By Aaron Barrett
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For the first time in years, the Toronto Maple Leafs are brimming with rosterable young talent. While being interviewed at the recent World Championships, Mike Babcock said: "We have too many young guys for the amount of jobs. Whoever we end up taking (in the NHL Draft) is going to be immersed with a bunch of kids. Not a few kids, a bunch of kids."
On opening night, the Leafs could ice a squad with as many as seven or eight rookies. Presumably, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, and William Nylander are near locks to start the season with the club; they all received significant playing time and praise from Leafs’ brass while skating for the trade-depleted squad late last season. Nikita Zaitsev, the team’s newest player, is currently projected to round out the Leafs’ top-four on the backend. Moreover, Auston Matthews, this year’s presumptive first overall pick, will almost certainly be immediately inserted into the big-league line-up. Finally, the likes of Mitch Marner, Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic, Josh Leivo, Collin Greening, Frederik Gauthier, and Stuart Percy are all expected to seriously challenge for roster spots.
While Toronto’s embarrassment of riches in the prospect department should be celebrated, the team cannot simply roster an all-rookie squad; it must surround its young talent with a group of serviceable veterans. Barring any trades, James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, Milan Michalek, Brooks Laich, Morgan Reilly, Jake Gardiner, Matt Hunwick, Martin Marincin and Jonathan Bernier will all likely suit up for the blue and white next year. While Joffrey Lupul, Stephane Robidas, Jared Cowen, Tyler Bozak, and Peter Holland (RFA) are players whose names have become associated with LTIR, trade rumors or buy-outs.
Regardless of who the team decides to keep and who they decide to move, there could be as few as one or two spots to be filled by UFA signings or trades.
When deciding who to target in the open-market, Leafs’ brass must select individuals who can both help the club win and aid the team’s young players develop through on and off-ice leadership. Accordingly, here are five players who the team should try to acquire.
Steven Stamkos- Max offer: 7-years $70 million
The 26-year-old elite sniper and Toronto native would fit in with this team perfectly. Not only is Stamkos capable of potting 30-50 goals a year, he is a notoriously dedicated athlete who lives and breaths hockey. As team captain, a role that he would undoubtedly have to promised to be lured to Toronto, his unrelenting work ethic would allow the Leafs’ young talent to see what it takes to be a dominant player in the NHL. When your club has a chance at possibly the greatest UFA in NHL history, go for it.
As such, Toronto should do everything it can to sign Stamkos without hindering its ability to contend in the future. At seven years and $70 million, Stamkos would be tied with Anze Kopitar for third in highest average salary in the NHL next year (behind Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane who both have $10.5 million cap hits). Stamkos, one of the game’s greatest talents, would be worth every penny.
Although the Leafs already have $63-million committed to the 2016-2017 salary cap for 16 players, three men- Nathan Horton, Stephane Robidas, and Joffrey Lupul (combined salary cap hits of $13.55-million) are unlikely to play. Thus, the team has some money to spend, as the cap is expected to be between $71.4 million and $74 million.
Jimmy Vesey- Max offer: 3 years- $2.775 million
The 2016 Hobey Baker winner will have an array of suitors to choose from when he becomes a UFA this August. At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, the 23-year-old winger who has great vision and who can distribute the puck, is projected to be a top-six forward.
On the Leafs, Vesey’s big frame would be a nice compliment for the team’s small, skilled forwards (i.e. Marner, Nylander).
Although many believe that Vesey might be headed to his hometown Bruins, others suggest that the Leafs may have the inside track; Vesey’s brother was drafted by Toronto in 2014, and his father is a scout for the organization.
Justin Schultz- Max offer: 2 years- $3.9 million
Three years ago, the rumor mill swirled around UFA Justin Schultz after Anaheim failed to re-sign its former second round pick. While Leafs fans hoped Schultz would sign in Toronto to join former University of Wisconsin teammate Jake Gardiner, he ended up choosing Edmonton. Schultz got off to a blazing start in Alberta, as he played in every game in the lockout-shortened season and racked up 27 points in the process. However, his numbers and defensive play have since declined steadily while being utilized as a top-four and often top-one defenseman.
Now, playing a smaller role in Pittsburgh, Schultz has shown flashes of what made NHL teams drool over him in 2012; he is mobile puck-moving defenseman with a great shot.
As an RFA, Shultz could make for an interesting, low-risk restoration project under Mike Babcock. Acquiring his rights from Pittsburgh would likely only require parting with a mid-round pick (Pittsburgh gave up a third to get him this season). With 12 picks in the upcoming draft, Toronto has some trade chips to play with.
Philipp Grubauer- Max offer: third-round pick in the 2016 draft
With a 2017 expansion draft looming, many teams will have tough decisions in regards to who they will protect and who they will expose. Word out of recent GM meetings is that clubs will only be able to protect one netminder. Consequently, the market for goalies is expected to be flooded by teams hoping to avoid losing a quality piece for nothing.
Toronto, who is still in search of a number-one franchise goalie, has an excellent opportunity to take advantage of the potentially saturated market.
One team they can look to is Washington who will certainly choose to protect the expected 2015-2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby. The Capitals backup, 24-year-old Phillipp Grubaur, impressed this season posting a 2.32 GAA and a .918 Sv%; many pundits claim that he has the potential to be a starting goalie moving forward.
Because the market it set to be flooded with netminders, the Leafs would likely be able to acquire the German for a medium round draft pick or a Peter Holland type player who could help the Capitals now. If Grubauer fails to live up to his potential, the Leafs will at least gain a reliable backup for Jonathan Benier.
Darcy Kuemper- Max offer: 2 years- $4 million
If a 2017 expansion draft is announced, Minnesota will be in a similar position to Washington. Devan Dubnyk, who was given a large extension last summer and a no-movement clause, appears to be the team’s guy going forward. This leaves the Wild in a vulnerable position with their backup Darcy Kuemper. The 26-year-old pending RFA put up strong numbers this season (2.43 GAA and .915 Sv%). Like Grubauer, Kuemper has the potential to be a starting goalie in the NHL.
Of course, the Leafs should only look to acquire one of these two goalies. Price being equal, the younger Grubauer is the better bet. However, if Washington chooses to bite the bullet and retain the German for another cup run, Kuemper could be a solid alternative.
Projected 2016-2017 lineup (including proposed acquisitions)
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