Toronto Maple Leafs Can Keep All Their Free Agents – But Should They?

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 14: Kasperi Kapanen #24 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal with teammates Auston Matthews #34, Andreas Johnsson #18, and Nikita Zaitsev #22 against the Colorado Avalanche during the second period at the Scotiabank Arena on January 14, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 14: Kasperi Kapanen #24 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal with teammates Auston Matthews #34, Andreas Johnsson #18, and Nikita Zaitsev #22 against the Colorado Avalanche during the second period at the Scotiabank Arena on January 14, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images) /

With the drawing to a close of the 2018-19 season, discussion regarding the Toronto Maple Leafs immediately shifted from Cup contention to cap controversy.

The fact of the matter is this: the Toronto Maple Leafs have eight free agents this offseason.

Excluding Martin Marincin and Michael Hutchinson – who are, realistically, rather replaceable pieces of this complex puzzle – there are six. Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Tyler Ennis, Jake Gardiner, and Ron Hainsey are all up for contract renewals.

Hypothetically, if a few are willing to take haircuts, they could all take the ice as Leafs next season. The question becomes, then, should they?

Toronto Maple Leafs Free Agents

Mitch Marner needs no discussion. Without question one of the best playmakers in the league, and absolute dynamite on the wing of John Tavares, Marner collected 68 assists in the 2018-19 season, the fourth most in the league, to cap off the best season yet in his young career.

A hometown hero and media darling in the city of Toronto, it is nearly certain that Mitch Marner collects his paycheck – likely to be in the range of $10 million yearly – and continues on his merry way dressed in blue and white for many seasons to come.

Perhaps a little less obvious, I think the next easiest pick is Tyler Ennis.

His liability for injury keeps his price tag low and his contracts short – the one year contract the Leafs signed him to this season cost only $650 000. While he’s likely to request a pay raise – and in my opinion, deserves one – he’s unlikely to cost more than $1 million and pays that back many times over by his contribution to the Leafs’ fourth line, which became something of a secret weapon late into the season and during the playoffs this year.

The rest of the year’s remaining free agents are a little more contentious.

Ron Hainsey

Take Ron Hainsey, for example. At 38 years old, Hainsey puts $3 million yearly against the Toronto cap. He has close to equal parts friends and enemies among the Leafs fanbase. In my opinion, Hainsey should stay in Toronto, as he’s an acceptable defenseman on a roster whose backend is shaky at best.

However, his re-signing should be conditional on a few key points; namely, that he plays significantly fewer minutes (he currently plays the most among Toronto defenseman), never takes the ice with Rielly (the numbers show that this pairing actually detracts from the abilities of the star defenseman), and that he takes a serious pay cut and a short term contract.

Hainsey should be seen as a short term solution to the defense problem, not the go-to shut down defenseman.

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That brings us to Jake Gardiner, who has seen his fair share of abuse by the Toronto market throughout his career here. Myself included, many have been quick to criticize Gardiner, whose turnovers in the playoffs have led to many goals at the hands of many Bruins – and many tears shed by many here in Toronto.

However, during his injury this season, I found myself missing Jake Gardiner, and I doubt I was alone in this revelation. In all honesty, Jake Gardiner is a pretty good defenseman, and his offensive abilities are well-suited for the style of play that defines Toronto Maple Leafs hockey. Going into this offseason, I’ll admit, I’ve changed my tune. I would sign Jake Gardiner again, but only if he’s willing to take a contract similar to or less than the one he has now, putting $4 million against the cap.

Kapanen and Johnsson

This leaves the Leafs with two more free agents – Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of both of these players. But I think it would be wisest if the Leafs only sign one.

Playing to your team’s strengths is, in my opinion, always the right way to go. Therefore it’s easy to justify signing both Kapanen, whose explosive speed is a useful tool for breakouts, breakaways, and the general generation of offensive opportunities, and Johnsson, whose strength, shot, and gritty willingness to play in front of the net and in the corners are valuable assets that benefit the Toronto Maple Leafs offense.

Both these players are objectively good and therefore valuable. And after three consecutive first-round eliminations, I think its time to look at playing to their strengths another way. And trading one of these two players would give the Leafs the resources to do so. What this team needs is not more explosive offense, but rather stronger, more stable defenseman who can also contribute to fast-paced offensive play.

So of the two, who do you let go? If you’re asking me, I’d say Kasperi Kapanen, albeit through gritted teeth. As much as I’m a fan of Kasperi Kapanen’s game, and his contribution to the Toronto Maple Leafs organization over the past few years, I think Andreas Johnsson, who, may I remind you, just completed his rookie campaign, has more to offer in the long run.

Kapanen finished this season with 44 points in 78 games, while Johnsson finished with 43 points in 73 games. Obviously their numbers are very similar, however, this is a starting point for Johnsson and a career-high for Kapanen.

Also, for a team hoping to make changes that improve their ability to go deep in the playoffs, Kapanen contributed just 1 goal and 1 assist in this most recent series, summing up to a career playoff total of 5 points in 20 games, while Johnsson racked up 1 goal and 3 assists this series for a career total of 6 points in 13 games played.

To reiterate, Kapanen is certainly a valuable player. But that just means he has the potential to be incredibly valuable as leverage to trade for a top-four defenseman. That’s simply something the Toronto Maple Leafs need more than they need Kapanen.

(Stats from and

However many of these free agents start September as members of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I am positive the essential players will be retained.

Next. Believe It or Not Jake Gardiner Is an All-Time Great Leaf. dark

How Dubas plays the hand he’s dealt, however, had better be the difference between first-round elimination and serious Stanley Cup contention, otherwise, the management of this team is going to need drastic reconsideration.