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Maple Leafs address defence, goaltending early in free agency flurry

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Photo credit:Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
James Reeve
20 days ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs knew exactly where on their roster they needed to improve ahead of the 2024-25 season, and they got to work to address this early in free agency.
Strengthening for general manager Brad Treliving began even before July 1st kicked off, with the news that popular forward Max Domi would return after signing a new four-year contract with the team that would carry a $3.75 million cap hit.
Domi made a positive impact in his debut season with the Leafs, providing some valuable depth offence with 47 points (nine goals, 38 assists) through 80 games while averaging 13:47 on the ice — something the team could not afford to lose with no clear alternatives to bring in.
While this re-signing helped kick start the Maple Leafs’ foray into free agency this summer, it did not address the two most important areas the team had determined needed to be addressed as soon as possible: defence and goaltending.

Blueline Bolstered

The defence was clearly an area that needed reconfiguring after yet another disappointing first-round exit from the playoffs in 2023-24, and the Leafs’ first move to address this area was to bring back a restricted free agent that the team clearly felt could continue to have a positive impact.
Timothy Liljegren’s time with the team has certainly been up and down over the years, but he has begun to show what he is capable of being when given a larger role. He matched his career-high season points total of 23, while playing 55 games last season, registering the highest single-season TOI average (19:40) and putting in the most blocks (116) of any campaign so far.
The puck mover has certainly found a place among the top four and has been rewarded with a new two-year deal carrying a $3 million cap hit that should see him continue to grow and cement his place as a cornerstone of the Leafs’ defensive group.
While Liljegren returns and still has his prime years to play being just 25 years old, the Leafs have moved to bring in some veteran experience to help bolster their bluel ine and give them a different look to what they have sported over recent seasons.
The obvious big name, which the team have purportedly been chasing for quite some time, is 34-year-old Chris Tanev, whose signing rights were acquired in a trade with the Dallas Stars on Saturday. After giving up prospect Max Ellis and a 2026 seventh-round draft pick, the Leafs opted to sign their top free-agency target to a six-year contract with a $4.5 million AAV.
There are many who struggle to see Tanev playing the entire length of this deal, considering it would take him to the age of 40, but Tanev’s immediate quality will be a big addition to Craig Berube’s roster, where he will most likely partner Morgan Rielly on the top pairing.
While Tanev will bring firm defensive responsibility to Toronto, the addition of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a Stanley Cup champion with the Florida Panthers in 2023-24, will predominantly provide some support in the offensive zone.
Ekman-Larsson has long been known for his offensive capabilities throughout his career, but he also plays with a physicality that can help create space for his teammates and facilitate a different approach to the blueline than what has been seen in recent years.
At 32 years old, Ekman-Larsson has signed a four-year deal with the Leafs and will carry a $3.5 million AAV. The two contrasting styles should be complimentary for the Maple Leafs’ defensive group, which has offensive talents such as Rielly as well as other grizzled defence-first players such as Simon Benoit and could do with having some genuine quality added throughout the depth chart.
But Treliving wasn’t done there. When it looked as if the Leafs might settle for what they had, they announced a two-year, $1.5 million AAV contract for former Dallas Stars man Jani Hakanpää.
Another defence-first blueliner, Hakanpää will be a valuable depth addition to the team who will be able to rotate in and out when the team uses six defencemen, while also featuring when seven are called upon some nights.
Bringing in some big names along the blueline should see the Leafs strengthen and demonstrate better balance on the ice compared to previous seasons, where the hope of the top-heavy offence to carry the load has faded and the need for a better all-around roster has become evident with continuous disappointment in the post-season.

Goaltending group is set for next fall

With the defensive group looking stronger on paper, the Leafs had questions about how to address the goaltender position moving forward. They ultimately settled on continuity with a slight adjustment.
Joseph Woll returns as the presumed starter for the team, signing a new three-year contract extension with a $3.66 million cap hit after his current deal expires next year, having demonstrating some high-end performances last year that showed he could be a legitimate starter for the team when he is fully healthy.
If Woll can remain healthy, he will undoubtedly feature in more than 25 games in a season and will be good for better than a 2.92 GAA and .907 save percentage, which he showed in his two playoff starts against the Boston Bruins,  averaging a 0.86 GAA and .964 in relief of Ilya Samsonov.
If Woll can put in a full season and improve on his regular season stats from last year, the team could be set between the pipes for the foreseeable future. However, having depth and strength behind their starter was clearly a priority for the team.
Anthony Stolarz, another addition from the Stanley Cup-winning Panthers has arrived in Toronto on a two-year, $2.5 million AAV contract that makes him the likely backup, and a good one at that.
He was excellent in 24 starts with the Panthers last season, with a .925 save percentage and a 2.03 GAA that would be the dream scenario for the Maple Leafs, who simply need at least league-average goaltending from their backup in order to maintain their historically strong regular season performances with the current core.
Stolarz will give the team security while also making it clear that Woll is the starter but can be relieved to manage his load and confidence within the team should remain high when the 30-year-old is called upon.
Matt Murray is returning on a one-year, $875,000 deal. Murray missed the entirety of the 2023-24 season with an injury and it looked as if his playing days might have been coming to an end. After making a surprising return to training towards the end of the regular season, there appeared to be hope for him yet.
A two-time Stanley Cup champion, the Leafs clearly like what they have in the 30-year-old and having him around on an extremely cheap deal to be the team’s third option in net is a smart move to make  — akin to bringing in Martin Jones last season, which ultimately saw Jones have a spell as the starter with Woll and Samsonov both enduring lengthy injuries.
The moves to address the team’s own zone could go a long way to giving Berube a well-rounded roster that has the capability of making a genuinely deep run in the playoffs. It may have been ideal if the Leafs could have added a legitimate star goaltender, but the need to subtract from somewhere else on the roster in order to facilitate such a move likely made the team reconsider.
Having three solid goaltenders who are more than capable of reaching league average, and even above when the defence is performing well, should be enough to position the Maple Leafs once again as one of the top teams in the Atlantic Division this upcoming season.

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