Toronto Maple Leafs Roster Moves Are Risky, But Understandable

Toronto Maple Leafs Roster Moves
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The Toronto Maple Leafs management team made some risky roster moves this week to start free agency. Critical chatter, of course, followed shortly thereafter. “Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.” Such is the way in hockey-mad, championship-starved Toronto. Yet, it can be argued that their current roster is better than the one they iced for Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning last spring.

While “doom and gloom” have been the prominent reaction to their moves this week, all is not lost. Comparing the Maples Leafs roster from then to now, there is no doubt that the forward unit is weaker. However, their defence is also deeper. The wildcard is the goaltending. Based on last season the easy, immediate conclusion is that they are worse off. The conservative move would have been to re-sign Jack Campbell. The Leafs chose a precarious, but justifiable route.

NHL free agent frenzy

Toronto Maple Leafs Roster Moves Contain Risk

Not Resigning Campbell Was The Right Decision

Campbell was well-liked by fans, media, and teammates alike during his time in Toronto. But, it was evident early on in contract talks that he and his agent were looking for a five-year term. With other teams needing help in goal, it was clear they have would have no problem getting that term once free agency started. The back end of that deal, to a goalie on the wrong side of thirty, was a commitment that the Leafs were not willing to make. A big reason for the Leafs current salary cap problem is a similar contract given to captain John Tavares.

This was the right call. Remember, last season was the affable Campbell’s first as a full-time starter in the National Hockey League. It came with injury issues. There was also a midseason dip in performance. Goaltending is a volatile position. There are few of them in the NHL that deserve a five-year commitment. Campbell has yet to prove he is on the same level as Andrei Vasilevskiy. Instead, the Leafs chose to go with a younger tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov. Yes, both acquisitions come with risk, but so did Campbell. Also, their shorter-term deals allow the Leafs more flexibility.

More Depth On Defence

Even with the recent departure of unrestricted free agent Ilya Lyubushkin, the Leafs have more depth on defence compared to last season. Core pieces Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, and Jake Muzzin are joined by Mark Giordano, Justin Holl, Timothy Liljegren, and Rasmus Sandin (assuming he signs). The signings of Victor Mete and Jordie Benn provide more depth and internal competition for jobs. There will be capable bottom pairing defencemen waiting to get into the lineup should performance or injuries dictate it.

Some have been clamouring that Muzzin should be traded to create much-needed cap space but fans must remember that he has a no-trade clause. He also provides leadership and a physical element to the roster. With only two years remaining on his deal, keeping him on the team at least through next season is the appropriate choice.

Forward Depth Has Dwindled

The “Core Four” of forwards remains intact. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander will once again be counted on to lead the team. Matthews and Marner are top ten players league-wide and should not be moved anywhere. As frustrating as Nylander can be, he drives play and is a gifted goal-scorer on a reasonable deal. He should also stay. Tavares’ deal is a hindrance, but he also has a no-trade clause, and no other team would want that contract. So, the Leafs must hope he continues with his secondary scoring to take pressure off the top line and carry on with his face-off contributions.

The problem now is the depth at forward has taken a hit. Gone from last season are Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase, Jason Spezza, and Colin Blackwell. It hurts to lose Mikheyev, but he was often injured and he is not a nearly $5 million-a-year player. Spezza’s leadership and offensive contributions will be missed. Kase is a hard worker, but with a worrisome injury history. It was not worth risking a loss in his RFA arbitration case. Blackwell can easily be replaced. The signing of Calle Jarnkrok helps to fill a spot on the bottom two lines. It’s also for a reasonable $2.1 million per year cost. In a salary cap world, trouble arises when you overpay for middle or bottom of the roster players.

Expect More Fringe Roster Moves

Signing Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Adam Gaudette, Mete, and Benn certainly doesn’t create excitement. But, the Leafs success will be determined by Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander up front along with Rielly, Brodie, and Muzzin on the back end. Yes, the tandem of Murray and Samsonov in net is a big gamble. Yet, signing Campbell with Samsonov or Kallgren as his backup would have been a similar risk. Any further off-season moves will likely address the bottom six group of forwards. Contributions from prospects such Nick Robertson and Nick Abruzzese must happen.

The Leafs have chosen to stick with their core seven players mentioned above. Remember, after the series loss to the Lightning many said this team should “run it back”. It appears that they will. At least for one more year.