There has been quite a bit of talk on how the Maple Leafs roster will shape up since the completion of the draft lottery.
Mock lineups have been presented by fans and media alike putting together a wide variety of permutations and combinations of current Leafs, future Leafs and potential Leaf targets via the draft, trades and/or free agency.
There is a definite feeling of anticipation in Leaf Nation in regards to what the Leafs will be doing to their roster as the team heads into its centennial season.
It is a different feeling than last year. Last season, the approach was fairly simple: rebuild. That started with the gutting of the team’s front office and coaching staff that resulted in the hiring of both Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello.
The message of a fresh start continued with the trading of Phil Kessel for a 1st round pick, Kasperi Kapanen, Nick Spaling and Scott Harrington.
A slew of low-key, low-budget signings built a roster with a lot of veterans with something to prove on short term deals, providing the Leafs assets to use throughout the season as trade. And indeed the Leafs did use that to their advantage trading a large number of veteran players away and hoarding more picks and prospects from other organizations.
The final shoe to drop was the trading of Dion Phaneuf in a surprising trade that landed the Leafs some lousy contracts, but also a decent prospect and a 2nd round pick, a result that was deemed impossible due to Phaneuf’s large contract.
After the Phaneuf trade, the slate really felt clean and things really began to feel fresh and new. This was necessary for the organization to take the next step in the process of a long, start from scratch, rebuild.
Having opened some significant cap flexibility, it allowed them to not only re-sign 2 key cogs to the future, Nazem Kadri and Morgan Reilly, to new 6 year contracts, it also leaves the door open for the team to do something this off-season of significance if they so choose.
The team is riding a huge high having won the draft lottery rights to select 1st overall. It is very possible that they build on that momentum and look to somewhat expedite the rebuild process.
From all their trades, the Leafs managed to accumulate a whopping 12 picks in the 2016 draft. They have put themselves in an excellent position to either continue to stock their cupboards with prospects or use some of these excess draft picks to acquire established talent.
Right now there are a few teams in tough with the salary cap. We have already seen a bit of movement already with the Blackhawks trading away a good young player like Teuvo Teravainen just to relieve themselves of the Bryan Bickell contract. Desperate times are calling for some desperate measures.
There is also an expansion draft that is on its way and this will definitely cause teams to start jockeying now to see who they could protect and who they might lose when the draft actually takes place.
The Leafs, armed with picks, assets and some cap space could be busy the rest of the month and into July.
They already began to shape the 2016-17 roster, moving one of their 12 draft picks this year to acquire the former Anaheim Ducks’ Fredrik Andersen to be their number 1 goalie. They also signed him to a big 5 year contract.
The deal cost them the 30th overall pick this year and a 2nd in 2017 but a price they could afford to pay having 3 2nds in 2017.
Andersen immediately upgrades a weak position and his new contract will allow time for a goalie of the future, be it Garret Sparks, Antoine Bibeau, or someone else to develop.
Could this deal cue another year of large roster turnover? Or could they still remain reserved and patiently pick and choose their next target, perhaps even taking another full year of watching and waiting.
There are many directions this could go.
The position the Maple Leafs put themselves in still allows them to do what they did last year.
We very well could see a low risk approach where the team fields a more veteran lineup, with a sprinkle of young prospects given an opportunity, and to play out the season again with an eye on another high top 5 pick (though Andersen may play them out of that range).
The Leafs are at around $62 million for 14 players, 2 others who could be placed on Long Term Injury, one retained salary and one buyout. If we exclude the injured parties (they are Nathan Horton and Stephane Robidas), the Leafs are looking at around $18 million in cap space.
They only have Martin Marincin, Frank Corrado and Peter Holland as their main RFAs, which they will have little trouble re-signing and they won’t impact the cap much at all.
The Leafs have Milan Michalek, Brooks Laich, Colin Greening, Matt Hunwick and Jonathan Bernier as pending UFAs in 2017. A half decent year from any or all these players could again allow the Leafs to make moves adding future assets for these veterans.
And there are a few free agents out there who offer similar qualities to the ones they picked up last year such as PA Parenteau.
But there are enough veteran holdovers to not need to add anyone. Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul (if healthy), James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov offer depth among the top 6.
Younger core players Nazem Kadri, Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner will continue to grow and based on their contract status, they’re in for the long haul. Same goes for Andersen.
If all goes well, there would be some roster spaces available for some of their young prospects to make the team out of camp.
The expected 1st overall pick, Auston Matthews has been penciled into the lineup. He is what the Leafs have needed since the departure of Mats Sundin. A big centre with skill, Matthews is the kind of top line centre all teams crave.
William Nylander was a regular at the end of the season and did not look out of place. Though lacking in size, his skill and creativity were on display. He is definitely a lineup cornerstone.
Mitch Marner tore through junior hockey to lead the Knights to the Memorial Cup. He put up all world numbers and was simply brilliant offensively. The size question continues to come up, but the reality is he’s outgrown the OHL and really shouldn’t be going back. He may be better off to take the pain to make gains in his game at the NHL level.
A slew of other prospects could fill the rest of the roster including Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, Tobias Lindberg, Fredrik Gauthier, Brendan Leipsic, Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown, Connor Carrick, Nikita Zaitsev, Stu Percy, Victor Loov, Scott Harrington, Rinat Valiev, Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau. (All but Marner, Matthews and Zaitsev dressed for the Leafs last year)
There are definitely enough bodies out there to survive another developmental season and ride out another short term pain for long term gain type of year.
However, with the depth of talent and smarts the Leafs front office has, one has to believe that the team will look to immediately make roster improvements for the upcoming season. They don’t appear to be a group who’ll sit on their hands and relax. They are patient yes, but if they feel the time is right, they’ll strike.
Having already struck a fairly significant trade for Andersen, there is a sense that this is just a small beginning to a big end.
So what does that mean? Obviously with the next big date after the draft being July 1st, it’s Free Agent Frenzy time.
The most talked about free agent is none other than Steven Stamkos.
Stamkos, the 26 year old, was recently captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Since the beginning of unrestricted free agency there hasn’t been any player who matched Stamkos age and supreme talent. It’s doubtful for a while anyone will match the payout he will get.
Now yes, it’s still early. We haven’t reached July 1st and thus technically he isn’t a free agent. But no other has come this far. If he makes it there, there will unquestionably be a few teams knocking on the door.
Will the Leafs be one of them? The answer has to be yes.
The Markham native may be exactly who Babcock described as the Ontario born player who returns ‘home’. What a homecoming it would be should he join the Leafs.
While the Leafs are far from the level of the Lightning, who went to the Cup finals last year and the conference finals this year (mostly without Stamkos), they appear to be an exciting team on the rise.
If Stamkos is willing again to be part of a growth movement, well he too could have strong mutual interest to come to Toronto if he doesn’t have the itch already.
The question is: for how much? That’s the million dollar question, or should it say $10 million.
That is how much Anze Kopitar re-signed for in LA. Jonathan Toews and Pat Kane signed $10.5 million to stay in Chicago.
Those are so far the only 8 figure cap hits but Stamkos surely will add himself to that list. Will the Leafs pay up? Well they can afford to now, and with some further accounting adjustments could make this deal work.
The huge elephant in the room however is Stamkos’ health. Stamkos suffered blood clots in his arm, a very serious condition and one that has been popping up a bit in pro sports. Pascal Dupuis had to retire from this condition. The NBA’s Chris Bosh may see his career abruptly end because of blood clots.
Unlike a broken bone or tear, which can heal, this could be a life altering condition. Quite the bad time for Stamkos with this being the time he could cash in with a life altering contract.
Because of this, the Leafs surely cannot go pay now and ask questions later. There will be a lot of questions to ask, and right now, not all the answers can be given. So a signing will require risk. Do the Leafs go there?
If not Stamkos then who? Well the crop is thin. There will be a bevy of players who’ll get paid and it is hard to say if the Leafs want to play that game.
After some foolish free agent choices like David Clarkson and Mike Komisarek, the Leafs may want to avoid big dough to non-sure things. But a few mid range options are intriguing.
Jimmy Vesey is a very popular name within Leaf Nation. Yes, he did just get traded to Buffalo as the Sabres attempt to sign him prior to August 15. But, the Vesey camp may still want the freedom to choose. At this moment, he’s still a free agent to be. Vesey can only sign an entry level deal so is affordable.
He has ties to the Leafs with his dad being a scout and his brother a recent draft pick of Toronto. He just finished a great career at Harvard and could be the hottest free agent out the NCAA ranks. The Leaf ties may give them a bit of an edge, but more importantly he could be afforded a great opportunity to play right away with a lot of jobs up for grabs. That will be the Leafs selling point. That was likely Buffalo’s selling point too.
Darren Helm is someone Babcock knows very well from his time with Detroit. Helm is a smart, defensive forward with great speed. Last season he chipped in with 13 goals and a 50% face off rate. He was about average when it came to his possession numbers with a 51% Corsi rating. He would help the penalty kill which has lost a few bodies with the trades of Spaling, Daniel Winnik and the likely departure of Michael Grabner.
Ben Lovejoy was a huge part of the Pens PK in the playoffs. He has developed into a solid depth defenceman option. His playoff success may lead to an expensive contract, but if he can come cheap, he would be a solid option. He shoots right, he is strong defensively and he can move the puck.
Jamie McGinn would be an interesting pickup for the Leafs. He has size and scoring ability and willing to be physical, something the Leafs do need at forward. It will be curious where he is slotted in financially as he looked superb playing along side Ryan Getzlaf, but looked rather bad on the bad Buffalo Sabres team. If, like Lovejoy, he comes cheap and on short term, he would be a good addition for Toronto.
Trevor Lewis is another role player who had good possession numbers (55% Corsi) albeit on a very good possession team. But, since that is the kind of game the Leafs want to play, it can only help having a veteran player like Lewis on a young team like Toronto.
If the free agency thing doesn’t work out for the Leafs, the other option will be to find trade partners.
There should be a few names out there which Toronto will have some interest in. And again, the Leafs have some cap space, lots of young assets and draft picks to move, and it seems there are teams out there looking to trade.
They’ve already addressed goaltending with Andersen but have needs still elsewhere.
There have been a couple of interesting defenceman who’s names have come up in rumours. Jonas Brodin, who is signed to 2021, is reportedly available from the Wild. Jacob Trouba, a Restricted Free Agent, has had his name in rumours the last year or so. The Leafs defence is a work in progress and either of these two players could fill a big void.
Trouba has appeared to regress according to some but he is still only 22, a young age for a defencemen. He scored 10 goals in his rookie season, but has not produced great numbers in the following 2 years. But for Trouba, its not always about the numbers. He has still excellent potential as a two way defenceman and he shoots right handed which adds value.
Brodin was also excellent as a rookie playing alongside Ryan Suter. But hasn’t shone as much since in the last couple seasons he has not played exclusively with Suter. He is not an offensive defenceman, but he is skilled, can move the puck and is positionally sound. Either player would be a coup for the Leafs.
Up front there is a need to be bigger and be harder to play against. Ideally they can find someone with a willingness to play physical. With some high end talent on the way, it will pay dividends if they’re well protected.
At the same time, you’ve got to be able to play, especially for Babcock.
A player like Martin Hanzal would be a great addition. No, he won’t drop the gloves, but he’s a handful. A 6’6 centre who’s excellent defensively but with enough skill to chip in offensively, he’d be a great fit.
Something has to give in Tampa and in the end a player like Alex Killorn could be available. He had great possession numbers in Tampa. He’s strong along the boards and in the cycle. He has enough skill to keep up with top players. He’s the kind of unsung player teams win with.
Dwight King is the kind of big, physical player Toronto could use. King can actually play. He’s a load to handle and can get in on the forecheck. Playing in LA he knows how to play a strong defensive possession game, exactly what Toronto is building. At $1.95 million and on the last year of his deal, he could save LA cap space, a team who sorely needs it.
There’s likely quite a few targets the Leafs have in mind. It’s all a matter of do they strike now or wait?
What they probably will not wait on is finding new homes for Bozak, Bernier and if possible, Lupul. That could shave significant cap space, but finding other parties to take these players on will be a tall task (though Bozak has decent trade value).
All in all, we could see a low key, mild summer, or a wild one in Leaf Nation.
Whatever it is, they’ve gotten a goalie, they will likely draft a franchise centre and have Marner on the way. Anything else seems like a super, surprise bonus. And everyone knows, Leaf Nation likes their surprises.