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Shopping for bargains: Reclamation projects

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The success of Alex Galchenyuk in Toronto and Anthony Duclair in Florida show how rewarding giving a player a second or third or even fourth chance can be.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Seven Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

For a very long time, Toronto was the place players left behind when they needed to rebuild their careers elsewhere. It doesn’t always work, however. Tyler Bozak went to St. Louis, everyone stopped harping on the weaknesses in his game, and he won a Cup, but Jake Gardiner went to Carolina and the wheels fell off. One reason having something go wrong, either on the ice or in a player’s life, is so hard in Toronto is that too many people are ready to talk about it, and in the modern world every Tweet is a report, and every scrap of gossip becomes truthy very quickly. It’s not the media that scares them off, it’s the sheer volume of talking about them.

Alex Galchenyuk finding himself and his game in Toronto was a redemption tale so unlikely it should have been in a film. But real life is strange, and the cliché change of scenery really can include the CN Tower in the background.

There are always players out there who fail to live up to their draft position, which is one of the main reasons they fall out with the team they started out on. It’s a frustrating thing to watch because it’s inevitable. The worst is being a high first rounder who either never gets an NHL game put together or takes a long time to do it like Jack Campbell. But drafting is guessing at a range of possible futures, and not meeting expectations is part of the deal.

If other teams want to construct a soured relationship because their high draft pick wasn’t exactly what they wanted, then it’s up to the Leafs and Kyle Dubas to pick their pockets and prosper. It would be really nice to prosper with Patrik Laine, who looks like he needs another change of scenery, but he’s out of the Leafs’ price range, so some lower-quality players will have to do for this shopping trip. Back to bargain hunting!

Alex Nylander is a very obvious choice. He is the classic underperforming high draft pick, who is nonetheless a useful NHL middle- to bottom- six complementary winger. It’s entirely possible that Chicago is well aware of that after he coped okay being played on their top line two years ago. They will likely re-sign him to a fair contract after he missed this season with an injury. He is only 23, and no longer on the team that drafted him eighth overall, so a smart team would just give him another show-me deal. But it’s still possible! Imagine the fun of two Nylanders on the Leafs.

Ondrej Kase is a player who arrived in Boston as the return on the David Backes contract dump. After some interesting results in Anaheim, he’s turned out not to be Bruins material. I like him already. He is turning 26 this year, but is an RFA coming off a three-year $2.6 million contract signed with the Ducks. They likely think he was worth the money, Boston likely doesn’t.

Due to a serious concussion, and another injury that knocked him out of the lineup as soon as he returned this May, he’s played only 20 regular season and playoff games for the Bruins. He has five assists in those games and no goals. Kase’s injury history really is the biggest knock against him, and he’s never played a full NHL season. If Boston does re-sign him, they’ll need to give him time to be fully healthy before he plays again.

The sticking point for the Bruins is likely going to be his arbitration rights. Last offseason, the storyline was RFAs with arbitration rights going unqualified and becoming UFA because their Qualifying Offer was just too high, and arbitration does not dip below that amount. Kase’s QO will be $2.6 million. If the Bruins don’t qualify him, someone will give him a whirl on a much cheaper UFA deal.

Olli Juolevi has been a player so obviously in need of a change of team, everyone but the Canucks knows it. Dogged by rumours since his junior days, he’s had a rough entry to the NHL for a player taken fifth overall. At 23, he’s just coming off his ELC, and does not have arbitration rights, so Vancouver might want to re-sign him to a two-year deal to buy an arbitration year, while he’ll want a one-year deal. Travis Dermott walked this path a year ago.

Juolevi is a left-shot defender who looked fabulous as a teenager in the Jokerit system. He came to the OHL and picked up points like breathing on a stacked London Knights team. He just had to pass the puck to Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk or Christian Dvorak and he’d have another point. But, in his favour, he repeated the feat the second year with Cliff Pu, J.J. Piccinich and Robert Thomas.

Since those glory days, he’s had one good AHL season in 2019-2020 and failed to get more than 23 games on the dreadful Canucks roster this season. The Canucks were stymied by the border issues, and while Juolevi was waivers exempt, they couldn’t very easily move him to the AHL for playing time. Okay, they could have leant him to a Canadian team, but they didn’t, they let him sit for most of the season. His waiver exemption ends this year, and he’s one of those players that develops too slow for the waivers rules, and teams end up sticking them in a pressbox to rot.

The Canucks were so cap-strapped, they couldn’t play him at times even if they’d wanted to, and when they did it was extremely sheltered usage. The most likely result here is that Vancouver intends to play him in a theoretical way, the way they did at the start of this season, but will the coach really put him on the ice? Maybe his lack of trust is fully warranted, but someone has to play him and find out for sure what he can do. In this summer of protection lists and Seattle trades, defencemen are likely going to move around a lot, and he might well go somewhere in exchange for a more established player.

Casey Mittelstadt is the classic underperformer. He’s on a sub $900,000 contract that has now expired, and he’s not yet arbitration eligible, so the Sabres might consider him ripe to just take his QO again. He’s a player who can handle NHL hockey in a depth role and it likely not worth much over minimum salary. As unexciting as it is to consider him, he’s likely to be a player moved next offseason as he hits arbitration.

Sam Steel is a longshot to be moved, mostly because the desperately bad Anaheim Ducks are unlikely to move any prospects, but he’s in the identical position to Juolevi. He doesn’t have arbitration rights on his expiring ELC, but he is about to lose his waiver exemption. Steel is a 23-year-old centre, drafted 30th overall, and his point production on the very low-scoring Ducks is very poor. Steel was the hot property taking first-line duties in the WHL for a few years ahead of Adam Brooks, while they all played such hot offence, they got three assists each before they ever left the locker room.

In the NHL, he’s not had good shooting impacts, and he played less as Anaheim’s pointless season wore on, which is not a good sign for a young player.

I think I’m a year or at least part of a year too early on Steel. He is about to start his make or break season, and if he’s still showing poorly and losing ground to other prospects, then they might give up and want to move him next summer. It likely depends on the contract they sign with him this summer as to what eventually happens to him.

There are a lot of other RFAs who are good, better than this list, with proven track records, and who might be sitting on teams who don’t want to pay them. That’s the trouble, though. The Leafs aren’t exactly rolling in cap space, and it’s hard to convince a team to move on a cost-controlled RFA unless they’ve ruined the cost-control with a bad contract.

Dylan Strome is a really good example of this in action. He’s on team number two in Chicago, just like Nylander, and doing better than he was on the very bad Coyotes. But he’s on a $3 million AAV deal that expires with him an arbitration-eligible RFA due a Qualifying Offer next summer of $3.6 million. He’s too much for the Leafs for what he brings to the table.

Pavel Zacha is another RFA on a bad team who isn’t living up to his draft position. He’s still good enough for the NHL, but his QO in 2022, will be $3 million. Again, he’s too expensive, and his cost-control value is gone.

Most RFAs who are idling away on teams that might want to trade away a younger player are about this quality, not someone like Timo Meier. To get a very good RFA, you usually have to offer one in return who plays a different position, and no one is giving the Leafs a top-six forward for Travis Dermott. The benefit to this bargain shopping, like the European free agents, is finding someone under 30 who doesn’t cost over $1 million. The hard part is guessing who will be Jimmy Vesey and who will be Alex Glachenyuk after you’ve got hold of them.