Leafs will get back in the hunt for college free agents

With playoff hopes long gone and the Leafs basically on autopilot to finish off the season in the McDavid zone, a lot of talk around the team will now cover everything happening off the ice, good or bad. 

For most who follow the team, the next thing to truly look forward to is some roster movement at the NHL draft in June, but it appears the organization will pursue some new young players through the college free agent route over the next few weeks as well.

The chances of landing an impact player from the pool of undrafted options in college is a small one, but teams have had success here in the past. The Leafs themselves have even filled their top line center spot by going down this path, which seems strange considering Tyler Bozak is barely old enough to attend high school, but here we are.

TLN’s own Jon Steitzer wrote about where the Leafs should focus their efforts if they’re to go back to school in the coming weeks, and some of the names he tossed out there have been garnering plenty of interest from a number of NHL teams, as Lance Hornby reports.

From Hornby at The Toronto Sun website:

The Leafs are intensifying their hunt for graduating or early-exiting, undrafted college players south of the border.

Right winger Casey Bailey of Penn State, a 6-foot-3 junior, is drawing lots of interest from all NHL teams. Defenceman Kenney Morrison, a hard-shooter from Western Michigan, and Colgate right winger Kyle Baun, grandson of Leafs great Bobby Baun, are others mentioned often.

Two of those three names were covered by Steitzer last week, and he had some thoughts on how these players might fit in with the organization.

On Casey Bailey (Penn State – Big 10):

If the Leafs are interested in adding an offensive prospect Bailey is probably the best bet. At the very least he’d help the Marlies put up points next season which may continue to be a challenge for them.

And regarding Kenney Morrison (Western Michigan – NCHC):

Depending on if the Leafs see any value in bringing back players like Kevin Marshall, Andrew MacWilliam, or Eric Knodel, there may be interest in bringing in another defenseman for the Marlies next season and roll the dice on some upside existing with Morrison. With potential call-ups to the Leafs this season he might add value over call-ups from the Solar Bears for the Marlies.

In terms of numbers, Bailey has scored at a 1.18 points-per-game clip this season with 40 points in 32 appearances as a forward, while Morrison notched 15 points in 34 games played (0.44 average) from the blue line. 

Baun has 28 points in 34 games for Colgate of the ECAC, and perhaps it should be assumed we reach Peak Leafs and the team pulls out all stops to sign him due to the family connection. 

The Leafs seem to have dialed back on exploring the college free agent market since the days of Christian Hanson and Brayden Irwin, but in a time of blatant teardown and rebuild, they’re going to attempt to add youth in every form over the next little while. With a focus on scouting and development from two well-versed front office figures in Dubas and Hunter, hopefully this time around the venture is a little more successful. While both hail from the major junior system and have focused on development of players younger than those of the college ranks, their apparent ability to recognize talent and put in place a proper plan for extracting it could be a major positive.

  • Jeremy Ian

    The Leafs have a lot of work to do. I don’t think they have a great reputation within NCAA hockey. I am still amazed that Trevor Van Riemsdyk did not even consider the Leafs before he signed with Chicago. Maybe he did not want to play with his brother or JVR told him not to come to Toronto. Detroit and Chicago seem to do well with college free agents. It is not that they will all be stars or even play in the NHL. One of the keys to player development is to keep talent moving through the system. You do need numbers. While quality is great, there is a Russian military maxim – “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

    • Solid point re: players moving through the system. You’re not likely to land a star but if you can add some of these college pieces and manage a good cheap third pairing d-man or winger that can play well in third line minutes, it’s much better than paying for the same thing in NHL free agency at about 2 or 3 times the price.

      • I hope you are joking. Chicago is “stacked” with defensive depth in the system. In the past two years, they let Adam Clendening and Ryan Stanton go to Vanc, Dylan Olsen to FLA. All NHL ready defencemen who Chicago had no room for. TVR was doing well in Chicago before he was injured but I was surprised he went there given what appeared to be numbers against him. Kevin Hayes opted to wait for free agency and sign with NYR than try to crack Chicago’s lineup. Chicago lost NHL ready forwards Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin and Jimmy Hayes because of their depth of prospects. No room for them.

        That is where the Leafs need to get to. A player development system that keeps producing not just stars but guys on entry level contracts ready to play in the NHL. In a salary cap era, this is key. There is no cap on coaching, scouting and player development. A rich team like the Leafs has a huge advantage here. And Shanahan knows it. The most important moves he is making right now are in building the Leafs’ organization. No one talks about it much. But we will see the fruits in the not too distant future.

        Although this is bad news for Marlies’ fans. You can win in the AHL by having older, more experienced players. In the future, the number one priority for the Marlies will not be winning but player development.

        • it’s not my words, it was jvr’s words. so no, i’m not joking. i’m repeating what jvr said from his own mouth. this was last year when the leafs had brennan, blake kessel and others coming in like loov, nilsson and others. maybe the leafs already had plans to bring him in. jvr said the leafs don’t have a need for defencemem so sign elsewhere. idk if he recommended chicago, but he recommended his brother not sign with the leafs because the marlies were full of defencemen on tryouts and like i said before, planned to have new guys come in for the next year.

          • JVR didn’t say the leafs were stacked on defence. He said they have too many similar players ahead of him. Which is true.

            Phaneuf, Rielly, Gardiner, and Percy. All left handed offensive defencemen. TVR is probably better than only Percy. He didn’t want to play in the AHL, so he signed with Chigaco who had just moved or were about to move Leddy. Creating a need for his play style.