Last offseason, very fresh off the embarrassing bounce from the playoffs before they even really began, the Leafs made an excellent trade. The Stanley Cup Final was still going on, Tampa was in the process of seeing to the Boston Bruins, and Vancouver was having the Vegas experience. The equally disgruntled Pittsburgh Penguins, who have been trying to build a competitive enough team around Sidney Crosby unsuccessfully for years, snapped up Kasperi Kapanen while the Leafs got a good draft pick, a good prospect, and freed up cap space for what was to come.
No one is unhappy with this deal. Kapanen had 30 points in 40 games on the Penguins, and the Leafs padded a weakening prospect pool.
The second culling of a winger — not overpaid, just paid too much for the Leafs — was less successful with Andreas Johnsson netting Joey Anderson the day after TJ Brodie was signed.
Those were the important deals of the offseason, but the surprises came as free agency began on October 9, 2020. To Brodie, Kyle Dubas added Wayne Simmonds, Travis Boyd, Zach Bogosian, Jimmy Vesey, Aaron Dell and then, on October 16, Joe Thornton.
Prior to free agency, the Leafs signed Mikko Lehtonen, Alex Barabanov and Jason Spezza.
The plan was obviously to add all the cheap depth of various kinds — we’ve tended to fixate on the “old” players, but Bogosian is only just 30, and Simmonds is only 32. There were only two old players on the Leafs and only one of them failed to add much value. The rest were cheap borderline NHL depth players, Euro free agents, and then, as the season got going, the reclamation project that was Alex Galchenyuk.
Not every player worked out, with Jimmy Vesey, who Sheldon Keefe allowed to work through the process of repeatedly failing on the top six, the third line or even the fourth for most of the season, being the major flop. He was easily outshone by Galchenyuk, however, so it was no real loss, just frustrating to watch.
The first player the Leafs tried to get to fill that niche of top-six capable, but really cheap winger was Evan Rodrigues. They acquired his rights in the Kapanen trade, but he opted to re-sign in Pittsburgh where he had 14 points in 35 games, so better than Vesey but not a world-beater.
All of these signings were one-year deals. And they’re all gone as UFAs, although Spezza will likely re-sign.
Even if some others re-sign, the Leafs are again in the market for cheap and cheerful, dollar store finds to flesh out the NHL roster, and possibly the AHL roster too. Once again, they need at least one winger who is capable of playing in the top six, and they likely need two. Some kind of depth defenders are necessary, as well as fourth line forwards capable of moving up to play the third line the way Spezza does occasionally.
The first place to look is Europe. Usually anyone coming over is in the age range to get a one- or two-year ELC, so the maximum salary is $925,000. It’s a testimony to how tight the Leafs cap space is that a max ELC seems like too much a lot of the time. It kept Barabanov and Lehtonen out of the lineup on more than one occasion.
European Free Agents
The Leafs signed one Euro free agent skater and one goalie who is more likely an AHLer back in the spring, and it is interesting to note they aren’t maximum ELCs.
Kirill Semyonov will turn 27 as next season gets going. He signed an $825,000 one-year ELC, and is a left-shooting centre who scores 10-15 goals every year in the KHL with good playoff results.
Erik Källgren is an SHL goalie who did not require an ELC and signed a two-year minimum salary two-way contract with very generous minors salaries. He’s very likely to be in the AHL all of this coming season. He turns 25 as the season commences.
And now for some other options:
Konstantin Okulov, who had a great playoffs and a very good regular season, was rumoured to be on the Leafs’ radar last year. He re-signed with CSKA in April of 2020, perhaps thinking a Russian season was more likely than one in the NHL. He is managed by Gold Star (Barabanov, Mikheyev, Korshkov) who is the agent of choice for KHLers making the jump.
Okulov is a centre, is only 26, and would qualify for a one-year ELC. I won’t be surprised if this is the year he tries the Leafs.
Damir Zhafyarov also had an excellent year in the KHL with Torpedo, the team Semyon Der-Arguchintsev played on. Zhafyarov was heavily rumoured to be signing with Chicago, but then it just never happened. Second City Hockey posted this update to their story on the rumours:
[UPDATE] In this joint article from Mark Lazerus and Scott Powers of The Athletic, they cite a source who indicated that the Blackhawks have not offered Zhafyarov a contract, contrary to that report above. The source also indicated that “multiple teams” have expressed interest but the Blackhawks are not specifically identified as one of them.
Zharyarov is 27, would be on a one-year ELC and is a classic small, agile winger. He’s played in the KHL since 2012, but never found a lot of success until he joined Torpedo at age 24. He’s a 15-20 goal scorer recently without a lot of playoff experience. The caveat on Zharyarov is that he’s the one really skilled player on a team lacking in quality enough that they played Der-Arguchintsev as the 2C fairly often. He might just be the only guy on his team who can score (only forward that is).
Dmitrij Jaskin, formerly of St. Louis and Washington and known in the NHL for his defensive impacts and negligible scoring, has had two fantastic years for Dynamo Moskva. He definitely is looking to return to the NHL. He might already have a deal with Arizona, as has been heavily rumoured, but until it’s done, he’s available. He led the KHL in regular season goals this year and was second last year only to Kirill Kaprizov. He will be on a standard contract and can therefore ask for more term than the Leafs would likely be comfortable with. The latest rumour is 2 years at $1.8 million, which is just too much for the Leafs.
Dennis Chris Wideman is not a Euro, but he went to the KHL to rebuild his hockey career, and had an excellent season, also on Torpedo. He led the KHL in points for defenders, and that is going to get him some NHL interest even though he is 31. He played out his NHL career almost entirely in Ottawa in the dark years until they traded him after the infamous Uber video went public. He then dropped down to the AHL until he went to Nizhny Novgorod and wowed everyone with his abilities as an offensive defenceman.
The truth is, his assist-heavy points are in part a factor of playing big minutes including the power play and with the offensive stars of the team. But that was exactly the book on Mikko Lehtonen and that didn’t stop anyone from taking a chance on him.
There aren’t any obvious to me prospects in the lesser leagues, but Columbus made an effort to get and sign Swiss player Grégory Hofmann, a 28-year-old former draft pick of Carolina’s, so you never know who is hiding their light in a league without much quality of teammates.
One thing the past season made very clear is that AHL stars are quality players in the KHL very often. ECHL stars are competitive in the SHL and Liiga. AHLers, NHL prospects and undrafted prospects do very well in many leagues. Most of the KHL stars with gaudy point totals are playing right where they should be, in other words.
This isn’t a game of never guessing wrong, though. You don’t lose points for the number of free agents you try out, and you only gain if you do keep trying. Semyonov might be it for the Leafs, but they are always looking, always willing to try, and sometimes your lottery ticket is a winner.