The Toronto Maple Leafs Defence Hasn’t Been Forgotten

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A few days ago, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk made some outlandish comments on TSN’s CRFA 580. Usually, when Melnyk has a speaking engagement of any sort, it’s a sign to get a comfy chair and a bag of popcorn. Friday’s interview on 580 was no different, although this time he didn’t just make ridiculous comments about his own team. Instead of just infuriating his own fan base again, he also decided to sling some mud at his provincial rivals. Specifically, Melnyk attempted to call out the Toronto Maple Leafs defence.

“Somebody forgot about defence,” Melnyk on CRFA 580

There is a shred of truth in Melnyk’s comment. Not that someone literally forgot about the team’s defence, but that the blue line is the biggest point of concern for this team. The question is did the Maple Leafs make mistakes when undergoing their rebuild? The short answer is no. They’ve always taken the best players available, that’s just the smart thing to do. The Senators will be smart to take the same approach Toronto did as they rebuild. We’ll see how that goes.

The Toronto Maple Leafs Defence In The Years To Come

Toronto is stacked at the forward position. They have three, arguably four, superstars in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares. William Nylander is right behind them and there’s still Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen as well. The perceived problem here is that the Maple Leafs can’t afford all these forwards, or at least they can’t and still have enough money left over to improve their defence. There are two things wrong with that statement. For one, the Maple Leafs defence isn’t really all that bad, not this year, and it won’t be in the future, and they also will have enough money to add to the defence in future years.

The team may not be able to add a top defenceman this coming off-season, but that group of forwards listed above is going to be in Toronto for a long time. The Maple Leafs aren’t building a team to make a single attempt to win a cup. They don’t want to go from a Conference Final one year to second last in the NHL the next year. The Maple Leafs want to be contenders every year, for many years.

Toronto Maple Leafs Defence Isn’t Bad

Before digging into the meat of the future of the Maple Leafs defence, let’s just stop and look at the current team. They have Morgan Rielly, who won’t win the Norris trophy but is in the conversation. The added Jake Muzzin just ahead of the trade deadline. Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott are expected back for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They also have a pile of potential depth and minute eaters in Calle RosenJustin Holl, and others.

That defence group isn’t the same calibre as the forwards. The forward group is among the league’s best. It’s easy to see an average defence, which is what the Maple Leafs have, and think of them as bad compared to a stellar group of forwards. However, they’re a capable group when healthy.

The Maple Leafs have Rielly at a very reasonable $5 million per year for the next three years and he could win the Norris trophy one of those years. That’s not bad for a team that allegedly forgot about their defence.

Big Salary Cap Percentage

Matthews is signed for five more years after the current season. Let’s look at those five years as the window the Maple Leafs have to win a Stanley Cup, although it could easily go much longer if Matthews signs an extension. We don’t know how long Marner will sign for, or how much his contract will cost. Let’s assume he signs for at least five years at something just under Tavares: $10.5 million a season. That would mean next year, the big three of Matthews, Marner, and Tavares eat $33.134 million next season. That’s 40 percent of the cap, which is a large number.

The Washington Capitals top three take 32 percent of the cap hit this season. The Tampa Bay Lightning‘s top three will take up 31 percent next year. The low 30s in cap percentage seems like a good goal for a team’s top three players to consume. The Maple Leafs will get there, and in the meantime, we’ll see just how creative Kyle Dubas can be to fill the rest of the roster.

2019-2020 Big Three Cap Hit: 40%

There’s little room to improve the defence next year it’s true. They’ll probably lose Gardiner too. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Even if they lose Gardiner, they’ll have a solid left side with Rielly, Muzzin, and Dermott. It will be the same old problem on the right side though. Ron Hainsey will be gone, which may not be that bad. Nikita Zaitsev could be the only right-handed shot.

If Dubas can somehow find a way out of Zaitsev’s and Patrick Marleau‘s contracts, the door could be open to adding someone significant to the right side next year. If not, they may be able to add Rasmus Sandin to the roster, although he’s another left defenceman. It’s not likely he’ll make a significant impact, but Timothy Liljegren could also crack the top six. Liljegren is a right-handed defenceman.

Next season will be the toughest one cap-wise, but assuming the cap continues to rise, it will get easier for the Maple Leafs in 2020-21. By then, they may be able to add more to the defence, and they’ll have a lot more playoff experience. Even if it is two first-round exits. These projections are being made under the current salary cap growth model. Changes could be made if there’s an opt-out on Sept. 1 which will end the CBA after the 2020 season or it will end after 2021-22.

2020-2021 Big Three Cap Hit 38%

We’ll assume the cap increases by four million per season. If it does, the big three cap hit will drop to 38% in 2020. There will also be a few UFAs including Marleau, if Dubas didn’t get rid of it already, Muzzin, Connor Brown. That will give the Maple Leafs another $12.35 million to play with. They’ll lose Muzzin, probably, but they’ll still have Rielly, and Dermott will likely be ready to be on the second pairing full time by then. He is now arguably.

The Maple Leafs may have some roster holes at the forward position by 2020, but Dubas has already proven very capable at filling those holes on the cheap with players like Tyler Ennis. Toronto will be able to really improve the defence in 2020. This is the first year I really think of the Maple Leafs being a very strong contender for the Stanley Cup. Heading into the playoffs, Matthews, Nylander, and Marner will be 23, 23, and 24 respectively. Rielly will only be 27 himself.

If the Maple Leafs have given Rielly another top defender to partner with, this team could be something special. Let’s assume the Maple Leafs spend a good portion of that $12 million they have on a top paring right-handed defenceman.

2021-2022 Big Three Cap Hit 36%

It’s difficult to guess what the team will look like this far out. Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen will need new contracts or replacements at this point. Maybe goaltending becomes an issue here, but between Hyman and Andersen’s expiring contracts, and another four million cap increase, the Maple Leafs will have $11.1 million to spend.

By this time, Sandin and Liljegren will be known commodities. Ideally, they’ll be playing well and contributing. The Maple Leafs defence could look something like this by 2022:

Rielly $7-8 million dollar man
Dermott Liljegren
Sandin Rotation of Veterans and cheap youth.

Sandin and Liljegren will need new contracts by now, but they shouldn’t be commanding top dollar at this point. If they are, then maybe that $7-8 million dollar man isn’t needed.

2022-2023 Big Three Cap hit 34%

Nazem Kadri and Rielly will need contracts this year. Rielly will command a raise, the Maple Leafs will able to afford him with the extra cap dollars. Kadri’s $4.5 million will probably be used to sign cheap depth or resign current, younger players. Maybe some of his $4.5 is allocated to Rielly as well, if he’s continually in the Norris trophy talk and he isn’t showing signs of slowing down.

At this point I’m assuming the cap is at $95 million. Again, that’s a four million increase per year since 2019-2020’s $83 million. Matthews’ cap hit in 2019-2020 is 14 percent. In 2022 it will be 12%. Let’s assume Jack Hughes is drafted by the Colorado Avalanche and he demands top dollar. Since he’s playing for a team that can pay him, he may ask for a similar type of deal to Matthews’ in 2022 when his entry level contract expires. At 14 percent of 95 million, Hughes could be signing for over $13 million a season. The Maple Leafs’ top three salaries are looking much better at this point, and the team may have already won a Stanley Cup as well.

2023-2024 Big Three Cap hit 33%

This is the last year with Matthews, Nylander, and maybe Marner, under contract. At this point the roster could look like anything. One thing for sure is the debate about how Toronto can’t afford to keep all three of Marner, Matthews, and Nylander will be raging. If the team has won a Stanley Cup by now, Leaf fans will enjoy the debate, if not, well there may be significant changes already in progress.

TORONTO, ON – OCTOBER 18: Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates the puck trailed by Derick Brassard #19 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 18, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Penguins defeated the Maple Leafs 3-0.(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)