Why Wayne Simmonds chose to return to Maple Leafs over free agency

Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds explains why he was never really tempted to test the open free agent market this off-season, and why there was still mutual interest to stay in Toronto and why he still feels he's a great fit.

TORONTO – The Wayne Train sees no need to keep rolling from town to town.

Wayne Simmonds has found his home station and is full steam ahead as a cap-friendly Toronto Maple Leaf, from now through 2022-23. He is happily taking another pay chop and vows to keep chugging until the wheels fall off.

“I'm a person who… I'll never quit. No matter what,” Simmonds said Tuesday, after ink had dried on a two-year, $1.8-million extension with his neighbourhood club.

“This is my home. This where I want to be. This is where I want to raise my family. This is where I want to win a Stanley Cup.”

Simmonds is 32 years old and two weeks deep into training for his 14th NHL campaign. He’s had enough bruises and surgeries, goals and joys, fistfights and disappointments to last 17 lifetimes.

He has reached that point in a grown man’s life where he no longer needs clichés as a crutch. That stage where stability and family supersede financial gain. Where you don’t screw around with happy.

So, Simmonds’ cap hit will slip again, from $1.5 million in 2020-21 to $900,000, giving general manager Kyle Dubas more experience and value on his fourth line (fellow culture-enhancing veteran Jason Spezza re-upped for the minimum $750,000 two weeks ago) — and a contract that could be buried in the minors if the determined Simmonds struggles to match his own standards.

In return, Simmonds gets peace of mind, more time to rehab the broken wrist he suffered in February, plus two cracks at some unfinished business while surrounded with a talented core.

That pitch was enough to assuage any temptation Simmonds may have had to peek behind free agency’s curtain on July 28.

Talks between Dubas and Simmonds’ camp began shortly after elimination, when the player openly wondered if the Leafs would even want to give him another shot.

“I thought I could’ve done more to help the guys get further,” Simmonds said. “Just the way I am, the person I am, I think negatively first. So, I didn't really know if the Leafs would want me back or whatever, because we didn't get to our goal.”

The Toronto dressing room, Simmonds said, has been the most comfortable spot he’s been since his eight-year run and 30-goal star turns in Philly.

And the extra year of commitment from Dubas means Simmonds needn’t fret about packing a suitcase at the trade deadline, the way he did in 2019 (from Philadelphia to Nashville) and 2020 (from New Jersey to Buffalo).

Knock wood, it also means repping Scarborough in front of a full Scotiabank Arena, as the pandemic loosens its grip on Ontario.

“It’ll be unbelievable. I got a small taste of what it is to be a Toronto Maple Leaf, not the full thing,” said Simmonds, conducting a Zoom conference as he piloted his car home from the gym.

“I got a two-year-old daughter. I wouldn't love anything more for than to see her sitting in the stands with her SIMMONDS jersey on. And seeing my wife and my family and my friends being able to take in games on a weekly basis.”

Simmonds himself has not been taking in games of late. He caught a bit of Game 1 between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning, but made a point to take some time away from the rink after the Habs ousted the Leafs in Game 7.

“To be honest, I haven’t even watched hockey since we lost. That loss to Montreal stung a lot. I think that was one of the hardest losses of my life. And I think for me, reading about how we failed and what we should have did differently, everyone saying what they wanted to say about our players, I think it left a bitter taste in my mouth and a huge sting,” Simmonds said.

“I know we have a team good enough to go farther than the first round, and it was extremely important for me to show the guys on the team that I'm in this with them.

“I just wanted to be back on this team and prove all our naysayers wrong.”

At a price point that further shrinks the Maple Leafs’ middle class but escalates its class, Simmonds is returning with Spezza’s Put me anywhere, coach! mindset.

“I don't really care where they see me. I'm here for the boys. I'm here to win,” Simmonds asserted.

He’ll drop the gloves, as he did thrice in 2021's shortened season. He’ll drive the net and chip in second scoring (seven goals in 38 games isn’t bad for a bottom-sixer). He’ll work on his "explosiveness" over the summer to provide energy.

And, refreshingly, he’ll call out Toronto's collapse for what it was.

“We may have sat back a little bit too much. We didn't kill when we smelled the blood in the water,” said Simmonds, thinking back to how his Leafs tenure could’ve ended.

“I know every single man on this team has a bitter taste in their mouth, and they’re gonna come ready.”

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