Leafs Urged to ‘Chase Big Fish’ Free Agent Defenseman

Chris Tanev of the Dallas Stars looks on.

Getty Chris Tanev of the Dallas Stars looks on.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are usually linked to most upcoming free agents yearly. What is less frequent is to have insiders plotting out full plans of action about what the franchise should or should not do.

James Mirtle of The Athletic opted to provide context to his thoughts about how the Maple Leafs should spend their available salary-cap space, handing General Manager Brad Treliving a three-step guide to do so.

Mirtle thinks the Leafs should “chase the big fish on defense and at center,” whether that’s via trade or free-agent signing, as he outlined in a column written on June 10.

“In an ideal world, you [the Toronto Maple Leafs] add a top-pair RD option to play with Morgan Rielly. And you find a centre who can challenge John Tavares for the 2C role and balance out your top-nine forwards a lot better than they were last season,” Mirtle wrote. “Is that possible? I think so.”

PuckPedia projects the Leafs to have almost $20 million in cap space entering the NHL draft scheduled for June 28-29. If the franchise opts for signing an “economical” goalie, as Mirtle suggests, “that leaves close to $13 million to spend and three roster holes.”

Mirtle’s plan sees the Leafs signing “a cheap third-pair defenceman,” thus “leaving $12 million or so to split between a RD and a centre.”

Different Reports Agree on Maple Leafs’ Offseason Plans at Defense

Coinciding with Mirtle’s plan, fellow NHL insider Chris Johnston reported on June 10 that Toronto will “probably sign two defensemen.” More interestingly, Johnston also implied they will chase big-time players by getting two defenders that can take on top-six roles.

“I think the Leafs are going to, probably, sign two defensemen or trade for a defenseman and sign another one,” Johnston said on the June 10 episode of The Chris Johnston Show. “Probably looking at at least two, two of the top-six [Leafs’ defensemen] have to be new bodies next year.”

Jonas Siegel of The Athletic covered the upcoming free-agent market from a Maple Leafs perspective at the end of May. He listed the “10 best fits” for the team at both forward (on May 29) and defense (on May 30).

All 10 players listed by Siegel fit the “right-shot” defenseman model, with four of them listed as “left and right” defensemen.

The 10 best defensemen in terms of fits for Toronto, as featured on Siegel’s list, include Jalen Chatfield, Brandon Montour, Joel Edmundson, Matt Roy, Brett Pesce, Ian Cole, Ilya Lyubushkin, Brady Skjei, Nikita Zadorov, and Chris Tanev.

Maple Leafs “Best Fits” At Right-Shot Defenseman

Combining Siegel’s fits with Mirtle’s plan and Johnston’s report, some possible targets for the 2024-25 Maple Leafs emerge, mostly with the top-3 players being legitimate top-four defensemen.

Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic thinks there is “a team about to pay him $7 million per season, as that’s the expected rate for a non-elite, top-pair defenseman,” to Carolina Hurricanes’ Skjei.

Skjei played 80 games in 2024 scoring 13 goals and providing 34 assists for 47 points. He finished the season with a 15 plus/minus and averaging 21:17 minutes of playing time.

Luszczyszyn thinks “there might not be a more fascinating defenseman on the market” than Vancouver Canucks’ Zadorov. The defensive defenseman only played 54 games for Vancouver last season (5 goals, 9 assists, 17:04 TOI) after the Canucks traded for him midway through the season.

According to the latest reports, Zadorov’s future in Vancouver “looks bleak,” with the player and the franchise failing to hold meetings between them, let alone reach an agreement for an extension.

Finally, Luszczyszyn wrote “Everyone loves” Dallas Stars’ Tanev. “If the term is short, he’s definitely worth $4.5 million or $5 million,” Luszczyszyn believes. The problem with Tanev, however, is his age.

Tanev, 34, poses the risk of dropping his production without prior notice, which the Leafs or any other team signing him might not be pleased to deal with. He played 19 games with the Stars after Dallas traded for him before the March 8 deadline, scoring 1 goal and assisting 4 while logging 19:13 minutes per game.

Leafs Pending Free Agent Situation on Defense

Maple Leafs defensemen Joel Edmundson and Ilya Lyubushkin are expected to enter free agency on July 1.

Edmunson will become a free agent after completing a four-year, $14 million contract signed with the Montreal Canadiens in 2020, as David Pagnotta of The Fourth Period reported on June 3. The Maple Leafs acquired him at the 2024 trade deadline.

Lyubushkin is also expected to become a free agent. Pagnotta reported the Maple Leafs “have not started negotiations” with Lyubushkin on June 3. Lyubushkin just completed a two-year, $5.5 million deal signed in 2022.

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