Columnist image
Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

|Archive

TORONTO — The Maple Leafs landed a coveted right-side defenceman on the opening day of NHL free agency - and no, it wasn’t Alex Pietrangelo

Toronto instead landed TJ Brodie on a four-year, $20 million contract, effectively putting to rest what level of interest they had earlier in the day on landing free agency’s biggest prize.

“[We were] not very close [on Pietrangelo]. This has been our major focus,” Dubas told reporters on a Zoom call Friday night. “This is where we were locked in on, and we were set on going down this path and so it was one thing that we worked on from [the start] with [Brodie’s camp]. Though the market has a lot of players on it, there aren't a lot of defencemen that are capable of playing in the top four that have the exact skill set that we need. So we felt we needed to act and so we're excited to do so.”

It was just over a year ago, on the opening day of free agency in 2019, when the Leafs nearly had a deal in place with the Calgary Flames to trade for Brodie. That didn’t end up materializing, but the Leafs got their man eventually. 

In deciding on Toronto as a free agent, the 30-year-old Brodie is joining just the second club of his NHL career,  having played all of his 634-game career with the Flames while notching 48 goals and 266 points. 

Known as a dependable defensive defenceman, the left-shooting Brodie has played almost exclusively on the right side throughout his career, making him an ideal partner potentially for Morgan Rielly on Toronto’s top pairing.

“TJ has been on our radar for a long time,” Dubas said. “The thing that we've liked about him is he's played with an elite partner in Mark Giordano for a number of years now, and they've had a lot of success as a pair. And as we've tried to find a partner for Morgan and/or Jake Muzzin now that could complement them and boost the results of our team, TJ and the style and way that he plays, and the way that he operates on the ice and his skill set defensively and with the puck, just always seemed to fit with what we were looking for.”

Dubas clarified as well the deal includes a partial no-move clause in the first year and a partial no-trade provision in the second, third and fourth seasons.

For Brodie, who grew up about three hours from Toronto in Chatham, Ont., the chance to play near his home, for a team that so obviously pursued him, was just too good to pass up.

“I'm pretty excited. It's a great team, close to family,” Brodie said. “I’m excited to see what happens. Everyone knows about last year and the trade that was close and the fact that they wanted me [so much]. I feel like it's a good mix and hopefully I fit in.”

While the trade last July didn’t go through, the seed of Toronto’s interest stuck around in Brodie’s head long term.

“Those situations, it's part of the business where you don't want to get traded [and] it didn't happen last year, but to know going into this year that Toronto was interested last year and they were still interested this year, it definitely gives you a boost of confidence to sign,” he said.

Brodie even has a unique connection to the Leafs, dating back to his minor hockey days played throughout Ontario. Back in 2002, an 11-year-old Brodie was invited to participate in the Leafs’ team skills competition, and ended up nailing all the targets in his shooting contest. Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker did the same. 

"I feel like that whole situation was sort of a dream," Brodie now says of the competition. "It's definitely cool to be that close to the players and guys that you see on TV at that age and now to have come sort of full circle it's sort of surreal."

 

While it’s not common for players to end up on their off-side for most of their careers, Brodie said moving to the right also came by design at a young age. 

“I started playing right side in junior, mainly because we had all left-handed defencemen,” said Brodie. “I realized if I could play both sides, it opens up more opportunities for you. If you’re more versatile, there’s more opportunity to play. I just tried to be as best I could at both sides.”

And if he now gets to parlay that into skating alongside Rielly, all the better. 

“He's a great player. He's similar to [Giordano]. He’s one of those guys who's good at everything,” Brodie said. “He’s physical, he's good defensively, offensively, and I just hope if I play with him that I make him better.”

Bringing Brodie in does put the Leafs about $1.093 million over the $81.5 million salary cap, and that’s before they’ve inked new deals for restricted free agents Travis Dermott and Ilya Mikheyev. NHL rules allow for teams to operate at 10 per cent above the cap until the regular season begins, so there’s time for Toronto to figure out its next step. 

There’s opportunity to first move a few players - namely Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren - to the minors, and free up about $300,000 in cap space. It would appear from there like the Leafs would almost certainly have to offload a contract or two via trade, but Dubas said that may not be the case, thanks to assistant general manager (and salary cap whiz) Brandon Pridham.

“You may look at it and say, 'how are they going to do that?,’ Dubas admitted. “I can assure you that Brandon has carved out a number of ways that we can dance as it pertains to being compliant on opening day without having to necessarily move somebody that people would normally look at and say, 'well they're going to have to move this player at this salary.' Brandon's done all the work on that and we've gone through it, it feels like hundreds of times.”

As far as free agency goes, the Brodie signing is the last “big splash” the Leafs plan to make according to Dubas, unless the trade market suddenly opens up other opportunities for Toronto. But if Dubas is satisfied for now in how Friday played out, with the signing of hard-nosed winger Wayne Simmonds and then Brodie, Toronto is nowhere close to done tinkering. 

“I think we're content with the work here today with Wayne and with TJ, but I still think that we have a long ways to go and to continue to address the roster,” Dubas said. “And not just the roster but what we do to continue to improve the way that we play and what we expect out of our guys so I think it's a good start. I think we also know that we've got a long ways to go as an organization to meet the expectations that our talent dictates should be there.”​