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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — The Maple Leafs made just one signing in the first hours of NHL free agency on Friday, bringing forward Wayne Simmonds into the fold on a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

But that doesn’t mean Toronto is done making moves, with general manager Kyle Dubas confirming the Leafs are still in on coveted free-agent defenceman Alex Pietrangelo.

“We have talked to [Pietrangelo’s agent] Don Meehan, but I have not talked to Alex at this point,” Dubas told reporters on a Zoom call Friday afternoon. “I think they know where we stand and what our interest is and also what our limitations are.”

It’s no secret the Leafs are short on cap space, showing only $3.9 million available for next season, per CapFriendly. To reel in the 30-year-old Pietrangelo (or most other free agents, for that matter), Toronto would have to get creative.

“Different scenarios come across every day or every couple days to force you to do some thinking on these things and answer some tough questions about your team and what you may have to do,” Dubas said. "We would have to find a way to make that work, not just in this instance [with Pietrangelo] but in other situations that come across. We wouldn't want to eat away at the depth of our group, but if we have a chance to make our team tangibly better I think we would always look at that.”

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced the NHL to institute a flat cap of $81.5 million for the foreseeable future, which alters previous projections the Leafs had for building their roster.

Dubas maintains his team always tried to stay “very, very conservative” in their forecasting of cap increases, but even so, it’s difficult to look too far ahead in the current climate.

“Anything that we do now above certain levels will certainly impact not just this year but subsequent years, because I don't think the pie is going to be growing with regards to salary cap space,” he said. “It's not only thinking in the present, it's also how does everything that we do affect players that are going to become free agents or who have different rights in the subsequent years – so 2021, 2022 and 2023, etc.”

But while the Leafs’ cap situation looks meagre at best on paper, Dubas made it clear anything could be possible for the right return.

“We have [cap] flexibility, it's just a matter of how big a splash we want to make,” he said. “I think the fear with that in some regards is just, if you move out one piece, then you bring in somebody else, that’s fine, but with the cap being flat, the impact of anything is not just going to affect this year with the in and out situation, it's going to affect the team for a couple years down the road if the cap isn't growing.”

That said, Dubas is confident there are strong candidates for the Leafs blueline who will be available – either on the free-agent market moving forward or via trade.

As of Friday afternoon, UFA T.J. Brodie and Florida Panthers’ RFA MacKenzie Weegar, both rumoured to be of interest to Toronto, were still up for grabs.

“There are options in both [free agency and trades] right now, so we're exploring both, as I think we have to,” Dubas confirmed. “[Defence] is an area that that we would like to continue to improve. We do like the guys that we have signed right now, but we've also lost two players off our back end [in free agents Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie]. We need to see our own players develop and continue to work towards their potential, whether that’s [Travis Dermott], Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren, who have already played and we feel are capable of more. So we are looking both at free agents and at trades to try to continue to bolster our blueline.”

If it seemed like free agent signings on Friday were coming in more slowly than years past, Dubas acknowledged that probably was the case. Between the economics of a flat cap and the lack of a traditional interview period, conversations among GMs and agents or players are still unfurling.

The only reason Toronto was able to get the 32-year-old Simmonds locked up so quickly was because they began speaking with him earlier in the week after the Buffalo Sabres announced they would not be re-signing the pending UFA.

Dubas spoke at length over the past few days about wanting to see the Leafs become harder to play against, and Simmonds was an ideal target to help complement Toronto’s speedy core with some veteran tenacity.

“The forward group at the top, we've got a lot of belief in those guys and their talent level and it's just trying to find people that we can add around them that can push the group to a different level,” Dubas said. “Wayne adds to that, in terms of his character, his leadership and the way that he goes about playing the game every day – not only in games but in practice and in training and everything of that nature.”

If all goes well, Toronto will find more pieces to improve its roster before the weekend is out.

“We're still continuing to look to add and use our cap space that we have to continue to try to make the team better,” Dubas said. “I think as it goes on, we'll have more opportunity for trades as well and there's still lots of free agents out there that fit needs that we have, so those conversations are ongoing.”