The Toronto Maple Leafs made the biggest splash in free agency two years ago with the signing center John Tavares, but the news this week of the NHL and Player’s Association getting close on a new collective bargaining agreement may not be greeted with enthusiasm by the Leafs and other clubs, with the likelihood of the salary cap staying flat at $81.5 Million for the next two years.
Part of GM Kyle Dubas plan hinged on the cap going up to keep a strong supporting cast around John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, but with the cap staying flat, the Leafs will have to either consider trading the likes of Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson to make room for the salaries of players to replace Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci. If that is the case, they might have to find short term fixes in free agency willing to take less and compete for a Stanley Cup similar to the signings of Tyler Ennis and Jason Spezza the last two summers.
Today will take a look at five free-agent forwards that Dubas could target after this season:
Jimmy Vesey - The former Hobey Baker winner drew heavy interest from Toronto as an unrestricted free agent four years ago, but signed with the New York Rangers instead. Vesey averaged just under 20 goals in three seasons on Broadway before being traded to Buffalo and struggling last season with the Sabres (9 goals, 11 assists in 64 games).
The 27-year-old winger is not in a great position to demand a long-term deal or a salary in excess of $2.275 Million, so he may be looking for a landing spot where he can put up big numbers and make a better case for a new contract. Toronto could be interested in Vesey if they deal Johnsson for cap relief, with the uncertainties of 19-year-old Nick Robertson or free agent signing Alexander Barabanov being ready for the NHL.
Vladislav Namestnikov - The 27-year-old has the speed and skill set that the Leafs usually look for and the versatility to play all three forward positions. After stints with Tampa Bay, New York, and Ottawa, he was dealt to Colorado just before the trade deadline, but there were reports that the Leafs had an interest in acquiring him.
Toronto could have an inside track on signing Namestnikov, whose father works as a scout in Russia for the club, and he might be another short-term option to play center or wing if the Leafs move some salary out.
Patrick Maroon - Could be a lower-priced option instead of re-signing Kyle Clifford. That acquisition was an admission by Dubas that the Leafs are shy on grit and physicality and that is something necessary in a division with Boston. Maroon is 32 and after winning a Cup with St. Louis last season signed a one-year, $900,000 deal with Tampa. It is quite possible that he will sign a similar deal to either stay with the Lightning or with his next team.
Zemgus Girgensons - The former first-round pick is a big forward who had a bounce-back year in Buffalo with 12 goals under new head coach Ralph Krueger. The Sabres have a boatload of cap space to re-sign players after the season, but the organizational house cleaning that occurred in management, coaching, and scouting may also occur with the Buffalo roster.
Tyler Ennis - Never let it be said that you can’t go back again. After a 12-goal season as a fourth-liner with the Leafs two years ago, Ennis signed a one-year, $800,000 deal with Ottawa and scored 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) before being traded to Edmonton at the deadline. Ennis could stay there if he gets a multi-year offer from his hometown Oilers, but his popularity in the locker room with Toronto and his effectiveness on the ice could mean a return if he will sign for less than $1 Million.
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