Maple Leafs were Bystanders on Draft Weekend, A Lack of Picks and Cap Space Will do that

The 2021 NHL Draft came and went for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The roster didn't change despite a flurry of activity around them. Instead, the focus shifts to free agency to fill out the remaining vacancies.
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Although teams couldn't get together in person for the second consecutive year, the virtual format of NHL Draft weekend wasn't short on storylines.

Leading up to the first night, teams around the league pulled off franchise-changing trades and signings. The first overall selection, Owen Power, became the new hope for the Buffalo Sabres' turnaround efforts. Defenseman Seth Jones went from the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Chicago Blackhawks and signed an eight-year, $76 million extension, and the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes traded bad contracts with each other.

But the Leafs didn't take part in any of that.

"I think the types of trades that we saw were draft-capital trades which we weren't flush," Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said. "And then they were essentially high (salary) cap hit for high cap hit or players that were going to be traded and signed for big cap hits.

"With our situation right now, it wasn't something we could be overly active on because of our lack of picks."

That left Toronto to leave the weekend with the three picks they did have, 

Nothing more and nothing less.

Matthew Knies, a native of Phoenix, Arizona was Toronto's top pick at 57th overall. Ty Voit, a Pittsburgh product who didn't play last season because of the OHL shutdown, was selected 153rd and Vyacheslav Peska, a goaltender who played in Russia's Junior League, rounded it out with the 185th pick.

The Leafs had used their draft capital to make a deep push into the playoffs in 2021. Most notably, they traded away their first-round selection this year in the deal that brought veteran forward Nick Foligno to the team in May.

The Leafs were upset in the first round of the 2021 NHL Playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens, but Dubas and the remainder of the Toronto front office remained committed to running it back and sticking with their core four forwards consisting of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander. The four players account for nearly half of the NHL salary cap hit of $81.5 million.

That left Toronto with few options on how to improve their club and important pieces left to replace.

Pending unrestricted free agent Zach Hyman is destined to join the Edmonton Oilers with reports surfacing of a deal reached both at the seven and eight-year levels.

Dubas is insistent on getting some value back in exchange for the eighth year, given the cap savings presented to the club.

"There's a big benefit, to me, adding the eighth year in terms of the cap savings to the team that's going to sign him and we've been on all ends of that," Dubas said.

The Leafs GM cited a few examples, including being the middle-man in a deal that sent goaltender Robin Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Vegas Golden Knights. In the trade, the Leafs retained a $1.1 million cap hit for the remainder of the 2019-20 season in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. He also cited the first-round pick Toronto sent to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019 to dispose of forward Patrick Marleau's contract that carried a cap hit of $6.25 million.

"I know that there's a narrative that we should just get something (for Hyman) but you're saving a team significant dollars on the salary cap that comes with the cost," Dubas said. "And we're not going to bend on that."

The focus shifts to free agency where the Leafs look to fill out their roster. Dubas pointed adding depth at forward, a "Zach Bogosian-like" defenseman or two to fill out the back end and a goaltender to play alongside Jack Campbell.

"We're really just looking for the best goalie possible to come in and form as good of tandem as possible," Dubas said. "And let them get after it, push each other, support each other and be the best duo that they can to help our team."

Former No. 1 goaltender, Frederik Andersen, is an unrestricted free agent and the door hasn't been completely closed.

Free agency opens on Wednesday and it won't be terribly exciting for Toronto. They have approximately $9,355,217 in salary cap space according to PuckPedia.com with a minimum of three roster spots to fill. That's just to get it to the minimum 20-player roster. 23 players are allowed to start the season.

There's also the issue of Morgan Rielly, who will be eligible to sign an extension with the club as soon as Wednesday.

"Once we see what the market bears, we'll have a better sample size to be able to open discussions with Morgan," Dubas said.

It was a low-event NHL Draft for Toronto, but unlike their aspirations for a deep playoff run this past season, the weekend went according to script.

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