Joshua Kloke of The Athletic wrote an article today highlighting seven bargain bin free agent targets that could help the Toronto Maple Leafs next season. The Maple Leafs currently sit about $2MM over the salary cap despite putting Jake Muzzin and Matt Murray on LTIR for next year, making it difficult to imagine Toronto doing much shopping in free agency unless they sign two-way deals or move out a contract. The names on the list were interesting, and certainly, they reflect the Maple Leafs’ salary cap predicament.
The most interesting name on Kloke’s list was three-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Toews. Much speculation has been made this off-season about the future of Toews as he has battled health issues the past few seasons and may be leaning towards retirement. Toews was effective last year, albeit in limited action as he dressed in just 53 games and put up 15 goals and 16 assists. The former captain of the Chicago Blackhawks doesn’t have much to play for at this point, but if he were to choose the Maple Leafs as a destination, he could slide into a similar role that Jason Spezza and Joe Thornton had when they arrived in Toronto a few years ago. Toews could be a very effective fourth-line center for Toronto even at this point in his career, but one must wonder if wants to.
Zach Aston-Reese was another name on the list and is coming off a season in which he scored a career-high 10 goals with Toronto. By all accounts, Aston-Reese was well-liked in Toronto and was effective for them in a fourth-line role. We profiled the Staten Island, New York native just days ago in our Free Agent Profile series and highlighted that the 28-year-old has some of the best defensive analytics in the league but offers very little offensively.
Another name on the list was a young reclamation project and that is 25-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi. The right-winger is coming off a very disappointing season in which he scored just five goals and was dumped by the Edmonton Oilers in a cap-cutting move last year. Puljujarvi has been a disappointment in his young career after getting drafted fourth overall in 2016. He has just 51 goals and 63 assists in 334 NHL games but is just a year removed from a 36-point season in 2021-22. The Maple Leafs would probably be a good landing spot for Puljujarvi as he could play in more of a sheltered role in Toronto and wouldn’t be relied upon to provide much offence. On the flip side of that, he struggled to play with skilled players like Connor McDavid, which leads to speculation about whether he’d be able to play with any of Toronto’s skilled forwards.
The most realistic target for the Maple Leafs on the list was center Derick Brassard. Brassard entered last season on a professional tryout with the Ottawa Senators and put up decent numbers in limited playing time. The 35-year-old had 13 goals and 10 assists in 62 games while averaging just 12 minutes of ice time per game. It’s possible that Brassard might also elect to retire, but he did express a desire to keep playing at the end of last year. He also enjoyed playing closer to home having grown up in Hull, Quebec, which is just across the river from Ottawa. Should Brassard want to stay close to family, Toronto would make sense. From the Maple Leafs’ perspective, there is no harm in bringing in a veteran like Brassard on a one-year deal for the league minimum. He would give them a scoring option in the bottom six who can fill in at center, and they could bury his contract in the minors without penalty should things not work out.
The other names on Kloke’s list were defensemen Ethan Bear and Scott Harrington, as well as forward Sam Gagner. Harrington is a former Maple Leaf and could offer some depth on the backend, while Bear is expected to miss a significant chunk of the year and would be a mid-season addition. Gagner could offer the Leafs some depth scoring on the fourth line and is close with John Taveres from their days playing in London. Perhaps a return home could be possible for the 33-year-old Gagner.