Maple Leafs bet on free-agent bargains, but Dubas far from done dealing

Kyle Dubas confirms that the Toronto Maple Leafs are not yet satisfied with what they've acquired in free agency, and admit to still being open for more players.

TORONTO – Ilya Samsonov is the new Jack Campbell. (Young and cheap with first-round pedigree and something to prove.)

Matt Murray is the new Petr Mrazek. (Experienced and expensive. Stretches of brilliance broken by bouts of injury. A risk.)

And hope is the new confidence.

“That’d be a great thing for us, if both of them play the way that we think that they can,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said Wednesday, upon finalizing his goaltending duo.

“They're both young enough that we will give them the runway here and see if they can become the long-term solution in net.

“Our hope is that both play well, as well as they can.”

If you detect some cross-your-fingers undertones to the unveiling of the 2022-23 Toronto Maple Leafs netminders, you are not alone.

This is a double-down bet on a bounce-back.

The five-year term Campbell earned in Edmonton on Wednesday was an immediate no-go for the Maple Leafs and iced serious negotiations.

Dubas pointed out that Murray, 28, is two years younger than Campbell and under contract for three fewer years.

“In the end, you have to make decisions that are best for the future of the team, regardless of what you think about the person personally,” Dubas said.

The GM downplayed how much the Sault Ste. Marie connection factored into the trade for former Greyhound Murray. More important were his Stanley Cup runs with Pittsburgh and the solid starts he delivered for the Senators after he was recalled from AHL Belleville in January.

“What he did in Pittsburgh five years ago, and then the way that he played in the back half of (this past) year to kind of show that that's still there,” said Dubas, who ran Murray through a series of medical exams Sunday before signing off on the deal.

“Knowing the character of the person always helps. Having a previous experience with him always helps. But if not for that pedigree and what he's accomplished and what he’s showed, then it wouldn't be a fit.”

Given the minimal options available — and the number of teams hunting — on the backup goalie market, Dubas made a much more palatable bet on Samsonov.

The 25-year-old was a first-round pick by Washington in 2015.

He signed for $1.8 million and has a legitimate shot to start more games than Murray next season.

“He really wanted it to be a one-year kind of show-me, bet-on-yourself type deal, which is not always common with players coming off of this shock of being non-QO'd when he wasn't expecting it,” Dubas said. “That was impressive to me.”

In 94 games spread over three seasons in Washington, Samsonov recorded a .902 save percentage and 3.02 goals-against average. Not exactly wow numbers, but he won more games than he lost (53-23-10).

Capitals GM Brian MacLellan tried to trade Samsonov but could not find a partner. The organization then declined to give him a $2.2-million qualifying offer, letting a first-rounder walk for nothing.

According to those close to the team, Samsonov’s ATV injury leading up to the 2020 bubble playoffs didn’t endear him to the team.

Forget the numbers, one source advised.

Samsonov may be athletic and capable of highlight-reel moments, but he can also drift or lose his stick.

The Russian built a reputation for surrendering soft, ill-timed goals in close games that would kill momentum.

“The team gave him plenty of opportunity to seize the No. 1 job, and he couldn’t have sustained success,” the source said.

A fresh challenge for fresh goalie coach Curtis Sandford.

As for the skaters in front of his brand-new $6.49-million tandem, Dubas said he is still very much open for business, both in terms of picking at a second wave of low-cost UFAs and exploring the trade market.

“We have space. We have roster spots that are still available for, really, all different kinds of players,” Dubas maintained.

“They're obviously going to have to be guys that look at our situation and say, ‘I can go there for a year or two on relatively low dollars, and the group would be a fit for me to have success and then parlay that into something greater.’ ”

The new No. 1 priority is a big, strong right-side defenceman who throws the body and plays with a competitive edge. Zach Bogosian became Ilya Lyubushkin becomes … who?

The pickings are slim, with Justin Braun returning to Philadelphia and Erik Gudbranson and Ben Chiarot raking millions in Columbus and Detroit, respectively.

The Maple Leafs began reconstruction on their fourth line.

“We would like it to be a line that can be heavily relied on for us, like our others, but just more physicality, more competitiveness, and drive the play down the ice and be relied upon for Sheldon (Keefe) that way,” Dubas said.

With Jason Spezza (retired), Ondrej Kase (untendered) and Colin Blackwell (UFA) no longer on the roster, Dubas began digging through cap-friendly, bottom-six options to uncover some gems.

In come right wing Nicolas Aubé-Kubel and centre Adam Gaudette — two defensively responsible energy guys who will be depended upon to prevent more goals than they score.

Both inked no-risk, one-year contracts. The former for $1 million, the latter for $750,000.

Aubé-Kubel, 26, was a 2014 second-round pick by Philadelphia who was rented to the Colorado Avalanche early in the 2021-22 season and enjoyed a terrific bump in production (11 goals, 11 assists in 67 games) playing under Jared Bednar’s high-tempo system.

An occasional healthy scratch in the forward-rich Avalanche’s title run, Aubé-Kubel dented the Stanley Cup more often than he dented the scoresheet in the postseason (zero points in 14 playoff games).

No matter. Speedster Aubé-Kubel is cut from the David Kämpf school of offence. Goals are gravy.

The forechecking winger started only 38.2 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone last season and still drove play forward and finished with a plus-11, averaging a shade under 10 minutes and throwing a couple hits per night.

What Aubé-Kubel did not do last season was kill penalties. Ilya Mikheyev did.

“Sheldon really felt that he could add a lot. With losing Ilya’s speed, Nicholas provides that — forechecking, pressure, able to get up the ice. He’s shown in major junior and also in the American League and in the NHL, if he has time and space, he can also shoot,” Dubas said.

“The Cup experience, I think, always helps. How much? I'm not sure. But you'd rather have it than not.”

Pencil in Gaudette as Toronto’s 4C.

The 25-year-old right-shot pivot scored five goals and added nine assists in 2021-22 for the Blackhawks and Senators. The Braintree, Mass., native is a depth add with 218 games of big-league experience who can improve the Marlies if not the Leafs.

Dubas’s eye was caught by Gaudette’s six-goal, eight-point showing at May’s world championships, shades of the forward’s point-per-game production at Northeastern University four years ago.

“Looked to be confident again and empowered a little bit with Team USA. So, it's one of these bets that we make a few times every summer, and he seems very ambitious to get to work,” Dubas said.

“We learned he had a bit of an illness that caused him to lose a lot of weight, and he's got that figured out now. So, he's stronger than ever. And we just think it's a guy that we can work with here and see what happens.”


• RFA Rasmus Sandin remains without a contract, but agent Lewis Gross has had his hands full with the Johnny Gaudreau sweepstakes.

Dubas is not worried about finding common ground with the defenceman, and reasserted how important both Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are to the future of his blueline: “I don't think it's all too complex a situation.”

• Dubas was equally unperturbed that RFA Pierre Engvall is still unsigned: “It'll be an arbitration award at worst, but hopefully we can get it done before that.”

• The Ilyas officially moved on — and got paid handsomely to do so. Mikheyev (four years at $4.75 million) will make more in his first year as Vancouver Canuck than in his entire three-year stint as a Maple Leaf.

“It's been a great three years in Toronto, and it's a great story for us and the player that came as a free agent and will look to cash in, using the resources that we had,” Dubas said. “He put a great effort returning from injury and obviously had a great season here with us. So, that’s great for him.”

• Rugged rental defenceman Lyubushkin, 28, has made a total of $4.15 million over his first four NHL seasons.

He’ll more than double that over his next two seasons with the Sabres.

“We'd love to have him back,” Dubas said. “But it's also for him and his family a huge opportunity as an unrestricted free agent.

“I'm real happy for him, that he was able to find a good spot, and Buffalo will be a great fit for him as they continue to come along with their young D.”

• Ex-Leaf Blackwell inked a two-year deal with Chicago at $1.2 million per season. His previous high was a $725,000 AAV, and he’s bound to get plenty of opportunity on a rebuilding squad.

• Dubas chuckled a little at the notion of shifting Mitch Marner to centre: “It's not anything that’s ever come up. Mitch has been a first team All-Star right wing the last two years, so we got enough things to worry about rather than that stuff.”

• The Mason Marchment trade still has legs. Denis Malgin, 25, is returning to the Maple Leafs on a one-year deal after spending the past two seasons lighting up the Swiss circuit (94 points in 93 games).

• Ondrej Kase wasn’t given a qualifying offer because he held arbitration rights. He ends up in Carolina for one year and $1.5 million.

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