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Prowling the Unprotected List for Leafs Targets

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Who can the Leafs work with Vegas to get?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

This is the fun part of expansion. This lists have been revealed, and now it’s time to scour them for any fun and interesting players. As we’ve discussed here numerous times, one of the most interesting setups in the expansion draft is Vegas targeting an exposed player and selling them off to the highest bidder. It’d be a smart way for them to bolster depth, and incite a bidding war or five. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some exposed players who might be interesting acquisitions for the Leafs. This isn’t a comprehensive list - just a few names that leapt of the page to me in terms of interest. We’ll continue to write up about other potential targets.

Eric Staal (32) - MIN (2 years, $3.5M AAV)

After his worst year in Carolina, and an unsuccessful stint with the Rangers, Eric Staal signed a three year deal in Minnesota last offseason. He bounced back with a 65 point campaign, nearly hitting 30 goals along the way, playing mostly with Charlie Coyle and a mix of Zach Parise and Nino Niederreiter.

Truthfully, it was only a bounce back in superficial terms. Staal had been good in Carolina up until the end, but some poor puck luck and a lack of offensively gifted teammates saw his numbers decline. His last two years in Carolina saw on-ice shooting percentages of 6% and 7.2%, both well below his career average of 8.8%. In Minnesota, the scoring returned and he showed the hockey world that he’s still a high level offensive threat. And he’s not just a scorer - he drives play. His 5v5 CorsiRel over the last three years have been: 7.2%, 6.7%, 3.8%. Those are all on pretty strong possession teams as well. CorsiRel isn’t perfect, but it’s a good indication that despite his age (33 next season), Staal is still a very talented player who can bolster any forward group in the league. He’s not good defensively, but his offense is so strong that he more than makes up for it. He’d fit in perfectly in the Leafs top 9, giving them additional centre depth and another offensive weapon to fear.

The problem is the cost. Minnesota also exposed Matt Dumba, and he’s going to be very attractive to both Vegas, and other teams. If Vegas decides they want to take Dumba, either to keep him or auction him off, the Leafs don’t have an avenue to get Staal. There’s also the question of what it would take to get him out of Minny, and whether the Leafs would be better off focusing that on the blueline.

Mathew Dumba (22) - MIN (1 year, $2.55M AAV, expires as RFA)

Dumba might be one of the more sought-after players in this expansion draft. A 23 year old (by the start of next season), right shooting defenceman who has been playing on a good team for pretty much his entire career. We know how trendy RDs are nowadays, and getting one with cost and player control for multiple years is going to be expensive. But if you’re convinced he’s a good player, it’s an attractive prospect. If they acquired him, the Leafs would be locking down their defence corps, and in conjunction with their young and talented forward group, they’d have a squad that appears to be good now, and good in the future. Assuming they don’t give up core pieces to do so, there’s a lot to like about that.

The key there is if you’re convinced he’s a good player. There are reports out of Minnesota that the Wild aren’t happy with his development, and the fact that they’re willing to expose him (with no reported protection trade) is telling. Dumba scores a fair bit for a defenceman, and seems to be gifted offensively. His possession stats are relatively mediocre, but more advanced metrics like GAR think he’s good. And again, he’s quite young. You can reasonably expect some growth from a player like him, and for him to be a solid contributor for the next seven or eight years.

The other major issue is that Dumba is a guy that is very attractive for Vegas to keep. They need to field a team too, and they might want to be semi-competitive out of the gate. Even if they are okay being bad for a bit, Dumba is so young. He can easily be a part of a three or four year plan.

Jason Demers (29) - FLA (4 years, $4.5M AAV)

Seriously, what is Florida doing? Florida chose to go the 4/4/1 route, meaning Jonathan Marchessault, Jason Demers, and Reilly Smith are all unprotected. There may be a side deal to protect one or more of them, but for now, they’re up for grabs.

Demers is the obvious target for the Leafs. Another right shooting defenceman, Demers has a history of being a very good player, though he reportedly struggled in Florida, in the first year of a five year, $4.5M deal. At 29, Demers is no spring chicken, and his deal does represent a bit of risk. That said, he has a history of shot suppression, driving play, and putting up above average point totals. Dumba may have higher upside, but I think it’s relatively clear that Demers is better right now.

The downsides here are twofold. One, the contract isn’t great. Not a disaster, but I’d be lying if I wouldn’t be a little nervous taking that on. The second is that Florida exposed three good NHLers and Vegas can only take one of them. Meaning that if the Leafs want Demers, they’re not only bidding against other Demers suitors, but also anyone who wants Marchessault or Smith. Marchessault, in particular, will probably be attractive, as a 30 goal scorer on a < $1M contract. Marchessault himself might be an interesting target for the Leafs, for similar reasons to Staal. Marchessault put up solid numbers in a limited role in Tampa Bay before exploding last year for 30 goals and 51 points. He’s probably not going to shoot 15.5% again, but he’s still a talented offensive player who would provide additional centre depth for the Leafs an another dynamic presence in their Top 9. His contract is absolutely insane, and while he’ll get a significant raise in a year, a season of a top six scorer at less than $1M is immense value.

Calvin Pickard (25) - COL ($1 year, $1M AAV)

Pretty simple. The Leafs could use a backup, and Pickard would be a decent fit for that role. He’s well thought of, and while he struggled last year (who didn’t in Colorado), he had two previous seasons as a backup where he put up good numbers. The cost may not work out, and there are likely cheaper options for the Leafs to get a capable backup. But, it’s possible.

Calvin de Haan (26) - NYI (RFA)

Sticking with the Calvin’s we move to Brooklyn, where the Isles have left de Haan unprotected. CDH is straight up, quite good. He’s a strong passer, posting well above average first assists over the last three years. His possession numbers initially seem underwhelming, but they are good when you evaluate them in the context of him having to drag Dennis Seidenberg up and down the ice with him for the majority of his minutes last year, mostly with bottom 6 forwards. The previous year, he played in a very different pairing, with more minutes and harder competition, largely split between partners of Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk. In both years, he seemed to succeed to a reasonable degree. He fits into the Leafs timeline well though the fact that he shoots left dampens some enthusiasm here. What dampens it even more is this:

Ducks Defensemen

Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen are both unprotected, but per Pierre LeBrun, it’s believed Anaheim and Vegas have a deal already, which would preclude any other team from pilfering either of these players. For that reason, they are not discussed further here.

This is just a small selection of people I found interesting. There are many more, and we’ll write about them in the coming days, as more information about the deals and protections comes out. In the mean time, sound off in the comments while you’re here. Who are you interested in for the Leafs?