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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — The NHL’s free agent signing window had barely opened on Friday when Wayne Simmonds inked a one-year, $1.5 million contract to play for his hometown Maple Leafs. 

“I realize I've had a couple of down years, but I'm an extremely confident person; I know what I can do,” Simmonds told reporters over a Zoom call on Friday. “My faith in myself never wavers. I know what I bring to the table and I'm in peak physical shape right now, so I'm definitely prepared to bring as much as I can to the Leafs.”

Toronto wasn't the only team interested in Simmonds’ services, with TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun reporting that the 32-year-old left money on the table in negotiations with Montreal to settle on the one-year pact (with a full no-move clause) with the Leafs.

Simmonds managed to pull multiple offers despite coming off the worst statistical season of his career in 2019-20, producing just eight goals and 24 points in 61 games with the New Jersey Devils before being traded to Buffalo, where he added one assist in seven games. 

The season before, he notched 27 points in 62 games with Philadelphia prior to being traded to Nashville, where he appeared in 17 regular-season games and only two playoff contests. 

Injuries have certainly played a factor in Simmonds’ struggles, including surgeries he had in 2018 for hernia, hip and adductor problems. Those rehabs and other recoveries monopolized most of his off-season preparation the past two years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has given Simmonds plenty of extra time in the gym. 

“I think I'm as healthy as I've been since 2017,” Simmonds said. “This has been the first summer [since] that I've actually gone into the gym and put some bulk on to make sure it's not just a good start I get off to, but that it's a sustained, full season. I know I'm physically prepared and I'm definitely mentally prepared for this. I'm just going to keep at it, and continue to build my power, build my strength and get back to the player I know I can be.”

That would be a welcome development for a Leafs team that is looking to add grit this off-season.

In his prime, Simmonds put up 50-plus points in four straight seasons from 2013-17 with Philadelphia, and was a strong net-front presence on the power play. While Simmonds projects to play in a bottom-six role now for the Leafs, he’ll undoubtedly be called upon to add that toughness factor the Leafs have been lacking in recent years. 

Simmonds already boasts 1,123 total penalty minutes over his 909-game career, and is still fully willing to throw his weight around when necessary.

But that’s not all he has left to offer.

“Fighting is part of my game and it always has been. But I think why the Leafs chose me was because of the way I play the game,” Simmonds said. “I think I play the game the right way. I finish my checks. I battle hard on pucks. I never bail out and I'm always there for my teammates. I honestly think that's what enticed the Maple Leafs and I know that part of my game would be beneficial.”

Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has spoken openly in the past week about making the Leafs harder to play against by supplementing his speedy, skilled core with more strength and tenacity. Simmonds fits that bill, while knowing he’s only one portion of what could ultimately make the Leafs successful. 

“The amount of skill that's on this team is unbelievable and I think I can be a piece,” he said. “I'm not saying I'm going to be the be-all, end-all and bring this team a Stanley Cup because that's a team thing, not [something] one guy can do that single-handedly. But I definitely can be a piece to the puzzle, where my physicality and the way I play the game helps elevate other guys, makes space and just overall helps out the morale of the team.”

Simmonds’ acquisition comes on the heels of Toronto signing another veteran (and Toronto-area native) in Jason Spezza to a one-year, $700,000 contract extension earlier this week.

Both moves exemplify how the Leafs are making the most of their limited cap space dollars (Toronto has just under $4 million available per CapFriendly), while bolstering both their depth of forwards and their leadership group in an effort to become a contender. 

“The way the league is going now, you've got a lot of younger guys, so they don't have a lot of that experience, the patience, the calmness, the steadiness that you have to have,” Simmonds said. “As a veteran playing in this league a long time, I've been in a lot of different circumstances to where that type of leadership helps you. For me, it's just come in and be myself and try to show that leadership to the guys and help the team get over that hump by just being me and doing what I know I do the best.”

That Simmonds is able to try and do that where he grew up is all the better. His allegiances did lie with the Red Wings during his childhood, but Simmonds calls himself “a proud Torontonian” and speaks fondly of charitable efforts he hopes to continue in the Scarborough suburbs where he was raised.

Despite knowing they'd be interested, Simmonds didn't tell any friends or extended family about the potential signing with Toronto, while hoping all along it’s where he’d land. 

“I'm married, I have a 16-month-old daughter and I'm born and raised in the city of Toronto,” Simmonds said. “I loved my upbringing here and it's nice to have the thought that I could raise my daughter in Toronto as well. So I think obviously that contributed to it. I'm extremely happy to be a Maple Leaf at this moment.”

And considering that about 14 of Simmonds’ new teammates (including Mitch Marner, Frederik Andersen and William Nylander) had immediately reached out to congratulate him on coming home, the excitement for this coming season – whenever it begins – is palpable already. 

“The talent level, it's unbelievable. I think it's second to none in the league,” Simmonds said. “What I'm looking to do here is just come in and play my game, play my style, and just bring my attitude and my leadership and just hopefully [help] bring a championship to Toronto. I signed in Toronto knowing that there's a great team here, and that there's a good possibility to win. I thought Toronto gave me the best opportunity for that.”