The Toronto Maple Leafs’ season is over at last. It was a little longer than us fans have been used to as of late. 6 games longer to be exact. 6 hard fought, high energy games against the Presidents Trophy winning Washington Capitals. We watched as our Buds forced the best regular season team to bring their “A” game each night or face defeat.
I feel nothing but pride for the team after watching those 6 games and I think all of the fans of the Leafs should. They bought into the system, refused to give up, and raised expectations to new heights….
The New Expectations
For better or worse this team will likely be expected to make the playoffs each year now. While management will preach patience and try to temper any expectations heaped onto such a young group, we all know that this is Toronto and things can get out of hand quickly. I for one will accept a step back next season if it means this new young core are developing. The real questions are still surrounding some of the old guard.
For what seems like forever now fans have spoken about how the old core needed to be removed from the locker room. While management did a swell job getting returns from Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, managed to shed players such as James Reimer, Jonathan Bernier, and Cody Franson, and removed the likes of Joffrey Lupul, Stephane Robidas and David Clarkson, there still remains some of the old group. James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak in particular, are where most fingers point. While there are many fans that would still like to see Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner on the move as well, it’s the former two that I will talk about, because, in my opinion, they link directly to how this team could fulfill the expectations that will come in the immediate future. Besides, with Nazem having a career year and a long term contract, and Jake having played so well in his defined role under Babcock, I would be very surprised if either one wasn’t here to start the 2017/18 season.
On a game to game basis the consistency of both Bozak and Van Riemsdyk is very debatable. Van Riemsdyk in particular can disappear for games on end. However, JVR does something consistently every single year and that is produce. Here is how his numbers look since he landed in Toronto for the 2012/13 season.
|Year||Goals||Assists||Points Per Game|
Those numbers are very difficult to replace. So, while I know JVR is the sexy pick to move for a defenseman right now, in order to replicate the high octane offense that made this team successful next season, a proper “Plan B” should be implemented if the Leafs intend on moving him.
The first candidates to take those minutes include the players in the system. Brendan Leipsic, Josh Leivo, Nikita Soshnikov and Kasperi Kapanen are the frontrunners for the minutes left behind by JVR. Leipsic did very well in the AHL this year by producing 51pts in 49 games. Kapanen was right there with him with 43pts in 43 games and also played very well for the Leafs in a 4th line role. Soshnikov has proven to be a fine NHL player but JVR type numbers are likely not going to come his way. While Leivo did (very) well in 13 games this year, with 2 goals and 10 points, he doesn’t have a proven NHL track record. None of those players do in fact, and that may be their downfall. You see, the problem here, and the reason why I am pointing out consistency, is because our team is lead by so many rookies. Sophomore slumps are common in the NHL and it should come as no surprise if some of our guys take a step back next year. The presence of a veteran with the ability to score 25-30 goals and 50-60pts, even on a poor roster such as the 2015/16 version of the Toronto Maple Leafs, could be a major boost to their chances at returning to the playoffs. This is something the guys in the system just don’t bring. With that in mind, it’s worth the time to look at possible replacements through trade or free agency.
The free agent crop this year is thin if you want a player for the left side. While there are fine players out there such as T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, for the most part they produce best from the right side (Note: how much of a factor did Leivo being a right shot have in his ability to see more games this year?). In fact, Patrick Marleau is the top producing left shot winger on the market this year. At 37 years of age does it make sense for him to join the Toronto Maple Leafs? One would have to think no.
The other option is to look once again to the KHL. The big stir around the NHL right now is the possibility of Ilya Kovalchuk returning to North America. Once considered one of the top goal scorers in the game with a booming one timer, currently it’s anybody’s guess how he can produce in the NHL. I don’t mean to question his ability though. If anything I’d be thrilled to see Kovalchuk in Blue and White. Why? Cycle through every goal by the Leafs for the entire season and tell me how many one timer goals were there? It’s a weapon they’re currently without, and while they did just fine on the power play this year it could be something that makes it even better. Marner feeding Kovalchuk for one timer goals on the second power play unit? Yes please!
The problem with Kovalchuk is the price. The New Jersey Devils still hold his NHL rights so they would need to trade for him. How much he is worth is debatable. Also, at this point in the rebuild do you give up younger players (even 2nd tier prospects) or picks for a 34 year old that has been out of the NHL for years? I would vote no.
Another KHL option is Evgeny Dadonov. At 29 years old he’s younger than Kovalchuk and should have another few good years left ahead of him. His KHL numbers look great as well. He’s a high skilled player and will likely come at a cheaper rate than his KHL teammate, as well as being free. I’m not opposed to signing Dadonov but we should go back to the point of all this and that’s consistency in the NHL. Is Dadonov simply an older version of Leipsic, Leivo etc? While he looks great and I’d be all for signing him, he’s a wild card in the NHL. You can lump other players such as Vadim Shipachyov into this category as well.
The trade market is a completely different animal and contains the player that, in my opinion, is the ideal candidate to not just have for this coming season, but for a long time after as well. Gabriel Landeskog has been rumored to be on the move for months now. The price is rumored to be very high for him, but a roster shakeup is a must for the Colorado Avalanche. I won’t talk much about what I believe would be a good return for their captain, but I would assume you would include a player such as Leivo, a good defense prospect such as Valiev or Nielsen, as well as a high pick and possibly a roster player. Then again, with the way the rumors are, this type of package could very well be laughed at by GM Joe Sakic.
In short, neither free agency or the trade market hold much in the way of a suitable, and affordable replacement for Van Riemsdyks production.
So, we’ll move on to Tyler Bozak. The other half of the duo fans would be most willing to move this offseason. What Bozak brings is a little bit of everything. While he isn’t an expert at anything outside of faceoffs, he’s simply an average all around player. He has a great attitude and finally eclipsed the 50pt mark for the first time in his career which is something to be proud of. Also, much like Van Riemsdyk, while you may not notice him every game, his point per game numbers are fairly consistent as well and generally are at or above 0.60ppg. With Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri in the fold he would be a little easier to replace however. Behind those two it would be easier to shelter the minutes of whichever player takes his place. If you ask me, the best candidate to do that is likely William Nylander, but Mike Babcock has already said he won’t play center next season. When Babcock said there would be pain we braced ourselves (which dulled the pain) and finished last in the NHL. When Babcock said we would be tougher the Leafs signed Matt Martin and brought back Roman Polak, two players that made the Leafs a tougher team to play against. So, when he says Nylander won’t play center I tend to believe him.
If you look to free agency for a replacement you run into much the same problem you do with JVR. There are fine players there such as Joe Thornton and Martin Hanzal, but none that really fit what you would look for. Thornton would likely pass on the Leafs because it’s not their time and he has to want to see his name on the Stanley Cup. Hanzal, while being good on paper, likely costs more than he’s worth, on a deal that would stretch longer than the Leafs would want for a player that is already in his 30s and too often injured.
Looking at the trade market is tough again, the expansion draft has so many things up in the air it’s anybody’s guess what happens. Here is a question I’d pose to Leafs Nation though:
If it meant landing the ideal LW candidate in a package (maybe Landeskog is only the ideal candidate in my opinion?) would you be willing to take on 3 more years of Carl Soderberg, at 4.45M per, as Bozaks replacement? Soderberg followed up 48 and 44 point seasons in Boston, with a 51 point season in Colorado, only to score 14 points this year. While this year’s production is terrible considering the contract, there are a few things to consider. First, the Leafs will likely wave goodbye to all of Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Stephane Robidas, Colin Greening, Sergei Kalinin and Steve Oleksy, as well as their combined $15.525M in cap hits. Meanwhile, they have Brian Boyle, Ben Smith (signed after this writing), Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick and Curtis McElhinney as UFAs, freeing up a further $6.925M in cap space. While RFAs Zach Hyman, Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev (now signed for 7 years, 4.5M per season) will all get raises, and they’ll need to sign a backup goalie and depth players, there will still be a lot of cap space left for the Leafs to take on players and this could be one way to do it.
Second, while a downward trend wouldn’t be surprising for Soderberg, considering he is 31 years old, such a drastic drop leaves me wondering how much of it was him and how much was the situation in Colorado. Getting out of that organization may be best for the player and the team. Especially considering he saw his ice time drop, PP time drop, SH% drop, and overall usage diminish. While adding scoring depth, center depth, size down the middle, and being a willing shot blocker (he lead all Colorado forwards in blocked shots in 2015/16, was 2nd in 2016/17 and was 4th in the NHL among forwards in 2015/16), Soderberg may be a steal for the Leafs while also being considered a salary dump, which could drop the asking price for Landeskog. Just a thought that I felt was worth throwing out there.
Back to reality though and the point of this long winded explanation. If the Leafs are to replicate the high end offense that made them so successful this season, it may be worth considering keeping these players until at least the NHL trade deadline. I know this thought won’t be received well but it’s a real possibility.
The Free Agents
When the Leafs first signed Nikita Zaitsev and fans spoke of him so highly, I warned of patience. We had seen this type of signing, hype and high expectations before in the form of players such as Rickard Wallin. Zaitsev was largely unknown to armchair GMs and had no real experience on North American ice. Nikita Soshnikov was allowed to fly under the radar in this regard and so far Miro Aaltonen has as well. Aaltonens scouting reports read like many other Leafs’ prospects in that he is undersized, highly skilled, and plays a determined game. It’s nice to see a management group follow through on a plan with vigor in this regard. They have chosen a path of high skilled players and for the most part they’ve stuck to that blueprint. It’s also nice to see these prospects get a chance to breathe for a change. In years past the need for offense would have resulted in these types of prospects being over exposed, over hyped, and likely rushed into the NHL before their time.
While some fans are questioning the teams ability to push back, and just a few paragraphs ago I selected Gabriel Landeskog as the ideal candidate to play on the left side for this team, partly due to his gritty style, the management group doesn’t seem nearly as worried about who does the trench work. Through drafting Carl Grundstrom, Keaton Middleton and J.D. Greenway to name a few, signing Matt Martin and Roman Polak, and trading for prospects Kerby Rychel and Tobias Lindstrom, they’ve shown that they know you still need gritty players in the game. Their persisting to sign players like Aaltonen shows that they are still committed to following their plan of skill first though and that’s what I wanted to commend them for here.
In short, for those wondering when enough small skilled wingers is enough, relax, the plan looks just fine so far.
What doesn’t look so great is the defense group….
The less talked about part of the plan is what we are seeing on the blueline. With Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner already in the fold, the Leafs chased the mobile Nikita Zaitsev, traded for Connor Carrick, drafted Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen with high picks, and even sought veterans like Hunwick and Polak (who skates very well for a “stay at home” defender of his size) to patrol their blueline. This screams mobility!!
Now, reports are stating that they will announce the signing of Calle Rosen immediately after the IIHF World Championship, where he is playing for Sweden. A smallish defender with big mobility, Rosen fits the mold they are looking for very well. With most assuming he will need time in the AHL to acclimate to the smaller ice surface, this is a depth signing that could pay off in spades in the long term.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on a solution to the immediate state of the Leafs’ blueline. There is a gap on the right side in the top 4 right now with virtually nobody on the way in the system to fill it. Though players such as Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen could push for playing time as early as the start of next season (with mid to late season being a realistic timeline for Dermott, and the start of 2018/19 for Nielsen), they play the left side. They won’t solve the Leafs’ problem in the immediate or distant future unless one of them, or a player like Rielly, moves to the right. Knowing how Mike Babcock likes his defense setup, it’s not impossible, but also not likely this is what they end up doing. The more likely scenario is finding a top 4 RHD through trade because there aren’t any in free agency.
This is basically the go to topic for Leaf fans at the moment, so I won’t beat it to death but I will give a little reminder about who may be out there. Jacob Trouba was rumored last season but apparently the asking price was a left defenseman of similar age and potential. The asking price from Toronto was said to be Morgan Rielly. While Trouba may be the ideal player for that spot, the asking price doesn’t make much sense. It has nothing to do with value, Trouba is a very high valued/skilled player, but more to do with sticking with your guy. We know what Rielly can do and we know he can do it under Mike Babcock, it’s pointless to gamble with that.
The Anaheim Ducks are ripe for the picking but recent rumors state that The Tampa Bay Lightning could dangle Jonathan Drouin in exchange for a left shot defender from them. The Ducks are deeper on that side and the Leafs likely can’t match the value of a player such as Drouin in a trade. This likely means getting a top end defender out of Anaheim would be tough. A secondary piece wouldn’t be impossible though and they have, in my opinion, just the guy for the Leafs in Josh Manson. He’s big, he’s tough, he’s mobile, and he can defend. While other defensemen might demand powerplay minutes and offensive zone starts, Manson could thrive in a defensive role and we don’t have enough of that in my opinion.
Minnesota is another team that is rumored to be willing to move defense. While players such as Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella are fine players in their own right, to me they just don’t have that perfect fit for the Leafs.
Last thought on this. Have we written off Connor Carrick too quickly for that spot? He brings a physical element our other top 4 players don’t have and fits the mobile mold. Maybe time is all he needs?
Either way, I believe that at this point, for this exact need, we should be looking for a guy that fits extremely well. No stop gap solutions. Similar to why teams interview players before the draft, they want to know that they’ll fit in the organization as well as on the ice….
Before the Leafs stepped to the podium to select Mitch Marner, 4th overall, it appears they put an offer out to Columbus to trade back to 8th. They would have landed a major package of draft picks in the deal. Later in the same draft they traded back not once, but twice, and ended up selecting Travis Dermott with the 34th pick. By trading down the Leafs afforded themselves the opportunity to draft Dermott as well as Jeremy Bracco with the 61st pick and Martins Dzierkels with the 68th pick.
While knowing full well that you can only have so many prospects, and each organization can only carry 50 professional contracts, I would propose the Leafs look to this strategy once again. While they once held three 2nds in this draft, they are now down to one after the trades for Frederik Andersen and Brian Boyle. They are without a 3rd round selection as well. This team is ahead of the curve in their rebuilding process but make no mistake, they are still a rebuilding team and picks/prospects are very important to a team that’s rebuilding. So, in a draft that is widely considered to be weaker than average it may be shots taken, rather than precision hits, that prove to be more fruitful.
I’ll leave you with the players that interest me the most as of now from the draft if they move back.
C – 5’11”, 198lb
Strong two-way centre that plays hard each shift. Good skater, good offensively, solid all situation player. 19pts in 42 games while playing in the SHL this season, followed by 5pts in 16 playoff games.
RD – 6’1” 182lb
Smooth skating, all situation defender. Never seems to rattle. 61pts in 67 games for Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds this season, followed by 8pts in 11 playoff games
LD – 6’6” 214lb
Moves well for a big man. Plays with a mean streak. Defends well and has offensive upside. Has been ranked all over the 1st round so will be tough to say if he’ll be there when the Leafs pick. 46pts in 65 games for the Mississauga Steelheads, followed by 11pts in 13 playoff games.
Callan Foote, Klim Kostin