From last place to game seven of the first round against the President’s Trophy winners, the Toronto Maple Leafs completed one of the biggest turnarounds in sport. Now the question is, what happens next? The Leafs off-season moves will be looking to answer that question. They are a team bursting with young stars on both ends of the ice but what do they need to do to continue their rise to contenders in the NHL.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Off-Season Outlook
What they have:
As any fan of the NHL knows the Leafs have an abundance of youth. Two players made the All-Rookie team last season, with probably three more on the outside looking in. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev entered the league, and took it by storm. Matthews led all rookies in scoring with 40 goals and 69 points. Marner helped the cause by leading all rookies in assists with 42, only three more than teammate Willy Nylander who, during his rookie year, had more power play points than Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane. There is no doubt that the youngsters can play, now the Leafs have to hope they continue their development.
Apart from the young buds, the Leafs have some veterans who fit together with ease. Tyler Bozak, the Leafs face-off specialist; James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, and Leo Komarov help bring balance to a young group of forwards. Add in another rookie in Zach Hyman and the Leafs have three lines that can compete with most teams in the NHL. Kadri, Komarov and Brown played a shut down role against some of the best in the league. It doesn’t look like head coach Mike Babcock is going to change that. If the line of Matthews, Nylander and Hyman continue to run rampant across the league it may make his decision a little easier next year. In order to do that though they will need to sign Brown and Hyman back.
The forwards aren’t the only strength of this young team. On the blue line core is made up of, for lack of a better term, veterans like Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner as well as the aforementioned Zaitsev and fellow youngster Connor Carrick. They can round out their Top-six with the likes of assistant captain and UFA Matt Hunwick as well as fellow UFA Roman Polak or one of Alexey Marchenko or Martin Marincin, although the most likely option would be Polak.
In the crease, the Maple Leafs can hang there hat on a goaltender for the first time since Ed Belfour or Curtis Joseph in the early 2000’s. Frederik Andersen entered the fray via a trade last off season for two draft picks, one of which turned into Sam Steel of the Regina Pats. For a goalie the Leafs can bank on for the foreseeable future, the trade has them smelling like roses.
What they need:
Despite all the positives, the Leafs do have a few holes to fill this off-season if they want to compete in the Eastern conference moving forward. Re-signing Brown, Hyman, Hunwick and Polak could be the biggest priority of the Maple Leafs brass. Suring up those holes would go a long way in making this team a contender.
On top of that, they still need to figure out their fourth line situation. Brian Boyle, the pending UFA, was a big reason why the Leafs pushed the Capitals to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. His face-off ability cannot be understated and his presence in the locker room will not go unnoticed. If the Toronto management team wish to bring him back they don’t have to look much further than his last contract for a target. His $2 million cap hit was more than affordable and would be a smart investment for a year or two.
If they are unable to resign the big centreman the Leafs need not look any further than their AHL team for a replacement. Frederik Gauthier would be the perfect replacement in Boyle’s absence. Both players played 21 games for big club last season and Gauthier’s 51.1 face-off percentage is actually better than Boyle’s 51.0 percent, albeit not by much. He would be a very strong candidate to replace the veteran Boyle if he unfortunately does walk. However, Gauthier may not be ready to start the season, after suffering a serious injury in the AHL Playoffs.
Frederik Gauthier facing lengthy recovery, as long as six months, from lower-body injury. Was playing as well as he has all season. Tough.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) May 8, 2017
The Leafs brass will also need to fill the hole behind Andersen in net. The back up last season, Curtis McElhinney, is one who should be targeted. Last season he posted a 2.7 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage in a back up role, something the Leafs may not be able to afford to lose. Apart from McElhinney, UFA Anders Nilsson could be a smart acquisition. He posted a 2.67 goals-against-average and .923 save percentage in the crease for the Buffalo Sabres last season. Both would be prime fits to back up Andersen.
What could they do:
Outside of general needs the Leafs could look to improve as well during the Free Agent Frenzy that is the NHL off-season. As mentioned, they have a strong group of four defensemen already under contract for next season. And with the addition of the young Timothy Liljegren in the Entry Draft, the core is set for the future. But the Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello may want to pick up a free agent defenseman to create a top 6 that can compete with any in the league.
The Leafs could look to add a big name along the lines of Kevin Shattenkirk or Karl Alzner. Both defensemen would probably require big money, which the Leafs could do with a projected $14+ million in cap space. If Brendan and Lou aren’t willing to shell out the big bucks for multiple year deals they could just as easily look towards players like Brendan Smith, Michael Stone or even Michael Del Zotto. Smith could be the most intriguing, as his cap hit last season was a modest $2.25 million. He won’t light up the scoreboard but he could be a strong defensive add to the Leafs blue line.
Regardless of the movement the Leafs decide to make this summer one thing is definitely clear, they are trending in the right direction. With Matthews and Marner both still on rookie contracts for two more years, they have the ability to build a winner. Now they just have to put it together on the ice.
Main Photo: BUFFALO, NY – JUNE 25: Toronto Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello attends the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)