Top Unrestricted Free Agents the Toronto Maple Leafs Should Pursue for 2014-15

James Onusko@@jonuskoContributor IIIApril 29, 2014

Florida Panthers defenseman Tom Gilbert (77) and teammate center Vincent Trocheck (67) bring the puck up the ice during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings, Saturday, March 22, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)
Gus Ruelas

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot of needs to address in the offseason. Brendan Shanahan and Dave Nonis have their work cut out for them as they try to build a perennial winner in Canada's largest city.

Fans are understandably frustrated with the club that has not won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and has had limited playoff success over the past 20 years.

There are several roster needs, but we see defensemen as the pool of players the Leafs should be focusing on this summer in unrestricted free agency. The club's defensive woes are known to all and shoring up the team's needs on the blue line should be the first priority.

There are certain defenders who are likely to be available after the playoffs end and could have a positive impact on the Leafs' poor shot differential. Their minus-7.8 shot differential per game left them second-last in 2013-14.

Here are four free-agent blueliners who would improve Toronto's back end.


Tom Gilbert

The list should start with Tom Gilbert.

The smooth-skating defender is 31 years of age and likely has a handful of productive years ahead of him. Gilbert posted 28 points in 2013-14 and ended up with a minus-five rating on a weak Florida Panthers team.

Gilbert's Corsi percentage was a solid 51.7 alongside the talented Brian Campbell. It was a good pairing on most nights. Gilbert will not be front and centre in most defensive groups, but he could easily play in Toronto's top four next season.

Seeing Gilbert paired with either Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly would make a lot of sense, as he could serve as their defensive conscience while mentoring either of these talented, young defenders. He would also make some sense alongside captain Dion Phaneuf.

Gilbert made just $900,000 last season, so he could be a relative bargain for the Leafs if signed for not a lot more than that moving forward.


Matt Niskanen

Current Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Niskanen would also make a lot of sense in Toronto. The talented American posted a five-on-five Corsi percentage well above 50 in 2013-14. The Virginia native had 46 points this season and was an eye-popping plus-33 over the course of the regular season.

Niskanen won't be 28 until December and could be a top-four defender for at least the next four or five years in Toronto.

According to, the salary cap is expected to rise next year, but the Leafs will not have a lot of wiggle room given their projected salary commitments. Costs will necessarily dictate some of their decisions.


Kyle Quincey

Another puck-moving defenseman who is just entering his prime is Kyle Quincey from the Detroit Red Wings. The potential issue with Quincey would be the salary he commands.

Quincey earned $4 million this season and would likely look for a similar number in his next contract. The mobile defender's even-strength Corsi percentage was right around 50 in both the regular season and playoffs.

He posted a modest 13 points in Detroit this year and his contributions would be in the defensive zone in Toronto.

The Leafs don't need a lot of offense from new additions to the blue line. They need possession players who will help shift the balance of play away from their own goal.


Ron Hainsey

The final free agent that the Leafs should be looking at is Carolina Hurricane Ron Hainsey. He is a heady defender who makes smart decisions with the puck.

His even-strength Corsi percentage was over 50 and his PDO (sum of on-ice shot and save percentages) of 98.2 indicates that he could have used a little more puck luck as well.

Hainsey had 15 points on a relatively weak Carolina team. At 6'3" and 33 years of age, Hainsey could bring some much-needed size and stability to the Leafs on the back end.

It remains to be seen what the Leafs will do with their current stable of defenders, but adding one or two of these listed players would go a long way toward improving the Leafs in the defensive zone heading into the 2014-15 regular season.


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