2020 has been unpredictable and challenging for all of us, so it’s nice to know that the Leafs, after ending yet another season with a collapse, are attempting to provide us with a sense of normalcy in these trying times. After a five game loss in the play in round, GM Kyle Dubas once again has a plenty of decisions to make, and questions to answer. So where does he go from here? And who’s left standing when all’s said and done?
The Big Four
The Leafs’ roster starts and ends with the big four up front. Their core forwards are among the best (and most expensive) in the league with nearly half the cap devoted to them. With the NHL salary cap set to remain flatter than a day old pint for the foreseeable future, adding some much needed depth will be even more of a challenge. This is of course problem of their own making. Many bemoaned the Nylander deal knowing Matthews and Marner would have to be paid as well, but the fact that he got a fair contract wasn’t so much the issue, as it was a question of capital distribution.
Our crew chief Carl is a Nascar fan so we’ll put it racing terms: They spent all their money building the fastest car on the circuit, fine-tuned the engine, lightened the body, but… the handling sucks and they skimped on the tires. The supporting cast offered little against Columbus and few teams go through one round, let alone win a Cup, being so top heavy. However their biggest concern may be on blue line.
It became painfully evident in the Columbus series that the Leafs lacked depth on defence, especially after Jake Muzzin was injured, and if there’s any chance they compete with the likes of Tampa and Boston, it’ll have to be addressed. They have pillars Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin under contract, which is a reasonable start, but if they’re your top two guy, you need a solid supporting cast behind them and…Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are both UFA’s (coming off mediocre at beast seasons) and unlikely to return, meaning they’ll have to lean on the likes of Justin Holl, Travis Dermott and youngsters Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljgren.
Could the kids inject some youthful energy into the lineup? Sure. In the same way a toddler eats a ton of sugar than bolts around wildly with no real sense of purpose. It takes time to learn the defensive game at the NHL level and to place that much responsibility on such a young lineup is a big gamble, one that they may have no other alternative to if they can’t create some more cap flexibility.
This was likely part of the reasoning behind the Kasperi Kapanen trade. It freed up some capital for the Leafs (and shrewdly garnered a much needed first round pick) to address some other needs, which of course lead to many speculating that their beleaguered blue line may get a boost in the form of local boy, and pending UFA St, Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo. He’s on the record as stating that he’s planning to test the free agent market, but many speculate that he’ll inevitably resign with the Blues.
Their recent trade (salary dump…?) of backup goalie Jake Allen to Montreal may be a clear sign St. Louis is attempting to make every effort to clear up cap space to keep their beloved stalwart. And even if he does hit the open market, the Leafs would likely have to make several more moves to make room, assuming he wanted to come home in the first place.
The big names may get the headlines, but Freddie Andersen has been considered by many to be the Leafs most important player over the last few years, especially before the acquisition of Jack Campbell. A 2020 All Star, he’s been a steadying presence who game after game saw more shots than a night out with Lil’ John. However, given the shaky backup situation, in particular since Curtis McElhinney was let go, they had no other real option and his work load was a question. He played a ton of games, because they really had no other option, and seemed to tire against Boston the last few post seasons, meaning he’d inevitably let in a questionable goal, thus leading to him subsequently being called out by the fan-base.
This season’s play in round loss to Columbus was a prime example. The Leafs and their bevy of high priced forwards were shut out twice in five games, yet it was the goaltending that many called to task. Something Patrick Lalime and Sens fans are all too familiar with…
This has of course led many to question what the future will be as he’s a free agent after next season and on the plus side of 30. There are a number of free agents or otherwise available netminders this off season (Lehner, Crawford, Murray, Holtby) so like many other teams the Leafs will have to examine where they go from here. A long term contract seems unlikely (and unwise) but what’s the alternative? There’s no heir apparent waiting on the bench, and if you let him walk, where do you find such a high level replacement with such a cap friendly contract?
The Leafs added more grit in Kyle Clifford, a move many fans were excited to see, as a lack of compete has been decried by many as a hallmark of this group. He won with LA so he knows what it takes, and the make-up of essentially all recent Stanley Cup champs was a good mix of skill and physicality, so, the question is, is this simply a one off or a change in philosophy from their GM? It didn’t help that Nazem Kadri was one of the beast players in the post season, but I digress…Do they add more ‘playoff type’ guys like a Radko Gudas to try and up their grit, or will Dubas double down on skill beats will?
Whatever the Leafs will be moving forward there are seemingly more questions than answers. Their bevy of young talent is highly skilled, and they certainly should be a competitive team moving forward, but they’ll need prospects like Nick Robinson to show more than just promise next season if they don’t want to take another step back. Missing the playoffs again is not an option, or more drastic changes will certainly be in order.