Maple Leafs free agency primer: Pressure is on to take a step forward

Elliotte Friedman joins Scotty Mac and Ziggy on Lead Off to discuss how serious the Maple Leafs are in their pursuit of St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, and what other defensive options may be available for Toronto in free agency.

Make no mistake about it: The Toronto Maple Leafs will be a player on Oct. 9, when the curtain opens on an autumn free agency.

An executive with a vision, Kyle Dubas made his first triumphant splash in free agency when, as a rookie GM, he outbid a series of contenders for 2018’s grand prize, John Tavares.

You can debate whether or not that $88-million photo op has set up or set back the roster for success, but what you cannot argue is Dubas’s targeted aggression when it comes to signing those on whom he has set his sights.

Heck, the Leafs got a jump on 2020’s free agency months ago, when they secured coveted KHL imports Mikko Lehtonen and Alexander Barabanov.

Dubas then wasted little time dusting off his seat at the table for the NHL’s fall market. By dealing away Kasperi Kapanen to Pittsburgh for cap space and futures in the off-season’s ice-breaking trade, the executive announced his intention to be in the bidding.

“We wanted this [cap] flexibility so that we could be flexible inside the marketplace for either free agents or for trades,” Dubas said.

Trades absorb assets. Free agents? They only absorb money.

And as a financial powerhouse in a league with a segment of franchises who prefer to ball on budget, Toronto has never been shy about throwing money at a problem.

Salary cap space: $6.1 million
Roster size: 18/23
Salary committed to forwards: $51.71 million
Salary committed to defence: $15.83 million
Salary committed to goalies: $6.65 million

Team needs

No longer satisfied with making the cut, the Maple Leafs must construct a roster that doesn’t simply qualify for a fifth consecutive post-season but finishes as a high seed ready to knock off an opponent or two or three and take a tangible step forward.

Most agree such improvement starts on the back end, and regardless of his method, Dubas must address an inexperienced, lopsided blue line that is waving goodbye to its two most experienced righties, Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci. The good news is that plenty of right-shot defenders will be available in both the UFA and trade markets at various price points.

Item No. 2 on the GM’s to-do list should be reconfiguring a bottom-six forward group that was marred by injury and inconsistency and lacked identity throughout 2019-20. During Toronto’s bubble ouster by Columbus in the qualification round, Nick Foligno’s third line had its way with the Maple Leafs’ group. A swell starting point would be signing a pure centreman to slide into the 3-hole, preferably one that kill penalties and contributes some secondary scoring.

Does Dubas believe the newly acquired Evan Rodrigues (RFA) is up to the task? Can he be signed for something less than his $2-million qualifying offer? Will Alexander Kerfoot be trusted to rebound from a rocky first tour in blue and white? Or does Dubas go bargain hunting for a proven veteran with the likes of Kyle Clifford and, perhaps, Jason Spezza leaving town?

Thirdly, the Leafs need to be harder to play against in their own zone. A look at the clubs that went deep in this summer’s playoffs should reinforce that, and Dubas could do worse than following the Julien BriseBois blueprint here.

Some increase of the Leafs’ grit-per-60 should happen organically. The core is coming into its prime and should be good and fed up with getting outbattled in elimination games. But some must be imported.

That means more diligent penalty-killers, fiercer boxouts and willing shot-blockers. Really, the heavy lifting — locking up elite talent — is already done.

It’s filling out the fringes with the right type of complementary pieces that could mean the difference between another early exit and legit shot at glory.

Potential UFA targets

1. Alex Pietrangelo, RD: A 50-point, all-star, right-shot defenceman who skates more than 24 all-purpose minutes a night, killing penalties, driving offence and stuffing cycles? Yes, please. There is no doubt Toronto-born Pietrangelo is the best UFA available for the Leafs’ needs. The concern will be over who leaves the roster to make way for his (approximate) $8.5 million contract and whether the Leafs can win a Stanley Cup before the 30-year-old’s play stops matching his paystubs.

2. Radko Gudas, RD: If Pietrangelo stays with St. Louis or signs with one of his other suitors (Vegas is keen), Dubas will have a crop of second-tier right-shot defencemen to kick tires on. A player like Gudas, who is not expected to re-sign in Washington, has the nifty underlying numbers to pass Dubas’s analytical tests, the sandpaper to appease the we-need-more-grit critics, and the penalty-killing prowess to boost the weaker half of Toronto’s specialty teams.

3. Joe Thornton, C: The Maple Leafs may not have realized how much they needed Nazem Kadri until he was gone. Kerfoot had a rough go shifting from the wing to 3C, so we’re intrigued by the possibility of Dubas selling a fading star like Ontario-born Thornton — or, perhaps, Mikko Koivu or Spezza (again) — on coming to Toronto, injecting some leadership, winning some faceoffs, creating some secondary scoring, and accepting a little less money for another kick at the dream.

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