After the upcoming NHL Entry Draft on Oct. 6-7, free-agent signings can begin at 12 pm. EST on Oct. 9. Since Kaspari Kapanen was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, things have been pretty quiet in Leafs country. I think that’s all about to change.
In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’m going to make a case that older players offer a great deal to a team’s roster and then I’ll look at a number of NHL veterans who might be willing to join the organization on short-term, team-friendly contracts. I’m in my mid-70s, so I admit that writing this post hits close to home.
I’ve heard people say that one player like Jason Spezza is enough for the team, but I don’t believe that’s the case. In fact, in a previous post, argued that the Maple Leafs could put together the best fourth line in NHL history if they brought on Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds to play with Spezza.
Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas will likely be very active once free agency opens. His first few moves should reveal his plans for building and rebuilding the team after the 2019-20 season, and I won’t be surprised if signing Thornton is one of the first announcements. That rumor’s been floating around for a while.
It’s anybody’s guess and I’m sure Dubas has a plan, but I’m unsure anyone other than his close associates knows what that plan might be.
Seeking Cheap Leadership, the Lightning Found Two Experienced Leaders
It was apparent during the Stanley Cup Final that both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars had done their homework to build their rosters. Both added pieces as they became available and added experienced players who, not long ago, were considered useless to their former teams. The wisdom of these moves in retrospect couldn’t have been lost on NHL general managers everywhere.
The Stars and the Lightning found skaters who exuded leadership. The Lightning had two players who stood out; 31-year-old Kevin Shattenkirk (signed at $1.75 million) and 30-year-old Zach Bogosian (signed at $1.3 million).
Thirteen months ago, Shattenkirk was bought out by the New York Rangers. Then, in August 2019, he signed a team-friendly contract with the Lightning. In late February 2020, after Bogosian’s contract was terminated by the Buffalo Sabres, he too signed with the Lightning for a pittance of what he was making with the Sabres.
Both players contributed. Shattenkirk ended the playoffs with three goals, 10 assists, 40 shots, and 50 hits in 24 postseason games and was a key part of the Lightning’s defense. Bogosian had a Game 6 assist and led the team with five hits in the 2-0 win. He ended with five assists in 20 playoff games.
The Dallas Stars Also Found an Aging Leader
On the other side, Corey Perry played a valuable role for the Stars. He scored the overtime winner in a Game 5 that forced the series to Game 6. Head coach Rick Bowness threw Perry on the ice in all the toughest situations – whenever he felt the team needed energy or were desperate for a score.
In July 2019, the 35-year-old Perry signed with the Stars for $1.5 million after having his contract bought out by the Anaheim Ducks.
What Aging Stars Bring to a Team
My point is that the Stanley Cup seemed to offer proof that players such as these added value to their teams in a number of ways. First, they can still play. With age, their speed and skill set diminishes, but experience and hockey IQ count for something. Second, they added leadership and experience. We saw that during the postseason with the Maple Leafs when Spezza stepped up.
My hope is that the Maple Leafs organization saw what happened with both Spezza in 2019-20 and in the Stanley Cup Final and sign him quickly. He has made it clear he wants to return to the team and is willing to take the league minimum to do so. I see no reason why Toronto won’t sign him. He’s a great leader, showed he could still play, and even stepped up physically during the qualifying series. Given that the team needs a number of players on $750,000 contracts next season, Spezza being one of them makes sense.
Can a team handle two aging stars? The answer is yes. The Lightning had two veteran defensemen on their team which suggests that it didn’t hurt to have more than one experienced player. Why wouldn’t the Maple Leafs follow suit?
Who Might the Maple Leafs Sign?
Dubas has a huge advantage in the market. So many excellent players have come from the Toronto area and many have dreamed of playing for the blue and white, including John Tavares and Spezza. There are others as Fansided’s Stephen pointed out in his post this morning.
#1: Justin Williams
I expect the Maple Leafs – who are seeking cheap, team-friendly deals (which to me means inexpensive contracts for players who really want to join the team) – will sign a couple of players to one-year, league-minimum contracts. Justin Williams is on my list as one possibility.
Similar to Spezza, he’s local. He grew up about an hour east of Toronto (in Coburg). We know he wants to win because, after thinking about hockey for a few months, he returned to the Carolina Hurricanes early in 2020 for another chance at the Stanley Cup. Three days ago, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell reported that the team didn’t expect Williams to return.
If we assume that the three-time Stanley Cup champion and former Conn Smythe winner (with the Los Angeles Kings) (a) still has fire in his belly and (b) would be willing to take near the league-minimum, the 38-year-old right-winger might be a perfect piece. He brings leadership for the team’s youngsters and he’s still productive on the score sheet. He scored eight goals in 20 games with the Hurricanes in 2019-20.
#2: Corey Perry
Perry is also local. He’s from a bit further east than Williams and grew up in Peterborough. He has already considered playing with the Maple Leafs because he has so many family and friends in the Toronto area. Can we assume that Perry, facing the sunset of his NHL career, might want to play closer to home for a season?
Are There More Choices?
I am in favor of the Maple Leafs signing team-friendly veteran players. My assessment is based on the Stanley Cup Final and the value experienced players brought to the roster.
Come free agency, I believe at least one older player will sign with the team. If I had to choose one, it would be Spezza. However, I’d love to see the team pick up three such players on cheaper contracts. Who those players are I don’t know, but I believe there are a lot of right choices.