The Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the best forward groups in the league, but have a fastly-closing Stanley Cup Window. They have three of the top 20 players in the league in Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner. Their next three lines hold near-perfect complements to all of them. Zach Hyman has proven to be a top-line winger who can put up 40 points a year. William Nylander is shaping up to be the player he was paid to be. Andreas Johnsson, although not the best option, can out-skate many defenders he faces. On the blue line, they have a group led by Morgan Rielly, one of the best defenceman in the league! Looking further down the roster the Maple Leafs have the right pieces to make them a real threat to any team, any time of the season.
Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup Window Closing
Despite Toronto’s high amount of skill, they’ve let down once again and have been an early exit from the postseason. It’s another bad mark in a stretch of playoff-mediocrity for the Leafs. It begs the question: With the same guys slated to be playing for them over the next few seasons, how long can Toronto be Stanley Cup contenders?
Salary Cap Management
As a side effect of the coronavirus pandemic, the league has set the salary cap ceiling at a flat number of $81.5 million next season. This makes an already tough situation even tougher for general manager, Kyle Dubas, who in his second season as the general manager, has invested $45 million in only five players: Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, and Rielly. With only $36.5 million to sign the remaining pieces of their roster, it limits the team’s options for player movement. Toronto only has $4.5 million in space this offseason to sign their eight free agents. If Toronto were to trade and not sign all of them, this still limits who they can target during free agency.
With a crunch in cap, the Maple Leafs also have limited options to their trade endeavors. For example, let’s say Dubas wanted to trade for a top-six winger. Unless the player he’s targeting is on an entry-level contract, there aren’t many players they can go after. If a player is playing top-six minutes, they are likely getting paid to play in that role too. If Dubas wanted to send one of his top-six guys in return, he only has a few options to choose from. Hyman and Johnsson both make under $3.5 million, both contracts easy to pick up. However, the cap hit that would likely be brought back in by the Leafs would be more than they shed. This causes issues for the future if they’re looking to free up space. Of their high-priced players, Nylander is likely to be the first out of Toronto. However, $6.9 million is a lot to acquire for any team.
With the salary cap being flattened for at least the next three seasons, the Maple Leafs are in a bind. If they want to bring in fresh NHL-ready talent into the lineup for the future, they’re going to have to move some major pieces.
Lack of Defence
Toronto’s biggest criticism is their defensive play. They have their fair-share of forwards that can play a good two-way game, but their blueline needs some work. Lead by Morgan Rielly, the defence has been one or two-person show. This season especially, the back-half of the Leafs was a revolving door due to injuries. Tyson Barrie was the teams highest-scoring defender, picking up 39 points in 70 games played. Behind him, nobody really made too much of an impact. Justin Holl proved to be a viable option as a top-four defender. Travis Dermott showed he can be relied on in times of need, too. But nobody was really an all-star defender by any stretch of the imagination.
The team has good pieces coming up. Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren seem ready to make the jump next season, but won’t be hitting their best play for at least a season or two. Outside of those two, the defensive prospects don’t have too much hope of playing a significant role on the team.
As the saying goes, ‘Defence wins championships’. Toronto has the whole offence thing figured out, but without a competent blue line to back them up, it means nothing.
Shallow Prospect Pool
The Leafs haven’t found much success in the draft since Matthews in 2016. According to the Athletic’s Scott Wheeler, the Leafs only have the 21st best prospect pool in the league. If you’re looking to have a long window of playoff success, 21st does not make the cut. Nicolas Robertson leads the way of the group. He made his NHL debut during the Maple Leafs’ short playoff run, posting only one goal in the four games he played. He looked good off the puck, and his on-ice vision looked NHL ready as well.
Jeremy Bracco is the next forward behind him. With a deep winger-group in Toronto, Bracco might not see consistent NHL ice time for another season, maybe more. Outside of those two, Sandin, and Liljegren the team doesn’t have a deep prospect pool to keep the team fresh, young, and makes more of a case for their lack of longevity.
There are a lot of things that need to happen for Toronto to not make the playoffs on a consistent basis. The likelihood of them being in the bottom half of the league for more than one season in a row won’t happen for a little while. However, that doesn’t lead to consistent playoff success. A team that makes the playoffs numerous seasons in a row but has zero Stanley Cups to show for it is never a good thing. Look at the Minnesota Wild as a good example of this.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs want to win a Stanley Cup with the big five guys they have signed, with their window it’s essentially now or never. By the time the salary cap starts moving up again, the Leafs will be in a totally different place and be going in a totally different direction. If they don’t capitalize on their investment in the next three seasons, Toronto might need to think about tearing it down and starting over again.