This decision was always going to be difficult.
Undoubtedly, however, the Maple Leafs’ road to improvements in goal (or something like the status quo) got trickier last week as Marc-Andre Fleury and Ville Husso, two of the biggest potential fish in the a thin pond of free agents, have been rolled up elsewhere.
So there isn’t much left. Just Darcy Kuemper, really, and her old friend Jack Campbell.
So what on earth is Kyle Dubas doing now to solve the thorniest puzzle of his offseason — and one of the thorniest of his career as Leafs general manager?
Let’s start with the trade route, which suddenly looks a lot more attractive than it did just a week ago with Fleury staying in Minnesota (two years, $3.5 million cap) and Husso moving to Detroit (three years, cap $4.75 million).
Amid those trades, the Leafs got rid of Petr Mrazek’s contract and increased their flexibility below the cap. Teams with an available goaltender all reached out in stride to gauge interest from the Leafs. (Which would explain all the talk Dubas had with Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin at the draft.)
“(It) just seems like there’s a bigger surplus in this market than there is in free will,” Dubas said. “But there’s usually something you have to pay for that as well. So it’s just a matter of measuring the cost against what we expect to get from the goalie.
In other words, what price is it worth giving up an asset in a trade for an average goalie like Cam Talbot? Is it better to just sign someone like Campbell for big money (but no assets) in free agency?
I would say there is less risk in going the commercial route.
Send an asset for Talbot or Jonathan Quick or James Reimer, all of whom are heading into the final year of their contracts, and if that doesn’t work out, the Leafs could still pivot. They wouldn’t be locked in a corner.
Commit Campbell or Kuemper to an expensive long-term deal and if things go awry quickly, the Leafs would be stuck.
If they aren’t sold on the short-term trade fixes (hope), or Campbell or Kuemper, the Leafs could make a play for a big player like John Gibson – if they believed his ability/upside was higher and so worth the risk. Gibson himself has a huge contract, hasn’t been very successful in recent years and would need a bunch of juicy assets for the Anaheim Ducks’ reconstruction.
So a no-go in all likelihood on that front.
The short-term types of trades don’t seem like terrible options, especially when weighed against the splashy, long-term commitments that free agents will need. (It’s too bad for the Leafs that Semyon Varlamov seems unavailable. He would be the ultimate band-aid solution.)
Reimer actually beat Campbell last season (in the above-expectations goalscoring department) in nearly the same number of games, and his cap for next season is tiny ($2.25 million) compared what Campbell will get. Save money there and the Leafs have more to spend elsewhere (2C?). San Jose has reason to rotate and negotiate: They have three goaltenders and a new general manager in Mike Grier who may be looking to change some things and rebuild.
Quick also performed very well for the Kings last season. He’s also 36 and likely past 50 starts. But it’s all the big game experience you could ask for. Would Kings general manager Rob Blake even want him moved given the franchise’s upward trajectory, not to mention Quick’s stature within the organization?
Quick’s cap reached next season is also $5.8 million. Would kings keep half if they were ready to process quickly? Would the slightly higher acquisition cost for retention be worth it when the Leafs can trade for others like Talbot and Reimer (no retention) or just sign Campbell or Kuemper in free agency – albeit with the long-term risks? Maybe.
Talbot is another one-year option, although less attractive than Reimer or Quick. He’s 35 and something like a mate, and that must mean something the Wild went out and acquired Fleury in the first place at last year’s deadline.
Maybe this: Talbot conceded 17 goals After than expected last season.
Dealing for Ottawa’s Matt Murray, even at half price (he has two years left on his contract with a $6.25 million cap), would be an even bigger gamble, with risk/cost far outweighing the advantage. (Let the Senators buy him out and that’s another story.)
The less risky route would be for the Leafs to trade for Reimer, sign a veteran like Jaroslav Halak in free agency, and see how it works. If it’s a disaster, they can take on another goaltender from a team that isn’t in the playoffs. (An oft-forgotten reality from last season: the Leafs had some of the worst goaltenders in the league for half a season and still finished with 115 points. Even if the goaltender is bad, they always come out in the regular season.)
Jake Allen will be in the last year of his contract with Montreal (cap reached at $2.8 million). It will be the same for the number 2 of the Red Wings, Alex Nedeljkovic. If the Islanders retire next season, Varlamov will also be available ($5 million cap).
The Avalance, who just won the Stanley Cup, are essentially making that bet. They finally decided to let Kuemper walk and will roll the dice next season with Alexandar Georgiev and Pavel Francouz.
If these guys stumble, GM of the Year Joe Sakic obviously believes he can rock the kind of midseason trade we’re talking about.
There is obviously a risk in this way, much more for the Leafs than for the Avs, who have just won their cup. Their season under pressure, at least initially, would be in the hands of uncertain merchandise. How much more uncertain though than with Campbell?
Is the ability gap between Reimer and Campbell big enough to merit the potential downside of a blowing long-term deal? I’m not so sure.
The Leafs were obviously reluctant to commit to Campbell until they had to. Was it more a matter of seeing what else was there? Or a lack of trust in Campbell? Both? Will Campbell feel snubbed? (Is it even in his personality?)
What if Edmonton pulls out all the stops to sign Campbell? What if this agreement was for five years, with a cap of $5 million? Do the Leafs fit that? If they weren’t ready to go before, should they do it now?
Do they have another choice?
Maybe the game, if they don’t like those trade options and don’t want to pay Campbell, is to pull out the biggest check possible for Kuemper. Whatever it takes to get him away from the Capitals, another interested suitor.
Kuemper looks like the safest thing left of the pack. (With goalkeepers, who can ever say for sure.)
When he played — he topped 50 starts for only the second time last season — he played like one of the best goaltenders in the league. He did just enough in the playoffs for Colorado, more beautiful than spectacular (.902 save percentage). How will he age? How many long-term deals for goalies north of 30 (he’s 32) work? Are Years 3, 4 and 5 important for the Leafs at this point? Given the organizational pressures, maybe they only have to worry about next season and maybe the one after that, and if Kuemper collapses after that, deal with it then. (If it doesn’t work out before then, a new management team is probably handling things anyway.)
If Kuemper goes for Washington and Campbell goes for Edmonton, a trade is inevitably what happens.
The Leafs could launch an offer sheet in front of Jake Oettinger. Not only would the Stars almost certainly match, but the Leafs would be stuck in a waiting pattern as the process unfolded.
If I order the paths to a puzzle that may not have all the pieces:
- Trade for Reimer (or someone similar with similar upside and risk)
- Pay Kuemper
- Pay Campbell
None are obvious. None are easy. And none is perhaps so reassuring. The decisions won’t be much harder than that for Dubas and the Leafs.
(Top photo by Jack Campbell: Kim Klement/USA Today)
Statistics and research via Cap Friendly, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey