The Toronto Maple Leafs' approach to building talent has changed. The management group of Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter are guiding the team into full rebuild mode, and after a great draft weekend, the focus now shifts to free agency.
What's likely gone are the days of chasing big-name free agents just for the sake of it. It would be shocking to see this group hand out a deal similar to the seven-year, $36.75 million contract given to David Clarkson in 2013, just because he's from Toronto and was one of the biggest names available.
Management will certainly look for bargain buys on one-year deals that can be turned into future assets—a model that worked out quite well last year. The team turned Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik, both strong possession players on small one-year deals, into prospects and draft picks. The risk associated with these type of deals is limited, and the return can be valuable.
In a weak free-agent class, some players who fit this mold should interest the Leafs.
The Carolina Hurricanes announced Tuesday they were waiving, and intended to buy out, Russian forward Alexander Semin, who had a rough 2014-15 season. Signed to a five-year, $35 million deal in 2013, Semin scored only six goals, was frequently a healthy scratch and routinely criticized for lack of effort. What those criticisms don't show is Semin put up an impressive 55.8 Corsi For percentage and drove possession for his linemates. His 6.5 shooting percentage was way off his career rate of 12.8 percent, so if that rebounds slightly, his goal total will rise. On a one-year deal, even one ranging between $1-4 million, Semin can rebuild his value, help his team in the present, and then be flipped into future assets.
Unrestricted free agent Curtis Glencross could also bring good value on a one-year deal. The Leafs are rumoured to have interest in the 32-year-old forward, who scored 13 goals last season split between Calgary and Washington. He can log tough minutes, posting positive Relative Corsi Quality of Competition numbers in seven straight seasons, is a near lock to score in the double-digit range and can be slotted anywhere among the forward group. He'd be a good fit for the club.
Reuniting with traded players may be worth it, as well. Winnik is an extremely valuable bottom-six forward, who plays hard, drives possession and can chip in occasional offense. He fit in nicely for the Leafs last season, and there's no reason to think he wouldn't do the same should he be brought back. Same goes for defencemen Cody Franson, a legit top-four pairing rearguard, who's currently entering his prime. While boys players, especially Franson, are likely to land multi-year deals, the Leafs shouldn't solely be in search of one-year buys.
David Booth would also make sense to return on a similar deal to his one-year, $1.1 million contract and would make a nice depth piece to round out the team's bottom-six.
Other free agents who would be worth taking a flier on include Cody Hodgson, Brad Boyes, Sean Bergenheim, Erik Condra and John Moore. Not the most attractive names out there, but each are valuable in their own way.
What may end up being the most important thing the Leafs do during a time where many contracts are signed and moved is to not undersell on Phil Kessel, the team's most coveted available player.
Kessel has his warts, but is tied for fifth in the league in even strength goals (77) since 2011, ahead of players like Alexander Ovechkin, John Tavares and Patrick Kane. The organization already made the right move once by not dumping him at the draft, and should wait to let him rebuild his value unless blown away with an offer.
Mike Babcock has a reputation of getting the best out of his players, and Kessel has been rumored to be focused on getting in better shape this offseason. Last season was certainly a forgettable one for Kessel, but he still managed to score 25 goals. If Babcock and better conditioning can get him back to 35-goal form, the return for the winger—who has seven years remaining on his contract—will be much higher.
The Leafs' mindset should be focused on building toward the future. While the club's offseason moves may not be sexy, they'll help the team. That doesn't mean the Leafs won't sign players that help improve them in the present, but every move during the free agency period will have rationale. That's great news for Leafs fans.