TORONTO – One and done?
If you are sticking to the vision and running back the $40.5-million Core Four, as the Toronto Maple Leafs brass projected during Wednesday’s season wrap-up meeting with the press, you need to fill the roster with inexpensive role players willing to take small money and low term in hopes of being part of Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas’s promised breakthrough.
“We kind of went with the one-year contracts last year. It is nice to have the contract slots to be able to be flexible. We also saw the market last year, and there will be similar opportunities this year,” Dubas said.
The first step in filling the fringes is to look at the Leafs’ current crop of impending unrestricted free agents and determine who should be back.
“We have [roster] challenges ahead that we need to face at full speed in order to be at our best. I certainly try not to take a stubborn approach to it,” Dubas said. “The goal will be to build as good of a team as possible next year, knowing we are fortunate to have a talented core group.”
We’ll save deep dives into longstanding core members Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen for another day.
Here — ranked in order of their likelihood to be back in blue for ’22 — is a look at the Maple Leafs’ 2021 one-year rentals.
Jason Spezza (2020-21 cap hit: $700,000)
Vintage Spezza — 37 and improving with age — struck the same tone Wednesday as he did after the bubble burst on Toronto’s 2020 post-season, making it clear he wants re-sign.
“Yeah, I would. I feel like there's a lot of unfinished business. I feel very invested in the group here, and I’m hopeful that I get another opportunity to do that again next year and push this team over the top,” Spezza said.
There is no reason to believe the magnanimous fourth-liner would not accept another one-year, league-minimum deal if it meant another chance at hoisting the Cup with his boyhood team.
“I realized that my opportunities to win are becoming less and less, and that probably creates a high level of desperation internally for me to drive to be my best every day,” Spezza said. “I'm not sure how much longer this goes… And I really want to win. So, I think that drives me.”
Next to William Nylander, Spezza was the Leafs’ most effective playoff producer, scoring three goals and five points in the Montreal series, capping off his first 30-point campaign in four years.
He credits the “incredible” attention his aging body gets from the training staff. “I'm very thankful to that because it'd be easy just to leave a guy like me alone and focus on the younger guys,” he said.
Interestingly, Dubas deferred to Sheldon Keefe on the topic of keeping Spezza for a third tour.
“With players at that stage in their career, you always want to make sure the coach is comfortable, as we have done with Jason in the past,” Dubas said. “I would expect that if Sheldon is good, we would want to bring him back for sure.”
Zach Bogosian (2020-21 cap hit: $1 million)
If Bogosian is willing to take another one-year, $1-milllion deal, sign him yesterday. The bruising third-pair right shot was full value, and Dubas has had his eye on the defenceman since the 2020 deadline.
The jury is out if righty prospect Timothy Liljegren is prepared to make the full-time leap to the National League in 2021-22, and Bogosian brings a level of experience, consistency and meanness to the penalty kill and net-front that was appreciated. His plus-7 rating was Bogosian’s highest since he was an Atlanta Thrasher.
That said, he’s only 30 and might get a better offer elsewhere.
Alex Galchenyuk (2020-21 cap hit: $1.05 million)
Dubas calls the Galchenyuk reclamation “a great story.” And the found-money upside of the dynamic winger slightly altered Toronto’s trade deadline approach, with Dubas developing an inexpensive complementary piece after cutting ties with Jimmy Vesey and Travis Boyd — two more one-and-dones.
“He came in as a player who had never played in the American League as a top-three overall pick. He came in, put in a ton of work with the development staff, just absolutely worked his butt off every day, and contributed to our group,” Dubas said. “He came in in the playoffs, produced, had a great game in Montreal in [a three-point] Game 4, and credit to him for that.”
If Galchenyuk wants term or a raise, he’ll have to search the market. Again. But his half-season in Toronto proved he’s still an NHLer. Albeit one whose game comes with some risk.
“It is just so fresh with him. He hasn’t been here for long,” Dubas said. “But there is definitely some interest in having him return.”
Wayne Simmonds (2020-21 cap hit: $1.5 million)
“Being a guy from Scarborough, from the GTA area, I was hoping to be a piece to the puzzle, to help push past that [first round],” Simmonds said. “Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. So, it is extremely disappointing, you know? It's heartbreaking.”
Simmonds came in feet and fists a-fury. He was vocal and positive and brought a much-needed edginess to his hometown team. But his momentum stalled when a puck broke his wrist, and he didn’t make a significant impact in the Montreal series.
Simmonds pitched hard to be a Leaf last summer, and Toronto ironically chose him over Montreal’s Corey Perry. Now, Simmonds says he has “no clue” what awaits in his third consecutive UFA off-season.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time this year playing for the Leafs,” Simmonds said. “Although it is a sport we play, we love the game we play, it as a business.
“I honestly don't know what management's thought processes are, how the coaching staff feels about the support pieces on the team. So, I’d definitely be open to coming back, that's for sure.”
Our guess: The sides amicably part.
Nick Foligno (2020-21 cap hit: $5.5 million)
One of the only reasons Foligno became a Leaf was because Dubas got creative and spent a pretty penny to chop his portion of the forward’s cap hit down to $1.375 million. While the former Columbus Blue Jackets captain ingratiated himself to the group, he was only healthy enough to slog through four of Toronto’s seven playoff games and was demoted to the fourth line when it mattered most.
Foligno left the door open for a Blue Jackets reunion when he left Columbus, and he’ll have other suitors. It’s difficult to see this as anything more than a worthy gamble gone bad. (Ditto for depth rentals Ben Hutton, Riley Nash and David Rittich — all playoff healthy scratches.)
The Leafs love the character. They won’t love his next contract ask.
Joe Thornton (2020-21 cap hit: $700,000)
For the first time we can recall, Thornton — the NHL’s oldest forward — didn’t sound like a man ready to keep huntin’.
Twenty-three seasons and a zillion tape-to-tape passes feels like it will end with a Hall of Fame ring but no Stanley Cup one. Heartbreaking.
Officially, Thornton, 41, said Wednesday the exit was too sudden to make a career decision — but that he felt healthy.
Jumbo, father to an active young boy and girl, will take some time to focus on being a dad before making an announcement.
“My daughter has been wanting to ride a horse for months and months, and my little guy wants to go to the rink and come hang with the guys every day and be a part of it,” Thornton said.
“[This pandemic season] has been tough on them. I think it's been tough on a lot of kids, and adults, too. It’s been a long 14, 15 months for a lot of people. My focus has to turn to them right now, and it's a good feeling. I can't wait to spend a lot of time with them now.”
If this is the end for an NHL legend, he’ll always have Switzerland.