Recently, Joe Bowen joined Sportsnet's Prime Time Sports and said: “the Maple Leafs will win Stanley Cup this season.” Some see it as a bold prediction made by a homer commentator, while others see it as prophecy.
It’s no surprise that, with the addition of John Tavares this off-season, the Leafs could be among the front-runners to win the cup. But are they really? The last two cup champions have been teams lead by Alexander Ovechkin with the Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Although there doesn’t seem to be a generational player on the Leafs roster, they do have multiple elite players. They also saw huge front office shake-ups and lost three players that were part of their core. After a summer that included a lot of turn-over, can the Leafs be viewed as legitimate contenders? Let’s dissect this question:
The big addition this off-season was the signing of John Tavares who signed for eight years and an $11 million cap hit per season. In 669 games, he has scored 272 goals for 621 points and considering he’ll only be 28 when the season starts, he should be able to continue playing at a high level for quite some time. Other UFA signings since July 1, 2018, include depth players: Josh Jooris, Adam Cracknell, Tyler Ennis, and Jordan Subban. They all come with different talents, the forwards are all able to slot into different positions up and down the lineup. The only defenseman of the crop, Subban will most likely play with the Marlies due to his age and experience but, he is a highly skilled blueliner and could be helpful if called up.
Before July 1, 2018, there were four players who were signed from other European leagues that could be interesting options on the Leafs' roster. On May 17, 2018, they signed: Pierre Engvall, Par Lindholm, Jesper Lindgren, and Igor Ozhiganov. Engvall and Lindgren were previously drafted prospects and received two and three-year entry-level contracts respectively. Lindholm and Ozhiganov are both above 25 and received one-year entry-level contracts. They should both provide solid depth and are expected to be given every opportunity to make the team on opening night. Many fans have already slotted Ozhiganov into the top-four and Lindholm at the fourth center position. For the purpose of objectivity, they will be considered depth pieces due to their lack of NHL experience.
The Leafs let a few players walk in free agency; Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk, and Leo Komarov are among the most notable. Although the cap space that was alleviated from their departures helped them sign Tavares, these are still huge hits. Luckily, none of them joined divisional rivals, meaning they’d only have to worry about them in the Conference and Stanley Cup Finals.
James Van Riemsdyk signed a five-year contract with a $7 million AAV with the Philadelphia Flyers, who initially drafted him second overall in 2007. He was acquired by the Leafs in 2012 after former Leafs GM Brian Burke traded Luke Schenn to the Flyers in a one-for-one swap. He has since played 413 games scoring 154 goals for 294 points. He’s also made the playoffs three times in his Leafs career totalling 20 games and scoring seven goals and registering 14 points.
Tyler Bozak was signed as an undrafted college free agent in 2009 by Brian Burke. He has gone on to have a very successful career for a college free agent. In 594 games he scored 136 goals and got 229 assists for 365 points. He has made the playoffs three times, in 18 games he scored five goals and five assists for 10 points. He left the Leafs as a free agent when he signed with the St. Louis Blues for three years and $5 million AAV.
Leo Komarov was drafted by the Leafs in the sixth round 180th overall in 2006. He made his NHL debut in the 2012-2013 season where he scored four goals and five assists for nine points in a depth role. Even though he was unable to produce much on the score sheet, he still managed to become a fan favorite due to his aggressive and gritty style being dubbed “Uncle Leo”. In 327 games he was able to score 52 goals for 122 points, and in 15 playoff games, he got one assist for one point. Komarov followed former GM Lou Lamoriello to the New York Islanders this off-season, signing a four-year deal paying him $3 million per season.
Combined, all three of these players have played 1,334 games scoring 342 goals and contributed 781 points to the Leafs. The past two seasons they’ve been great veterans who have been instrumental in the development of the young core. Are the Leafs ready to walk away from them? Are the “kids” ready?
We think it’s indisputable that the Leafs have one of the best center cores in the league with John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Nazem Kadri. No matter who you put up the middle, it would be hard to place them ahead of Crosby and Malkin for the Penguins. It may be hard to make up for Van Riemsdyk’s scoring prowess, but it’s possible. If we can assume that Nylander, Marner, and Matthews all take a step forward statistically, they may be able to shoulder the burden themselves. Even if they don’t, it would be safe to assume young players like Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson could make a greater impact playing a full season. Regardless, the 36 goals can be reproduced in a team effort.
The glaring hole in the line-up is on the blueline. Realistically, they may only have a couple top-four defensemen. Morgan Rielly is obviously their best, Jake Gardiner can be a defensive liability at times, and Nikita Zaitsev has yet to prove that he is a legitimate top-four defenseman since his injury. If the common phrase “defense wins championships’ proves to be true, this might be what stops them from being the first Canadian team since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens to win a Stanley Cup and the first Leafs team to do so since 1967. It’s hard to be sure, but if they can find a gem in one of their young defensemen, they may be able to hold it together long enough to survive the 8-week battle it would take.
Obviously, you can’t bank on an unknown, but if Babcock can find the right recipe or Dubas can make a smart move to get an upgrade, the Leafs could be Stanley Cup Champions this time next year.