There are elements of fact and fantasy to speculation linking the Maple Leafs and star defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, the St. Louis Blues captain and pending free agent.
Fact: The Leafs most certainly need to land a top-shelf blueliner, preferably with a right-handed shot.
Fantasy: The Leafs finding a way to pay the 30-year-old from King City what he wants and make it fit under the frozen NHL salary cap.
Talks between Pietrangelo and the Blues reportedly broke off at $7.7 million (U.S.) per season on a long-term deal. Estimates of the average annual value he could command on the free-agent market — which opens at noon on Oct. 9 — range from $8 million to $9 million.
For the Leafs, who have just over $6 million of cap space and several core players locked into multi-year deals, term would be an obvious hurdle, as would age.
They would have to shed salary to make room, with forwards Alex Kerfoot ($3.5 million) and Andreas Johnsson ($3.4 million) among the potential trade candidates. William Nylander, at an average of $6.9 million over the next four seasons, would also have to be considered.
The Leafs also have top defenceman Morgan Rielly and forward Zach Hyman in line for contract extensions, and must make a decision on No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen, who has just one year left on his deal at $5 million. Andersen is expected to get one more chance to change the club’s one-and-done playoff narrative, but it’s a solid year for unrestricted free agent goalies, creating the potential for a trade.
Making the money work is a major challenge, but there’s no denying Pietrangelo — a leader on and off the ice — is the best option out there to improve a defence that has made four straight first-round exits.
Consider some of his stats this past season, all in the top 15 among NHL defencemen and better than any current Leafs blueliner:
- Sixth in points (52)
- Second in goals (16)
- Second in shots (225)
- Seventh in goals per 60 minutes in all situations (0.576)
- Second in power-play goals (6)
- Eighth in even-strength goals (10)
He also averaged 24:11 in ice time, 14th in the league and one second less than Rielly.
By all accounts, Pietrangelo — who finished last season hoisting the Stanley Cup — would be a Norris Trophy-calibre addition to any defence, with the Leafs and perhaps 10 other teams in position to take a shot at signing him when the market opens.
For Toronto in particular, the risks are high. They’re already paying Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares more than $10 million per season on average, and would be committing at least $8 million a year to Pietrangelo long-term on top of that, with the salary cap frozen at $81.5 million.
Improvements on defence could be made via other avenues at a lower cost. Matt Dumba (Wild), Dylan DeMelo (Jets), Colton Parayko (Blues), Aaron Ekblad (Panthers) and Rasmus Ristolainen (Sabres) have all been mentioned in trade rumours.
But Pietrangelo is in another league and stands out on the free-agent market, where making the money add up is the only hurdle.
It comes down to how desperate the Leafs are to make it work. The whole situation is beginning to take on the aura of the John Tavares signing two summers ago.
If they manage to find a way, Pietrangelo would join Justin Holl and Mikko Lehtonen as Leafs blueliners who shoot right. Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin shoot left.
In an ideal world, those seven would form the opening-night defence — whenever next season begins.
But general manager Kyle Dubas, who had interest in Pietrangelo as far back as 2018, would have to be at his creative best to make it happen.
With free agency less than three weeks away, it’s something to ponder for a Leafs fan base expecting big things this off-season.
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