Who Should the Toronto Maple Leafs Target in Free Agency?

Featured

The NHL’s free agent signing period begins Wednesday at noon, and the Leafs figure to be one of the busiest teams, with several prominent holes needing to be filled ahead of next season.

I have my own ideas of how the Leafs would be best served constructing their roster which includes trading Morgan Rielly for a top-six forward, but for the purposes of this article, I will be working around the parameters that general manager Kyle Dubas established in his most recent press conference.

Among other things, Dubas indicated that the team will be scouring the market for several top-nine wingers to complement their entrenched forward core, a bottom-pairing defence man who possesses penalty-killing capabilities, and a goaltender to challenge Jack Campbell in a competitive time share.

Despite proclaiming their intention to find value through free agency, Dubas made it clear that such signings would not preclude them from re-entering the trade market to supplement their roster if they felt underwhelmed by their free agent pursuits.

With that being said, I’ve tabbed five candidates who meet Dubas’ criteria, and who won’t break the bank for a team dead set on building around their expensive quartet of star forwards. Versatility and cost-effectiveness were key determinants in developing this list and while these won’t be the sexiest names as a result, the Leafs have done the hard part of locking down their offensive superstars and will need to be extremely savvy in filling out the margins with approximately $9 million in cap space.

Each entry is also accompanied by a contract projection generated by the invaluable Evolving Hockey team, and should give you a better idea of what each player will likely command come July 28th. Some of the annual salary predictions fluctuate as the total contract years changes, but they generally remain within the same range.

Now, here are five free agent targets that the Leafs should consider pursuing to fill out their roster.

Top-Nine Forward #1: Pius Suter – Chicago Blackhawks

2020-21 Season: 55 GP, 14 G, 13 A, 27 PTS

Predicted Contract: 4 years x $4.49 million

After a strong debut season for Suter in North America, an extension with the Blackhawks seemed inevitable as the organization continues to rebuild around a new crop of players in the wake of its dynastic run in the early 2010s.

However, the NHL’s restricted free agent qualifying period passed without the 25-year-old utility-man being tendered an offer, making Suter an unrestricted free agent allowed to join any team once the signing period opens on July 28th.

Now, if you take a look at Suter’s HockeyDB page and browse the 2015-16 Zurich Lions roster, you might notice a familiar name headlining the team’s scoring leaders.

Marc-Andre Bergeron was so good in the EA NHL games!

I have no idea if Matthews and Suter have maintained any sort of relationship since that season, but it can’t hurt to remind Suter that the left-wing spot on Matthews’ line was just left vacant by Hyman’s exit.

Suter is no stranger to playing with stars as he rode shotgun with Patrick Kane and Alex Debrincat in Chicago during his rookie season and scored 20 points at five-on-five, tied for 129th among NHL forwards. As Toronto possesses similar offensive weapons in Matthews and Marner, his production shouldn’t change all that drastically if he joined the Leafs.

Suter also ranked third among Blackhawks’ forwards in the number of scoring chances he was able to generate off of rebounds, displaying his ability to penetrate dangerous scoring areas. Suter understands his role on the top line, and can act as a target for the Leafs’ stars who love to carry the puck. If required, Suter can enter the zone effectively (54% completion – above league average) but his workload in Chicago was tiny on a line with two of the league’s most creative zone entry wizards.

What is most impressive about Suter’s rookie season is how was the defensive conscience on the Blackhawks’ first line, and managed to post average shot- and chance-share numbers (47% at five-on-five for both metrics) despite playing on the same line as one of the league’s worst defensive forwards in Kane.

The pair played almost half of their combined ice-time together, how is such a discrepancy even possible?

Since 2018-19, Kane has been the worst forward at preventing scoring chances against, even after adjusting for his extremely high usage. On a Chicago team that has seen its supporting cast rapidly deplete in talent since their last Cup win, Kane has had to take on even more of the offensive workload which likely leads him to expend less energy on his defensive responsibilities. While somewhat understandable, it doesn’t fully excuse his absolutely atrocious results.

In over 400 minutes played alongside Kane, Suter recorded an abysmal 44% share of expected goals at five-on-five. When the pair was separated, Suter’s shot- and chance-share shot up to over 50% while Kane’s plummeted even further to below 40%. In fact, nearly all of Suter’s Blackhawks teammates posted better possession and chance-quality numbers when playing together, and worse when they did not.

Suter’s clear impact on his line’s defensive metrics should let Keefe and Dubas rest easy knowing that Suter wouldn’t be a liability on their two primary scoring lines, and could somewhat mitigate the loss of Hyman as a result.

If you’re looking at Suter’s contract projection and thinking that it might be a bit rich for a rookie forward, remember that he is already 25 years old, and a veteran of the European game. If he signs for fewer than 4 years, his annual cap hit will dip into the mid 3s, and is well worth locking up Suter through his prime years.

Considering his solid production and defensive impacts in Chicago’s top-six forward group, every franchise should be salivating at the prospect of reigning in a young, two-way forward without giving up any significant assets outside of cap space.

But, as with any free agent signing, avoiding the compulsiveness brought on by a competitive bidding process and ensuring you’re getting commensurate value for the price is the key to navigating the market and emerging relatively unscathed.

That’s much easier said than done, though.

Top-Nine Forward #2: Tomas Nosek – Vegas Golden Knights

2020-21 Season: 38 GP, 8 G, 10 A, 18 PTS

Predicted Contract: 4 years x $2.65 million

Since being selected by the Golden Knights during their expansion process, Nosek has grown into a dependable winger at the bottom of Vegas’ lineup, and enjoyed his most productive offensive campaign this past season with 18 points in 38 games, a 38-point pace over 82 games. To temper expectations, Nosek’s career year came on the heels of an individual shooting percentage that was five percentage points higher than his career average.

That type of finishing should not be expected to continue, but Nosek is among the league leaders at generating his own chances through astute positional awareness and a persistent motor. Since the 2018-19 season, the native of Czech Republic posted the 34th highest individual expected goals rate at even strength among all forwards, just ahead of Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon. If your offensive stars stagnate at key times, as Toronto’s did in their playoff series with Montreal, it pays to be able to rely on your depth to manufacture offence.

Nosek is also strong driver of shot quality at five-on-five, with Vegas posting an expected goals share above 54 percent in all but one of his NHL seasons. It’s encouraging that he was able to maintain his positive results even with a slight uptick in ice-time, although Vegas’ possessional dominance should be acknowledged when discussing any of their rostered skaters.

However, Nosek would likely operate within Toronto’s cadre of bottom-six forwards and the Leafs are no slouches when it comes to generating scoring chances, meaning Nosek could deliver in similar deployment while offering Toronto another dependable forward option with positional flexibility at center. Nosek can be trusted in the faceoff dot, as a 52.6% for his career can give Keefe peace of mind in high-leverage situations.

In a pinch, Nosek could be moved up into the top-six to provide a jolt of energy and pressure opposing defenceman with his forechecking, as his 5.4 recovered dump-ins per 60 minutes are on par with the departing Zach Hyman (6.4), whose willingness to muck it up in the corners was much appreciated by his more skilled linemates.

With the onus of scoring firmly planted on the shoulders of Auston Matthews and co., the Leafs require their depth forwards to pick up the slack on special teams. Since 2018-19, Nosek has played the 105th most minutes on the penalty kill of all forwards, with Vegas’ penalty kill ranking 1st in the league last season. For a Maple Leafs’ short-handed unit that was treading water in the bottom-third of the NHL, even a slight improvement in that department would make a tangible difference in their results.

Although awarding a 4-year deal to a role player would be unwise, Evolving Hockey’s projection for a 2-year contract for Nosek comes in at around $1.7 million, much more palatable in regards to term and cap hit.

Nosek’s history of positive impacts on even-strength play and positional versatility make him an intriguing depth option for the Leafs. On a short-term deal carrying a manageable cap hit, he could be worth a flier.

Top-Nine Forward #3: Michael Bunting – Arizona Coyotes

2020-21 Season: 21 GP, 10 G, 3 A, 13 PTS

Predicted Contract: 1 year x $1.07 million

Bunting? Michael Bunting? A few of you must be wondering whether I’ve managed to sneak a video game-generated player onto this list, one of those players with no actual profile picture once you get several years deep into an NHL franchise mode save. But trust me, Bunting embodies the type of low-risk, high-reward gamble that the Leafs should be making this offseason.

The 25-year-old Bunting stepped into the Coyotes’ lineup in the back-half of last season and immediately made an impact with his finishing. Bunting potted 10 goals in only 21 games, which would put him on pace for nearly 40 goals over a full season. Obviously such a torrid pace would be unsustainable over 82 games especially when you consider he scored on over a quarter of his shots during his brief NHL stint, but his play in the minors warrants an extended look in a complimentary scoring role.

In 126 AHL games since 2018, Bunting scored 38 goals and assisted 71 others, suggesting that his NHL production may be more than a product of skating alongside Arizona’s stars in Nick Schmaltz and Conor Garland. The Leafs can offer even more attacking support in Marner, Matthews, Tavares and Nylander, meaning Bunting won’t be spoiled for choice in the top-six. His on-ice shot- and expected goals-share are both above 50% which indicates he isn’t caught sacrificing his defensive responsibilities for offence.

While it is a luxury for the Leafs to employ one of the NHL’s top snipers in Auston Matthews, his dangerousness can be somewhat curtailed when it is evident that his linemates might not possess the shot or offensive awareness to get into dangerous scoring areas. Bunting can provide that secondary threat while not necessarily cannibalizing the shooting volume that helps make Matthews such a prolific scorer.

During Bunting’s brief NHL audition, he demonstrated patience in waiting to get into a dangerous area before trying to score, rather than settling for a low-percentage shot from distance or a tight angle. According to micro-stat data collected by Corey Sznajder, of all the shots that Bunting took in 2020-21, 52% of them were considered to be scoring chances, a rate which led the Coyotes by a sizeable margin (Kessel was 2nd with 44%) and was good enough for 23rd in the NHL. While his astronomical shooting percentage is likely an aberration, Bunting clearly possesses the wherewithal to pick his spots wisely.

His per 60 minute rates for goals scored (22nd) and individual expected goals generated (98th) place him firmly within the top 100 of all NHL forwards last season, and suggest he has a future as a top-nine forward in this league. Even if Bunting isn’t particularly adept at creating his own shot, being in the right place at the right time is a skill that is difficult to teach and could be an inspired pick to relieve the Leafs’ offensive core of some of their scoring burden.

What may work in the Leafs’ favour for recruitment purposes is that Bunting hails from Scarborough, and played under a Soo Greyhounds regime headed by Dubas and Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe in the OHL. With current and former Leafs in Jake Muzzin, Joe Thornton, Kyle Clifford, Jack Campbell, and Rasmus Sandin having featured for the Greyhounds at one time or another, it would be anything but a surprise for Dubas to return to a familiar well of talent.

There is certainly an element of risk in elevating a player within your lineup that can only claim 26 career games on his NHL resume, but its about time that the Leafs’ enjoy the spoils of a breakout performer of their own, one who can offer surplus value on a bargain at a time when Toronto is scrounging for every dollar.

A meager commitment of around $1 million won’t break the bank and could pay handsome dividends if Bunting continues to exemplify the scoring touch that has brought him success as a late-bloomer.

Bottom-Pairing Defenceman: Mark Pysyk – Dallas Stars

2020-21 Season: 36 GP, 3 G, 1 A, 4 PTS

Predicted Contract: 1 year x $1.12 million

For veterans of the hockey analytics scene, Pysyk could be a prodigal son of sorts for Leafs’ fans exhausted from watching Roman Polak and Nikita Zaitsev aimlessly rim the puck around the boards for countless icings every night. For those long suffering patrons of Leafs fandom, signing a defenceman who isn’t a sieve would be akin to winning the lottery.

When scouring the market for bottom-pairing defenceman, teams should target individuals who can hold their own against the run of play, and keep the team from bleeding chances while they are on the ice. Anything else should be considered a bonus. Luckily, Pysyk has not only excelled when played in sheltered minutes down the lineup, but he likely won’t command much more than $1 million on a short-term deal, an ideal agreement for a team in Toronto’s capped-out position.

While playing a sheltered role on the third pair in Dallas last season, Pysyk was able to emphatically control the flow of play to the tune of a 55% shot share, and a remarkable 63% share of expected goals. A large part of his defensive success is his ability to consistently deny opposing forwards the chance to enter the zone with controlled possession.

Although Pysyk is one of the least frequently targeted rearguards on zone entries, he very rarely concedes a clean entry that results in a scoring chance against. His sound timing and stick-checking prowess work to disrupt opposing teams in their offensive setups and is a large part of his defensive impact.

The bars represent how far from the league mean a player’s results are in a given category when compared to their positional peers. For a more in-depth explanation, click here.

His robust zone entry defense and propensity to make decisive outlet passes keeps the puck away from his own net, giving his stronger teammates a chance to take a breath and recover. Pysyk’s two-way game leads to an impressive ability to reliably surpress opposing scoring chances. Among NHL defencemen with at least 100 minutes at five-on-five this past season, Pysyk ranked 4th in scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes. For coaches who don’t want defenceman to take any unnecessary risks and move play in the right direction, Pysyk is your man.

Pysyk is not a special teams specialist by any means, but the veteran blueliner has held his own throughout his career when entrusted with penalty kill duties, and new assistant coach Dean Chynoweth should feel comfortable while utilizing Pysyk in short-handed situations. Since 2018-19, Pysyk ranks in the top 50 of all blueliners in terms of expected goals conceded per 60 minutes on the penalty kill, and could rotate in with Toronto’s other defencemen.

His low counting stats (4 points in 36 games last season) will likely depress his asking price and for a million bucks, Toronto could do a lot worse. If nothing else, it’ll stop him from turning into prime Ovechkin every time he suits up against the Leafs.

Backup Goaltender: Petr Mrazek – Carolina Hurricanes

2020-21 Season: 12 GP, 6W-2L-3OTL, 2.06 GAA, .923 SV%

Last Contract: 2 years x $3.125 million

Carolina’s penny-pinching ownership group has already cast out rookie sensation Alex Nedeljkovic in anticipation of a sizeable raise on the $700,000 he was owed last season, and Mrazek will look to re-sign for something near his 2020-21 cap hit of $3.125 million, which might be too much for the Hurricanes to stomach if recent decisions are any indication.

Relatedly, there have been reports that the Hurricanes have given thought to acquiring Arizona’s Antii Raanta who would likely pair up with Bernier (acquired in the Nedeljkovic trade) and form a brand-new partnership in the Carolina crease next season.

Mrazek’s overall body of work suggests that he could provide valuable insurance behind Campbell in the Leafs’ net. Since 2018, Mrazek’s save percentage and goals saved above average (which gauges how many goals a goalie has prevented compared to the average goalie facing the same quality of chances) at five-on-five evaluates him as a top-25 goalie over that time frame, suggesting that he could handle a starter’s workload if required, and should flourish in a rotation.

Where Mrazek truly shines is his ability to save shots in high-danger areas (generally in the slot). Across the same three-season timeframe, Mrazek has posted the 11th highest high-danger save percentage at five-on-five, bailing out his teammates when they concede chances from threatening areas. Although his high-danger save percentage on the penalty kill takes him out of the top-30, it is still higher than that of both Jack Campbell’s and Frederik Andersen. For a poor penalty kill, the Leafs may benefit from a slight improvement in that area.

The most concerning aspect of a Mrazek signing would be his recent health concerns. A thumb injury early into the 2020-21 campaign would require surgery, and Mrazek only featured in 12 games at season’s end. His .914 save percentage following his return in April would still be considered above league average, but it represented a regression from his stellar start to the year.

For the Leafs, a tandem of Campbell and Mrazek should cost them around $5 million, a slight haircut to the tune of $1.5 million from what they were paying Campbell and Frederik Andersen last season, not an insignificant amount for a team seeking to supplement their depth in areas of greater concern. Mrazek has also played in more than half of his team’s games three times since 2015-16, so an injury to Campbell wouldn’t necessarily spell doom for the Leafs either.

Any potential goaltending gamble will be considered a win if Toronto can get an improvement on Andersen’s results last season at a reduced cost, and Mrazek should be a good bet better Andersen’s .895 save percentage in all-situations. Will it be enough to stave off the improved competition from the reconvening Atlantic division? It should, but nothing is a given in the NHL.

This offseason’s goaltending carousel will offer the greatest number of feasible candidates for Toronto as many capable netminders, which I explored in an article that I wrote back in March. Although the market is short on true elite talent, the Leafs will be looking for a goalie capable of working within a tandem and only playing 30-40 games next season, which considerably expands their options.

My opinion on most of the goaltenders discussed in that piece have not changed so re-visit that article for commentary (that is slightly out of date) on the rest of the market.

So, what should we expect?

The Maple Leafs’ financial reality dictates that their “core-four” be continuously supplemented by cheap, recyclable filler which allows them to ice a versatile lineup capable of attacking opponents in a myriad of ways.

Luckily, free agency is a dependable source of such players, and bargains will undoubtedly surface for those willing to wait and avoid the dizzying recklessness often demonstrated by general managers on the opening day of free agency.

In any case, Dubas has repeatedly re-affirmed his belief in the main pieces of his roster, warts and all, which would appear to rule out any seismic alterations to the lineup this summer in spite of impassioned pleas from fans and local media alike.

While there is certainly some logic in banking on efficient contributions from undervalued skaters to buoy the Leafs’ superstars, another early playoff exit could certainly be the death knell for the Shanahan-Dubas era in Toronto, leaving little to no margin for error in their roster construction.

No pressure, eh?

All data courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Evolving-Hockey, Hockey Reference, and Natural Stat Trick. All contract information taken from CapFriendly.

Who Might Be in Goal for the Leafs Next Season, and Why It Won’t (Or Shouldn’t) Be Frederik Andersen

All contract terms are taken from CapFriendly, and all statistics from Natural Stat Trick; All information is accurate as of March 16th.

For the past half-decade, 31-year-old Frederik Andersen, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of this season, has taken on the often-thankless task of playing goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and provided them with stable goaltending not seen in the city since Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour manned the crease.

In the previous three seasons, Andersen ranks second in games played (178), is tied for 15thin all-strengths save percentage (.915) and amassed the 11th most goals saved above average (GSAA) – a statistic that determines how many more goals a given goalie has prevented, compared to a hypothetical league average netminder facing the same quality of chances. The ranks are all among goalies with at least 4500 minutes played, roughly equivalent to a full 82-game season’s worth of time-on-ice. 

A busy man most nights – Photo: Flickr

While Andersen’s play has largely resembled that of an above-average goaltender in spite of a heavy workload, his spot as Toronto’s starter is all but assured for next season. This ambiguity stems from the historical mixed-bag of long-term contracts given to goalies over 30, with Carey Price and Sergei Bobrovsky being notorious examples of those whose play has noticeably declined after being awarded gargantuan deals based on name-recognition, rather than their actual ability at the time, and that apprehensiveness has only grown with Andersen’s poor start this year.

As of mid-March, Andersen is sporting a well below-average .900 save percentage and a mark of -4.00 GSAA, representing an inadequate return on the $5-million (tied for 13thamong goalies) he’s owed in 2020-21, and although the team still struggles to prevent scoring chances against (ranking 20th) and expected goals against per 60 minutes (19th) at 5-on-5 play, Toronto’s defensive play has looked better than the past and it is unnerving that Andersen’s numbers have fallen drastically in spite of their improved structure.

It is difficult to parse out whether his challenging start has simply been due to an unfortunate run of form, a by-product of a heavy workload taking its toll, or a symptom of age-related decline, although he has himself admitted that his recovery from injury this season has been turbulent, further casting his future productivity into doubt.

Why Does This Matter?

Professional sports are a callous industry, one in which players are judged through the lens of “what have you done for me lately?”, fairly or not. As such, Andersen’s recent performances have not inspired confidence at a time in which the Leafs should be poised to capitalize on a weaker division and avoid the league’s top contenders until the third round of the playoffs, representing Toronto’s best opportunity to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in several decades.

Most notably, Andersen’s tendency to fall flat in elimination games during the playoffs has been particularly back-breaking for the rest of the Leafs, who for all of their legitimate flaws, may desire the much-needed psychological reset that would come with Andersen’s departure.

With the salary cap remaining flat for the foreseeable future due to pandemic-related losses in NHL revenue, finding a bargain-bin free agent would allow the Leafs to re-allocate Andersen’s sizeable $5-million cap hit elsewhere, perhaps for an additional top-six forward to complement their already potent attack (Filip Forsberg or Taylor Hall anyone?), or a top-four defensemen (Dougie Hamilton?) to solidify their backend.

Regardless of which avenue they eventually choose, what is evident is that the Leafs have several feasible options heading into next year, with a mixture of experienced veterans and young, but unproven, alternatives available for relatively affordable prices.

Below, I will evaluate seven potential acquisitions, and determine how likely each one is to come to fruition.

1.) Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings (Age 26) / 2020-21 Cap Hit: $858, 333/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 15 GP/ .921 SV%/ 2.63 GAA/ 6.81 GSAA

Our first target comes from a familiar trade partner, and is someone who has a single year left on his contract after this season. Petersen has split the net with Jonathan Quick early on and has greatly outperformed the veteran when called upon.

Petersen’s posting of the 6th most goals saved above expected in the league this year has been an important factor in the Kings challenging for a playoff spot, only a year after selecting 2ndoverall in the entry draft. At 26, Petersen is in no real danger of declining anytime soon and could form half of a formidable partnership with ex-King Jack Campbell for less than a combined 3-million-dollar cap hit, significantly less than the probable cost of extending Andersen. 

However, his contract status suggests that Los Angeles would not be quick to part with him, especially as he is currently providing above-average goaltending for less than a million dollars. Further, while Quick has 2 more years left on his contract after this one, his shaky play and spotty health could give Petersen an opportunity to grab the starter’s role, and the Kings may view him as the 35-year-old Quick’s eventual successor. 

Petersen suiting up for the AHL’s Ontario Reign – Photo: Flickr

Despite Petersen’s surprisingly strong display this year, he has a limited sample-size of major league starts. His 34 games of NHL experience across several seasons means he is untested and may falter when entrusted with a greater workload. This assertion is borne out in his performance at the AHL level, as his numbers take a hit when starting a greater proportion of games. This represents a risky gamble if any of Jack Campbell’s pre-existing injuries flare up in the future, and Petersen must take the reins of a team who often relies heavily on their goalies.

Although Petersen does possess much of a track record in the NHL, he has played well in spot duty and his cheap cap-hit makes him a particularly attractive trade candidate. Additionally, the Kings allow a greater quality of scoring chances than the Leafs at 5-on-5, suggesting that he should be able to maintain his solid play in front of a more disciplined group. He’s worth a look.

2.) Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers (Age 26)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $850,000/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 12 GP/ .920 SV%/ 2.40 GAA/ 4.80 GSAA

When Sergei Bobrovsky faltered to start the season, Driedger was thrust into the crease and held the fort admirably for the surprising Panthers, who are currently tied for 1stin the Central division alongside the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Although Bobrovsky has recently regained the confidence of head coach Joel Quenneville, Driedger still ranks 9thand 10th this season in save percentage and goals saved above average at 5-on-5 respectively, proving to be a reliable option when necessary. In fact, Driedger has often found himself outplaying his goalie partner the past few seasons, extremely worrying for Florida when you consider that Bobrovsky is slated to make more than ten times Dredger’s salary this season, and most likely pricing them out of what would otherwise be an inexpensive back-up. 

Driedger is a typical journeyman, with extensive minor league experience bouncing around in the AHL and ECHL, ranking among the top of the leaderboards in both leagues since the 2017-18 season. Similar to Petersen, Driedger does not have much in the way of prolonged NHL experience and it remains to be seen how he would respond to increased responsibility, somewhat diminishing his appeal despite the minimal salary he would command.

Since Bobrovsky’s boat-anchor contract has essentially cemented his place in Florida for the foreseeable future, and with 2019 first-round-pick Spencer Knight dominating the NCAA circuit, the Panthers’ logjam at goalie may make Driedger expendable, with rumours already flaring up ahead of the trade deadline next month due to his palatable cap hit and sturdy play as a stop-gap.

 If he stays put, Toronto’s ability to offer significantly more playing time next season may entice him to join in free agency, costing significantly less than the Campbell-Andersen pairing, even after accounting for a slight raise in salary.

3.) Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars (Age 22)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $925,000/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 13 GP/ .917 SV%/ 2.10 GAA/ 2.91 GSAA

The Stars are currently carrying three capable goalies on their roster, and the fact that Oettinger has forced his way into more playing time has raised questions over the organization’s goaltending hierarchy.

Although he is relatively inexperienced for Toronto’s liking, and somewhat insulated within Dallas’ staunch defensive structure (they lead the league this year in expected goals and scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes at 5-on-5), Oettinger has shown glimpses of his potential with Anton Khudobin struggling so far to replicate his form from last year’s post-season, posting a .907 save percentage that is a far cry from the .930 and .917 he put up in the regular season and playoffs, respectively.

Khudobin’s magical run to the Cup Final last season was rewarded with a three-year contract, an interesting development even with presumed starter Ben Bishop currently recovering from significant knee surgery. Bishop and Khudobin are both under contract until 2023, with the former’s deal carrying both a modified no-trade and no-move clause, leaving him to dictate his future in Dallas. 

However, with Oettinger still on his entry-level deal and being under team control for at least a few more seasons, Dallas probably feels comfortable with letting him marinate in the AHL once Bishop returns, grooming him to assume the starter’s role after their main 34-year-old options see out the remainder of their contracts. 

All things considered, Oettinger may be the least likely of arrivals on this list due to his draft pedigree and contract status but acquiring a touted goalie prospect would be a boon for the Leafs, with those currently in their pipeline looking more like wildcards than guaranteed starters at the NHL level.

4.) Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes (Age 31)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $4,250,000/ 2020-21 Stats: 9 GP/ .912 SV%/ 3.36 GAA/ 1.51 GSAA

5.) Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes (Age 30)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $4,500,000/ 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 18 GP/ .914 SV%/ 2.41 GAA/ 3.43 GSAA

Despite his experience as a dependable starting goalie, one thing that may give the Leafs pause is Raanta’s checkered health over the past few seasons. At 31, Raanta is moving beyond his physical peak and his 56 combined games over the past three seasons does not resemble a goalie who is capable of shouldering a workload of 40 games a season, and of assuming the starting role in the event that Campbell is not fully fit.

Not to completely disregard Raanta’s portfolio, his play when healthy has been worthy of his 4.25-million-dollar salary, ranking 17thin 5-on-5 save percentage and 21stin 5-on-5 GSAA since 2018, all the while facing an inordinately high number of quality chances behind an Arizona squad that has often struggled to adequately shield their goaltenders. 

Raanta’s teammate Darcy Kemper is also an attractive commodity, but Arizona views him as a less uncertain gamble, being slightly younger and carrying another year on his deal, even with his own injury struggles.

Additionally, among goalies with at least 1500 minutes played, Kuemper ranks 2nd in all-strengths save percentage (.924) and 3rd in GSAA since 2018, often singlehandedly keeping the Coyotes competitive. With the extra year on his deal, Kuemper would have to be acquired in a trade, and his extraordinary play may make him unaffordable, just to give the Leafs another goalie at a similar cap-hit to Andersen.

However, one factor that may urge the Coyotes to part with Kuemper instead is that he is due to make $2-million more in real dollars (salary owed v.s. cap hit) next season ($5.5 million vs. $3.5 million) and with Arizona notoriously penny-pinching mess of an ownership group running the show during a financially crippling pandemic, Kuemper’s raise may be too much for them to stomach, leaving them vulnerable to Toronto’s deep pockets.

The boring answer is that Arizona promotes the much cheaper Adin Hill in Raanta’s place and cut their losses. If the Leafs limit the term they offer to 2 years, Raanta is a decent bet to work well in a tandem in the interim, but the concerns surrounding his physical condition may be too prominent to ignore.

6.) Jonathan Bernier, Detroit Red Wings (Age 32)/ 2020-21 Cap Hit: $3,000,000 – 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 16 GP/ .914 SV%/ 2.90 GAA/ 3.64 GSAA

Ah, Jonathan Bernier, noted appreciator of social justice icons. While most Leafs fans may most strongly associate Bernier with the tumultuous period occurring between the team’s playoff appearances in 2013 and 2017, he has impressed this season as the main goalie on a rebuilding Detroit roster. 

Despite facing the most shots against per 60 minutes (34.35), the 2ndhighest rate of expected goals against per 60 minutes (2.52), and 11thmost high-danger shots per 60 minutes (8.25) in the league at 5-on-5 among goalies with at least 500 minutes played, Bernier has managed to accumulate the 8thmost GSAA, showing that a heavy workload won’t deter him from keeping his team competitive. If those totals alone don’t impress you, consider that Thomas Greiss and Jimmy Howard, Detroit’s other most common net minders in the past few seasons, have been atrocious comparably.

If nothing else, Bernier can take solace in the fact that he has somehow stopped 91.4% of shots in all situations this year, behind an awful Detroit team. Seriously, he should get a Vezina nomination simply for winning a game in 2021. His numbers should improve behind a more structured and cohesive team, is familiar with how intensely the team is scrutinized within this market, and could most likely be had for around $3-million.

What’s that? Every Leafs fan is breathlessly mouthing “no!” at their screen right now? Fine. Let’s end of this entry with a glitch from the Yahoo Fantasy Hockey app in which Bernier was hilariously credited with the most saves in a regular season game in NHL history, at the bottom of the screen.

With how few people are willingly watching Red Wings games these days, who’s to say it didn’t actually happen.

7.) Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes – 2020-21 Stats (All Strengths): 4 GP/ .955 SV%/ 0.99 GAA/ 3.14 GSAA

 Carolina’s goaltending situation is intriguing in that potentially all three of Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer, and Petr Mrazek may not be on the Hurricanes’ books come next season. The contracts of their goalie triumvirate are up for renewal this summer and with each one failing to maintain a grip on the starting job, significant turnover may be in the cards.

Petr Mrazek, who would be the most appealing option of the three upon hitting the open market, boasts a save percentage (.923) and GSAA (6.47) at 5-on-5 ranking in the top-30 of goalies since 2018, suggesting he could comfortably bear the brunt of a tandem workload. However, downplaying his numbers is the fact that he’s faced the third fewest shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 since 2018 among goalies who have played at least 1000 minutes.

This is partly owing to Carolina’s identity as possession-dominating demons, which, despite their recent improvements as a defensive unit and increased focus on maintaining possession by recycling the puck into the neutral zone, is in stark contrast to the Leafs’ tactics. And yet, he saves a good amount of chances in high-danger situations which may reflect well on his ability to integrate into Toronto’s free-wheeling system. But, as has been a recurring theme of this article, inconsistent health is a concern, with Mrazek only suiting up for 4 games this season.

Carolina will most likely attempt to shore up their goaltending situation for next season by bringing in a proven starter to lead the dark horse Cup contenders. What may complicate things is that the expiring contracts of Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton must be addressed, likely eating into their budget for a starting goalie, and leaving an opening for the Leafs to pounce.

Where Do the Leafs Go From Here?

Frederik Andersen’s tenure as a Leaf should generally be viewed as a success, irrespective of the team’s shortcomings in the playoffs. Seeing as this article is being written in March and how goaltending is generally voodoo, Andersen may have reached new heights by June, singlehandedly dragging the Leafs to a championship, ensuring that he will never have to pay for a drink in Toronto until the day he dies.

Even if this fever dream materializes, and Andersen later leaves for a new challenge, Kyle Dubas can be confident in his ability to find an affordable, but imperfect, solution for next season, while comfortably walking away from the historically dicey gamble that is committing long-term to an aging goaltender solely because of their often out-dated reputation.

 If a team genuinely believes that Andersen can solve their goaltending woes and back up the Brinks truck for his services, he should take the money and run. But it shouldn’t be the Leafs.