McCann to the Seattle Kraken a couple of hours later?

By opting for the less-used 4-4-1 protection route, GM Kyle Dubas is steering the Kraken away from Justin Holl, despite mild protest from some sectors of Leafs Nation, and toward his fifth-best forward.

Does Seattle architect Ron Francis believe that to be McCaan or Alexander Kerfoot?

Or was there already some understanding of which Leaf the Kraken would snatch when Dubas granted then-assistant Dave Hakstol permission to interview for, and then land, the plum head coaching gig in Seattle.

Regardless of which player is chosen, the Leafs will lose a legit NHLer this week — a far cry from when the Vegas Golden Knights selected Marlies star Brendan Leipsic in 2017.

When Dubas last spoke to reporters, he described the Maple Leafs’ expansion equation as not “overly perilous,” and we sense the exec already has his sights on spending the cap space Francis will take off his books via trade or free agency.

Protected list

Forwards: John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander

Defencemen: Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie, Justin Holl

Goalie: Jack Campbell

Possible Seattle targets

Alexander Kerfoot: Suspect Number 1 to depart the Maple Leafs, Kerfoot fits the bill of a player Francis could plug into his Opening Night lineup. The versatile centre-slash-winger is fast, feisty and from the Pacific Northwest. The Vancouver-born Kerfoot enjoyed a nice bounce-back year in 2021, his second in Toronto, scoring more playoff points (six) in the Leafs’ first-round loss to Montreal than anyone not named William Nylander. Kerfoot would bring cost certainty ($3.5 million cap hit through 2023), penalty killing and secondary scoring.

Jared McCann: Similar to Kerfoot, McCann would present the Kraken with a play-now option capable of skating the middle or the flank. McCann, 25, is younger and cheaper than Kerfoot. Plus, he’s a better shooter. Yes, his contract expires in 2022, but as a restricted free agent, he’ll still be under club control. Partly because Penguins GM Ron Hextall feared losing McCann in expansion, he flipped him to Toronto Saturday for prospect Filip Hållander.

Travis Dermott: The 24-year-old left-shot defenceman is inexpensive ($1.5 million cap hit through 2023) and believed to be a couple of years away from hitting his ceiling. Plenty of more proven D-men are available to Francis, so selecting Dermott — a third-pairing guy at this point — means betting on his growth.

Salary cap outlook

In terms of the cap, losing Kerfoot to Seattle would free up $3.5 million in each of the next two seasons. As much as Dubas likes the player, the GM’s commitment of $40 million to four stud forwards puts him in a self-imposed crunch.

Kerfoot signed with Toronto prior to the cap-flattening pandemic, so the bet here is that a suitable replacement (McCann) would cost less and free up funds to round out the roster.

If Kerfoot is indeed the player claimed, Toronto will have about $10 million to acquire a goaltending partner for Campbell, sign a Zach Hyman replacement, and fill out the fringes of its forward cast.

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