The Leafs took a big step by letting go of Mike Babcock on Wednesday. As far as moves that could be made that would have the greatest impact on the Leafs players and this season that was it, and frankly it’s foolish to think otherwise.
The coach controls the locker room, the strategy, the systems, and the lineup card, and a case can be made for each of those things being broken with the Leafs.
It is not a 100% guarantee that Sheldon Keefe can fix everything, in fact, it’s probably a guarantee that somethings he’ll do will leave us wanting as well, but there is some hope that the Leafs will get back on track, and at least make a show of competing for a playoff spot.
The Leafs need to get 64.4% of the available points in the remaining 59 games to finish with 98 points, what would have been good enough for the last Eastern Conference Wildcard spot last season, that’s a pace ahead of their best Original Six league results. Of course that’s more manageable when you figure one hot streak and sustained 60% results is a doable, as is the very real possibility of the wheels coming off in Montreal, Buffalo, Florida, or Philadelphia, giving Toronto a chance to sneak in.
There is hope, but there is also a need to do more than just hope that a coaching change will fix everything. Here’s my potential to-do list.
1. Find a backup goaltender YESTERDAY!!!
Basically forfeiting the second game of back to backs isn’t a luxury the Leafs will have as they move throughout the rest of the season, and while Michael Hutchinson and Kasimir Kaskisuo seem like nice dudes, they aren’t the goaltenders I want playing behind Freddie Andersen as the Leafs make a serious go of this.
Presumably the options for replacement are fairly limited, and they also start becoming fairly expensive if you are looking at more of a blue chip backup or potential 1B type goaltender, but at this point that might be what is warranted. Given the absolute rise of Jordan Binnington in St. Louis the name I want to float is Jake Allen, but do so with the acknowledgement that there are some very significant salary cap movements attached to that idea.
2. Adjust the roster to serve Sheldon Keefe
While it seems likely that Sheldon Keefe will want to continue using most of the names associated with the top nine forward group, and top four defensemen, his style of coaching might put some of the current Leafs on the outside looking in and Keefe may have an affinity towards guys like Aberg and Korshkov over players like Shore and Gauthier. I don’t know, but it will be interesting to see what shuffling might occur through this process.
It’s entirely possible that Keefe and Dubas already have a good understanding on this, and these transactions could happen in pretty short order, but at the same time, waivers is a big deal, and I wouldn’t rule out players like Petan, Shore, Gauthier, etc. getting at least a few games to see if they are a fit before a decision is made, even if the Leafs don’t have a lot of time to burn from here on out.
3. Clearing Cap Space (kinda)
The fact of the matter is the Leafs need to make some changes to their roster and the most expendable and appealing assets they have to other teams are probably Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen. In this scenario I’m doing you the courtesy of sparing you my trade Marner takes and in exchange you won’t mention your horrific trade Nylander takes, deal?
Johnsson and Kapanen have had their ups and downs this year like most Leafs, but are still generally producing at the level they did last year. Seeing either go would be sad, but their are wingers and therefore the most expendable assets the Leafs have to work with.
The other options are probably Kerfoot (creates a significant roster hole), Tyson Barrie (should probably see what they have first), and Cody Ceci (yes daddy, but questionable what the market is for him.)
Basically if the Leafs are going to make changes these are the players we need to be talking about to do it, unless they are going big in which case your craziest Marner, Nylander, and Rielly deals are all on the table.
4. Address Team Toughness
I dunno, find two hobos wrestling next to a pie cooling on a window sill and throw Leafs jerseys on them.
5. Hedge your bets
It’s a bit early for thinking this way, but maybe only early by about 15 games. The Leafs might need to adopt a sellers mentality heading into the second half of the season if the climbing the mountain to a playoff spot is just a little too steep. Expiring free agents like Ceci, Barrie, Muzzin, Spezza, and even Shore could hold some value. Toss in affordable under contract forwards like Kapanen, Johnsson, and Kerfoot, and the Leafs could set the Leafs up nicely for the 2020-21 season with cap space and prospects, along with a bit more flexibility to tailor the roster to meet Keefe’s needs. This one is still a ways out from becoming the complete reality of the Leafs situation, but it’s hard to discount the advantage of being sellers, especially when backfilling the Leafs with Marlies is a lot more appealing when the coach knows what those players can do.
6. Start the assistant coach/Marlies head coach search
It seems likely that the Leafs will ride out the season with what they have, but if candidates present themselves early, it will be interesting to see if the Leafs jump on it.
7. Finally, and this is important too…
Sign Ilya Mikheyev and Travis Dermott to contracts that don’t make our eyes bleed. Neither are pushing the elite status of the past big dollar contracts that the Leafs have throw around, but at this point Mikheyev should come in under Johnsson and Kapanen’s cap hit and Dermott should still be in a modest sub $3M range as well. It would be an absolute dream for the Leafs to have good players under contracts that don’t need 2000+ words to defend, and the Leafs can go into 2020-21 prepared and with optimism.
I’m sure I’m missing a lot…
Right now these seem like the pressing things to watch for out of the GM’s office, with the first three points being the pressing ones, and the rest being areas to explore throughout the year. The decision to fire Babcock was the right one, but with that decision Dubas has to know that the focus will now shift to him as much as it will to Keefe, and given that Mike Babcock has recently reminded us of how much Larry Tannebaum was in favour of his hiring, Dubas could have an important voice within MLSE watching him more closely.