Nine intriguing NHL free agents the Maple Leafs can afford


It’s time for Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas to work his magic — if that’s the right word.

Dubas has a mixed record when it comes to free agents, though he typically hasn’t given himself a great deal of salary-cap space to work with. Wednesday will be no different, when the free-agent signing period begins at noon and Dubas has around $6.3 million (U.S.) to spend.

Last year, he quickly regretted a two-year, $5-million deal with forward Nick Ritchie. He also came to regret a three-year, $11.4-million deal with goalie Petr Mrázek.

But smaller deals worked out: forwards David Kämpf ($3 million over two years) and Michael Bunting ($1.9 million over two). Ondrej Kaše ($1.25 million) is a free agent with a chance of returning at close to the same number. Players who came in at the minimum ($750,000) had very small roles: Brett Seney, Carl Dahlström, Alex Biega and Michael Amadio.

Last year, teams committed $840 million worth of non-extension, one-way contracts to 126 free agents, according to soundofhockey.com. That works out to an average cap hit of $2.3 million and average length of 2.2 years. The numbers were up slightly from 2020 ($812 million) thanks in part to the Seattle Kraken joining the fun.

The most dollars spent on free agents: $1.4 billion in 2019, before the pandemic and flat cap.

This year, there’s a total of $448.1 million in cap space available and 174 roster spots, or about $2.57 million on average. The bigger names — Nazem Kadri, Claude Giroux, Evgeni Malkin, Jack Campbell and Darcy Kuemper — will find new homes with big price tags.

The Leafs have four to six spots to file, and some of their $6.3 million will go to forward Pierre Engvall and defenceman Rasmus Sandin, restricted free agents who were tendered qualifying offers.

Barring a trade, the Leafs will again be looking for Bunting-like diamonds in the rough to compete with forward prospects Pontus Holmberg, Nick Robertson and Alex Steeves and goalies Erik Källgren and Joseph Woll.

Here’s a look at some of the free agents who might fit the Leafs’ budget:

Mississauga-born centre Dylan Strome is coming off a $3-million contract and 22-goal season with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Dylan Strome, F

It might be a pipe dream, since he’s coming off a $3-million contract and 22-goal season with Chicago. But if the Mississauga native wants to play for his hometown team with friend Mitch Marner, he’d be a welcome addition at centre. The Leafs may have to move a player to fit him in — Alex Kerfoot comes to mind — but a short-term, show-me contract could put Strome in position to cash in next season.

Sonny Milano, F

It came as a shock to some that Anaheim didn’t qualify the 26-year-old forward, a former teammate of Auston Matthews in the U.S. development program. A great stickhandler. Had 14 goals for the Ducks on a $1.7-million cap hit.

Brendan Lemieux, F

Another pipe dream, maybe, but he plays a gritty game the Leafs sorely lack. Just eight goals with Los Angeles last season, but 97 penalty minutes. Grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz. with Matthews. Earned just $950,000 last year and probably would take close to the same, though the Kings are interested in re-signing him.

Ilya Lyubushkin, D

If there’s a way to bring back the right-handed shooting Russian Bear at close to the $1.35 million he earned last year, the Leafs should do it. There are warts to his game, but physical defencemen are hard to find.

Matt Benning, D

The 28-year-old son of former Leaf Jim Benning is coming off a $1-million deal with Nashville. He’s a decent penalty killer with a right-handed shot and 366 NHL games to his credit.

Ryan Murray, D

Drafted second overall in 2012, three spots ahead of Leaf Morgan Rielly, but had an injury-filled start with Columbus. He did win the Stanley Cup in Colorado this year. Murray’s coming off a $2-million deal, but could feel the squeeze as a sixth or seventh defenceman. He shoots left, and could be insurance in case Rasmus Sandin bolts with an offer sheet.

Eric Comrie, G

Earned $750,000 and went 10-5-1 last season for the Winnipeg Jets. He’s six-foot-one, will be 27 when next season begins and has been through waiver wires like nobody’s business. He might appreciate that the Leafs’ NHL and AHL teams are in the same city. He also won gold in Toronto as Zach Fucale’s backup at the 2015 world junior championship.

Harri Säteri, G

The Leafs signed the Finnish free agent just before the trade deadline (at a cap hit of $750,000) only to lose him on waivers to Arizona. He got into six games with the Coyotes: 4.22 goals-against average, .866 save percentage. Not great numbers, but the Leafs liked him not that long ago and he’s available again without the worry of waivers. He’s 32 and coming off Olympic gold.

Malcolm Subban, G

The Rexdale product, a career backup who has played 86 games over seven seasons with four teams, could be sold on his hometown. The former Canadian world junior goalie earned $850,000 last year. His .871 career save percentage works against him, but that was built on some fairly bad teams in Buffalo and Chicago. When he plays 20-plus games, like he did in Vegas, he’s better. Brother Jordan once played for the Marlies.

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