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The Leafs’ free agency, in short bullets with bad metaphors

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Want to get caught up quick? Here you are.

2017 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What They Did

  1. The Leafs re-signed backup goalie Curtis McElhinney for two years at $850,000. McElhinney has not historically been very good, but he was good last year. He may not do as well this year, but if so, it’s very easy to bury the contract, which means this move has very minimal risk associated to it. In poker terms, this is betting a couple of chips on a pair of twos.
  2. The Leafs signed centre Dominic Moore for one year at $1M. Moore is a decent faceoff man, okay shot-suppressor, regular penalty killer, and occasionally able to chip in some offence. He is by all accounts a heart-and-soul player, and he’s familiar with Toronto, having had a career year playing for the Leafs in 2008-09. The Leafs needed a fourth-line centre to avoid relying on Ben Smith, and they did not want to pay what Brian Boyle was going to cost, so they found an inexpensively functional guy whose only real drawback is that he will soon be 37. In food terms, this is getting exactly six chicken nuggets at McDonalds.
  3. The Leafs signed defenceman Ron Hainsey for two years at $3M. Ron Hainsey is workmanlike, big if not especially physical, passably productive, and capable of playing right side even though he shoots left. He just won a Cup with Pittsburgh, and he’s 36. He does the things Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak did, but he’s also probably still good enough to displace Connor Carrick from the second-pair RD job. In Dutch folk tale terms, this is finding a hole in the levee and plugging it with a middle-aged man.
  4. The Leafs signed left winger Patrick Marleau for three years at $6.25M AAV. Patrick Marleau was once one of the best left-wingers in the NHL, and he still produces impressive goal totals, albeit in heavy EV and PP minutes. He is a quick skater, he is a good finisher, he is an Olympic gold-medallist, and he will one day make a list for “the best players not in the Hall of Fame.” He is also about to turn 38. Since the Leafs did not make Marleau their highest-paid player in order to not play him, he greatly raises the likelihood of them trading a forward, particularly JVR. In car terms, this is trading in your 2007 Lexus for the finest 1979 muscle car you could find.

What It Means

  1. Toronto is getting older and aiming higher. All of the Leafs’ significant signings were for players 34 or older. In the case of McElhinney and Moore, and to some extent Hainsey, this could be just a matter of stopgaps, as these are not expensive or irreplaceable roles. But Marleau is being paid to be a top-six calibre LW in a period where he will decline. Toronto probably values age and leadership, on a young team trying to make the leap, but it’s also willing to pay for present-tense improvement.
  2. Toronto is probably not going to extend James van Riemsdyk. Toronto is probably going to trade somebody soon, but they don’t necessarily have to have it be JVR. If they run both Marleau and JVR on the left side for a year, they might have the best offence in the NHL. But with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner needing big raises soon, JVR would likely be the fifth Leafs’ forward with a cap hit over $6M. That’s probably unmanageable. So JVR would be here one more year and then gone.
  3. Toronto is a better team now than it was a week ago. The questions are a) are they improved enough to contend for a Cup, and b) are they going to be as good as they might be in three years? Patrick Marleau is going to have a cap hit of $6.25M at age 40, and if he ages like players often do, he will be overpaid at that price. If the Leafs are able to do well on a JVR trade and then slot Marleau in as his replacement, they might on net move this team closer to genuine contention than it’s been at any time since 2002. If Toronto has misjudged, they’ve sacrificed critical cap space in a peak year for their core. Time will tell which of these scenarios is true—or whether both of them are true.
  4. It’s go time. We knew it was coming, but free agency makes it official. We are no longer just happy to be here. The Leafs are trying to win and they’re trying to win soon. Marleau’s cap hit and term are enough to limit the Leafs’ options in a year or two, and limiting options for the future is usually a sign. This doesn’t mean Toronto is desperate for a Cup before Marleau turns 41, and in some ways Marleau is a partial solution to the offensive loss that will come from losing JVR. But there’s more risk in this deal than any the Leafs have made under Lou—and they’re doing it because they think it’s time to start moving to the top table.