Toronto Maple Leafs Bet Big on Player Development

Michael Bunting, Arizona Coyotes (Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)
Michael Bunting, Arizona Coyotes (Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs probably didn’t win over any skeptics with their free-agency performance this year, but the team did well.

This year the Toronto Maple Leafs looked beyond the star recruits and the Father Figure types to focus on their bread and butter: neglected and underrated mid-20s players who don’t cost much and have some upside.

In the past, this has resulted in quality pickups like Ilya Mikheyev, Nic Petan, Kenny Agostino, Alex Galchenyuk and (though it was by trade) Alex Kerfoot.   Less successful attempts were made with the likes of Jimmy Vesey and Alex Barabanov.

This year the Leafs feasted on the left-overs of free agency, scooping up such players as Ondrej Kase, Nick Ritchie, David Kampf, Josh Ho-Sang, and Michael Bunting.

Zach Hyman is a player who will be missed, but auxiliary players entering their age 30 season are always bad deals, and the Leafs will win just by having the extra cap space.  Given that whoever ultimately replaces Hyman will get to play with two of the five best hockey players in the world, there really is not point in spending money on such a player.  If the Leafs can’t find someone to put up good numbers on the cheap with Matthews and Marner then their experiment will have failed.

Toronto Maple Leafs Options

If there was one problem with last year’s team it is that all of their young players were pretty much blocked from succeeding.  Mikko Lehtonen is still a potential NHL star, but he barely even got an opportunity to show what he can do.

Rasmus Sandin and Nick Robertson were done in by injuries, but everyone from Liljegren to Brooks to Petan was unable to crack the lineup more because of the team’s veteran depth than their own play.

This year, with Hyman, Thornton, Bogosian (and potentially Kerfoot/Mikheyev) all gone (not to mention Galchenyuk, Petan, Vesey and Barabanov) the Leafs will be able to let hungry players compete for jobs, instead of giving those jobs automatically to veterans they would rather not lose on waivers.

The new season should see a much more fluid Toronto Maple Leafs team that gives many players an opportunity to run away with a roster spot (Brooks, Engvall, Joey Anderson and Robertson will be competing with the new players).

Though the floor of the team will be lower without Hyman, Thornton, Foligno etc. the ceiling will be much higher because, while we knew what we had in those former players, the new players all hold potential to breakout that wasn’t there fore.

The current Leafs roster already grades out to one of the best in the NHL, but a breakout season from Nick Robertson, Michael Bunting or Rasmus Sandin could potentially transform the Leafs into a powerhouse.

The Leafs have been missing their home-grown late-round super-star so far during the Auston Matthews era.  Every single other team that has won in the salary cap era has done so with such a player (Point, Keith, Letang, Quick, Kucherov etc).

Next. Grading Kyle Dubas 2021 Regular Season Performance. dark

This year the Leafs will try harder than every before to develop such a player, and whether that ends up being a  draft pick or a guy taken off the scrap heap a la Zach Hyman, the difference it will make will be astronomical.