As long as the Toronto Maple Leafs are committed to allocating a significant portion of their salary cap space to The Big Four forwards, they’re going to need to find good value on the free agent market to complement those players. While NHL teams have, in my opinion, gotten much better at evaluating forwards over the past several years, there are still some bargains to be found for teams willing to give a shot to players who have fallen out of favour elsewhere.
My goal here is to find players who will improve Toronto’s line-up at a minimal cost against the salary cap. This involves a bit of judgement on my part as far as what players might end up signing for, but in general my goal is to find players who will likely be available in the $1M-2M range; players who Toronto could easily fit into their current salary cap structure without having to make any other moves.
This means that I’m not looking at players who would be good additions but will almost certainly wind up signing for more than $2M, like Taylor Hall or Tomas Tatar. Those kinds of players are also worth considering for Toronto, but this post is about players who can easily be slotted into the lineup without having much impact on the Leafs’ salary cap situation.
The criteria I’ve used to pick these players was fairly simple. They have to be pending unrestricted free agents (ie. the Leafs don’t have to give up anything to acquire them), they have to have shown some ability to put up points in the NHL, and they need to have shot impacts that are positive, or at least close to break even. As a baseline for scoring I’ve used Toronto’s current 3rd line wingers, Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall. I’m assuming that if Toronto is going to go out and sign a player, that player should provide some improved output over the in-house options the Leafs already have. I will note that I’m not trying to fill “roles”. My goal is not to find someone who plays like Zach Hyman, for example. I’m just looking for players who have good impacts, regardless of how they play.
Data was collected from CapFriendly (age and previous contract value), Natural Stat Trick (scoring and Corsi), and HockeyViz (Isolated impact). All statistics are for 5v5 only; I have not considered special teams, although the ability to contribute on special teams would certainly improve any of these players’ value. I’m using the past two seasons worth of data for scoring and Corsi. Isolated impact is not divided up season-by-season in the same way, so for that statistic I am using the current estimate provided by HockeyViz.
G/60 – a player’s rate of goal scoring per 60 minutes of ice time.
A1/60 – a player’s rate of primary assists per 60 minutes of ice time. I typically ignore secondary assists as they are almost entirely noise.
P1/60 – combined goal and primary assist rate.
Relative CF% – how much better a team does in terms of shot +/- with a player on the ice compared to when he’s off the ice. Relative CF% has some drawbacks because there are no adjustments made for context (linemates, competition, etc.). However, even though it has fallen out of fashion I still look at it as a quick overview of what happens when a player is on the ice.
Isolated impact – how much a player impacts the expected goal rate for and against while on the ice. Isolated impact attempts to account for contextual factors. You can read about the methodology here.
Given the criteria described above, here are five unrestricted free agents who score at a greater rate than Toronto’s current 3rd line wingers who will likely be relatively inexpensive to sign.
Michael Bunting comes out on the top in terms of scoring rate, but he’s a complicated case that I’ll get to in a minute.
The clear top choice is Nikita Gusev. Gusev struggled in New Jersey last year (who didn’t?) but was excellent the previous season, and after signing with the Panthers last year he was a reliable contributor. He’s also clearly the best available player in terms of non-scoring impacts, and as the best play-maker among the available options, he’s likely the best fit for a Leafs top 6 that already has substantial goal scoring ability. Gusev is listed at 5’9″ and only 163 lbs, which is another reason he’ll likely be under-valued. It is worth noting, however, that he started last year on a $4.5M contract with the Devils, which both sides eventually agreed to mutually terminate part-way through the season, before he signed with the Panthers for a $1M AAV. So it is possible he won’t be quite as under-valued as the $1M price tag suggests.
Next up is Tyler Ennis, who’s been a consistently useful NHL contributor since reviving his career with the Leafs a few years ago. Bobby Ryan provides a pretty comparable impact to Ennis, but with a bit more goal scoring and a bit less play-making. Both players are in their 30s and are unlikely to be in line for much of a raise this summer, and both would make good additions to the Leafs.
Last on the list is Alex Galchenyuk. He looked good when given the opportunity to play with William Nylander and John Tavares last year, so maybe the simplest solution is to bring back the guy you already know. The big downside with Galchenyuk is that he consistently puts up quite poor defensive results, and he didn’t look nearly as impressive when he didn’t get to play with William Nylander, so there are reasons he might not be the best fit.
This brings us back to Michael Bunting, who’s an unusual case. Over the past two years he has an eye-watering goal rate of 1.42 per 60 minutes, but that’s misleading. Last year he scored 10 goals in 21 games with a 26% shooting percentage. No one is a 26% shooter in the NHL. However, let’s say he has a much more reasonable S% moving forward, like 10 or 11%. That would make him roughly a 15 goal scorer over an 82 game season. He’s also consistently put up points in the AHL, with 0.87 points per game over the past three seasons and 0.92 over the past two. Bunting put up decent numbers in the OHL as well, originally playing for the Soo Greyhounds when their general manager was . . . Kyle Dubas. Bunting would be a bigger risk than any of the other players on this list given his limited NHL experience, but he has a similar profile to other players who’ve had break out years in the NHL, such as Carter Verhaeghe, so I think he’s an interesting player to keep an eye on.
There are a few other UFA forwards who might merit a look for other reasons, like their strong play-driving abilities. Frederick Gaudreau and Tomas Nosek are both intriguing options in that regard. But assuming the idea is to find inexpensive players who can potentially play higher up in the lineup and provide a scoring boost, the five players I’ve listed above seem like the best available options.