The Toronto Maple Leafs are coming off the most successful regular season in franchise history. However, with a first round exit for the second straight year now, the feeling is that the Maple Leafs fell short of expectations this season. There is no argument when saying the Maple Leafs are one of the most exciting young teams in the NHL, and the best years for this club are still most likely a few years away when the likes of Matthews, Marner and Nylander are in their prime. But the Leafs want to get better now, and another first round exit next year should be considered nothing but a failure. For the Leafs to take the next step, they need this off-season to be a success.
The 25th overall pick is an interesting one. The Leafs could use the pick and get another good prospect to develop, or trade the pick to help get a player that can help this team next season. I could see the Maple Leafs going either way, as getting another good prospect never hurts, but getting a roster player next with the pick could also be very valuable. The draft will be exciting to see which way the Maple leafs go, but if I were a betting man, I would say they keep the pick. I could see them packaging a prospect and maybe a 2nd and/or 3rd instead to try get roster help more so then giving up a first round pick in a trade.
Then looking past the draft, the Maple Leafs will likely be loosing forwards James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov in free agency. That’s 54 goals that are leaving the Maple Leafs this summer that they will have to try to replace. The Maple Leafs will try to re-sign James Van Riemsdyk, but after coming off a career year where he scored 36 goals, he might demand too much money for the Maple Leafs to afford him. It’s not that the Leafs don’t have the cap space this summer to re-sign him, it’s just that they have their 3 young stars to now worry about with their contracts.
Nylander needs a new contract this summer, and he could be trying to get a contract around the 6 x 6 range. It’s a big contract, but Nylander is so skilled and has so much potential to get better that 6 million a season could look like a steal 2-3 years from now. The bigger issue is that Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews will be entering their final year of their entry level contracts and will both be in for massive pay raises. Auston Matthews is already one of the best players in the NHL at the age of 20. He scored 34 goals last season when he only played 62 games, which would put him on pace for around 44-45 goals in a full 82 game season. He will without question be getting one of the biggest contracts in the NHL, and it could even be close to identical with Connor Mcdavid’s. Marner won’t be to far behind. He won’t get the money Matthews is, but Marner could still ask for more than 8 million a season and has the numbers to back it up. All three player are massive parts to the future of the Maple Leafs and their contracts will be a massive focus point of the Maple Leafs this off-season. I believe that Toronto would like to get Matthews and Marner signed this summer so they know the money they will have to pay the three moving forward, but it doesn’t necessarily meant that the players want to sign this summer.
As for holes in the Maple Leafs lineup, there are actually a few. They will have to replace those 54 goals somehow. A healthy Matthews and a full season from Kapenen and Johnsson should replace some of those, but they will need to bring in a forward or two. Matthews and Kadri are the only NHL centres that have contracts for next season, and Miro Altonen (who had a chance to compete for the Maple Leafs 4th line centre spot next season) just left for the KHL. Getting a centre or two this off-season is a must for the Maple Leafs. If Tavares makes it to the 5 day period before free agency, the Leafs have been rumoured to be making a pitch to him. He would be an amazing fit for the Maple Leafs, even though it would create a massive salary cap problem after only 1 season in Toronto. Statsny and Thornton are also free agent centres that could fill a second line C job, but honestly I don’t see Statsny signing with the Maple Leafs, and I think the Sharks will try hard to keep Thornton in San Jose. If they don’t land any of those players, the Leafs might have to look via trade. To get value you have to give value, and if they Leafs want a second line centre to play in-between Matthews and Kadri, they might have to give up a young player in return. Connor Brown and Jeremy Bracco are two names i’ve heard a lot in rumours lately, and I think those two players together could get the Leafs a decent 2nd line centre, but it all depends who is available from other teams.
Defensively as it stands, the Leafs top 6 next season is Rielly, Gardiner, Zaitsev, Hainsey, Dermott and Carrick. Looking at that, there is no doubt the Leafs would like to add another top 4 defensemen. That would move Hainsey down to a top 6 role, probably paired with Dermott and keeping him more energized for PK time. Carrick would be a great 7th defensemen to play whenever there is an injury. If John Carlson makes it to free agency, he should be the Maple Leafs number one target. Their offence is already really solid, but they need defensive help badly. The only reason I think the Leafs have a bit of a better chance to land Tavares is because I believe Carlson will re-sign with the Capitals (However its looking better and better each day that Tavares might also return to the Islanders). If they don’t land John Carlson, I believe that free agents Jack Johnson or Calvin De Haan could also be good fits for the Maple Leafs. Both can play top 4 or top 6 roles, and provide good stability and depth on defence. Again, if free agency doesn’t help, the Leafs will have to look the trade route. I think they learned this year, especially in the playoffs, that they will need to get a bit better on defence to go deep in the playoffs. Timothy Liljegren could have a chance to crack the Leafs lineup next year, but my belief is that he needs another year in the minors to develop.
In net, Andersen had a great season and he is absolutely their guy moving forward. McElhinney had a great year as Andersen’s backup with a .934 save percentage in 18 games. However, Garret Sparks just had a better season in the AHL than any other goalie and deserves a shot at being an NHL backup. His contract also becomes a 1-way contract next year, so my guess is he will be Andersen’s backup. McElhinney should draw interest from other teams and will most certainly be in the NHL next season, I just don’t think it will be in Toronto.
So the Maple Leafs off-season plan is this. Centre depth is key, they need centres and they might have to get creative in how they find them if Tavares doesn’t come to Toronto. They will also try hard at upgrading their defence, but so is almost every other team in the NHL, so that could prove quiet difficult. Finally, if they want to build a team around Matthews, Marner and Nylander like they say they want to, they will have to try to get them signed to contracts that still allow them to build a supporting cast around them.
This off-season might see a fair bit of changes to the Maple Leafs. They haven’t had to worry about being over the salary cap in a long time but this summer they have to start planning for their cap situation in the 2019-2020 season. New GM Kyle Dubas will have a decision to make this summer, and I think all Maple Leafs fans are excited to see what he does to try to help the leafs make a deeper run in the playoffs next spring.