With the Stanley Cup Finals well underway, the 2017-18 season is quickly reaching its conclusion. This means the offseason is fast approaching, and many important decisions will need to be made by teams heading into both the draft and free agency.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a few areas that need to be addressed in the coming months in order for the team to make the next step towards Cup contention. The 2018 playoffs proved that defence was still a top priority, and the depth at centre heading into 2019 is unclear.
Obviously, the team could draft the best prospect at the Leafs' spot and develop them. That could take a while though as the window is just now opening. There could also be a trade, but what assets do the Leafs feel comfortable giving up to get immediate help?
The logical conclusion then would be to sign some key free agents starting July 1st. There are many marquee players that could be available like John Tavares, John Carlson, and Mike Green, among others; although, it's uncertain and possibly unlikely that these players will be available, and the price tag may be too steep.
Instead of looking at the more obvious free agent choices, the Leafs should look at other players who could greatly improve the team at a much more affordable price. Here are 4 upcoming free agents Toronto should realistically go after.
As a member of the Carolina Hurricanes last season, Derek Ryan isn't a household name that most hockey fans would instantly know. If you look further into what he was able to achieve, there's a lot to like about his game.
Spending the majority of the year on a line with Jeff Skinner, Ryan had a respectable 38 point campaign (15 goals, 23 assists). While these numbers aren't eye-popping, what makes it intriguing is that he made his linemates better offensive players. As this chart shows, Skinner actually had fewer scoring chances when he wasn't playing with Ryan.
More importantly, Ryan plays an effective 200-foot game and plays consistently well, regardless of who he plays with. His goals above replacement average is solid, rarely gives up quality scoring chances in his own end, and he posted a ridiculous 57.1 Corsi-for percentage in 80 games.
He is a type of player many teams would love to have and would easily make their 4th line significantly stronger. As a late bloomer, it's not clear what his asking price will be. If I were to guess, it would probably be between $2.5-$3 million a season. That may seem steep, but considering the Leafs have plenty of cap space to work with, it's not a huge issue to me.
Unlike most defenseman who could be available on July 1st, Greg Pateryn isn't a player who will get calls for his offensive skills (13 points in 2017-18). It's his play away from the puck that would make him an attractive target for the Leafs to pursue.
His Corsi For percentage is a respectable 49.8. He has the 5th highest TOI average amongs pending UFA defensemen, and he had the second highest average penalty killing ice time on Dallas behind only Dan Hamhuis. While the Stars PK% wasn't great (80.8, 14th in the NHL), it's worth noting that they took the second most penalties. If Pateryn was on a more disciplined team like Toronto, he would be more effective.
Add to the fact that he has good size (6' 3'', 224 pounds) and is a right-shooting defenseman, and it seems that he would add more depth to the right side, which was a flaw last year. The only concern would be that last season was his first full NHL campaign, but he brings a lot to the table defensively.
Considering he only made $800K last season, he will likely be signed for over $1 million and that would work out perfectly for the Leafs. As a former 5th round pick by the Leafs in 2008, and part of the trade to get Mikhail Grabovski, signing Pateryn would be a reunion of sorts.
A two-time Stanley Cup winner, Ian Cole would be a nice addition to any team's defensive unit, and there are a few other aspects to his game that should make him a target for the Leafs if he's available.
Standing at 6'1'' and 219 pounds, Cole has decent size but also has a nice offensive touch, finishing with over 15 points in 3 of the past 4 seasons. His career Corsi For percentage is a decent 51.2, and when compared to Ron Hainsey, he had a better all around season.
Even before he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cole was effective in limiting scoring chances in his own end (only allowing 6.8 chances against at one point). He would be a perfect fit for a Leafs team who struggled to limit quality scoring chances in 2018, especially with Nikita Zaitsev and Hainsey doing basically all the work.
Cole won't be a long-term addition, considering the Leafs have some great young defenders like Andreas Borgman, Timothy Liljegren, and Calle Rosen on the rise. However, if the Leafs feel that none of these players, and the others in their system, aren't yet ready to make the jump to the NHL, then getting Cole makes sense.
He will want a pay increase from the $2.1 million he made last season, probably at or over $3 million a year. Should he be intrigued by an offer of around $3 million for two seasons, it might be worth pursuing for the Leafs.
The 2017-18 season taught us that being short and over the age of 25 doesn't mean you can't make an impact in the NHL. Yanni Gourde and Jonathan Marchessault were two players who became integral members of their respective teams, despite limited NHL experience prior to this year.
Austin Czarnik has potential to be next year's version of that, and a team like the Leafs should definitely look into acquiring his services. Last season in the AHL, he led the Providence Bruins in scoring with 69 points. When he was in the NHL, he thrived despite getting minimal opportunities, highlighted by his 57.7 Corsi For percentage in 2018 with Boston.
That chart shows that he struggled when he played with Dominic Moore, but guess who else struggled when playing with Moore: Connor Brown. Czarnik dominated in college, did well in the AHL, and was effective when he played in the NHL. Had it not been for the high cluster of young talent Boston currently has, he would have made the Boston Bruins easily.
He will be a rare 25-year-old Group 6 UFA, since Boston didn't play him enough games to retain his RFA status, so it's highly likely he will be available on July 1st. Considering he's not a hot commodity, it's entirely possible he will sign to a deal under $1 million for a season or two.
Given his immense potential and the team's uncertainty for the centre position, the Leafs would be wise to try and sign Czarnik if he's available. The best part is that getting him would be a low-risk, high-reward scenario for Toronto. Worst case, he goes on waivers if it doesn't work out. Best case, he becomes the next Yanni Gourde.
All stats for this article are from Hockey-Reference.com.