How can Maple Leafs fill their biggest holes this offseason? 10 free agents who could help

The Maple Leafs’ front office fired some darts in free agency last summer.

For $3.7 million on the cap last season, the Leafs got eventual Calder Trophy finalist Michael Bunting, defensive guru David Kampf and top-nine utility man Ondrej Kase.

It wasn’t a perfect spin of the free-agent wheel, of course; Nick Ritchie and Petr Mrazek were big misfires. Such is the challenge with free agency, particularly for a team with limited coin under the salary cap.

Barring some wheeling and dealing to free up space beyond the obvious (Mrazek), the Leafs won’t have a ton to spend this summer. Their biggest, priciest acquisition (free agency or trade) will presumably come in goal.

Some free agents who would be great fits — Tyler Motte, Nick Paul, Andrew Copp, among others — will likely prove too costly. You won’t see guys like that here.

Kyle Dubas’ squad will need to hunt for bargains yet again, seeking the kind of value they got from Bunting, Kampf and Kase last season. Those signings offered a roadmap for the types of players the Leafs might well target this summer, “someone that’s coming off injury, someone that hasn’t been given a great opportunity, someone coming off a bad year,” as Dubas himself explained it in his year-end press conference in May.


Michael Bunting. (John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

Included in that mix, such as Kampf and Kase last summer, are players who go unqualified by their teams.

With all that in mind, we dug into the various free-agent possibilities for the Leafs and settled on 10 who best fit their needs. We’ve ranked them based on how well they fill a need, with cost and commitment in mind.

Onto the show!

10. Justin Braun

Age: 35

Position: Right defence

The Leafs have grown to prefer size and/or muscle on the back end for the postseason. (See: Zach Bogosian, Ilya Lyubushkin, Mark Giordano.) It’s likely they get priced out on the snarliest types available in free agency — Josh Manson, Nikita Zadorov, Lyubushkin. Braun won’t pack much of the physical punch that those guys do, but he is a large (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) experienced right shooter who knows how to defend.

The Leafs were interested in his services at last year’s trade deadline for a reason. If they decide to move on from Justin Holl, Braun could slide in as a cheap No. 6 or 7 who can move in and out of the lineup and spell fellow golden oldies like Jake Muzzin and Giordano from time to time. He could even play higher in the lineup if needed, a trait that’s especially valuable in the playoffs. Braun spent most of last season playing alongside Ivan Provorov on Philadelphia’s No. 1 pair. He has all kinds of experience duelling with top lines, including in the playoffs, where he’s played 119 games. He went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final with San Jose in 2016.

9. Maxim Mamin

Age: 27

Position: Wing

There’s something about this dude that makes him hard not to like. He’s got a physical presence about him (6-foot-2, 206 pounds), he’s competitive and he’s got a fair bit of skill. This play, from a late-season game against Detroit, kinda symbolizes the Mamin (wearing No. 98) experience. He put his big frame to work to make a play in his own zone, then hustled the other way and finished neatly in tight:

Mamin ended up with seven goals and 14 points in 40 games for the Presidents’ Trophy winners, playing about 12 minutes per game. He also spent some time in the AHL and suited up in only four playoff games. He’s still very inexperienced in the NHL, with just 73 career games. The Leafs could make a small bet on his upside, plug him into the bottom six and hope the tools coalesce into something useful. Mamin is represented by Dan Milstein, the same agent who represents … Ilya Mikheyev. He could help fill the Mikheyev void next season.

Update: Mamin has reportedly decided to return to the KHL.

8. Dominik Kubalik

Age: 26

Position: Left wing

Kubalik is a restricted free agent this summer, but there’s a chance, maybe even a good one, that Chicago doesn’t qualify him. The price for such an offer is $4 million. Costly for a soon-to-be 27-year-old who produced only 32 points last season, and probably not a wise investment for a rebuilding team. Why should the Leafs be interested if he becomes available? Well, Kubalik has shown that he can score in the NHL. He’s popped 62 goals in 202 games over three seasons, a top-60 mark in the NHL. That includes a 30-goal, good-vibes rookie season which saw Kubalik shoot 19 percent while playing primarily with Jonathan Toews. He also spent a fair bit of time that year with fellow Czech native and current Leaf David Kampf, and added four goals and eight points in nine playoff games.

A year like that probably isn’t happening again. But the Leafs can probably safely count on Kubalik delivering 15-20 goals or so from the middle of the lineup. He might even be a nice fit with Kampf, replacing Mikheyev as a long body (6-foot-2) who can get up and down the ice.

His shot (he wears No. 8) could be a weapon on PP2.

Will he be too costly for the Leafs? Evolving Hockey projects a $2.9 million cap hit on a two-year deal. That seems high in this cap environment. Bring that number down and Kubalik could be a nice, buy-low option for the Leafs.

7. Zach Aston-Reese

Age: 27

Position: Left wing/centre

What would this soon-to-be 28-year-old bring the Leafs? Physicality. Aston-Reese is a battering ram, one of the league’s most physical forwards. Aston-Reese threw 231 hits last season — 83 more than Wayne Simmonds, the Leafs’ leading hitter. (The No. 2 forward in that department? John Tavares.) Why is that important? It would give the roster a dimension it’s otherwise lacking, and some identity at the bottom of the lineup. Aston-Reese is a competitive, blue-collar type who could play all over the place for the Leafs — ideally, on the fourth line. The Penguins, his long-time team until a midseason trade to Anaheim last year, often used him against elite foes over the years, such as the Auston Matthews line when the Leafs played in Pittsburgh early last season. And for good reason: Aston-Reese is a shrewd defender.

Top xGA/60 last three seasons (forwards)

Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe would inevitably find Aston-Reese useful on the penalty kill. He could take over the Mikheyev minutes there and might even fit in nicely in Mikheyev’s place alongside Kampf and Pierre Engvall on the Leafs’ shutdown unit. The downside is that offensively, Aston-Reese isn’t bringing much — 5-10 goals and 15-20 points. And without Mikheyev, a little more pop might be desired.

6. Evan Rodrigues

Age: 28

Position: Centre/Wing

We know this management team likes Rodrigues. He was part of the package of stuff that came back in the Kasperi Kapanen salary dump in 2020. He didn’t sign with the Leafs that summer though, preferring more clear-cut opportunity in Pittsburgh. Rodrigues became one of the best bargains in the league last season. Playing for $1 million on the cap, he pumped in 19 goals and 43 points, both career highs. It wasn’t some shooting bender either: Rodrigues shot only eight percent. He wore a lot of hats for the Penguins, even filling in as the No. 1 centre when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were out with injuries. Rodrigues has the kind of high hockey IQ the Leafs like in their players. That, plus solid defence and puck-carrying abilities. He could fill a utility role for the Leafs, playing across the top nine, included at centre as needed. The Leafs were able to win Bunting and Kampf with two-year deals. Could they lure Rodrigues back to his hometown of Toronto with something along those lines? After last year, it’s possible his price tag will be too high for the Leafs to compete.


Evan Rodrigues. (Lucas Peltier / USA Today)

5. Ville Husso

Age: 27

Position: Goalie

It’s hard to think of many goaltenders who landed pricey, long-term contracts with the kind of limited resume that Husso has. Even Linus Ullmark had started 112 NHL games before Boston gave him a four-year contract ($5 million cap hit) last summer. Husso has less than half that experience, just 53 starts so far in the NHL — most of them to great success last season. If that performance for the Blues (.919 save percentage) was real, or even sorta real, the Leafs are in business with a 27-year-old who’s 6-foot-3 and more than 200 pounds.

That very limited experience, and lack of pedigree (he was a fourth-round pick in 2014), makes him a huge wild card, particularly if the contract is going to be juicy. A recent cautionary tale that comes to mind: Chris Driedger, who got a three-year contract from Seattle last summer despite only 38 (largely impressive) games of NHL experience. Driedger finished with an .899 save percentage in year one with the Kraken. Has Leafs brass seen enough to bet their season, essentially, on Husso?

4. Miles Wood

Age: 26

Position: Left wing

Another guy who might not get qualified (the cost: $3.5 million), in this case by the Devils. Wood fits into one of the bargain-bin boxes Dubas described — he missed but three games last season after hip surgery in October. Assuming he’s healthy, perhaps the Leafs can lure him in with the relative security of a two- or three-year deal. Wood is what you might call an effort player. To put it simply, he tries hard and will make himself noticeable and involved with effort and energy. The Leafs could use more bulldogs like that. Wood also happens to be 6-foot-2 and almost 200 pounds. He’ll punch in some goals through his effort — 17 in 55 games in his last full season. More than a few of them look like this, playoff-type goals with Wood just wanting it more around the net.

With the Leafs, Wood could slide into some sort of middle-six role, likely with Kampf on the third line. The lack of playmaking (56 assists in 326 career games) might make him a stretch for top-six duty. However, pair him with two skilled partners (Tavares and William Nylander?) and Wood could fit in by doing the dirty work. His skill set, in the same grimy mould as Blake Coleman and Nick Paul, seems likely to shine at playoff time.

3. Andrew Cogliano

Age: 35

Position: Left wing/centre

2. Darren Helm

Age: 36

Position: Centre/left wing

Cogliano and Helm are exactly what the Leafs could use at the bottom of their lineup in two vets who can still play, and play with pace and purpose. The Avs ran them out there together to wicked success during their Cup run. They buried them in the D-zone. They trotted them out to protect late leads. They used Cogliano and Helm as their No. 1 penalty-killing twosome up front. Cogliano and Helm even chipped in with five goals, including Helm’s series-clinching winner against St. Louis. They were a clear source of stability for head coach Jared Bednar. No doubt, Keefe wouldn’t mind having a couple guys like that around next season.


Darren Helm faces off against the Lightning. (Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

Quick, greasy and not scared of anyone despite his relative lack of size (6-foot, 192 pounds), Helm could slide into the Leafs’ vacant fourth-line centre spot. A Toronto native, Cogliano could join him on the wing and offer the Leafs some of the Yoda vibes that disappeared when Jason Spezza retired. In the minutes after the Avalanche clinched their first Cup in 21 years, Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar raved about Cogliano’s leadership. Cogliano and Helm were each playing for $1 million last season. Maybe that price goes up a smidge after the Cup, and maybe that’s too much for the Leafs to devote to a pair of fourth-liners. Maybe they can only get one. Perhaps it’s worthwhile to pay up. If Colorado and Tampa, which was paying $3 million collectively to their hearty fourth line, have demonstrated anything, it’s that reliable fourth-liners are worth paying for.

1. Marc-Andre Fleury

Age: 37

Position: Goalie

If the Leafs decide to go the free-agent route to address their primary opening in goal, Fleury, arguably, makes the most sense. Not only does he feel like the safest bet — he hasn’t finished with a save percentage below .905 in the last decade — he’s also unlikely to require a long-term commitment given his age (he’ll be 38 in November). Nor should his price point come close to say, Darcy Kuemper. So, not only would the Leafs be confidently (as confidently as one can be with a goalie, that is) checking the No. 1 box from their offseason shopping list, they wouldn’t be committing long term, at a high price point, to the most unpredictable position in the sport.


Marc-Andre Fleury. (Brad Rempel / USA Today)

Fleury feels like the closest thing the Leafs are going to get to security. Over the last five seasons, he’s posted a .915 save percentage, a top-10 mark overall. During that stretch, Fleury has given up two goals or less in 133 games. The only goalies with more such games: Andrei Vasilevskiy (147), Jacob Markstrom (143) and Connor Hellebuyck (140). Has Fleury had some dicey playoff moments? Certainly. His playoff resume is just plain deeper than anyone else though. Fleury has started in and won the third-most postseason games ever — trailing only the GOATS, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. He’s been to the Stanley Cup Final five times.

Career playoff wins

Rank Player Wins

1

Patrick Roy

151

2

Martin Brodeur

113

3

Marc-Andre Fleury

92

4

Grant Fuhr

92

5

Billy Smith

88

6

Ed Belfour

88

7

Ken Dryden

80

8

Mike Vernon

77

9

Chris Osgood

74

10

Jacques Plante

71

Could he be Ed Belfour 2.0 in Toronto? We know the Leafs were interested in his services not all that long ago.

Lower risk. Lower commitment. Fairly high upside (Fleury won the Vezina in 2021). Put it all together and Fleury looks like a good match for the Leafs, arguably the best of the goalies out there.

Honourable mention: Nico Sturm, Trevor Lewis, Johan Larsson, Sam Gagner, Ryan Dzingel, Mark Pysyk, Nick Cousins

Stats and research courtesy of Evolving Hockey, Cap Friendly, Natural Stat Trick, Stat Head, Hockey Reference, and puckIQ

(Top photo: Eric Hartline / USA Today)

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