Leafs Off-Season Preview: Summer of Change
The Kyle Dubas era begins this summer as the young executive takes over the GM role of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
With a team coming off a season where they broke team records for wins and points, he inherits a talented squad loaded with some young stars.
He also comes off building a winner in the AHL as the former Toronto Marlies GM who won the Calder Cup.
This will be a much bigger and tougher challenge to put together a Stanley Cup winner. He does however have a strong core group in place and now needs to support that group with the right mix of players to move the team towards that ultimate goal.
The Calder Cup win showed off the organizational depth and young talent at their disposal. Yes that team had vets, but the likes of Andreas Johnsson, Timothy Liljegren, Travis Dermott, Carl Grundstrom, Garret Sparks, Justin Holl, among others contributed to the championship to varying degrees and offer the Leafs perhaps some players who can be that right mix to support the main group.
With Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, Morgan Reilly and Fredrik Andersen in goal, there’s a tremendous core group to lead the Leafs for a long time.
And with a fine young supporting cast (Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev, Kasperi Kapanen) and key vets (Patrick Marleau, Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey) they are not void of talent.
But this shouldn’t stop Dubas from reaching big. Armed with plenty of cap space, they can afford to make a splash or two. There are lineup holes and types of players they need to support the game plan put together by coach Mike Babcock.
Yes, they have to save money to re-sign their main guys, but even with a young core, the window to win is always small, so if you can add significant talent and build a strong group arises, sometimes you have to take that chance.
Here’s what Toronto should key on:
1. Sign John Tavares
If you’re trying to win and it’s affordable to do so, why not sign the best player available?
Sure, there’s talk of the Leafs big stars not taking discounts and the team needing to spend to keep them rather than bring in a big name. There’s also talk he would prefer to stay in New York and likely wouldn’t come to Toronto. But that’s all it is. Talk.
Right now, he hasn’t re-signed with the Islanders. There’s 2 weeks left before that negotiation window opens and draft weekend occurs where many moves and talking is done. As we get closer to that date, the greater the chances Tavares at least gets to talk to teams and you can bet Dubas and Co. will make some calls.
Tavares would be a terrific addition. The Leafs now have Matthews and Kadri at centre but don’t have much else after that. Par Lindholm Miro Altonen and Fredrik Gauthier will battle for the 4th line role but they’re probably not top 9 material. They don’t have much else coming other than permanently shifting Nylander to centre.
It won’t be cheap but Tavares brings so much to the table. He’s an offensive force. He can take over a game with the puck on his stick. He makes others around him better. He’s a leader. He’s played for Babcock before so he knows exactly what he’ll be getting himself into with a coach who can be tough. He’s a GTA guy so he also knows what he’s getting into if he came here.
Toronto, of the suitors for his services (at least at this point with cap availability and need), probably gives Tavares his best chance to be a regular playoff player. It’s all about the dollars and cents that will determine if they can lure JT here. He may get more elsewhere but if the dollars are enough, he could be a Leaf. It’s at least something worth exploring heavily.
2. Fix the D
There have been some thoughts that the D currently constructed can stay together and succeed.
Sure, a majority of them can stay and still help the Leafs win. But they need change.
The D is too soft and easy to play against. Yes, they too can cause opponents issues with their speed and skill but they’re really a walk in the park once opposing teams enter into their zone.
The talent is there. Gardiner and Reilly are premium offensive D. Dermott is a player on the rise and a couple other raw players, Andreas Borgman and Igor Ozhiganov are definitely in the running to be regulars.
Hainsey is a steady vet while Zaitsev can play both decent D and add some offence. That’s 7 D. No change needed.
But they do need change. Someone who can be a physical impact player in their top 4 would be perfect. No, this does not at all mean bringing back Roman Polak or someone of his ilk. They need a presence.
They could use depth and if the Leafs did add a 3rd pair D, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that, but an impact guy is preferable, especially someone right handed. But they probably can’t be too choosy as they simply need an upgraded top 4 with muscle.
3 options would be:
A) Tyler Myers – Winnipeg
The big 6’8 Myers is exactly what Toronto needs. Size? Check. Mobility? Check. Offensive and defensive ability? Check. Nasty streak? Yup that too.
He isn’t a no. 1 but is certain full of the qualities that will help any top 4. He can definitely step in to help Toronto. He’s exactly what Toronto needs.
Sure, the Jets wouldn’t give him away, but with Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba already on the right side, they’d be dealing from a position of strength. They have to re-sign Trouba and there are other contracts they have to put together the next couple years, so they might not be able to afford the luxury of Myers.
B) Jacob Trouba – Winnipeg
Speaking of the Jets, Trouba might also be available simply because of his contract status. A restricted free agent, this could be a tough negotiation for the Jets.
Another right handed D, he’s a top pairing D who can handle all situations and provide not only shut down D, but offence as well. He can offer to a bit of a mean streak which everyone knows the Leafs need.
The Jets had an issue the last time his contract came up and maybe that happens again here as Trouba will command a significant raise.
B) Dougie Hamilton – Calgary
There’s no contract issues with Hamilton as he’s signed for a 3 more seasons. The issue with Calgary is they missed the playoffs and their roster needs help. The best assets they have are on D like Hamilton.
The former Bruin is big and mean and has a huge point shot. He isn’t a natural offensive D but he can be a big power play weapon.
His value though for the Leafs is his righthandedness and his 6’6 frame. He can play tough and would add the muscle the Leafs sorely lack back there.
Some honourable mentions the Leafs could also look at are: Joel Edmundson, Alex Petrovic and Chris Tanev.
The theme though needs to be similar. Get bigger and meaner on D without necessarily sacrificing the mobility. In other words, not bringing back Polak and relying heavily on Hainsey.
3. Get tougher up front
Offence, skill, scoring ability, depth on wing, the Leafs have all that. But they’re small.
The Leafs could field legitimately a lineup that includes: Kadri, Kapanen, Grundstrom, Aaltonen, Marner, Johnsson, Brown, Nylander, Lindholm. That’s 9 players who are 6’0 or shorter and under 200 pounds. Skillful? No doubt, but over an 82 game season plus playoff, that’s not big and strong enough.
No, they don’t need to go the way of adding players similar to Colton Orr and Frazier McLaren, but they need to add size up front.
What would be great would be if they could add more size and skill to their top 3 lines.
They have players like Gauthier and Matt Martin but they are like 8 minutes a game type of players. Getting bigger is a good idea. Won’t be an easy task but definitely something they need to address.
Here’s a few who could help.
A) Joe Thornton – San Jose
Should the Leafs be unable to land Tavares long term, a short term solution at centre would be Thornton.
He’s certainly slowed and is near 40 coming off a serious injury. But he probably has plenty left in the tank to help a team for at least 1 more year.
He would bring size and strength to a lineup that needs it, especially up the middle. No, he isn’t going to throw someone through the glass but can be difficult on the cycle.
He is a free agent so his acquisition won’t cost assets. It will be a hard sell since he apparently declined the offer to join Toronto last year.
B) Boone Jenner – Columbus
Jenner is probably the absolute best fit for the Leafs to fill this need. He’s big, strong, rugged but has definitely enough skill to play on a scoring line.
Yet too he’s versatile enough to play in any role and can even suit up at centre. He can though score some goals and so probably best suited on the wing with a skilled pivot.
He’s kinda a throwback in terms of his ability to be physical though he isn’t going to mash you through the boards. He’ll mix it up though and go to the dirty, greasy areas. That’s what Toronto needs.
Jenner is a restricted free agent and would likely cost quite a bit in return. He is a unique kind of player. But the Jackets have some holes to fill and need to resign some big names on their team so they may need to move Jenner to open cap space.
C) Wayne Simmonds – Philadelphia
Simmonds is an older version of Jenner. He is a year away from unrestricted free agency and is into his 30s, which may be a sign of decline.
His production did dip last year but he could still help Toronto in the short term. He has a willingness to play big and be physical and can score.
He’s a good leader and being a local product, that can’t hurt. Philly will have some future roster decisions to make as they continue to turn over to a younger group. Simmonds may be expendable.
Some other options around the league are: Jason Spezza, Marcus Foligno, Colton Scissons, Rick Nash, Patrick Maroon, Patrick Berglund.
All these players bring not necessarily snarl or the classic Brian Burke term, truculence, but they would help in some way offset some of the lack of size the Leafs have.
No, this isn’t a reaction to losing to Boston. It’s a legitimate need this team needs to fill to be a more well rounded team that can deal with any style.
4. Re-sign the Stars
One of the things that impact the above points is the contracts that are due for Nylander, Matthews and Marner. Nylander needs to be signed this summer. The other two can sign an extension as early as July 1st. This is obviously a priority for Dubas to re-sign these core players to a long term contract. The question is, how much?
There’s no question the 3 of them have improved greatly over their first 2 full seasons. They’ve had issues like all young players, but there’s no doubt about their offensive production. They are all players on the rise an so they will likely want to be compensated accordingly.
Many have touted Matthews as on par with if not Connor McDavid, then Jack Eichel. He seems likely to hit an 8 digit figure. It is likely the Leafs will look to go with an 8 year contract anywhere in the neighborhood of $10-12 million per season. It would be interesting though to see if he happens to take less.
That goes for the other 2 as well. They too could ask for fairly high amounts to re-sign long term, especially if they want to commit to an 8 year deal.
The Leafs have a few players they can eye as comparables:
Filip Forsberg 6 years, $6 million per
David Pastrnak 6 years, 6.6 million per
Aleksander Barkov 6 years, 5.9 million per
Nathan MacKinnnon 7 years, 6.3 million per
Sean Monahan 7 years, 6.3 million per
If they’re trying to fit in other acquisitions around these 3 signings, they will probably hope they sort of fit into the market for these kinds of players and sign for something equivalent. Any relief they are willing to provide can only help the Leafs pursue doing anything listed above.
It’ll be an exciting off season and everything happens so fast with the draft, free agency and usually in and around that time, trade talk.
Dubas will need to act swiftly. If he does, with impact, the lineup could be excellent and enough to knock off the defending champs, the Capitals, and other heavy hitters in the East.
Babcock will have better weapons to deploy and the players will have better players to help each other. The key will be coming together as a group and having the buy in and chemistry, with everyone, management, coaches and players, on the same page.
It will be fun to see who Toronto can add and see what direction the Leafs take. This is a fun team to watch, but one that needs some change and holes to fill. They have players that need to be better and a stronger strategy to form.
Adding some quality talent will go a long way to helping the Leafs reach that next level. We all can’t wait.