After the extremely surprising, exciting and rewarding 2016-17 season the Maple Leafs can conclude that they are ready to win now. Luckily, after the perfect storm of small skilled forwards, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, falling into their laps later in the draft than they should have been taken, signing promising undrafted talent, opportune late draft picks, and winning the Auston Matthews sweepstakes, the Leafs are now in the position of having a large amount of cap- space in a period of time that may be unparalleled player movement. Now with a core of the aforementioned Big Three, Morgan Rielly, Frederik Andersen and their cap- friendly deals it’s time to look at the opportunities that would make the Leafs off-season cup favourites
The off- season overhaul begins with pressure induced moves the expansion draft brings. We will begin with the most obvious and talked about deal of the summer:
Emotionally, this may be a tough trade to swallow for the day-ones who love JVR and the leadership and goal scoring he brings to the team. However, with a glaring hole on the back-end and the pressure the expansion draft is placing on the Ducks there is no lower price you will pay for a top- three defensemen (think Hall for Larsson just a season ago). With that said there are multiple teams that are in the bidding for Vatanen, and many who are prepared to pay a lot for a top four defencemen (Tampa Bay and Jonathan Drouin perhaps?), it would take at the very least a player of Van Reimsdyk’s pedigree to pry him from Anaheim.
Next, the Leafs will continue to cut old ties as they look to clear cap-space and make room in their roster. As part of the expansion draft, the Leafs will make the following deal with the Vegas Golden Knights:
With future contracts in mind and assets being wasted sitting on the side-lines, the Leafs will improve Vegas’ chances at competing in 2017 while stocking their system with younger prospects who will be on ECLs when the big three have to sign their deals.
NHL Entry Draft
Although there are many hopefuls for the Leafs to draft, there are too many variables to project who the Leafs can and will take (e.g. Timothy Liljegren at 17, or Morgan Geekie being available later than projected in the draft, given his second year eligibility). However, there are some trades that could be fathomed on the draft floor for the Leafs to continue to stockpile picks, while gearing up for a very eventful free-agency.
The Leafs will start by unloading more young NHL-ready players that are taking up space for their up and coming CHL, college and overseas prospects in exchange for futures to be ready down the road:
The value of three young players who have yet to make a stamp at the NHL level but possess NHL skill is extremely high for the Blackhawks, a team who more than many cup contenders is feeling the bind of the NHL salary cap. The Blackhawks are likely to lose Trevor Van Reimsdyk (and Marcus Kruger) in the rumoured expansion deal and may have to move Nick Hjalmarsson to clear cap- space. Carrick is a great young skater, who is NHL ready and could definitely fill one of the newly found holes on the back-end. Griffith has also proven to be as-good-or-better than both Ryan Hartman and Tyler Motte at the NHL level and would seem like a potential winger on either of the top two lines at a very cap-friendly price.
The Leafs would then take the newly-received 26th overall pick and further secure their blue-line and slingshot themselves into the conversations of the NHL best:
This package includes the contract of Eric Fehr, a player who could still effectively play fourth line centre on a team focused on rebuilding (and tanking for Rasmus Dahlin), and Kirby Rychel, a promising prospect that came at very little cost to the Maple Leafs. Coming back the other way is Rielly’s ideal defence partner, the stay at home, defensive defencemen, Chris Tanev. It has been well documented that Tanev is offensively challenged but it has also been well documented how he is a shot supressing wizard. At this point the Leafs would already have Rielly, Gardiner, Zaitsev, and Vatanen making a very deep top-four, with the addition of Tanev they would boast a league best top- five with a total cap hit of 22.875 million (Nashville’s Stanley Cup championship top- four 19.250 million, which is supposed to be impossible to recreate). As for what Babcock thinks of defensive defencemen, see Marc-Edouard Vlasic over P.K. Subban and Kris Letang on Team Canada’s depth chart.
With the defence core mightily secure and bosting extreme depth and strength, the Leafs will make one more trade to dump a contract before rounding out their already impressive forward group:
Bozak, the last of Toronto’s former first line, has an expiring contract and still can fetch some value. Cutting this tie will finally release the Leafs from their past and let them finish their rebuild and look at some quality vets that can finally bring the cup back to Toronto.
With a glaring hole up the left side due to JVR being shipped out of town, the Leafs will make a move to employ one of the most prolific goal scorers of this generation:
The Maple Leafs will acquire Ilya Kovalchuk in a sign and trade with the New Jersey Devils with a price tag of a two- year, 13 million dollar contract. The amount of cap- space available for the next two years makes paying Kovalchuk a 6.5 million AAV bearable and adds a contributing member to their top six. The Devils and Leafs make ideal trade partners given cap- status, directions of their respective teams and the existing relationships between GM’s and players (despite common opinion it has been said multiple times how highly Lou thinks of Kovalchuk both on and off the ice, as a player and a leader). Although, Kovalchuk is not the player that left in ’13, he also lacked an elite playmaker that would be able to find him anywhere on the ice, Mitch Marner.
The final tally of Leafs picks is as follows:
After two of the most eventful and progressive weeks in Maple Leafs history, free agency is a time for the Leafs to dot their I’s and cross their T’s, and add one final missing link from the championship calibre team. First and foremost it is important that the Leafs take care of their UFA’s and desirable RFA’s.
Connor Brown – 3 year, 7.5 million
Brown, the unsung rookie of the bunch, came up in 2016-17 and performed well above expectations. His 20 goals as a rookie and defensive play is enough to get him a team-friendly 2.5 million AAV deal.
Zach Hyman – 5 year, 7.5 million
Hyman, a collage free-agent winger with top 9/fourth line talent, found himself a line-mate of a generational talent in 16-17. However, the first line isn’t where Hyman will spend his career, he knows it and so do the Leafs. Hyman will sign a 5 year deal with a 1.5 million AAV, and take his permanent spot on the fourth line wing.
Garret Sparks/Antoine Bibeau – 2 year, 2 million
Both AHL goalie farmhands will sign themselves two year deals with 1 million dollar AAVs where they will battle for position as Andersen’s back-up, with Sparks starting the year with the big club.
Justin Holl – 2 year, 750k
Holl has been a late bloomer but has yet to take the final step in becoming an everyday NHLer. However, he still stands as a great 7th option and a project that can continue to season in the AHL.
Restricted free agency is an avenue I am always hesitant to acquire player through. Often it is the team that is willing to overpay the most for a player that acquires his services. However, with that being said, it is not unheard of for some veterans to take team friendly deals to have a shot at a championship:
Brian Boyle – 2 year, 4 million
After a successful run with the Leafs and power moves made at the draft, Boyle will see a real opportunity to play for the Cup as he will reassume his role as the leader of one of the best fourth lines in hockey.
Joe Thornton – 2 year, 11 million
18- year veteran, WJC champion 1997, Olympic champion 2010, World Cup champion 2004, 2016, and zero Stanley Cups. The 37 year old, London, Ontario native has won it all, except the NHL’s most treasured prize: the Stanley Cup. No man was blind to the success of the 2016-17 iteration of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Thornton included, and with the splashes made in the off-season it would be hard to argue that they are contenders. Joe will return north of the boarder to join the surging Maple Leafs as their second line centre at an AAV of 5.5 million.
The 2017-2018 Maple Leafs
Before unveiling the opening day roster, many readers may be concerned with all of the prospects that went out the door. So here is a look at the Leafs non-NHL contracts:
Remaining prospects of note: Signed through 2017-18:
Miro Aaltonen, Andreas Borgman, Andreas Johnsson, Dmytro Timashov, Carl Grundstrom, Frederik Gauthier, Jeremy Bracco, Andrew Nielsen, Calle Rosen, Rinat Valiev
Adam Brooks, Joseph Woll, JD Greenway, Yegor Korshkov
Finally, your 2017-2018 Toronto Maple Leafs:
The first line should not be any surprise to hockey fans. Much like how Zach Hyman was miscast as a first liner, so was Kasperi Kapanen on the fourth, this simple switch will allow both player to excel based on their skill-set. The second line features two of the Leafs largest off-season acquisitions, two elite playmakers, and one of the best goal scorers of the current generation, would anyone be surprised if Kovalchuk could find his scoring touch of years past? Much like the first line, the third resembles last years. With Komarov no longer with the team, the opportunistic and gritty Josh Leivo will find himself as a permanent feature of the 2017-18 line-up. Last, the fourth line shows some defensive improvement, by replacing Kapenen with Hyman, from the one seen against the president’s trophy winning Washington Capitals.
2016 World Championship teammates, Morgan Rielly and Christopher Tanev, the perfect complements of defence and offense will allow each other to excel and make up Toronto’s top pairing. Next, long-time Leafs Jake Gardiner and new acquisition Sami Vatanen will solidify the Leafs top four with two well skating, puck moving, and defensively aware rear-guards. The third pairing will be a welcomed strength for the Maple Leafs. Impressive rookie Nikita Zaitsev, and up-and-comer Travis Dermott, will allow Coach Babcock to actively deploy three lines, and effectively manage the defences’ time on ice.
If Frederik Andersen is able to recreate his 2016-17 success with marginal improvement there should not be any debate that this version of the 2017-18 Maple Leafs would be nothing short of the Stanley Cup favourites.