With the March 3 trade TBEN fast approaching, the Toronto Maple Leafs have just over a month to bolster their roster for another crucial playoff run, where they will attempt to extinguish their postseason demons.
However, there isn’t much financial flexibility to work with, meaning CEO Kyle Dubas will likely be limited to one noteworthy acquisition this year.
The Maple Leafs, like several other NHL clubs, are strapped for cash this season and are currently well above the $82.5 million salary cap. But with Jake Muzzin ($5.625 million), Nick Robertson ($796,667) and Victor Mete ($750,000) on long-term injured reserve, management’s aid pool is about $7.17 million.
Toronto already uses just over $6 million of that figure, leaving them with $1.135 million in spending with a roster of 23 skaters. That amount can be increased by sending a few players to the minors – like Bobby McMann and Joey Anderson maybe – and working with 21 players.
So, how should Dubas spend his team’s remaining cap space? Will he add another blueliner to the back? Or improve his top-six attacker with a reliable scorer?
As depleted as the Maple Leafs defense has been this season, the current group has performed well so far, ranking sixth in goals conceded per game, sixth in shots allowed per game, 11th in projected goals conceded, and 10th in scoring opportunities conceded. Up front, however, it may make more sense to acquire a new linemate for John Tavares and Mitch Marner, preferably a southpaw.
And with multiple top-six attackers reportedly available, there’s likely to be no shortage of potential targets for Toronto. So let’s look at a few.
Cap hit: $3 million, UFA after 2022-23
The son of Tie Domi, who played 12 seasons with the Maple Leafs from 1994 to 2006, Max Domi is languishing this season with the Chicago Blackhawks.
The 27-year-old UFA-to-be leads his club in goals (14) and points (32) in 45 games, while ranking second among forwards in average ice time (18:22). He also ranks tied for first in power play points (14) and fourth in expected goals (six) going 5-to-5, according to MoneyPuck.
In contrast to previous seasons, Domi has fired and converted pucks much faster in 2022-2023 with the second highest shooting percentage (13.5 percent) of his career. In comparison, the southpaw’s 13.8 percentage in 2018/19 resulted in career highs in goals (28) and points (72) during his inaugural campaign with the Montreal Canadiens.
The 5-foot-10 forward scored three goals and six points — including an overtime winner — in 14 playoff games with the Carolina Hurricanes last season after a TBEN trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Domi has landed just 11 hits so far – which would rank last among Toronto’s regular forwards, one back from William Nylander – but is known for his physicality and metabolisms after whistling. So for a team without a seed, particularly as a forward, the 12th overall selection from 2013 would make the Maple Leafs a tougher opponent.
There probably wouldn’t be room for the Winnipeg, Man., native of Toronto’s best power play unit, though he could improve the offensive ceiling of the secondary group. And he would act as another presence on the net, in that respect with Michael Bunting.
The Maple Leafs could fit Domi’s team-friendly cap hit on their roster without the Blackhawks retaining 50 percent, limiting his acquisition costs. But if Chicago cut its cap figure in half, it could allow Dubas to go elsewhere.
Cap hit: $5.5 million, UFA after 2022-23
Like Chicago, Columbus will also be looking to sell pieces to improve their lottery odds in search of the first overall selection in next summer’s draft, which will likely see Nyquist traded for the second time in his career.
The 33-year-old, who moved from the Detroit Red Wings to the San Jose Sharks in February 2019, is in the final season of his four-year contract with the Blue Jackets and is a consistent half-point-a-game player. during his tenure with the franchise.
Nyquist is a four-time 20 goalscorer and fell just short of that mark last season, finishing with 18 goals in 82 games. This season, the 5-foot-11 southpaw is tied for fourth in goals scored (10) on the team, tied for third in equal strength goals (eight), and third in projected goals (7.3) with 5- against-5.
Despite scoring four goals and 10 points with the man advantage in 2021-2022, the veteran striker has no point in those situations this season. However, he was effective on the penalty kill, pocketing some shorthanded markers, tied for the team leader.
At this stage in his career, Nyquist is still logging significant minutes each night, setting a career-record time of 18:06. And thanks to his versatility, he would probably play a reliable part in Toronto’s top or bottom six group.
While Nyquist has not made the playoffs since 2020, he would come with seven seasons of postseason experience, including a Western Conference Finals with San Jose in 2019. During that run, he scored one goal and 11 points in 20 games.
The Maple Leafs would require the Blue Jackets to keep 50 percent of Nyquist’s cap hit, but as a second-level winger, he could pose a new scoring threat alongside Tavares and Marner.
Cap hit: $4 million, UFA after 2023-24
After three and a half seasons in Carolina, Niederreiter signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Nashville Predators in the offseason. But since his team is underperforming and likely to miss the playoffs, he could be made available via trade.
The 30-year-old has enjoyed a productive inaugural campaign with the Preds, recording 13 goals and 23 points in 47 games. He is tied for second in goals scored, second in tied strength goals (11), second in projected goals (9.5) going 5-on-5, and fifth in points (23) among Nashville skaters.
Niederreiter completed consecutive 20-goal seasons with the Hurricanes from 2020-22 and is on the verge of extending that streak to three straight this season, accomplishing the feat for the seventh time in his career.
Skating alongside teammates Ryan Johansen and Mikael Granlund at 5-on-5 has been an effective combination for Niederreiter, who averages 15:49 ice time, the second highest of his career. The 6-foot-2 southpaw is not a power play specialist, but has scored two goals and four points on the man advantage, making him a viable contender for Toronto’s second unit.
Like Domi, Niederreiter would bring some much-needed physicality to the Maple Leafs as he racked up more than 100 hits in seven of his 12 NHL seasons – including 2022-23. He’s been a key resource in that department this season, with his 103 hits ranking fourth among the Predators forwards.
The 2010 fifth overall roster has nine seasons of playoff experience, four of which saw its respective team advance past the opening round. Last season, Niederreiter scored four goals – three against the Boston Bruins in the first round – and five points in 14 games.
As an unleased takeover, Niederreiter would likely cost more than Domi and Nyquist, especially since Nashville had to keep 50 percent of its cap hit. But it may be worth paying a little extra for a player of his caliber.
Given that Toronto has six forwards as pending UFAs and two pending RFAs eligible for arbitration after this season, it could be worth adding a skater this summer who is signed to through 2023-24.
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