TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs wasted no time filling their No. 1 need in free agency Wednesday.
The club inked a three-year contract with UFA Petr Mrazek, who walks from the Carolina Hurricanes for a new deal worth $3.8 million annually.
"It was an easy choice," Mrazek said of his move to Toronto. “It’s every single night you’re on the radar. I’m excited.”
Former Maple Leaf Frederik Andersen signed with the Hurricanes for two years and $9 million, completing a UFA goalie swap. Carolina also agreed to a deal with UFA Antti Raanta, forming a completely new tandem.
“It's goaltending, so it's a hugely important position for everybody,” Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas said.
“We were fortunate going in that we already had Jack Campbell, who we feel very strongly about. We just felt we needed to find a strong partner for him so that we can have as good a tandem as possible. We felt we achieved that.”
Mrazek, 29, is well accustomed to playing in a 1A/1B tandem and is set to enter the season with more security, experience and bigger paycheques than Campbell, whose $1.65-million contract ends in 2022.
Mrazek posted a 6-2-3 record with three shutouts and a .923 save percentage for the Hurricanes in an injury-plagued 2020-21.
He underwent surgery on his right thumb in February and returned in April.
The Czech goaltender admitted some anxiety entering the goalie carousel but is encouraged by the prospects of contributing to a high-scoring squad.
"Hopefully get as many wins as I can, to get better every day. I think the last three seasons I established myself in a position that I finally learned how important games," said Mrazek, who has already texted his girlfriend for advice on a new sweater number (34 is reserved).
"Always when you play Toronto, the fans are great."
Mrazek appeared in just two 2021 playoff games, posting a .873 save percentage, and ultimately lost his starting job in crunch time to the up-and-coming Alex Nedeljkovic -- who was subsequently dealt to the Detroit Red Wings in a cost-cutting move last week.
With Andersen off the books, the Leafs are saving $1.2 million on their goaltending tandem year over year.
Toronto also explored a trade for Arizona netminder Darcy Kuemper but deemed the price too high.
Leafs hope they struck gold value winger Bunting
Never forget where you came from.
The life motto Michael Bunting has tagged to his social media bios appears to be doubling as foreshadowing for the Scarborough, Ont., native and unrestricted free agent.
After walking away from the Arizona Coyotes and fielding interest from multiple suitors, Bunting has signed with his hometown Maple Leafs.
It's a two-year pact carrying a cap hit of $950,000, a smaller AAV than Bunting was offered elsewhere.
"Can't argue with that, [and] we needed that tenacity," Dubas said. "I know him, but I've watched him seven years on."
Spending his entire career under the radar, the late-blooming Bunting was drafted 160th overall in the 2013 OHL draft by Dubas, then the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds GM.
Under then-Soo coach Sheldon Keefe, Bunting flourished offensively, racking up 116 points over his 105 OHL games played.
The connections are obvious, and the price should be right.
“It all comes down to value,” Dubas said of his free agency strategy.
Barring a trade off the roster (Alexander Kerfoot’s name has surfaced in rumours), the top-heavy Maple Leafs have roughly $4.6 million in their account to complete their 2021-22 lineup.
So, the club is waving adieu to UFAs Zach Hyman (seven years at $5.5 million in Edmonton), Alex Galchenyuk (exploring an eighth NHL franchise), Zach Bogosian (rejoining Tampa Bay for cheap), and possibly Nick Foligno (another Wild target).
Well, what about Bunting?
The 25-year-old left wing was a fourth-round choice by the Coyotes in 2014. He has spent at least part of the past six seasons in the AHL and has never put pen to paper on a one-way contract at the NHL level.
At five-foot-11 and 197 pounds, he’s a blue-collar-style player with legitimate blue-collar roots.
His mom, Lynda, was a bookkeeper at a local store. His dad, Andy, collected garbage for the city.
Despite growing up in the mecca, Bunting played high-school hockey for most of his formative years because AAA in the GTHL is so cost-prohibitive.
"I still remember the day," Bunting told NHL.com of his tryout with the AAA Don Mills Flyers. "They showed me how much it would cost. I said, OK, I'll talk to you guys later. I don't think I'm going to play.' "
The Flyers worked out a payment plan, Bunting’s stock rose with his game, and he remains indebted.
Never forget where you came from.
Bunting fell into that rare Group VI group of free agents composed players who have played at least three pro seasons but fewer than 80 NHL games prior to turning 25.
Honing his skills in AHL Tuscon, Bunting quietly broke out in 2021, scoring 10 goals and registering nine takeaways (plus three assists) in 21 games while skating more than 15 minutes a night for a struggling Coyotes club.
He’s been primarily used in offensive situations (68.9 percent of his shifts start in the O-zone) and could either stick in the Leafs’ middle six or face a similar fate as, say, a Nic Petan -- an AHL/NHL tweener who went unqualified by Toronto Monday after multiple big-league opportunities.
Bunting’s high shooting percentage (26.3) could be viewed as a red flag or an indication of his willingness to drive to the greasy areas.
“He just looked himself in the mirror last year and said, ‘I’ve got to be more professional and I’ve got to get myself ready to play,’” former coach Rick Tocchet told Ken Campbell in May. “Came in in great shape, was sent down right away, no attitude. He was the best player in Tucson and [Roadrunners coach] Steve Potvin couldn’t say enough about him.
“A guy willing to go to the net. If you look at his goals, they’re all near the front of the net.”
A new NHL contract marks a wonderful summer for Bunting, who won a world championship gold medal with Team Canada in June.
• Kurtis Gabriel signed a one-year contract with Toronto for the league minimum ($750,000). The 28-year-old Newmarket, Ont., native racked up 55 penalty minutes in 11 NHL games with San Jose last season.
"We know what we're going to get from him in terms of his work level, his passion," said Dubas, who watched Gabriel train at the Ford Performance Centre two off-seasons ago.
How it started.. vs how it’s going
Can’t put it into words. But can tell you I’m bringing everything I got, and then some more. pic.twitter.com/a4YSLOTC1D
— Kurtis Gabriel (@kurtisgabriel) July 29, 2021
• The Maple Leafs also signed depth defencemen Alex Biega and Carl Dahlström to one-year, two-way contracts worth $750,000 and centres David Kämpf, 26, and Michael Amadio, 25.
Kämpf's is a two-year contract worth $3 million total.
Amadio's is a two-way, one-year deal worth $750,000 at the NHL level. Amadio split his 2020-21 season between the Kings and Senators, posting three assists in 25 games.
• Dubas walked away from Hyman without trading his rights to Ken Holland. The Oilers GM’s best offer was reportedly two draft picks, including one in the top five rounds.
• The Maple Leafs acquired the rights to defenceman Brennan Menell from Minnesota in exchange for a conditional seventh-round selection in 2022. The selection will be transferred to Minnesota if Menell plays in 30 games for the Maple Leafs this season.
Menell, 24, ranked second among KHL defencemen with 38 points (five goals, 33 assists) in 47 regular season games, and added seven points (one goal, six assists) in five playoff games with Dinamo Minsk. He played five games total with the Wild and is still looking for his first NHL point.
• The 2022 third-round pick Toronto spent to rent goalie David Rittich at the 2021 trade deadline was used by the Calgary Flames to acquire Chicago defenceman Nikita Zadorov. (Rittich signed with Nashville Wednesday.)
• Finally, Toronto inked local talent and former New York Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang, 25, to a professional tryout. Ho-Sang played all of nine pro games in 2020-21 over in Sweden.
"A zero-risk proposition on PTO," Dubas explained. "It's kind of a make-or-break situation with Josh."