Maple Leafs face difficult free agent negotiations from top to bottom

The Maple Leafs have been pretty busy behind the scenes of late.

In addition to the news that they will have a new goalie coach next season (more on that below), they have started to dig in on getting some of their free agents signed.

Last week in Buffalo at the NHL combine, GM Kyle Dubas, right-hand man Brandon Pridham and a large front-office contingent were on hand to meet with some of the draft eligible prospects as they prepare to pick 25th on Day 1 of the draft on July 7.

But Dubas and Pridham were also meeting with some of the many player agents in Buffalo to talk contracts, as there are several thorny negotiations to work through before not only the July 13 opening of free agency but also the July 11 qualifying offer deadline.

The Leafs free-agent class this year is obviously headlined by Jack Campbell and Ilya Mikheyev, who are both UFA and appearing on the many top free-agent lists now circulating online (here’s ours!).

But the other key names to keep in mind are Toronto’s quartet of restricted free agents: Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Pierre Engvall and Ondrej Kase.

As we’ve laid out previously, the Sandin and Liljegren negotiations should be the simpler ones to get done. They don’t have arbitration rights, and they’ve played fewer than 100 NHL games in mostly third-pair minutes.

Their leverage is pretty limited.

If the Leafs want to squeeze them into low-dollar, short-term second contracts — like the one they previously signed Travis Dermott to — they should be able to. They may need to given how tight their cap situation will be.

The more I talk to people around the league, however, the more they point to Engvall and Kase as potential problems. Engvall had a breakout season with 35 points and emerged as a key checker and penalty killer. Kase was hurt several times and missed a lot of games but still put up 14 goals and more than half a point a game while playing all over the lineup.

Both Engvall and Kase are 26 years old and one year from unrestricted free agency. Both have arbitration rights.

While teams often have extra time to get RFA contracts done, and we see many of them signed close to training camp, that’s not the scenario unfolding for these two here. The July 11 qualifying offer date acts as a bit of an artificial deadline, as if the Leafs decide to qualify Engvall and Kase, suddenly arbitration comes into play. If arbitration comes into play, you potentially are on the hook for a bigger contract than you want to be, as the negotiations are potentially out of your hands.

Author: Lucy Green