TORONTO – In the hours before NHL free agency opened at noon ET on Monday, the Ottawa Senators made official a major trade with the Maple Leafs that had been in the works for days – sending Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and prospect Michael Carcone from Toronto to Ottawa in exchange for Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur and prospect Aaron Luchuk, plus a third-round draft pick (from the Columbus Blue Jackets) in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
By mid-afternoon, that was the only remnant of fireworks from Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, who otherwise stuck to his previously stated plan of signing veterans and taking on reclamation projects on league-minimum contracts.
That was all Toronto’s cap structure would allow it to do, given the money still earmarked for unsigned restricted free agent Mitch Marner. Dubas’ primary goal since late April had been having Marner’s deal done by the new league year, and before Marner could receive offer sheets from other teams.
“I know I set this as a priority and looked at today as sort of the day we wanted it done by and we obviously don’t have that yet,” Dubas said on Monday. “But we’ll keep working away, trying to find a way to come to a good conclusion with [player agent] Darren [Ferris] and Mitch and roll from there.”
Determining the exact amount of cap space Toronto has available to get Marner’s contract done hinges on several variables, but suffice it to say, the Leafs feel confident they have enough room to complete a deal, or to match any offer sheet Marner receives, if necessary.
And since Montreal extended the NHL’s first offer sheet in six years to Carolina’s RFA Sebastian Aho on Monday afternoon, that threat remains real as ever.
“We’ve got lots of cap space, we’ve got different options,” Dubas confirmed. [Assistant general manager Brandon Pridham]…really worked steadfastly on making sure we’re protected to evaluate every single thing that comes in here. I feel we’re well set up for whatever comes our way, but our primary ambition is to try and find an agreement with Mitch.”
While that saga continues, Dubas has been tinkering in other areas, starting with his embattled blueline. Since hopes of re-signing UFA Jake Gardiner remain slim, and veteran Ron Hainsey headed to Ottawa as a UFA, acquiring another right-shot defenceman in Ceci was imperative for Zaitsev’s trade request to materialize.
At least officially, Ceci remains an unsigned RFA, but TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported the Ottawa native agreed before the trade to sign a one-year, $4.5 million contract with Toronto (the same cap hit that Zaitsev’s deal carried). In that case, Ceci would be forgoing arbitration for a chance to raise his eventual stock as a UFA next summer and, in the process, Toronto sheds the remaining five-year term on Zaitsev’s pact.
But even though Ceci will be making the same money as Zaitsev, Dubas isn’t yet committing to him taking on an identical top-four role with the Leafs.
“It’s tough to answer where anybody fits anymore,” Dubas said. “Morgan [Rielly’s] clearly in our top four, Jake Muzzin will be in our top four. The rest will depend on where and who else [comprises] our defence by opening night. But [Ceci has] played in that role in Ottawa. And in talking to him today, he’s excited to come here.”
Harpur wasn’t as big a focal point of the trade as Ceci, having produced only seven points in 103 NHL games to date, but with the right development, Dubas could see the 6-foot-6 left-shot blueliner finding a niche as well.
“The key thing is if you can build up his confidence and get him rolling,” said Dubas. “He’s a large defenceman. We’re hopeful we can bring him in here. He doesn’t have to do much. If he can move the puck five, 10 feet, get the puck, pass the puck to our forwards, we’ll be happy.”
Spezza to play complementary role
Where Harpur represents a relatively unknown commodity, free agent signee Jason Spezza is decidedly not – and in keeping with the theme of the day, he’s got a connection to the Senators, too. The 36-year-old is one of the last remaining combatants from the Battle of Ontario’s heyday, even serving as captain of the Senators for a year before his 11-season run with the club ended in 2014.
At this stage of his career, Spezza is exactly who Toronto was targeting in free agency – older, with an appreciation for the team’s legacy from his Toronto-area roots, and coming in near the league minimum on a one-year, $700,000 deal.
During a sit-down with head coach Mike Babcock last week, Spezza was sold on accepting a complementary role with the Leafs that could change often. Spezza’s not the point producer he once was anymore, slipping from 50 points in 2016-17 to 27 points last season, but would be a reliable faceoff guy at fourth-line centre and on special teams, happily playing amongst Toronto’s supply of skilled forwards.
“There is talent [among] Leafs, lots of speed, guys that I’d be a good fit playing on a line with,” Spezza told the media on a conference call. “The league is about depth now, and you see the teams that play to the end, you need all four lines. I’m going to be playing in that bottom-six role and contributing to the team to have success.”
Dubas declined to confirm any other signings on Monday afternoon, but TSN’s Hockey Insiders reported the Leafs have also added forward Kenny Agostino on a two-year, one-way contract with an AAV of $700,000, centre Nick Shore on a one-year deal and defenceman Kevin Gravel on a one-year, $700,000 pact.
Agostino produced 24 points in 63 games between Montreal and New Jersey last season, and provides some depth for the Leafs at left wing. Shore is returning to the NHL after spending 2018-19 with the KHL’s Magnitogorsk Metallurg; he previously played six seasons with Los Angeles, Ottawa and Calgary and gives Toronto another right-shot option down the middle. Gravel registered three assists in 36 games with Edmonton last year.
Add in to Monday’s mix the spring signings of KHL free agent winger Ilya Mikheyev and Finnish League defenceman Teemu Kivihalme, and Toronto will have quite a collection of new faces to sort through in the fall. This is exactly what Dubas had in mind to combat the team’s lack of available cap space.
“We wanted to make sure that we’ve got a variety of players that are versatile in their own right,” Dubas said. “That can play both sides of defence, that can play both wings, that can play centre, just build as versatile a team as we can with limited cap space. I think this [training] camp more than any other camp, you’ll see real battles for the bottom spots at both forward and D.
“We’re excited to give some of these guys a great chance.”