The Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in one of the better positions of all the NHL teams this offseason. The team and management have engendered a great deal of good will from its massive fan base on the back of one decent season after years of miserable failure. More importantly, the Leafs are a very young team and after great rookie seasons from Mitch Marner, Michael Nylander, and the Savior of the 6, Auston Matthews, it is reasonable to expect the team will only get better. Furthermore, general manager Lou Lamoriello doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of headaches that many GMs have due to expansion draft and salary cap issues. Things are looking up in Toronto.
Having said all that, Leaf fans --and more importantly, management-- should guard against getting swept away by all the hype. Ever heard of the sophomore slump? It is reasonable to expect Marner and Nylander, and maybe even Matthews, to regress this season. Not to mention all the other players who had career years in 2016-17; how likely are they to continue in the same rich form of vein? Add to that the fact that other teams will likely now take the Leafs more seriously and also divisional rivals such as Tampa Bay and Florida should be better next season after having been hit hard with injuries this year. You might well conclude that the Leafs will be lucky just to make the playoffs again. That is why this offseason is crucial for Lamoriello, coach Mike Babcock, and co. They need to bolster the lineup to prevent from collapsing under the sheer weight of expectation. So here are eight moves they should make, and seven they should definitely not.
15 Should: Re-sign Brian Boyle
Just before the trade deadline, the Leafs traded Byron Froese and a second round pick for veteran center Brian Boyle. The 32-year old Boyle was on pace for his most productive year in Tampa before the trade. Even though Boyle saw a dip in production in Toronto, his decreased numbers were just the result of decreased playing time. Boyle’s real value was his faceoff ability, his size, and his experience. Having twice been to the Stanley Cup Final before, Boyle was a calming presence for the inexperienced Leafs. However, Boyle is now an unrestricted free agent (UFA). Even though his numbers probably don’t quite warrant it, due to the nature of free agency, Boyle will probably command a raise on his $2 million per year.
But if the Leafs can get him to agree to a modest term length (i.e: not six years), he’s probably worth it. Without Boyle, they’ll have to go back to Ben Smith as their fourth line center. Smith’s greatest attribute is his slightly above average faceoff winning percentage, which is still inferior to Boyle, so the latter is a definite upgrade.
14 Avoid: Signing Kevin Shattenkirk
The Leafs biggest weakness is their blueline. Everybody knows this. There are even bushmen in the Kalahari desert who have never heard of hockey or even seen ice who know this. And Kevin Shattenkirk is the best defenseman free agent available (perhaps even the best free agent, period). So why not sign him? While Shattenkirk would doubtlessly be a huge improvement for the Leafs, there’s no way he’ll be worth what he gets. That’s just the nature of modern free agency; the big names always get overpaid. But it’s not the overpaying that’s the trouble so much as are the terms that UFA’s get. See, the UFAs have all the leverage, and there will be several teams vying for Shattenkirk. Rather than fight tooth and nail with Columbus, New Jersey, and who knows how many other teams, for the right to sign Shattenkirk to a nine year $88 million contract, the Leafs would be best served by trying to avoid the fray and go for a different defenseman.
13 Should: Signing Karl Alzner
While every GM and his brother are calling Shattenkirk’s agent, Lou Lamoriello should try to sign a different Capitals defenseman: Karl Alzner. 2016-17 was Alzner’s worst full-season points wise since his rookie year, scoring only 13 points. But that could be to the Leafs’ advantage. Even GMs are swayed to deception by offensive numbers like those of Shattenkirk’s. But the Leafs already have two good puck-moving defensemen in Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. The most important number of Alzner’s is 23; his +/- this season, which is a career high. Alzner will be cheaper than Shattenkirk and he actually provides more of what the Leafs need: stay-at-home defensive solidity.
However, unlike Shattenkirk, Alzner was not a Washington rental. He’s been with the team his whole career. Convincing him to move will take some doing. But even if Alzner demands near double his current salary --$2.8 million-- the Leafs could stomach it. (Though, of course, getting him for under $5 million would be ideal.)
12 Avoid: Re-signing Both Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak
Veteran defensemen Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak both received praise at various times throughout the 2016-17 season for being tough and experienced. However, they’re both UFAs and there’s no real sense in signing both. If the Leafs are able to sign Alzner and make another move we’ll see later on in this list, they really wouldn’t need either. But that would be in a perfect world.
Furthermore, Connor Carrick had a solid rookie year and the analytics nerds assure me that despite the occasional ugly miscue, Martin Marincin’s possession numbers are actually good. Having said all that, signing one of Hunwick or Polak for depth might still prove prudent, but signing both would be unnecessary. Hunwick is the likelier of the two, seeing as how he should be cheaper; Hunwick and Polak made $1.2 million and $2.5 million last year, respectively.
11 Should: Move Joffrey Lupul
OK, we’ve all had a good laugh about Robidas Island, but now it’s time to free its prisoners from their contractual limbo. Named after Stephane Robidas, it is the term given to a type of contractual loophole Lou Lamoriello discovered by where you essentially banish players based on long-term injuries, or at least, under the auspices of long-term injuries. The Leafs used it to great success in the 2015-16 season by ensuring veterans like Joffrey Lupul and Colin Greening wouldn’t screw up their chances at drafting Auston Matthews by actually trying to win games. But now that the Leafs are competitive again there’s really no need for it. Furthermore, most are skeptical that Lupul’s still injured.
The Leafs are projected to have over $12 million in cap space, so they could afford to accommodate Lupul’s $5.6 million hit for this last year of his contract. But if they want Alzner and others, it’s best just to move Lupul, even if they have to buy him out. He deserves a chance to play.
10 Avoid: Signing a Backup Goalie
The Leafs had a lot of problems finding a decent backup to Frederik Andersen this past season. They went through a couple guys before finally settling on Curtis McElhinney, who fulfilled the role nicely. But McElhinney is now a UFA; does it make sense to re-sign him? Maybe. A lot of pundits believe that Anderson’s 66 games last year were too many and that the Leafs need a solid backup, such as Anders Nilsson, Mike Condon, or even Brian Elliott. The logic is sound. But are the Leafs legitimate Stanley Cup threats in 2017-18? No. So what’s the rush?
Now is the perfect time to let young Garrett Sparks have a run as backup. Sparks has spent enough time in the AHL and if now isn’t the right time to test his NHL mettle, when is? Even if he’s terrible, his impact as a backup is not likely to be huge, and they might be able to use the million or two dollars they’ll save at another position.
9 Should: Move Matt Martin
From Tie Domi to Darcy Tucker, to even Colton Orr, Leaf fans love a pugnacious, truculent player. But paying a tough guy $2.5 million doesn’t make a lot of sense. And that’s exactly what they’re paying Matt Martin. Martin, though well supported by Leaf Nation, only scored nine points in the first season of his four-year Toronto contract. Maybe he just had a one-season slump and he’ll get back to his 2015-16 heights of 19 points, but not only is that unlikely, would even that justify his price tag? Especially if the Leafs are successful in re-signing Boyle, Martin is surplus to requirements. The Leafs can afford to pay an AHLer $2.5 million, so perhaps they can send him down if they can’t trade him. And hey, fans love fights, so a player like Martin might be good to bring in crowds for Vegas. Perhaps Lamoriello can convince Golden Knights GM George McPhee to take Martin. But
c onspiracy theorists hockey insiders believe that the whole reason the Leafs acquired Eric Fehr at the deadline was for Vegas to take him in the draft. We shall see.
8 Avoid: Signing Zach Hyman to a Long Term Deal
Zach Hyman is yet another Leaf rookie who impressed this past season. Playing alongside Matthews and Nylander for much of the season, Hyman racked up 28 points. 28 is good...but it’s not great. Playing on what is ostensibly the top line and being a hometown boy, Hyman gets a lot of love. But he actually didn’t play as well as yet another Leaf rookie, Connor Brown, who notched 36 points and 20 goals. Both Hyman and Brown are RFAs. If they have to prioritize one over the other, it should be Brown. That’s not to say Hyman hasn’t a place on the team. Babcock has a history of playing grinders on his top line alongside finesse guys. But the Leafs are unlikely to progress much further with Hyman on their top line, especially if they pay him top line money. Lamoriello has already been lambasted by some for signing defenseman Nikita Zaitsev to a seven-year deal. He ought not make the same mistake with Hyman; three years is plenty.
7 Should: Avoid Overpaying Free Agents
After a first round playoff exit and an amazing season, it would be tempting for the Leafs to go after the top dogs in free agency and improve their lineup in the short term but that would be a mistake. The Leafs are already ahead of where they thought they'd be when they first began this rebuilding process a couple of years ago so there's no need to rush any potentially signings and add bad contracts to the roster. The Leafs should remain patient and just let the natural development process take its form. Overpaying free agents is part of what got the Leafs in so much trouble following the lockout, so they shouldn't revert to old habits.
6 Avoid: Trading Connor Brown
As mentioned above, Connor Brown sneakily had an excellent rookie season. He flew under the radar because of all the Leafs other great rookies, but Brown should not be overlooked. Like Hyman, he is a Toronto native, an RFA, but at 23, is two years younger. That’s why it’s rather confusing to hear his name being thrown around as trade bait. Sure, if the right offer comes along, any player is available, but why should Lamoriello shop Brown around? The best course of action would be to get Brown signed, then explore their options with Hyman and others. To get a trade done, the Leafs should look to see what they can get for Josh Leivo, Matt Marincin, Alexey Marchenko, and Nikita Soshnikov, before offering Hyman, and then, only if it’s truly necessary, Connor Brown.
5 Should: Sign James Van Riemsdyk to a Contract Extension
James Van Riemsdyk had a career year with 62 points this past season. This upcoming season will be the last on his current deal. A year ago or so, many thought JVR’s time in the 6 was numbered, but now it looks as though the Leafs will want to re-sign him. At 28, JVR will probably want a long term deal to see him through until his mid-30s. And he’ll also want a raise on his $4.25 million per year current deal. But the Leafs should just get the deal done this summer instead of waiting around for a year and dealing with all the trade rumors, trying to adjust for contract year stats, and possibly lose him for nothing.
If they can satisfy JVR with a mild raise (keeping him at or under $5 million) then they should just sign him, even if it is long term. Will they regret it seven years from now? Probably, but that’s the nature of modern contracts.
4 Avoid: Signing Tyler Bozak to a Contract Extension
Tyler Bozak has been given a lot of grief during his time as a Leaf. Apart from being stuck on an abysmal team for most of his time in Toronto, he’s constantly being told he’s not a number one center. Which is why I hate to write this, because he tries really hard, has been a good player, and seems like a good guy. But...he’s not a number one center. And, if you want to win a Stanley Cup in the near future, you probably can’t do it with Bozak in the number two slot, either. Like JVR, Bozak will also be a UFA next summer, but there isn’t the same impetus to re-sign him. If Bozak were for some reason to agree to play on the fourth line for fourth line money, sure, re-sign him. But that won’t happen. It’s probably best for all parties if this is the 31-year-old’s final season in the Blue and White.
3 Should: Award Auston Matthews the Captaincy
Auston Matthews will be 20 when the 2017-18 season begins. It seems silly to make a 20-year-old sophomore your captain, and in many ways it is. But Matthews is the Leafs’ franchise player and one of the budding true superstars of the league. And franchise players are captains. Would Matthews make a better captain this year than Nazem Kadri or JVR? Probably not. But why wait a year or two until Matthews has hit some arbitrary age that allows him to be a captain? We all know he’ll be the Leafs captain eventually. Just make it happen. It worked out great for Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh and seems to be working just fine for Connor McDavid in Edmonton. And Matthews has shown unusual poise and assuredness for a teenager, possibly partially due to his year playing for Zurich in the Swiss A-League.
2 Should Avoid: Trading for Ilya Kovalchuk
The big rumor this offseason is that Ilya Kovalchuk wants to return to the NHL. Some think he’ll wait one year to play in the Olympics in Pyeongchang, but most seem to think he’s North American bound this summer. Kovalchuk has spent the past four seasons playing for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL and has widely been regarded as the best hockey player not in the NHL. The New Jersey Devils still own Kovalchuk’s rights due to that gargantuan contract he signed back in 2010. (Signed by then Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, it’s worth noting.) Now, most believe that either the Devils don’t want Kovalchuk now, or that Kovalchuk doesn’t want to play in Jersey. So if he returns, a trade is likely, and there will be several teams interested.
The Leafs have been regularly mentioned as a possible destination, though this appears to be just speculation. And Leaf fans should hope it stays that way. Let some other team take a risk on a player who’s been away from the league for four years at $6.667 million per year for the next eight years plus whatever New Jersey wants for him.
1 Should: Trade for a Ducks Defenseman
The Anaheim Ducks are in a real pickle. If Ducks GM Bob Murray has to trade a young blueliner, the Leafs are the likeliest trade partner. Murray seems to love dealing with Toronto. He’s made several trades with multiple Toronto GMs over the past nine years. Second, the Buds have lots of prospects and draft picks available. The Leafs would probably prefer Josh Manson, but Murray might sooner part with Sami Vatanen. Either would be a good upgrade for the Leafs.
If the Leafs manage to execute the eight dos and seven do-not-dos on this list, they’ll end up with a back six of Alzner, Rielly, Gardiner, Vatanen, Zaitsev, and Carrick. They won’t strike fear into the hearts of Crosby, Ovechkin, or Tavares, but they could well be good enough to help the Leafs to top spot in the Atlantic Division.