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Maple Leafs’ signing of Ondrej Kase comes with risk

TORONTO – If he’s healthy…

Every story you read and every conversation you hear about Ondřej Kaše, the newest member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, will come with this three-word caveat.

The risk in signing Kaše to a modest one-year, $1.25-million contract Friday night does not lie the Maple Leafs, who’ve made a habit of scooping up high-ceiling talents once they’ve hit a low ebb in hopes of striking gold.

The risk rests with a player only healthy enough to log 25 minutes and 31 seconds — total — of ice time in 2021, for the Boston Bruins.

Perusing prognostications for the Czech winger’s off-season, multiple Bruins reporters suggested retirement might be on the table Kaše.

The six-foot, 190-pound right shot has suffered more than career’s worth of brain injuries. He’s only 25 years old.

“Kase’s concussion woes are not new. He arrived to Boston with a substantial injury history, and it’s believed that this latest concussion was his fifth documented concussion in his professional career At just 25, that’s downright terrifying,” Ty Anderson of 98.5 The Sports Hub wrote in May.

“[Kaše] is almost certainly hitting a career crossroads where he may have to put his long-term health above his job.”

So, before Leafs fans start getting carried away by Kaše’s enticing underlying metrics (55.8 CF%); before they start romanticizing Kaše’s 20-goal 2017-18 campaign in Anaheim, when he dangled and dazzled alongside top-line centre Ryan Getzlaf; and before we start using pen to etch his name beside John Tavares or Auston Matthews on a projected line chart, it’s imperative we respect the gigantic if.

At the start of the week, Boston had every reason to make things work with Kaše and still decided not to tender its pending RFA a $2.6 million qualifying offer, thus making him available to Kyle Dubas at half the cost.

Bruins GM Don Sweeney had surrendered a first-round draft pick and prospect Axel Andersson to the Ducks at the 2020 trade deadline to acquire Kaše (and offload David Backes’ contract).

Kaše played six regular-season games for the Bruins down the stretch in 2020, plus 11 more in the Toronto playoff bubble. He was concussed in Game 2 of the 2021 regular season by a Miles Wood hit in January and needed nearly four months to recover and ramp up to a return.

“It wasn’t a big hit, but [Wood] hit me in a bad spot,” Kaše told reporters on May 10, gearing up for his return, against the Islanders. “It’s been pretty hard for me.

“I hope I can help the team. I haven’t played too many games here, so I need to show the team that I am important to play here.”

Kaše skated all of 6:49 later that night and was shut down for the season.

He never scored a goal in a Bruins uniform. His most recent NHL goal was 544 days ago and counting.

When discussing, it’s natural to hope for the best, to envision an Alex Galchenyuk-like revival, to see the Maple Leafs benefitting from a high-volume sniper who can beat goalies from range and boost a power play.

On the flip side, we can’t help but think of a guy like Andrew Shaw, forced to retire in April, at age 29, because the concussions were no longer worth it. Or a lottery ticket like Michal Neuvirth, who arrived at the 2019 Maple Leafs training camp with nagging injuries and disappeared before camp was over.

Flexing its financial resources well beyond the cap-mandated $81.5 million, Toronto prides itself on its top-tier medical and development staffs. No doubt, Dubas helped sell Kaše on the attention and care he’ll invest in getting him back to form.

“A great hockey player and even better person [who] obviously suffered some injuries that was tough for him to go through, but just a high-end player with lots of speed and skill and can score,” Kaše’s three-time teammate, Nick Ritchie, said Saturday morning.

“I think he’s doing a lot better. He’s getting past the point and he’s going to be able to stay healthy for a long period of time here. The Leafs and the fans are going to love him.”

Absolutely, the Kaše case brings potential for great value and a fine redemption tale we’ll hope to write in 2022.

But to describe this as a no-risk signing is only telling half the story.

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