The current depth chart for the Leafs, as it pertains to the forwards, is fairly impressive. Not only do they have some top end, proven players, but they also have some young kids on the Toronto Marlies that are pushing for spots on the big club.
Now that Kyle Dubas has been named GM of the Maple Leafs I fully expect those kids to get a fair shake at making the big club as well. If anybody knows their capabilities it’s Dubas considering he helped build the team and has worked closely with them over the past few years. So what does this mean for the Leafs and where are their areas of most concern?
The funny thing about the forward position, and trying to explain how you see the following years roster shaping up, is the multitude of possibilities that can play out. Will William Nylander finally play centre? Will we get a surprise audition at camp? Who comes in and who goes out? I’ll do my best not to go overboard with predictions and simply explain how I see things as they stand right now.
We’ll start at left wing. The locks to play the left side at the moment are Zach Hyman, Patrick Marleau, Andreas Johnsson, and, unless he’s traded, Matt Martin. They are the four players that are currently under the Leafs control for next season in some way, and that have played the position previously. It’s possible that Hyman, being a right shot, could move to the right side, but for now we’ll assume he stays on the left.
The good thing about this group is their variety. The puck pursuit of Hyman, big body scoring of Marleau, speed and skill from Johnsson, and bruising play of Martin will ensure Mike Babcock has a player for any situation. They all bring a little something different to the table and I love that about this group.
At right wing things are a little more complicated. The locks there are Williams Nylander, Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, and Connor Brown. The only reason I wouldn’t include William Nylander in this group is because of his ability to play centre, coupled with the fact that the Leafs are thinnest down the middle. Barring a big centre acquisition it’s very possible that’s where he plays this season. For now we’ll call him a right winger though. It’s where he’s played so far in his career so we’ll assume he stays there under Mike Babcock.
This group has a little less versatility than the left side, but what they lack in versatility they make up for in skill. While they are less versatile, they aren’t exactly the same either, this is a group that boasts elite passing, shooting, speed and determination. Theres not much to hate here.
Where this team lacks depth is at the centre position. The most coveted of the forward positions is exactly where the Leafs have come up short for what feels like forever now. The locks here are Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri…… end list. Outside of that list players either need to be signed, resigned, traded for, or graduate from the Marlies or another league in order to fill all 4 spots.
We’ll start with the in-house options. Miro Aaltonen had a terrific training camp last year and followed it up with a solid season playing for the AHL Toronto Marlies. He knows his way around both sides of the puck, and at 24 years old he may be ready to jump into the NHL. He won’t likely demand top 6 minutes, but a 4th line role isn’t out of the question. The same can be said for recently signed Par Lindholm. Having plied his trade in the SHL over the past 4 seasons he has developed into a solid 2-way centre with some upside. The book is still out on what he can do at the NHL level but it’s generally accepted that he could jump right in to fill the 4C spot. Time will tell. Outside of those two some might consider Frederik Gauthier as a possible 4C option, but I have found that he looks too slow in the NHL. Maybe (hopefully) this is the year he surprises me. It also seems that players such as Adam Brooks and Trevor Moore could use more AHL time.
So, in short, Matthews and Kadri can fill two of the top three positions down the middle, and Dubas very well could fill in the 4th line spot in house, but they are still missing a player to fill in as a 2/3 line centre.
Where to add?
This is where things get interesting because your options are basically endless. The Leafs aren’t restricted to just adding a centre, technically they just need to add a player to boost their scoring depth or fill whichever role they choose, and it really doesn’t matter what position that player fills. However, that statement hinges on William Nylander. If you truly believe he ends up as an NHL centre then there’s no better time than the present to start him there. So, basically, if there is a free agent that you really covet that plays the left side, get that player and shift Hyman to right wing while shifting Nylander to centre. If your prize free agent is a right winger you simply shift Nylander to centre to make room. If it’s John Tavares (because until he’s signed there are no other centres (or players?) worth talking about, right?) that you manage to wrangle into the blue and white then Nylander stays right where he is and it’s business as usual.
For the time being (and for discussion sake), lets pretend John Tavares isn’t coming to Toronto. Good bet there, it’s rare to see a player of his calibre move to a new team through free agency anymore. What other options are out there to fill the void as a forward that adds depth scoring?
(in no particular order)
In no way, shape, or form has Kovalchuk been linked to the Leafs, yet he’d be a terrific fit. A weapon not currently on the team is a good 1-timer and we all know that is exactly what Ilya brings to the table. He has great size and a willingness to battle. He isn’t mentioned often enough in my opinion, and with reports coming out that the 35 year old would be willing to sign a mid-term deal, and wants to go to either a contender or a team that is expected to win soon, I think the Leafs fit the bill. He could join a team with a couple of his countrymen on it already as well, that may count for something. (It has since been reported that he is looking for a contract similar to Patrick Marleau, 3 years @ 6.25M per season. This may be a little steep considering you aren’t 100% sure of what he is anymore. However, on the right contract I think he could be a fit)
If the Leafs want to start bringing in players that are looking to fulfill their childhood dreams then Nash could be a good start. Like Kovalchuk, he’d add size to a small roster as well as scoring depth. He’ll be 34 by the time the season starts, so how much he has left in the tank and what type of contract he’ll want will be a question. It would be interesting to see him in a Leaf uniform. He’s still good for 20+ goals and 40+ points if he can manage to stay healthy for a full season.
I’m a big fan of Stastny. He’s an all around player with a proven track record and he’d be a perfect fit to compliment Matthews and Kadri in the top 9. A good setup man, faceoff man, powerplay contributor, and he can help a little on the penalty kill, he’s a guy that you want on your roster. My only question would be contract term. At 32 years old it could be a mistake to offer 5-7 years but that may be what it takes to land him. Great player if you can get him.
This one is a little more complicated than the rest because of why I would like to add this player. I’ve long been a supporter of fighting in hockey. I believe it’s part of the game, and having seen enough questionable hits that go unsuspended I think it will remain that way for the foreseeable future. I’ve also said that I believe a player that fights needs to do more as well. Patrick Maroon does more. This 6’3” 230lb winger has played 375 regular season NHL games, scoring 78 goals and 178 points. He’s also suited up for 47 playoff games where he has scored 13 goals and 27 points. Couple that with 47 career fights and you get a big guy that can hit, fight, and contribute on the score sheet. If the rumours about moving on from Matt Martin are true then it might be a good idea to bring in a little bit of ruggedness in his place, Patrick Maroon fits the bill. If they keep Martin and play him then my opinion might change.
What would I do?
At the end of the day the Leafs have put themselves in a great position. They can shoot for the moon and chase the biggest free agents on the market this season if they want, and it shouldn’t cost them their future because of their terrific cap situation. However, if they strike out they could easily add a 2nd tier free agent and still have a successful season. While their playoff hopes might not rise much, they could probably make it to the playoffs without adding any free agent forwards at all. They have some winger prospects that could graduate, such as Mason Marchment or Carl Grundstrom, and simply moving Nylander to the middle would still give them 4 capable centres. Also, with the way it all breaks down, if you add one of the players listed above you can still find games for the Marlies looking to break into the NHL, they’ll simply suit up as injury replacements, or you sit a player like Matt Martin to make room.
As for what I’d do, assuming John Tavares isn’t an option by July 1st? Depending on their contract demands I think I’d put Ilya Kovalchuk and Rick Nash at the top of my list. This team needs more size and players that are hard to handle around the net. After that I’d look to add a depth option on a short term deal that can play both centre and the wing. Tim Schaller and Mark Letestu would be examples. From there I’d look to the depth of the Marlies to fill in when needed. This isn’t a year where they NEED to add an elite talent at forward to take a step forward, not that I’d pass on that, but they simply need to continue to support their young talent, add scoring depth, and make sure they have players that are capable at each position.
So what would you do if John Tavares doesn’t hit the market? Who is your top free agent and who are your under the radar picks? Let me know Leaf Nation!!
***I ran through the goalie position in my last article and the forwards in this one,. Next up is the defense!!**