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Maple Leafs 2021 Free Agency Preview: Needs, targets, issues

Under president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Kyle Dubas, the blueprint is clear as crystal — and equally fragile.

Bank on the Core Four. Fill around the fringes by scouring for deals.

The cheapest replacements for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ long list of likely departing UFAs — Zach Hyman, Nick Foligno, Alex Galchenyuk, Joe Thornton, Zach Bogosian, Frederik Andersen, etcetera — would be from within. And Dubas said Thursday that Rasmus Sandin, Nick Robertson and Timothy Liljegren should be given more opportunity in 2021-22 to prove they can stick.

But this is a club that needs to contend now, and we see at least four spots that require NHL-ready talent, starting from the crease out.

“The needs of the group are fairly obvious to me and probably to people on the outside,” said Dubas, beginning with priority No. 1.

“We need to find a competent partner for Jack Campbell and let them battle it out. Obviously, Jack had a great season. We have a lot of belief in Jack and look forward to him continuing to take steps next year. But we need to address that.”

In terms of a skilled left wing, a penalty-killing right-side D-man and (hopefully) a third-line centre, Dubas should be aggressive in the second-tier market. But with only a $9 million budget, Toronto might need to mix in a trade or two instead of going nuts on free agents.

“We feel that depth on both forward and D is an area we need to address in free agency, in order to give [our] young players some competition to make sure that if they are not ready, we have the requisite depth to help out there. We will be active in that market as well,” Dubas said.

“We are going to have some opportunity up front, which I think appeals to a lot of the players that are there. If free agency doesn’t bear fruit for us, and we don’t think there is value, then we will look at the trade market heading into the season.”

Salary cap space: $9.36 million
Roster size: 17/23
Salary committed to forwards: $49.28 million
Salary committed to defence: $20.02 million
Salary committed to goalies: $1.65 million

Potential UFA targets

Linus Ullmark, G: Dubas says he has learned from a turbulent 2021 in the crease, as Jack Campbell and Frederik Andersen took turns riding IR and the club needed four starters to survive 56 games.

“The lesson is that we have to go out and continually find somebody that can be a good partner [for Campbell] — whether that is Fred returning or somebody else,” Dubas said. “It is making sure we are bolstered on that end to set the goalies up for success.”

With 13 back-to-backs and a jam-packed April on Toronto’s schedule, a strong tandem will be critical.

Andersen still believes he’s a No. 1 and will walk if another team makes him a suitable offer.

Of the remaining UFA goalies, we like the 27-year-old Ullmark best and believe he could take off playing behind a playoff team. Petr Mrazek, Antti Raanta and Jaroslav Halak are in the conversation.

There’s a chance Toronto instead goes the trade route to find Campbell’s partner, and Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper would be a fantastic choice.

Mikael Granlund, LW: A major reason the Maple Leafs are letting Zach Hyman seek his payday elsewhere is that Dubas trusts he can find a decent top-six left winger without going so deep in term or dollars.

Toronto has had its eyes on Nashville’s Granlund, a spunky playmaker, for a while now.

It’s doubtful Dubas bothers with aggressive bidding for top-end left wings like Gabriel Landeskog and Brandon Saad. Instead, he’ll focus efforts on the less expensive second tier.

Granlund is in that group. So are Mike Hoffman, Tomas Tatar, Foligno (rumoured to be considering Minnesota), Jaden Schwartz (eyeing Seattle?), Mattias Janmark and super value buy Michael Bunting.

Lots of options at different price points here. We’re betting Dubas hunts for a bargain.

Philip Danault, C: Danault signing one province to the left would be the ultimate heel turn, a glorious can’t-beat-him-sign-him move on the part of Dubas. It’s no secret the Leafs have been searching for a bona fide 3C since dealing away Nazem Kadri in 2019, and their lack of centre depth was exposed in May when John Tavares went down to injury.

(In a perfect world, Alexander Kerfoot is better suited to the wing. Although, today, Dubas has Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev pencilled in as third-liners.)

The formation of a pure checking line would free the Tavares and Matthews units to focus more on offence and less on D-zone starts. That unit would need an anchor in the middle, and the ’21 final is an excellent blueprint. Montreal had Danault; Tampa Bay rolled out Yanni Gourde.

The trouble here is Danault’s asking price, which will be more in line with the cap hit of a 2C. The chances of the pizza-loving bilingual getting overpaid after a five-goal season are high.

More likely, Toronto looks at the trade market or bargain veteran centres to plug this hole. UFAs Paul Stastny, Nick Bonino, Alexander Wenneberg, Derek Ryan and Tyler Bozak (triumphant return?) would be pivots worth consideration.

The fallback plan: Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall do the trick.

Ian Cole, D: There is a reluctance to give too much responsibility to Travis Dermott, so the Leafs will explore a third-pairing right-side defender to replace UFA Zach Bogosian.

Kill penalties. Block shots. Make the net front miserable.

“We will try to focus on a defenceman that perhaps brings a little bit more power and presence in the way that Zach did. [Kristians] Rubins has that a little bit as a prospect for us, but we are not flush with it,” Dubas said. “We will look, in free agency and trade, to continue to address that.”

Stay-at-home Cole, 32, is a left shot comfortable playing the right side. Jason Demers, David Savard, Jordie Benn, Travis Hamonic and Bogosian himself are worth consideration — but price will be an issue.

“It all comes down to value. If we think something is of great value, it is long-term, and the player is going to perform at the contract level or beyond all the way down to the back end of a long-term deal, there is no issue on our end,” Dubas said.

“It is easy to look now and have question marks. Come September, when camp opens, we will be in a different spot.”

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