Kyle Dubas’ Thrifty Free Agent Signings are Starting to Finally Pay Off

Following a disappointing first round exit of the 2021 NHL Playoffs to their rivals the Montreal Canadiens in a dramatic seven game series which saw them lead 3-1 after four games, the Toronto Maple Leafs were forced to make some changes in the proceeding offseason.

One noticeable departure from the team was that of perennial workhorse forward Zach Hyman as he accepted a seven year, $38,500,000 contract with an annual cap hit at $5,500,000 with the Edmonton Oilers. Hyman had quickly become a fan favourite in the six years he wore the blue and white, but as his team friendly four year $9,000,000 contract expired during the 2021 offseason, many realized that his time in Toronto would be up as he was set to get a substantial pay-raise. Although his career high in points was 41 during the 2018-2019 season may not stand out among many other top six wingers across the league, what Hyman provided was what many deem to be the “intangibles”.

Hyman was never the type of forward that was going to dazzle with his skills or his remarkable shot, like his line mates Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, what Hyman provided the team was something many Leaf fans could sympathize with, a strong work ethic and a relentless attitude.

This is why after it was reported that Hyman signed his long term deal, there was a genuine concern on how they could replace his production.

Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas went into the 2021 offseason with a lot of work to deal with after another embarrassing playoff performance after a regular season that had many projecting the Leafs to, at the very least win one round in the postseason something that has not happened to this franchise since 2004, (I didn’t even have to look that stat up because of all the times it has been shoved in my face on social and mainstream media outlets), with many analysts believing that they had a very good opportunity to potentially make a cup run with their squad.

While the team ended up faltering again, quite remarkably if I may add, Dubas had to make a solid evaluation to his team and make some tough decisions, including letting Hyman walk. His goal for the offseason was to upgrade the squad while adding in cost effective pieces, the result of this was bringing in the likes of Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, David Kampf and Nick Ritchie to add more depth to the squad.

While the Nick Ritchie experiment maybe hasn’t got off the ground running 20 games into the season, the signings of Kase, Kampf and Bunting are already paying out big results for Dubas.

Let’s start first with Bunting who has been impressing all season so far with six goals and 14 points in his first 23 games of the season he has already surpassed a career high in games played and points for his career and he is only four goals back of tying his career high of 10 set last season with the Arizona Coyotes, with only a quarter of the season played he is on pace for 26 on the season. This is a welcome addition to the squad considering that Bunting has only recently been a lock on the wing with Matthews and Marner, this would be a better goal output than Zach Hyman’s back to back 21 goal seasons in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020.

Bunting’s affect on the ice isn’t just limited to his point production either. When Bunting signed for the Leafs, many who followed his game from the junior level into the NHL have said that he models his game after the likes of Brad Marchand and Max Domi. While Bunting may only be 5’11” and weigh just under 197 lbs, he seems to be able to create a havoc around the net. His penalty differential numbers can back this up as he is already up to 13 drawn penalty calls on the season, which leads the league, due to his persistent play in front of the opposing net.

Credit to: @TicTacTOmar

Now that the secret is out there good luck to Mike for the rest of the season trying to draw another call.

The next two players on Dubas’ offseason wishlist has become a near package deal, as if you are going to talk about one, you have to include the other. Ondrej Kase and David Kampf have made the Maple Leafs third line their home for the first 23 games of the season. One glaring flaw the Leafs had for many years was the lack of a true shutdown defensive centreman. While John Tavares is widely regarded for having exceptional defensive ability, adding in another defensive stalwart in Kampf, on the forward corps has made one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL over the past 5 years turn into a pretty formidable force. Their 49 goals against puts them 3rd best in the NHL and a team save percentage at .941% and if that trend keeps up they will have a GAA just a little north of 2.00, which is pretty remarkable considering they fell in the bottom half of the league for team GAA in four of the past five seasons.

Both players have also put up some respectable point totals, especially for a player like Kampf who is playing shutdown centre on the Leafs third line and PK he’s chipped in with three goals and seven points so far needing only five more goals to match his career high set in 2019-20. Kase’s production is also respectable for someone playing in the same position setup as Kampf, but Kase is granted some power play time. His past two seasons have been filled with plenty of injuries leading him to put up goal totals of seven and zero (yikes!). Although his goal out put has been steadily decreasing since he potted 20 for the Ducks in his sophomore season in 2017-2018, he has already chipped in with five so far.

The biggest concern with Kase is his health, he is yet to complete a full 82 game season in his six years in the league with his most amount of games played also coming in his sophomore season where he suited up in 66 games. He has missed close to or more than half of the games in a season in all but one year so far since coming into the league. For Dubas he took his chance on someone who probably needed a fresh start considering he played on a pretty mediocre Ducks team for a few years before being shipped off to the Bruins where he wasn’t able to get into the lineup.

Ondrej Kase and David Kampf celebrating after scoring
Credit to: The Pension Plan Puppets

For Dubas all of these players were taken as flyers in free agency all looking for fresh starts and Dubas has given these players the tools they need to succeed and they have ran with this chance so far.

Another thing to mention is the cap hit of all of these players. For Kampf he is making $1,500,000 for 2 years, Kase is making $1,250,000 and becoming an RFA in the offseason, and interestingly in what could turn out to become one of the best value for money contracts on the team, Bunting is only making $950,000 against the cap for this season and the next before he hits the open market. For $3,700,000 this season was able to fill in holes around the lineup that are really starting to solidify and round out the team.


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