The Maple Leafs have three primary needs heading into extreme roster makeover season

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
9 months ago
You’ve probably noticed that the Leafs have a pretty good lineup. Teams that usually finish near the top of the league in standings usually do have one of those. You’ve probably also noticed that the lineup could still be better, not to mention that with departing players like O’Reilly, Bunting, Kerfoot, Holl, Schenn, and others, there are some definite holes in the lineup card as well that will need to be addressed. That’s not a bad thing as players like Kerfoot and Holl departing frees up a lot of money that was being spent in the bottom to be prioritized at the top of the depth chart.
Others like Ryan O’Reilly leaving hurt a bit more as he certainly could be an option to address the areas the Leafs should be focusing on. Alas, he too comes with some risk associated with his age and injury history, plus there doesn’t seem to be much of a desire to play in Toronto on the cheap, so it’s probably better to consider a couple of other options.
As I see it, the Leafs have three primary needs. The realities of what players might be available, which assets the Leafs will part with, and of course, the salary cap will limit the extent in which all of these areas can be addressed, but hopefully the Leafs can continue to gradually move towards being a Stanley Cup caliber team.

Priority 1: Physical/Skill Forward for the Top Six

Matthew Knies already addresses some of this for the Leafs as he appeared comfortable in the role in the playoffs. The departure of Michael Bunting means that the Leafs are losing a bit of edge there, but obviously not size. Both Knies and Bunting have skill and that is something the needs to be preserved. Nick Ritchie had size, but wasn’t a fit in the skill department for the Leafs and the same could be said previously of Wayne Simmonds and David Clarkson. Finding the right balance is going to be important and presumably the Leafs could consider any of the forward positions as both Tavares and Nylander have demonstrated comfort in moving over to left wing if needed.
As for who is available that meets the need… we can probably rule out Pierre-Luc Dubois. He’s going to that unfortunate blend of pricey and wanting to play elsewhere. There’s also the fact he’s twice demanded a trade and adding another higher maintenace player to a team already stocked with them isn’t ideal.
When it comes to free agency the player I think might actually meet the needs is Jason Zucker. Zucker isn’t a huge player, but he managed to finish in the top 30 for hits last season while scoring 27 goals. His health situation was better and in addition to hitting and scoring Zucker knows how to carry the puck and play in his own zone. He might be the most attainable option.
If you are looking at trades, the player you are likely daydreaming about is Travis Konecny and with the Flyers selling off talent for futures now might be the time to make it happen. A lot of the deals the Flyers are looking at making involves them taking salary back, this could either also be a chance for the Leafs to unload a contract that frees them up for other moves or they can benefit from being on of the teams that doesn’t need to send a player back to Philadelphia and get away with a prospect and pick.
Other options that are intriguing: Scott Laughton, Jack McBain, Ivan Barbashev

Priority 2: Top Four defensman (ideally a Morgan Rielly partner)

With TJ Brodie entering the final year of his contract and the Leafs benefiting from having Rielly play with a strong stay at home partner like Luke Schenn in the playoffs, it will be interesting to see what the Leafs do in regards to their blueline this offseason. The name that stands out is certainly Dmitri Orlov, as he checks every box required except for the fact he plays on the left side, but it seems like we’ll be treated to other names emerging as options soon enough.
With the Blues needing to move someone off their blueline and Torey Krug not budging, the door is open once more to consider Colton Parayko as a potential option for Toronto.
The fact that Matt Dumba is available and has been in his share of Toronto rumours as well shouldn’t be lost on anyone, even if he’s not your first choice (or your 20th choice) he’s a player to keep an eye on.
And with the Flames potentially seeing an exodus of players it will be interesting to see if Brad Treliving goes with who he knows, a strategy that seemed to both benefit and hinder Kyle Dubas during his tenure as the Leafs GM.
Noah Hanifin doesn’t really seem to fit the bill of what the Leafs would be looking to add to their blueline, but he’s certainly the name from Calgary that is most out there. Players like Weegar, Andersson, and Tanev would all be better fits, but Andersson and Weegar are two of the Flames players that are locked in for the long run and unlikely to go anywhere.

Priority 3: Third line center

It was a nice luxury having Ryan O’Reilly as the Leafs third line center for a brief period of time. The flexibility to move him up in the lineup was nice too, but in general, moving towards a situation where the third line can be a strong all situations line instead of a neutral zone logjam would benefit the Leafs. The departures of Kerfoot and Kampf start pushing the Leafs in a direction where more offense can be embraced and that should be encouraged.
The third line center options are a bit more abundant, but they come with a wide range of price tag, risk, and upside.
Jonathan Toews is an option if you want to see if there is any hockey left in him at this point. Toronto certainly seems to be making a reputation for itself as a pre-retirement destination and maybe Toews finds his way here too.
J.T. Compher had a bit of a breakout season in Colorado and could be on the radar for a role like this but he’s also likely to be looking for a payday and that seems risky until he shows he can repeat his success.
What I keep on coming back around to is that Ryan O’Reilly might truly be the best fit for the Leafs and even if the Leafs aren’t his first choice, it’s worth trying to keep him.

How to address all three positions?

If the Leafs are going to pull this off successfully it likely means a couple things will need to happen.
  1. Matt Murray is dealt with either through trade, buyout or LTIR.
  2. The Leafs will need a fourth line that is very much dependent on Marlies promotions or league minimum salary players that might emerge through free agency later in the summer.
Having a bottom line of Bobby McMann, Pontus Holmberg, and Sam Lafferty seems like a necessary part of making this work, as does potentially getting some useable hockey out of Nick Robertson, if he isn’t traded.
The Leafs seem to be a good position defensively and that is already a big part of how Toronto can establish a more dominant top nine forward group and top four defensive group heading into next season.

Check out these posts...