By Tom Hunter (@)
Now that the draft is over and most of the big unrestricted free agents have been signed, we are into vacation season for most involved with the NHL. News will continue to trickle in slowly, but for the next month, the NHL is going to be a boring place.
All the high-impact UFAs have been signed and we’re not likely to see any more ground-breaking trades – unless of course, Anaheim does something stupid with Hampus Lindholm. That said, most teams still have a few things to do before training camps start at the end of August.
Here are the five main things that the Maple Leafs still need to take care of this offseason.
Sign Auston Matthews
It’s been less than two weeks since the Maple Leafs made Auston Mathews the first overall pick in the draft. The young center just finishing his first development camp with the organization and is now working towards getting ready for his rookie season in the NHL.
Not having Matthews signed isn’t a huge deal, but it’s something that should get done soon and without consternation. Some of his 2016 draft peers have already signed their entry-level contracts and that the fact that Lou Lamoriello is dragging his feet over bonuses seems to be a foolish endeavor for the hard headed general manager. Auston Matthews is the kind of player that should be getting the maximum bonuses allowable in his ELC. Haggling over a couple hundred thousand dollars with the player that is going to be your franchise center seems like something a team normally wouldn’t do. Then again, Lamoriello isn’t exactly your typical general manager.
Lou had this to say about the Matthews contract negotiations:
I don’t think there’s anything to talk about right now with reference to Auston’s contract until it‘s done. We’ve certainly talked to the representative. I don’t think this is something that is going to take long.
Just pay the man Lou!
Find a backup for Frederik Andersen
When the Maple Leafs traded Jonathan Bernier to Anaheim last week, it created a hole in the team’s goaltending depth chart. Newly acquired Frederik Andersen is the team’s starter going into next season, but after that all we have is questions.
Garrett Sparks and Antoine Bibeau are not NHL goalies and the team probably wants to see that tandem with the Marlies next season. After the trade, Lamoriello alluded to the team searching for a veteran backup. Finding someone with a lot of NHL experience seems like something Mike Babcock would like for what looks to be a young team this season.
There are a number of options out there. The team could opt to sign a cheap free agent like Karri Ramo, Jhonas Enroth or Ben Scrivens. There is also the option to trade for another team’s veteran that they are looking to dump.
Since the draft, there have been rumblings that the Dallas Stars are desperately trying to dump one of their over-priced goalies in order to make room for Ben Bishop. This could be an option for the Leafs if they’re able to gain an advantage for taking one of Lehtonen or Niemi – more on this later.
Find a way to move one of the high-priced veterans
Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, I don’t care which. At this point, these four players represent overpaid veterans that have no place in the future of the team and will be doing nothing but taking an NHL roster spot away from one of the younger guys – or a cheaper free agent option.
Every report indicates that the Leafs have been shopping Tyler Bozak for more than a year now with no takers. Bozak is the lone hold-over from the debacle that was the Burke/Nonis era – aside from Kadri but he’s a useful piece of the rebuild. It would be nice if the team could find a taker for Bozak at their asking price, but it seems like it won’t happen and the inevitability of him ending up on the 3rd line for the next two seasons is becoming closer to a reality.
By all accounts, Mike Babcock loves what Laich brings to the team and another year with the veteran on the 4th line is something we can live with.
That Leafs Joffrey Lupul. He is the team’s highest-paid player – $5.25m – and is an anchor against the cap for the next two seasons. The ideal scenario would be for Lupul to collect his salary on Robidas Island until his contract runs out, but by all accounts he’s not going to let that happen.
So why would anyone take him off the Leafs’ hands? Enter the Dallas stars.
As mentioned above, the Stars have been after Ben Bishop as a way to shore up the biggest weakness the team had last season. With Bishop in net, the Stars are likely a true contender in the West. The problem is, they’re already spending $10.4m on their two goalies. They simply can’t take on Ben Bishop unless they are able to move one of Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen.
A Lupul for Niemi trade seems to make sense for everyone involved. The Leafs would save $750k on the cap for each of the next two years while creating a roster spot for a young winger like Kerby Rychel or Josh Leivo. The deal would also solve the Leafs backup goalie problem.
As for the Stars, they have an incredible group of forwards and would be able to shelter Lupul in order to get the most out of him. playing middle-6 minutes on a good team could work well for the winger that has shown the ability to play well when paired with superior linemates. By moving Niemi, the Stars would then be able to fit Ben Bishop onto their roster.
It’s also worth noting that since Lupul’s contract was partially from loaded, the last year of the deal only has $3.75m of actual salary owed. So for a team that has an internal budget like Dallas, the move would be easier since while Lupul has the higher cap hit, both he and Niemi are owed the same $9m over the last two years of the contract.
Go bargain hunting
As the offseason moves on, more often then not smart teams are able to find much more value in free agency than you would on July 1st. Players realize the market for their services isn’t what they thought it was and will sign for less than they expected.
The best organizations are able to scoop up good players on great value contracts as rosters begin to fill up. The Leafs would do well to attempt to find a one or two guys that would improve the current roster and prevent the team from rushing young guys who aren’t ready.
A veteran like Jiri Hudler is one that catches the eye. Hudler played for Babcock in Detroit and is the kind of veteran forward that would look good on a line with youngsters like Matthews or Nylander.
There are also younger free agents that could be scooped up and stashed, much the same way as the team dealt with Frankie Corrado after they picked him up on waivers last summer. Taking a flier on a guy like Drew Shore, Brandon Pirri or Matt Halischuk is the kind of low risk move that could end up paying big dividends down the road.
Don’t sign Kris Russell
He’s not a top-4 defenseman on a good NHL team and he will command far more term than he deserves. It would no doubt be a bad signing. It’s as simple as that.