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5 UFAs not named Kevin that are worth a look

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This year’s UFA group is not going to get you a big star, but stars aren’t what you should be looking for. Bargains are.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Calgary Flames
Matthews tries to carry the puck in in his teeth. Goal was waved off.
Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

The discussion period is underway for UFAs. This is a chance for teams to talk to players and their agents, but they are not allowed to discuss dollar figures or term or any other contract details. You will likely see some hot prospects taken on tours of teams and cities, and they may even meet the mayor and executives of large companies. However, the signing of free agents can’t happen until noon on July 1.

Leaving aside all players named Kevin, I took a look at some other options to fill smaller holes in the Leafs lineup.

Cal Petersen

At 22, he’s almost certainly the youngest free agent who will be talked about this week. He became one in an unusual way. Petersen was a draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, and he left his US college before graduation. That meant the Sabres had 30 days to sign him, or he becomes a free agent.

He has let it be known he won’t be signing with the Sabres, and his departure from college was timed so his 30 days are up June 30. He is not a UFA exactly. If he is signed, it will be for a two-year ELC and he will be an RFA in the usual way when it expires.

Petersen is a goalie who put up good numbers at Notre Dame (.927 and .926 in his last two years), and was their captain in his last year. Obviously, he feels he’s ready to turn pro.

The Leafs do not have a high-end goaltending prospect of his age. They have two very young drafted prospects and two AHL goalies who all have yet to prove they are NHL capable. With the decision to not qualify RFA Antoine Bibeau, they have more space for another free agent signing like Kasimir Kaskisuo last year.

What the Leafs really need is an experienced and reliable NHL backup. But if Petersen has the potential to be a starter in a few years, now is the time to get him, not later when he’s expensive.

The Leafs would also have to compete with teams who are more bereft of goalie prospects. Last year’s much hyped goalie free agent, Matt O’Connor, did not work out, and he is now a UFA because the Ottawa Senators are not giving him a qualifying offer, so there is risk in grabbing a goalie in this way. But without risk, there is never any reward.

It just seems like the timing is wrong on Petersen because going to three AHL goalies might be one too many, but if he’s really good, the timing can be made to work.

Chad Johnson

He was my top pick for backup last year, but my second choice was Jhonas Enroth, and we know how that worked out. It turns out Johnson was also the Leafs’ choice before Enroth, but he chose to sign with Calgary. He is currently under contract to Arizona since he was included in Calgary’s trade for Mike Smith for expansion draft reasons.

Here he is compared to Frederik Andersen last year.

Of note: he faced similar shot rates, so the Leafs high event system won’t bother him. He’s better at the medium danger shot, that is, shots from the high slot or circles as opposed to in very tight. His average over the expected average — something that is calculated using expected goals data — was as good as Andersen’s.

He is a top flight backup who is very, very close to being a starter, but at 31, is unlikely to improve enough to make that leap. He is likely the top backup from last year who will stay a backup this year.

He’s not going to sign for the $800,000 Curtis McElhinney made last year, and he is likely going to want an increase on the $1.7 million he made in Calgary — or term or both.

The Leafs need to decide if they are at the stage where they spend on a truly good backup, one who can save their bacon in an emergency like the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals had last year.

If it’s time to be serious about who backs up Andersen, Johnson is a very good choice.

David Desharnais

Yes, I know. He’s terrible! He was a Hab! And an Oiler, although you may have forgotten that trade.

Here’s the thing: finding a fourth line centre who isn’t good enough to be some worse team’s third line centre is difficult. There is a reason Ben Smith played a lot of time on the Leafs last year, and it wasn’t just to make him meet the expansion draft exposure requirements.

David Desharnais is exactly that fourth line centre who can play like a pro, score occasionally and has been overplayed up the lineup to the point people think he’s bad.

Judged against the archetype for a 4C, he’s a little better in places. What he isn’t is a penalty killer with a big body. If the Leafs want to continue with a tough guy fourth line, Desharnais is not the right type of centre. Going back to the drawing board to find one who is that type and who is genuinely willing to play only fourth line minutes leads right back to Brian Boyle.

Brian Boyle

So, let’s talk about Boyle. We know who he is, or at least I think we do. Sometimes I think fans have gotten the wrong impression of his play.

There was talk from Mike Babcock that Boyle allowed the Leafs to just put the fourth line out against any opponents freeing up his top nine. But the truth is, Boyle’s quality of competition chart looks identical to Ben Smith’s.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Mike Babcock felt better when he put Boyle out against tough competition. And that’s likely valid. He is a better player. But he’s not a hidden offensive gem in an ageing depth player’s body.

He turns 33 before this year is done, and he has a new baby. He wants stability and, I’m going to bet, more than a one-year deal. He is reported to be talking to Vegas, and after Tampa, that’s a good fit for him. To live in Toronto, he has to pay Toronto real estate prices, Toronto’s lack of privacy tax and yes, Canadian taxes. As an American, that actually means something in his case.

So how sweet was that taste of playing with the young stars of the Leafs? That’s the question. If having that makes the rest of what Toronto brings worth it to Boyle and the Leafs offer the right deal, he might be back.

Cody Franson

Maybe I’m just tired of talking about defencemen, but I’m not feeling a lot of enthusiasm for Cody Franson or anyone else who fits into the lower part of the top four on a Leafs defensive depth chart.

Franson’s strengths are the Leafs’ weaknesses. That’s his big selling feature. He is likely capable of more ice time than than he was getting in Buffalo, but he faced somewhat less stiff competition than Nikita Zaitsev experienced in his overloaded first year in the NHL.

The drawback to Franson is that he’s never played a full season, and he dressed for only 68 games last year. He’s the right type of defender, he’s a right-shot, and he’s not too old at almost 30 to add value to the team.

The big question here is cost and term. As a short-term stopgap, he’d have to be willing to take three years or less, and he might want and be able to get something better than that. Buffalo’s failure to move him at the deadline last year argues against that, but righties are not exactly plentiful right now.

I feel like a clear upgrade is needed, not yet another sort of second pairing guy. The Leafs have about five of those already. But if Franson is all there is to be had without overspending, Franson it may well be.

The Extras

The Marlies centre problem could be totally solved by free agency. Byron Froese and Cal O’Reilly are both available, and both would be inexpensive. Put them together with Ben Smith, and you’d have a solid core of experienced centres to support the young wingers. Frederik Gauthier could take all the time he needs to heal up, and Adam Brooks would be under no pressure to perform immediately. Instead, Brooks would have a very defined depth chart to climb. If he’s ever going to hit the NHL, he needs to vault over all of those players first.

There’s depth defenders of all sorts available as well, but my expectation is Matt Hunwick will be back again.

There are other backup goalie options available, but other than the intriguing Jean-Francois Berube, picked up by Vegas, none stand out as being right for the Leafs.

The Missing

Joe Thornton and Martin Hanzal are nice fantasy centres to imagine having, but they aren’t fourth liners. Derek Ryan is already off the market, so the options at centre are really limited, and a trade seems to be the way to find someone there.

On defence, there is very little to look at. Matt Hunwick is tied with Trevor Daley and Cody Franson for fourth in points for all UFA defenders. Shattenkirk is 20 points ahead of the number two guy, who is Andrei Markov. Number three is 39 year old Mark Streit.

Why not just re-sign Matt Hunwick out of all of that? Free agency, unless you do sign the man named Kevin, is not going to solve the defence problem any better than it will the centre problem, it seems.

Shattenkirk will command a huge salary with term. But if you don’t risk, you never get a reward, so maybe he is exactly who the Leafs should be in hard on after all.

Poll

Do you like any UFA options?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    That goalie kid is interesting.
    (314 votes)
  • 16%
    Chad Johnson, he’s the real thing.
    (201 votes)
  • 19%
    Boyle, he wants to come back, I feel it.
    (229 votes)
  • 20%
    Franson, there is no one else.
    (242 votes)
  • 16%
    Why not Kevin?
    (198 votes)
1184 votes total Vote Now