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Can the Maple Leafs find a fit with the 3 players bought out so far?

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It’s a diverse set of players, and there may be more to come.

Los Angeles Kings v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

With the first buyout window open until the day before free agency begins — October 8 — there’s time yet for more players to be bought out as teams search for ways to fit the roster of players they most want under the salary cap. One way to do that is to shop for bargains from those players someone else just bought out.

So far there’s three of them.

Bobby Ryan

The Ottawa Senators didn’t waste any time in buying out Ryan’s monster contract. This was a very foreseeable event, a question of “when not if” for years. Signed to a seven-year deal in 2014 that didn’t take effect until 2015-2016, his $7.25 million AAV might have made sense at the time if the team had believed he was genuinely going to return to the form that saw him post 34 goals and 71 points with the Ducks in the year before the lockout. His lockout season was great too, and that’s a recurring theme for players of his age. The shorter season did some of them a lot of favours with their stats.

On the Senators, Ryan hit his peak in 2015-2016 with 22 goals and 56 assists, which made the contract seem tolerable, if not exactly a bargain. Since then, plagued by injuries, he’s played only one nearly full season and has been useful only in keeping the Senators above the cap floor.

With two very good draft picks this year, and a few very good prospects, the Senators are due to start building instead of tanking. With two years left, and cash savings to be had in the short term by buying out the contract, the buyout started to make sense now. But was this just a money deal? Or is Ryan’s career over?

After a successful time spent in the NHL’s substance abuse system last season, he came back to a triumphant return, got the famous Gordie Howe hat trick, and then won the Masterton Award. But along the way, he only played in 24 games, most of them from before he took time to deal with the addiction he lives with. It’s very hard to tell what he’d be able to produce on a team not so successful at being terrible in every way. It’s also very hard to tell if he could play anything like a full season without injury.

The most concerning thing about Ryan’s last few years is that his offensive value has waned. It isn’t just the points that have dried up — something at least partly attributable to playing with bad linemates — it’s his effect on the overall offence. By HockeyViz’s Isolated impacts, Ryan was still good in his first year in Ottawa, and then he started to decline offensively, while getting better defensively.

There’s a few possible reasons for that defensive improvement. He might have realized he needed to offer something if the goals weren’t coming. He might have changed his style of play to one of lower risk since he didn’t have confidence in his own scoring touch, or he might just have hung around on a decaying roster long enough to become one of its better players.

At a low salary, there’s not much risk in signing Ryan, but for the Leafs, they want someone a little more likely to bring value to their weakened depth. I’d say take a pass on this bought-out player, but he may find a place to give it another try quite easily. We’ll find out on Friday.

Henrik Lundqvist

No one even knows if Henrik Lundqvist wants to keep playing at this point. His brother, the captain of his old club team in Frölunda, said Henrik will not be joining them. The SHL season is already underway, and they have a set roster.

If he does want to try to get another NHL contract, the Leafs don’t seem like a fit. There’s been talk ever since Jack Campbell looked like a competent backup in a few games that the Leafs should jump on the tandem bandwagon and consider Campbell more of a 1B. The evidence for that being a good idea seems to largely be that people want it to be a good idea.

With trade rumours circulating around Frederik Andersen, that tandem talk has only intensified. But Lundqvist wasn’t really bought out by the Rangers just because they have two young prospects they think are good. He was bought out because he isn’t helping them win games anymore.

For most of his career, he’s carried a defensively weak team that allowed a huge volume of shots against, and he just can’t do it now. He might well be able to become a backup mentoring a young star like Brian Elliott has done in Philadelphia, but he’s not a useful part of a tandem. The Leafs are looking for long-term future solutions in net not a temp while they take a step back. They’re meant to be leaping forward.

It’s a lovely idea to imagine the King finishing his career behind William Nylander, but I don’t think this fairy tale was ever meant to be.

Michael Grabner

In what might superficially seem like a surprise move, the Arizona Coyotes bought out Michael Grabner. At an AAV of $3.35 million and with only one year left on his contract, he hardly seemed like the worst deal dragging the team down while inflating their salary expenses. But his salary was more than his cap hit, and the buyout saves the extremely cash-poor Coyotes over a million in actual dollars — forget the cap hit.

At 32, Grabner wasn’t the problem on the team, but he also isn’t part of their future, so cutting him loose does make a lot of sense for them.

Grabner, acquired by the Leafs in 2015 for a package of players that includes Stanley Cup champion Carter Verhaeghe, is remembered mostly by Leafs fans for futility. Lou Lamoriello couldn’t trade him at the deadline to recoup any picks, and with 21 Shots on Goal while shorthanded, Grabner scored one goal, this one:

March 29, before he got a shorty after all those rush chances.

The truth is that Grabner’s fruitless rushes were totally normal. In the last five years, a host of players have had more than three shorthanded goals in a season, including Grabner, and not one of them has done it more than once.

But his PK skill and speed fits perfectly on the Leafs, who have been running a form of aggressive puck-hogging PK since he was on the team. There’s no question he still had the touch as recently as 2019, when the Coyotes became known for scoring shorties:

His most recent season in Arizona included an okay shooting percentage, some poor overall offensive impact and decent enough defence impact when you consider he’s a speed-demon, not a grinder along the boards. The most intriguing part of HockeyViz’s season summary on him is deeply good impacts on the PK, although it’s hard to assess anything in such small quantities of minutes. For the first time in his career, his ice-time dwindled down into fourth-line territory, however.

He played a lot with Brad Richardson and Vinnie Hinostorza, a player I like a lot, and you’d do a lot worse with those three as your fourth line. He actually faced a slightly skewed competition, playing against more top line forwards than average. The coach played him heavily in the defensively zone, and almost exclusively to hold leads.

If you compare his usage to Kyle Clifford or Dmytro Timashov on the Leafs, it’s incredibly different. Clifford, along with the rest of the fourth line, was heavily sheltered from top-six forwards and top pairing defenders. Even Pierre Engvall was carefully kept well away from tough competition and also didn’t see all that much defensive zone usage.

What that all says is that the Maple Leafs coaches never had anyone in the bottom six they trusted to do much of importance defensively. Frederik Gauthier taking defensive zone faceoffs was about the highest leverage use of the depth south of the redline. And while the third line added some goals in a reasonable number, they were anything but a shutdown or checking line.

While we wait for Kyle Dubas to pull the defensive rabbit out of the hat once again, it’s the bottom half of the roster that needs a lot of work. Grabner has been asked to do things a lot more challenging than the Leafs depth are ever charged with. He hasn’t got the abilities now in his 30s that make you think he could take the third line to new heights, but is he at least Jason Spezza only with PK skills not PP? That’s a really tough call because Spezza had some good defensive and shotshare results on the Leafs after a few very bad years in Dallas, and he has a little five-on-five offensive oomph too. A new team might mean better results for Grabner, who certainly seems to have lost most of his prior scoring touch. It also might not.

Grabner could certainly take the job Kasperi Kapanen used to do on the PK, but with Ilya Mikheyev on the roster, maybe that’s not that important. Clifford’s main value to the team was an ability to gain the net-front, while he never really had linemates to cash in on it. Grabner is a different sort of player altogether. And if pressed, I’d want Hinostroza every day instead of him. But for the right deal, and if he doesn’t hate Toronto after his last tour here, maybe it could work.

Besides, when the Leafs draft Marco Rossi, wouldn’t it be cool to have two Austrians on the team?

What do you think? Would you go for any of these guys on a Spezza-special contract?