It’s that time of the year again, when we ask who we are likely saying goodbye to permanently this summer. Like always, the Leafs don’t have a lot of cap space, they do have RFAs to re-sign, and that likely means the UFAs are mostly leaving for other teams.
We might have seen the last of several of them:
He’s had an eventful career as one of the best undrafted free agents signed by the Leafs. Injuries, one horrific, a shooting heater that failed to return the following year, and questions about his ability led to one extremely successful season as his contract expires. That contract came out of a hard squeeze by the Leafs in negotiations and surprised a lot of people with how low it was. As famously detailed on Amazon’s All or Nothing series, Mikheyev wanted a bigger role or a trade last season.
He didn’t get either. He played 30 seconds per game more this year at even strength, and one minute more in all situations, courtesy of some second unit power play time — the full extent of his changed usage.
What he did was play dramatically better in the offensive zone. I’ve seen him written off as just having a shooting heater, which is partly true, but he also created better shots with his play, raising his Individual Expected Goals by a meaningful amount. I consider this a sign of genuine growth and improvement, and that’s not something you see every day in someone who is about to turn 28 as next season starts.
The Leafs will struggle to afford him, however. He’ll claim something in the neighbourhood of $3.5 to $5 million, depending on term and how able his agent is to find him a team that really needs his skillset.
I don’t think he’s coming back, and the consolation is the Leafs likely got his peak years at a discount — at least on this last season.
Acquired at the deadline, Blackwell brought speed and some skill to the depth forwards. Most fans seemed to like him, and he’d be very useful on the team, but Sheldon Keefe didn’t seem to like him on his third line. That doesn’t bode very well for his future on the team.
He’d signed a two-year minimum salary deal with the Rangers in 2020, and was taken by the Kraken in the expansion draft. In his two years on three teams, he’s proven to be a bargain at that price, and will likely move up closer to the one million mark on a new deal. If he wants to stay in Toronto, he’ll have to take a pay cut off of what he could get elsewhere.
His situation is an odd one. The Leafs took Lyubuskin back in the dump-off of Nick Ritchie and then... used him on the top pair. We were all expecting a defensive player who could lay on the big hits, and we got that and a surprising amount of puck skills (in the offensive zone). His big flaws were too many penalties and stone hands at zone exits and transition. Playing him with Morgan Rielly meant his transition skills were rarely called into action, and so the Leafs got away with a Ron Hainsey-esque usage for a player who is likely a good fourth to fifth defender. He’s going to be sought after, now that other teams have seen his full complement of skills.
He’s not going to be a player getting a huge raise like Mikheyev, though, since he doesn’t put up points. He’s affordable for the Leafs, just not really necessary, given their two young defenders both due new RFA deals. It seems like other choices will be made, and Lyubushkin will be surplus to requirements.
Speaking of extra defenders, the signs point to Mark Giordano returning to the Leafs to take up his mentoring role for Timothy Liljegren. The only question is how low will he go on the contract. At 39 next year, he’s not likely expecting anything like the $6.75 million deal he’s coming off of.
He looks like the man who will flesh out the depth of the defence as the two young players continue to progress.
He’d undoubtedly take a minimum salary deal again, but I don’t think Jason Spezza has another full season of high-level hockey in him.
When asked if he could foresee Spezza with the team in a non-playing role, Kyle Dubas gave an unexpectedly strange answer. He seemed almost surprised by the question, and said he’d never experienced that before with a player. He went on to mention that Ron Hainsey went and worked for the NHLPA after his career, but he couldn’t think of any other players of his who had done something similar.
There is an incredibly long tradition of players retiring right into management or coaching roles. In Europe, it’s not unusual for a player to do that within a season as a player/coach. In the AHL, I can think of numerous examples of players that moved right behind the bench of the team they just finished with. But at the NHL level? Maybe it is more unusual.
On the other hand, maybe the play here is to have Spezza come back late in the season as a deadline signing, making him extremely affordable on a prorated minimum salary. We’ll find out what the decisions are, but I think the Leafs would be fools to lose him entirely.
The only other UFAs who have real NHL experience are three very different goalies. Jack Campbell is a complicated conversation for another day, Michael Hutchinson is gone after failing to improve the Marlies this year, and Carter Hutton at 36, who only played in one Marlies game as a backup, has to first decide if he can still play before he decides where that will be.
There are a few potential players who could get traded away. Talk of re-signing Giordano seems to indicate the end of Justin Holl’s tenure on the team. Given the way Lyubushkin was used ahead of Holl, at the very least the Leafs would be inclined to trade away Holl and re-sign Lyubushkin, but they are more likely to be finished with both players. Bringing along prospects is tricky, but they don’t want to box Sandin and Liljegren out of the possibility of taking fulltime top-four spots.
Alex Kerfoot is the only player fantasy traded more than William Nylander, and while I think the chance the Leafs make a major move like trading Nylander is very tiny, Kerfoot is another story. He’s versatile, has come in handy as an extra centre more often than I can count, and yet as a UFA in 2023 at a good, but not bargain salary, I think he’s gone. His role can be filled in combination by Michael Bunting and David Kämpf for now, and other players need raises. I think this time it’s real, and Kerfoot is gone.
Pierre Engvall is more likely than not to be re-signed, but he might be too pricey for the Leafs. An arbitration award for him is not going to be under $2 million. I don’t think the Leafs want to trade him. But I don’t think that’s how this decision will get made. Once the important roles are filled, is there room for him? There might not be. The same story goes for Ondřej Kaše, and he might be even less likely to return.
And that brings us to the player everyone things is gone: Petr Mrázek. This is a hard call to make. All people, including GMs get extremely emotional when goalies are unplayably bad. They lose all perspective, and just want them gone! Kyle Dubas just picked Mrázek with term over Andersen for a savings of less than a million, and that does not look like a smart move in hindsight. For many GMs that sort of mistake is even more reason to get rid of the player.
Maybe Dubas will make Mrázek disappear. I don’t think it’s as sure a thing as most people expect.
That’s the UFAs and a few other likely suspects to have left the building for the last time. It’s a sign of a mature team that the players leaving are good players, worth their contracts and valuable in peripheral roles. Usually mature teams have wins to console themselves with when this happens.
Next week I’ll dig deeper into the cap space, the goalie conundrum, and in the meantime wonder for the 11 millionth time who the 1RW on the Leafs will be next season.