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Photo Credit: © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Because It’s The Cap: Toronto Maple Leafs Offseason Preview

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.

ROSTER ANALYSIS

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.

CAP SITUATION

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 Devils26. Buffalo Sabres25. Detroit Red Wings24. Dallas Stars23. Florida Panthers22. Los Angeles Kings21. Carolina Hurricanes20. Winnipeg Jets, 19. Philadelphia Flyers, 18. Tampa Bay Lightning17. New York Islanders, 16. Nashville Predators, 15. Calgary Flames

  • STAN

    How can they leave Kapanen and Leivo off next season’s team? They are both fast, can check with the best of them because of that speed and can score. Kapanen scored some key goals for the buds down the stretch and in the playoffs and how about Leivo’s10 points in 13 games? If all other forwards come back that just leaves the 4th line centre spot. Hopefully Boyle will want a full season with these kids, but if not I think Gauthier is ready for the task. Plus, he already has chemistry with Kapanen and Leivo. What a nice fourth line. Oh, what about Matt Martin? I’d move him, plain and simple.

    • Stan Smith

      Unless some bodies get moved unfortunately for Kapanen and Soshnikov they battle it out for RW on the 4th line, and while Kapanen is the natural righty, and a more offensively talented player, Soshnikov is better defensively, can kill penalties, and plays with more energy. But, if the Leafs move JVR, Komarov, Bozak or Martin then both make the team.
      As for Leivo, if he isn’t claimed by Vegas, I think he is destined to make the team as the extra forward.

    • Kevin

      Leivo will either be on the team (full time), traded or claimed in the expansion draft. I can’t see him being stapled to the press box like he was most of last season. Kapanen is fast, Leivo improved his skating but he’s average at best.

      • Gary Empey

        Leivo is not an average skater. He is below average. He is like the Strome brothers. He will be great in the offensive zone great on the power play. Too slow to get involved in the backcheck. He has heart but in today’s game that is not enough. That is the main reason Babcock doesn’t put him on the ice him as often as we would like to see.

    • wallcrawler

      Don’t know why you would trade away a player that had 300 hits, 16 take aways of the puck and only coughed it up 13 times, and also a player that according to Babcock made it safe for the kids. But I’m sure you have your reasons.
      Gauthier won’t be playing till about December, so don’t count on him.
      Boyle will probably want too much money.
      Lastly, Leivo, Leipsic, Rychel and a couple of other prospects, if they can’t win a job get risked being lost to waivers at the end of the exhibition season as they won’t be exempt this year. So the Leafs will more than likely try to trade whoever Vegas doesn’t select.

      • Gary Empey

        You are 100% right. When the official line up is sent up everyone wants to know if Martin is dressed. Not because he might beat someone up. It is because as you stated, after playing the puck you can expect to be checked hard. In the real world of hockey a fan can say “who cares”.. In my opinion if Martin is on the ice when I am, I am going to pass the frigging puck and wait for him and take my lumps.

  • magesticRAGE

    If the Leafs are looking to improve their backend, re-uping Hunwick and Polak would be counter productive. This is why I think they signed Rosen and Borgman, defenders who excel at moving the puck, but also are also offensive threats with their point shots. Even if they don’t make the team, Dermott and Valiev look poised to earn the spot.

    • Stan Smith

      I think Dermott is ready to make the step up, but I’m not sure about Valiev. Looking at the options the Leafs have in their system, I really can’t see Babcock wanting to go with a pair of rookies on the 3rd defensive pair, a pair you expect to kill penalties, and shut down the opposition late in a game. In that sense you could see one or both of Hunlak to be re-signed, unless the Leafs do make a deal for a top 4 dman.

      • magesticRAGE

        If they sign “Hunlak” then nothing changed and nothing would improve the average defense. Dermott killed penalties, so did Valiev. It also sounds like Borgman did too, due to his inherent grit. Without change and risk, there’s no reward.

        • Gary Empey

          What makes you think the Leafs had an average defence last season? Common senses should tell you a team doesn’t go from 30th over all to making the playoffs the next year with an average defence. At least 3 GM’s off the record stated we have no answer to the Leafs. Two coaches stated before the game they couldn’t motivate their team because the they expected to be out played and beat.

    • Kevin

      I wouldn’t go that far, signing one of Hunwick or Polak can help with depth on Defense. Both players were better options than Marincin or Marchenko this past season.

  • Stan Smith

    I disagree with a couple of your points. First, I think Rielly took a step backwards this season. He was expected to step into Phaneuf’s skates when they traded him, but he was obviously over-matched in the top pairing role. He had a great playoff but that was on the 2nd pair, a role he might be better suited for.

    As for your comment
    ““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. ”
    in reference to Polak, and Hunwick, please show me where they sucked. It wasn’t blown leads. You can go back over vids and the one number that was on the ice for the majority of those was the above mentioned #44. In fact in the most important defensive stat out there, GA60, Polak and Hunwick were #1 & #2 on the team. Hunwick also outscored Rielly 5 on 5 this season.

    • Kevin

      I agree that Reilly took a step back, but if you still need to consider that he played through injury this past season. In fact, it was after he came back from the high ankle strain that his numbers fell off a cliff. I’m encouraged by his play at the World Cup and hope he will take that next step this upcoming season.

    • Glen

      I agree with you 100%, Hunlak did everything a third pair should and then some. Rielly needs to work on his defensive game as I have said here many times, however he was better in the playoffs so hopefully the corner is turned.I have never seen the player in Rielly that most do, but would be happy to be proved wrong.

    • Gary Empey

      Stan I respect your opinion. I do not not believe for one moment Rielly took a step back. At one time I used to play the game. If the coach sent us out I can guarantee we would hope the coach sends out Rielly on the back end with us. You might question why I would say that…. Here is the reason. First we expect to score a goal. Second there is no way in a million years anyone is scoring a goal against us.