With the trade deadline behind the Leafs, Brad Treliving’s focus shifts to the summer

Photo credit:Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
The good news for the summer is that the days won’t be filled with “will Auston Matthews and William Nylander reach free agency?” talk. No matter where you come out on how much the Leafs overpaid those contracts have been resolved and even if we can expect an excessive amount of discussion on the Marner and Tavares contracts, they carry the same sense of urgency as Matthews did last summer and instead Leafs fans can focus their energy on debating whether the “core four” forwards should remain together at all (I’m not starting this debate now, the answer is clearly “we’ll see how the playoffs go” for the time being.)
While the Nylander Matthews contracts are done, they’ve also done an excellent job of spending the anticipated $4M increase to the salary cap this summer (and then some). The Leafs will end up finding themselves in a fairly familiar situation to the last summer as the core will remain intact, as Rielly is also signed, but very few surrounding pieces are under contract. Key names like Bertuzzi, Brodie, Samsonov, and Domi will hit free agency, and interestingly enough, the Leafs are finally done with their LTIR utilization, a small nicety which will allow Toronto to accrue space in the salary cap towards the deadline next season.
When it comes to RFAs, the most intriguing names are still supporting cast members and Toronto will be looking at Connor Dewar, Simon Benoit, Timothy Liljegren, and Nick Robertson. None of which would run the Leafs much in their next contracts, and may have Toronto sitting in a comfortable spot when addressing the holes that will be created through unrestricted free agency.
Here’s the cap picture heading into the summer:
So there are 14 roster spots committed to with the notable gaps of a goaltender capable of splitting the season starts, three defencemen with at least two of them being top four defencemen, and at least two forwards, which should include at least one capable top nine centre. On the surface that’s nearly $20.5M to address 6(+?) vacancies and the Leafs don’t seem to be in a bad place, especially when we go exploring a few other options.
The first names that come to mind when filling in the gaps on the Maple Leafs roster are Easton Cowan and Fraser Minten. The Leafs were close to keeping Minten with the team last season and it seems reasonable to expect him back. Easton Cowan really can’t do much more at the OHL level and the Leafs are likely to give him a shot as well. That puts the Leafs down to only needing to fill 5 roster spots with $20M to spare. That seems rather encouraging, especially since Minten could very well get a shot at the 3C spot in the lineup.
The next pieces to consider are the RFAs and it’s hard to imagine any of Conor Dewar, Nick Robertson, Simon Benoit, or Timothy Liljegren commanding too much money. In theory, it would be Timothy Liljegren who would earn the most but the recent 1-year, $2.5M signing of Dante Fabbro by the Nashville Predators gives the Leafs a very favourable comparable player and with Liljegren being arbitration eligible, the Leafs wouldn’t have too much difficulty keeping the cost reasonable.
In arbitration it is hard to imagine Dewar or Benoit commanding much more than $1.5M AAV either, so we’ll list them at that and Liljegren at $2.5M to see what cap looks like. We’ll hold off on Robertson for now as he’s part of some bigger questions to come.
Anyways, for the sake of ridiculous, with those signings in place the Leafs would have a defenceman spot open on their roster and need a goaltender with $15M to spend on those spots and three reserve positions.
So let’s start talking about those reserve spots…
As we’ve been building out this team the Leafs have Ryan Reaves and Conor Timmins in their lineup every night as well as two rookie forwards. The Leafs are going to use at least two of their reserve spots, and presumably those are going to be filled by Conor Timmins and Ryan Reaves on opening night, with the acknowledgement that the Leafs could go in a lot of different directions and assuming Conor Timmins is any kind of lock having a future with the Maple Leafs is taking a big leap. Nevertheless, their contracts make nice placeholders, so we’re going to reassess the lineup as the Leafs having a need for two defencemen, and a goaltender (for now we’ll ignore the need for a middle six centre) with $13M to spend and look at the depth chart like this at the moment:
I don’t know, when you look at it all together like that it becomes a lot more glaring that finding 3 players that average out at $4.3 M AAV cap hits might be decent but not completely address the multitude of shortcomings the Leafs have. That’s where trimming the fat on the roster might come in handy and the players most impacted by that are likely Reaves, Timmins, Kampf, Liljegren, and possibly even Jarnkrok (although when you look at the amount of inexperience in the lineup, he might be a keeper.)
There likely isn’t a market for Reaves or Timmins at all. Expecting there to be one for Kampf seems like wishful thinking on my part and based in the Leafs likely having to help another team out of their salary cap jam and taking on another issue that might address a need for the Leafs better than Kampf does as a 4C. No matter what, Kampf at $2.4M on a team that has Holmberg, Minten, and Dewar as 4C options is something we can expect Toronto to sort out even if the rest don’t go anywhere. Connor Timmins contract can be completely buried on waivers so expecting him to be demoted in favour of a $775k player is a reasonable thing to do if you are projecting out the maximum amount of space to work with.
In many ways this also gets us back around to Nick Robertson’s cap hit as well as his future as a Maple Leaf. Robertson’s price tag shouldn’t vary too much the range of $1.5M-$2M, possibly even less given his restricted free agent status. He certainly hasn’t priced him out of Toronto but considering the team is already lacking a fit for him there could be reasons to relocate him given that Toronto will already have a number of youthful players who need sheltering in their lineup.
That said, a cheap option like Robertson opens the door to the Leafs to spend more of defence, which very much looks like it should be the team’s priority. Factoring in who is available in free agency, it might be one of the better times to have defence as the Leafs biggest need as centres and goaltenders will be in short supply.
In this wandering version of hypotheticals that is largely based in the Leafs continuing to move in the same direction they have for the past few seasons, I’ve neglected at least two key questions (I’m sure there are more and you’ll let me know about them.)
Do the Leafs believe in this “new” group and is there interest in bringing back players like Bertuzzi, Domi, or even Edmundson or Lyubushkin. Heck, has Treliving looked at the goaltender market and decided that Ilya Samsonov is still the best path forward as well?
Secondly, what of the two 2025 pending UFAs. The future of John Tavares and Mitch Marner as Leafs might be less certain following whatever happens in the 2024 playoffs and while both have full NMCs, that doesn’t exclude the possibility of a trade, it just points to it being a bigger pain in the ass for Brad Treliving to navigate. Marner and Tavares are the extreme examples that make the point that this is all just an exploratory exercise that points largely to the Leafs having four key positions (2 top-4 defencemen, 1 middle six forward, and 1 goaltender) and about $15M-$16M to address those areas in a largely status quo roster situation. Potentially not an easy ask in a free agent market that is seeing it’s most significant post-COVID salary cap increase.
Salary information from Capfriendly
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