Maple Leafs buy-low UFA forward candidates
Florida Panthers left wing Mason Marchment (17) celebrates a goal against the Boston Bruins during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Photo by Jim Rassol/AP

When Kyle Dubas dove into free agency last summer, he had more opportunity to offer than money.

Michael Bunting was sold on a chance to come home and receive his first full-time NHL gig. Ondřej Kaše found the perfect spot for a career reset after concussions limited him to just three games the season before. David Kämpf was drawn to a well-defined defensive role on a top team, plus the opportunity to play with Kaše, a friend since childhood.

All told they accounted for just $3.7-million against the cap and each made a measurable impact on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

They will also provide a template for the way Dubas and his management staff approach the open market on July 13. Barring an unexpected move in the meantime, the Leafs will not be big spenders in free agency.

Expect them instead to dangle opportunity over dollars while plugging holes on the roster.

“I just think it’s the reality of the league right now that you’re probably not going to be able to spend as much as you want on those depth pieces and you’re really going to have to do a great job finding value,” Dubas explained this week. “Whether that’s someone that’s coming off injury, someone that hasn’t been given great opportunities, someone coming off a bad year that you think you see something in that’s a fit specifically with your team, that you can bring them in and help.”

The potential headliners of this free-agent class include Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Nazem Kadri, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, John Klingberg and Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s reasonable to expect even the class of players below them may be too rich for the Leafs at this stage – a group that includes Andrew Copp, Ondřej Palát, Valeri Nichushkin, Reilly Smith, Max Domi, Ryan Strome, Nino Niederreiter, Josh Manson and Darcy Kuemper, among others.

For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll look at players a little further down the pecking order. The pool will grow wider once teams make decisions on their qualifying offers by July 11 – Kämpf and Kaše, for example, became free agents last year after not being tendered.

But here’s an early look at some of the buy-low candidates the Leafs can choose from: 

Mason Marchment
Platform season: 18-29-47 in 54 games for Florida
Age: 27
Current Salary: $800,000
Lowdown: OK, this isn’t exactly a buy-low candidate. The former Maple Leafs farmhand is coming off his breakthrough NHL campaign for the Panthers, but he’s also a local kid and a six-foot-four winger who could fill a need in Toronto. Perhaps he’s enticed by that opportunity.

Nick Paul
Platform season: 16-16-32 in 80 games for Ottawa and Tampa
Age: 27
Current salary: $1,350,000
Lowdown: Paul should be fresh in the minds of anyone who watched Game 7 of the Leafs-Lightning series because he was a beast. What Toronto can spend and what he hopes to make may not align, but it’s worth exploring the fit for a penalty killer with some scoring touch who also has local ties.

Frank Vatrano
Platform season: 18-14-32 in 71 games for Florida and N.Y. Rangers
Age: 28
Current salary: $2,533,333
Lowdown: Vatrano has always been able to put the puck in the net. In fact, his goals per 60 rate jumped after seeing more minutes following the trade to New York. He could fill a versatile role in the Leafs lineup, with the capability of jumping between the top-and bottom-six, as needed.

Johan Larsson
Platform season: 7-14-21 in 43 games for Arizona and Buffalo
Age: 29
Current salary: $700,000
Lowdown: A lot of good things happen when Larsson is on the ice. He drove strong results following an in-season trade to the Capitals, which was a good sign after he missed 10 weeks following sports hernia surgery in late January. 

Zach Aston-Reese
Platform season: 5-10-15 in 69 games with Pittsburgh and Anaheim
Age: 27
Current salary: $1,725,000
Lowdown: A reliable two-way, bottom-six forward that saw his results dip slightly with the Ducks. That could drop his next contract into the bargain range.

Curtis Lazar
Platform season: 8-8-16 in 70 games for Boston
Age: 27
Current salary: $800,000
Lowdown: Well-travelled and well-liked, Lazar is capable of soaking up difficult minutes. He started just 33 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone for the Bruins last season and still helped modestly drive play with a 53.5 per cent expected goals rating during his 5-on-5 minutes, according to

Colin Blackwell
Platform season: 10-10-20 in 58 games for Seattle and Toronto
Age: 29
Current salary: $725,000
Lowdown: A trade deadline pickup by the Maple Leafs who delivered solid fourth-line minutes down the stretch and earned consideration to stay. This one comes down to price. 

Nicolas Deslauriers
Platform season: 8-5-13 in 81 games for Anaheim and Minnesota
Age: 31
Current salary: $1,000,000
Lowdown: If the Leafs desire a little more sandpaper, they could do worse than this black-and-blue winger. Deslauriers was highly sought-after when Anaheim put him on the block at the trade deadline, and that interest could see him garner a raise this summer.

Noel Acciari
Platform season: 3-5-8 in 20 games for Florida 
Age: 30
Current salary: $1,666,667
Lowdown: Acciari lost his regular spot in the rotation for the league-leading Panthers this season, which should dim his free-agent prospects. However, he’s only two years removed from a 20-goal campaign and could regain some prior form if slotted in the correct role.

Adam Brooks
Platform season: 2-1-3 in 25 games for Montreal, Vegas and Winnipeg
Age: 26
Current salary: $725,000
Lowdown: Drafted by the Leafs and twice lost on waivers by the team, there would be comfort found in a reunion by both sides. Brooks is a fourth-line centre candidate and the price would be right.

Eric Comrie
Platform season: 10-5-1 record, .920 save percentage in 20 appearances for Winnipeg
Age: 26
Current Salary: $750,000
Lowdown: The Leafs goaltending picture is murky at the moment, but Comrie should be considered for the 1B position, pending other decisions on Jack Campbell and Petr Mrázek. Comrie was well-travelled through the waiver wire two seasons ago before taking the next step with the Jets this year.

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