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The Leafs’ most intriguing buy-low options will include the guy who ended their season

When Kyle Dubas dove into free agency last summer, he had more opportunity to offer than money.

Michael Bunting was sold on a chance to come home and receive his first full-time NHL gig. Ondrej Kaše found the perfect spot for a career reset after concussions limited him to just three games the season before. David Kämpf was drawn to a well-defined defensive role on a top team, plus the opportunity to play with Kaše, a friend since childhood.

All told they accounted for just $3.7 million (U.S.) against the cap and each made a measurable impact on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

They will also provide a template for the way Dubas and his management staff approach the open market on July 13. Barring an unexpected move in the meantime, the Leafs will not be big spenders in free agency.

Expect them instead to dangle opportunity over dollars while plugging holes on the roster.

“I just think it’s the reality of the league right now that you’re probably not going to be able to spend as much as you want on those depth pieces, and you’re really going to have to do a great job finding value,” Dubas explained this past week. “Whether that’s someone that’s coming off injury, someone that hasn’t been given great opportunities, someone coming off a bad year that you think you see something in that’s a fit specifically with your team, that you can bring them in and help.”

The potential headliners of this free-agent class include Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Nazem Kadri, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, John Klingberg and Marc-André Fleury. It’s reasonable to expect even the class of players below them may be too rich for the Leafs at this stage — a group that includes Andrew Copp, Ondrej Palát, Valeri Nichushkin, Reilly Smith, Max Domi, Ryan Strome, Nino Niederreiter, Josh Manson and Darcy Kuemper.

For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll look at players a little further down the pecking order. The pool will grow wider once teams make decisions on their qualifying offers by July 11 — Kämpf and Kaše, for example, became free agents last year after not being tendered.

But here’s an early look at some of the buy-low candidates the Leafs can choose from:

Mason Marchment

Mississauga-born Lightning forward Nick Paul is heading for unrestricted free agency in July.

Platform season: 18 goals, 29 assists, 47 points in 54 games for Florida

Age: 27

Current salary: $800,000 (U.S.)

Lowdown: OK, this isn’t exactly a buy-low candidate. The former Leafs farmhand is coming off his breakthrough NHL campaign for the Panthers, but he’s also a local kid and a six-foot-four winger who could fill a need in Toronto. Perhaps he’s enticed by that opportunity.

Nick Paul

Platform season: 16-16-32 in 80 games for Ottawa and Tampa

Age: 27

Current salary: $1.35 million

Lowdown: Paul should be fresh in the minds of anyone who watched Game 7 of the Leafs-Lightning series because he was a beast. What Toronto can spend and what he hopes to make may not align, but it’s worth exploring the fit for a penalty killer with some scoring touch who also has local ties.

Frank Vatrano

Platform season: 18-14-32 in 71 games for Florida and N.Y. Rangers

Age: 28

Current salary: $2,533,333

Lowdown: Vatrano has always been able to put the puck in the net. In fact, his goals-per-60 rate jumped after seeing more minutes following the trade to New York. He could fill a versatile role in the Leafs lineup, capable of jumping between the top and bottom six as needed.

Johan Larsson

Platform season: 7-14-21 in 43 games for Arizona and Buffalo

Age: 29

Current salary: $700,000

Lowdown: A lot of good things happen when Larsson is on the ice. He drove strong results following an in-season trade to the Capitals, which was a good sign after he missed 10 weeks following sports hernia surgery in late January.

Colin Blackwell

Platform season: 10-10-20 in 58 games for Seattle and Toronto

Age: 29

Current salary: $725,000

Lowdown: A trade deadline pickup by the Leafs who delivered solid fourth-line minutes down the stretch and earned consideration to stay. This one comes down to price.

Zach Aston-Reese

Platform season: 5-10-15 in 69 games with Pittsburgh and Anaheim

Age: 27

Current salary: $1.725 million

Lowdown: A reliable two-way, bottom-six forward who saw his results dip slightly with the Ducks. That could drop his next contract into the bargain range.

Curtis Lazar

Platform season: 8-8-16 in 70 games for Boston

Age: 27

Current salary: $800,000

Lowdown: Well-travelled and well-liked, Lazar is capable of soaking up difficult minutes. He started just 33 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone for the Bruins last season and still helped modestly drive play, with a 53.5 per cent expected goals rating during his five-on-five minutes according to naturalstattrick.com.

Nicolas Deslauriers

Platform season: 8-5-13 in 81 games for Anaheim and Minnesota

Age: 31

Current salary: $1 million

Lowdown: If the Leafs desire a little more sandpaper, they could do worse than this black-and-blue winger. Deslauriers was highly sought after when Anaheim put him on the block at the trade deadline, and that interest could see him garner a raise this summer.

Noel Acciari

Platform season: 3-5-8 in 20 games for Florida

Age: 30

Current salary: $1,666,667

Lowdown: Acciari lost his regular spot in the rotation with the league-leading Panthers this season, which should dim his free-agent prospects. However, he’s only two years removed from a 20-goal campaign and could regain some prior form if slotted in the correct role.

Adam Brooks

Platform season: 2-1-3 in 25 games for Montreal, Vegas and Winnipeg

Age: 26

Current salary: $725,000

Lowdown: Drafted by the Leafs and twice lost on waivers by the team, there would be comfort found in a reunion by both sides. Brooks is a fourth-line centre candidate and the price would be right.

Eric Comrie

Platform season: 10-5-1 record, .920 save percentage in 20 appearances for Winnipeg

Age: 26

Current salary: $750,000

Lowdown: The Leafs’ goaltending picture is murky at the moment, but Comrie should be considered for the 1B position, pending other decisions on Jack Campbell and Petr Mrázek. Comrie was well-travelled through the waiver wire two seasons ago before taking the next step with the Jets this year.

Chris Johnston writes about sports for NorthStar Bets. NorthStar Bets is owned by NordStar Capital, which also owns Torstar, the Star’s parent company. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris

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