The Toronto Maple Leafs need their prospects to step up. It is time. Someone. Anyone. General manager Kyle Dubas and the Leafs hierarchy have invested over half of their salary cap spending to five players. This has essentially eliminated their chances of making significant free agent additions in recent years.
The Leafs have been limited to adding marginal, bottom-of-the-roster players during the annual free-agent frenzy. On top of that, they have witnessed their own unrestricted free agents leave town. Frederik Andersen, Zach Hyman, Ilya Mikheyev, and Jack Campbell signed elsewhere in the last two offseasons. Prospects now need to fill prominent roles on the roster.
Trades Have Diminished Leafs Prospect Pool
Recent trades have seen the Leafs deal away many of their first-round picks. These transactions were made to make a playoff push or shed salary from previous front office mistakes. During this year’s draft, they sent their first-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks to unload Petr Mrazek and his bloated salary. A similar deal happened in 2019 when their first-round pick went to the Carolina Hurricanes to rid themselves of Patrick Marleau and his $6.25 million salary.
In 2021, the Leafs rented Nick Foligno for a handful of games to help in the playoffs at the expense of that year’s first-rounder. In January of 2019, the team acquired defenceman Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings, but again sent that summer’s first-round pick the other way. Muzzin is still with the club, but the Leafs have little to show from the other deals. They are now paying the price for those free agent contracts and the Foligno rental.
Recent High Draft Picks Face Increased Pressure
The Leafs most recent first-round pick was Rodion Amirov, taken 15th overall in 2020. Before that, it was Rasmus Sandin, taken 29th overall in 2018. Timothy Liljegren was taken in the first round, 17th overall in 2017.
Sandin and Liljegren have developed into regulars on defence. As other key defencemen age, one of them will soon be needed to step into the top two pairings. Amirov has encountered health issues and has missed time in his development. Rightfully, his sole focus should be on getting better.
The lack of recent first-round first-round draft picks developing in the system and free agent exits shifts the pressure to second-round picks Fraser Minten, Matthew Knies, and Nick Robertson. Despite a significantly less likelihood of second-round picks succeeding compared to first-rounders, they face lofty expectations of being in the spotlight of Toronto. Knies, with Minten not far behind, was the most scrutinized player at the Leafs recent player development camp. Some media and fans are already counting on him to fill a top-six role next spring after one year of school. But, no pressure kid.
Leafs Need Prospects to Step Up
The Leafs have invested significant resources into their front office personnel. They have an upper-echelon training facility and can offer higher salaries to many players on their Marlies roster. This has not helped them develop talent to replace departing players. Tomas Kaberle is their last late-round gem that was a significant contributor. They have not developed late-round top-four defencemen or top-six forward in twenty years. Contending teams can replenish their roster when their players head elsewhere. Drafting and developing your talent is a big part of this.
The Leafs have nailed their first-round selections of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly. Their core is set. However, locking up these key pieces has left the team tight against the cap. Young prospects need to fill important roles on cheap contracts. The Leafs have reached that point. A prospect or two needs to step up. Roster spots are available. The time is now.
Nick Robertson will make his @NHL regular season debut tonight. #LeafsForever https://t.co/OH9xOYGw6w pic.twitter.com/XuoxEUUtci
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 16, 2021