© Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
After finishing last place in 2015-16 and winning the draft lottery, the Toronto Maple Leafs had little to no expectations for this year. Many, in fact, expected no different than the previous season, despite the fact they improved in terms of scoring depth and goaltending, their two biggest flaws in their last place season. However, their were a few more optimistic fans who made sure their opinions were heard, and made the case that the Leafs, in fact, were actually a good team.
And actually good this team was. With the help of the three-headed-monster in Toronto in Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, and William Nylander, veteran scoring from James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, and Tyler Bozak, and solid goaltending from Frederik Andersen, the Leafs snuck into a playoff spot and took the President’s trophy winning Washington Capitals to six games before bowing out of the postseason, giving everyone a taste of what’s to come.
Now, the Leafs probably have the easiest offseason ahead of them. With their expansion draft situation causing very little problems, very few contracts that need to be resigned on their main roster, and a ton of cap space, with about $10.5 million in LTIR available at their expense, the Leafs have the chance to load up for the next couple years while their best players are on entry level deals, and if they play their cards right, they could be looking at Cup contention as soon as next year.
The Capitals enter with a President’s Trophy and no seed of doubt.
Then all of a sudden…
— Steve Dangle Glynn (@Steve_Dangle) April 16, 2017
First, let’s talk about the three rookies. All three of them came into the season with expectations to perform, and not only did they meet them, they exceeded them. Auston Matthews came storming right out of the gate with a four goal performance in his first game, an NHL record, and maintained that for the rest of the season, finishing the year with 40 goals and 69 points, setting records for most points by an American rookie and a Leafs rookie. Mitch Marner also was ready to go right away, as he scored his first goal in the Leafs second game, and finished with 42 assists and 61 points, setting the Leafs record for most assists by a rookie. William Nylander exploded out of the gate as well, winning Rookie of the Month in October, and was unstoppable down the stretch, winning Rookie of the Month in March. He finished the season with 22 goals and 61 points, and even set a Leafs record for longest rookie point streak during that hot stretch before the playoffs.
They weren’t the only rookies that performed well either. Connor Brown had a rookie season that would have Leafs fans going nuts in a normal year, but unfortunately 20 goals just wasn’t enough to get everyone’s attention. Zach Hyman, while maybe not the most productive season of the rookies with only 28 points, got the hearts of Leafs fans with his energetic and gritty game, as well as his excellent penalty killing. He even broke a Leafs rookie record, as he set the record for most short handed goals from a Leafs rookie with four. Josh Leivo managed to produce in limited time, with 10 points in 13 games, despite averaging 12:34 in ice time. Frederick Gauthier proved to be an okay fourth line center. Nikita Soshnikov was an excellent fourth line winger/penalty killer for the Leafs all year. Kasperi Kapanen gave Leafs fans a taste of why he was part of the Kessel trade. It didn’t matter who, every Leafs rookie seemed to be exceptional one way or another.
Of course, you need some veteran help was well, and the Leafs got that with some of their “veteran” forwards this season. van Riemsdyk continued his consistency as a top end power forward, putting up 62 points, and finishing just one goal shy of his second 30 goal season. Kadri, after having the worst luck in 2015-16, exploded for a 32 goal, 61 point season, all while being tasked as the Leafs shutdown center. And Bozak finally eclipsed the coveted 50 point mark with a 55 point season, something that had become a bit of a running joke that he would never be able to do. All of the veterans stepped up this season, despite their being concern with them being associated with the previous regime.
On the back end, we saw both Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner take steps forward this season. Gardiner put up a career high in points with 43 points, and continued to be excellent defensively. Rielly, while dropping nine points from last season, took steps in the other end of the ice, improving his game defensively against the league’s best. Also, 27 points is pretty solid for a defenseman who rarely played on the powerplay (five of those points were on the man advantage). Nikita Zaitsev, another rookie, was excellent in his first season in North America, putting up 36 points on the backend. Connor Carrick only put up eight points this season, but you wouldn’t have guessed based on his play, which goes to show how good he might get. Martin Marincin didn’t get into too many games this season, but was a key cog on the blueline during the playoffs, largely in part to his ability to suppress shots.
In net, Andersen proved that he has what it takes to be given the starting job in Toronto, and made Leafs fans feel less concerned about his contract. While he had lots of ups and downs, it averaged out to a 33-16-14 record, 2.67 GAA, .918% save percentage, and four shut outs. He had some injury concerns late in the year, so it might not be a good idea to play him in 66 games again, but he’s shown that for now, Leafs fans should have little concern in net.
The Leafs biggest issue was their veteran depth. With the exception of Leo Komarov, who is becoming an elite defensive forward, and Brian Boyle, a deadline pickup, the Leafs veteran depth consisted of Ben Smith, Matt Martin, Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, and Curtis McElhinney. None of these names pop out at you, except for maybe “Wow, they suck”. Sometimes it proved costly, especially considering that Babs looked to the first four sometimes in key situations, which would more often than not bite the Leafs. However, only Smith and Martin are for sure returning at the moment, so they might not be of much concern.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Leafs are looking at one of the best cap situations in the league right now. They’ll have about $12 million in cap space, as well as an additional $10.5 million in LTIR if need be. With Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, and Colin Greening’s contracts coming off the books, it gives the Leafs room to play with in the offseason if they want to.
In terms of contracts to resign, they don’t have too many issues. The only key UFAs they have to sign are Boyle, Hunwick, Polak, and McElhinney, and aside from Boyle, none of them are really needed on the team next year, and they can be replaced easily. They also only have two RFAs to re-sign, as Brown and Hyman are currently without a contract.
OFFSEASON GAME PLAN
As I said before, the Leafs are in a unique situation where they can open up their Cup window a couple years early, and take advantage of the fact that their best players are making almost nothing. Heck, you could argue that they had a Cup window this year, depending on your confidence against the Sens and Rangers if they were to win that last game of the season.
The expansion draft should be of no concern to the Leafs. Thanks to their best players being rookies who don’t meet the two year professional league experience requirements, the Leafs have more than enough spots for their other players, and are looking at a worst case scenario of losing Josh Leivo, Kerby Rychel, or Martin Marincin.
As for re-signing players, I’d expect them to give Brown and Hyman bridge deals, or really cheap long term deals (see: Calle Jarnkrok). However, they’re only big re-sign saw them give Zaitsev a relatively expensive long term deal, so maybe it’s not that simple. In the UFA department, I’d really only look into re-signing Boyle if it’s a reasonable deal (something in the 2 year, $2 million range), and maybe Hunwick, if they’re looking for a depth player on the blueline. Otherwise, let the others go to free agency.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. The free agent market might be one of the better ones in recent memory, with names like Joe Thornton, Alex Radulov, and Kevin Shattenkirk still on the market. Not franchise players by any means, but they can have a very big impact on the roster, and you might be able to get them for the right price.
If the Leafs want to capitalize on their cheap rookies, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea to sign a couple of these players to a MAX of two years if they’re interested, with the promise of winning a Cup. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to convince Jumbo Joe, except he might not want to shave his beard, and Shattenkirk has mentioned before that he’s open to a short term deal with a Cup contender. Heck, the Leafs have a connection with Kovalchuk thanks to Lou Lamoriello, why not get him too.
My point is, the Leafs have an advantage that very few teams do, and should also take advantage of their freedom with the cap before they are forced to cap hell once they have to sign Nylander, Matthews, and Marner. So, why not load up now with a bunch of really good players and take a shot at it, so long as the Leafs look to the right players (STAY AWAY FROM KARL ALZNER!).
They can also look to the minors too. They already had a log jam at forward, rotating between Leivo, Soshnikov, and Kapanen on the fourth line, not too mention Leipsic, Rychel, and Griffith in the minors. On defense, they could look to Travis Dermott, as he seems to be close to NHL-ready now. However, they should for sure look to the minors for goaltending, and give Garret Sparks a chance as a backup.
This is certainly a very impactful offseason for the Leafs. While not difficult by any stretch, they have a chance to improve the team, a chance to do nothing, and a chance to screw the Leafs Cup chance before it even starts. There aren’t too many chances for the Leafs to screw up, but they still can, so they should make sure they know exactly what they’re doing.
PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES…
30. Colorado Avalanche, 29. Vancouver Canucks, 28. Arizona Coyotes, 27. New Jersey Devils, 26. Buffalo Sabres, 25. Detroit Red Wings, 24. Dallas Stars, 23. Florida Panthers, 22. Los Angeles Kings, 21. Carolina Hurricanes, 20. Winnipeg Jets, 19. Philadelphia Flyers, 18. Tampa Bay Lightning, 17. New York Islanders, 16. Nashville Predators, 15. Calgary Flames