As some here predicted, it’s already beginning to look as if the Leafs shiny new GM, Brad Treliving, is simply a puppet to be used by team president, Brendan Shanahan.
Shortly after Kyle Dubas was fired, a report circulated that Shanahan contact the “Big 4” forwards (Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander) and told them to expect to be back next season.
This came as a bit of a surprise to many, considering the fact that this core group of forwards have had ample time to show their worth in the playoffs and have consistently come up empty handed. The new expectation was that at least one of those players would be on the move this summer, with many speculating that help on the blueline would be the desired return.
Now, theres this:
It should come as no surprise that if Shanahan wanted the core group to stay, he would have hired a GM that shared that vision. Passing over any GM candidate that even suggested that he’d consider moving on from one of the teams star forwards makes a ton of sense if you consider how bullheaded this organization has been about this issue, and if you realize that type of direction generally starts from the top, with Shanahan.
The question now is this; what are the Leafs capable of doing if they don’t move on from any of the big ticket players?
Kyle Dubas left their cap situation in as good of a position as possible. With 10 players that ended the year on the playoff roster headed to unrestricted free agency, they have the oppotunity to change a large portion of the supporting cast. Also, with Matthew Knies looking like he’s ready for a full time spot in the lineup, they’ll have at least one ELC on the roster, which always helps a team stay competitive, while they’re expected to be up against the cap ceiling. While it’s far from a guarantee, it’s also possible that Pontus Holmberg and Nicholas Robertson could be on the roster on opening night. Meanwhile Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, who played a single game for the Leafs last year and had a decent year in the AHL, will no longer be waiver exempt. While this little tidbit shouldn’t matter, we’ve seen before (Dmytro Timashov) that the Leafs are willing to hold a spot for a player they’ve developed, even if it’s not entirely clear that they’ve earned the spot on merit alone.
For now, lets ignore all but Matthew Knies, who did well in the playoffs before suffering a concussion, but should be good to go by the time training camp opens.
Currently, the Leafs have 7 forwards, 6 defenders and 2 goalies under contract. On top of that, goaltender Ilya Samsonov is a restricted free agent. That roster looks like this:
There’s obviously one major thing that will jump out to anybody that looks at this and that’s the fact that Matt Murray is still on the roster. The only reason for this is that it’s still unclear what their plan is with Murray. A buyout seems like the simplest solution, as it will cost $687,500 towards the cap this year, while it jumps to a $2M caphit the following year. That would open up $4M in space this offseason and while the $2M caphit for the following year is a bit of a pain, the cap is expected to rise considerably after this coming season, which would make it much more palatable. The most costly option, as far as assets is concerned, is to trade him with a sweetener, the same as they did with Patrick Marleau. I’m not a fan of giving away assets to rid themselves of contracts, especially when it only cost the Ottawa Senators 3rd and 7th round selections to send him to Toronto. If the price to trade the final year of his deal was exactly the same as the Leafs paid, then so be it, but I imagine they’ll want more. Lastly, they could bury him in the minors. That would free up $1.15M in capspace, leaving a $3.54M caphit for the parent club.
For the sake of this exercise I’m going to say that the Leafs decide to send Murray to the AHL Marlies. This gives them to opportunity to run with a tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll, while having a veteran netminder in the minors in case of injury or failure (as in, Woll and Samsonov are both playing terribly). This insurance isn’t top end, but until a different decision is made we have to assume that the players under contract will remain under contract.
This leaves the team with just over $15.5M in capspace, with 5 forwards and a goalie to sign at minimum and only Ilya Samsonov set to take up a considerable chunk of that. The issue with this is that you can’t backfill all 5 forward positions with league minimum contracts and pretend that you have the depth to compete for a Stanley Cup. Nor can you leave the defense as is, because it’s clearly lacking in size, physicality and top end skill. In order to improve the blueline they need to add a considerable piece to the top 4, which would allow players such as TJ Brodie to slide down the lineup and play to the competition they are capable of playing against. Adding that type of player and re-signing Samsonov could take up 2/3rds of your available space alone, which would leave major holes at centre that you’d have to fill on a tight budget.
I’ll say it again, Kyle Dubas left their cap situation in as good a position as possible. The issue there is that if you bring back the star forwards, you’re still left with a situation where you can’t afford the proper depth and defense to truly compete for a Stanley Cup. In fact, the only reason they can afford the players they have is because they have never had a star goaltender or a bonafide #1D on the team since they drafted the core.
If, in fact, it’s true that they have no intention of moving on from the nerf guns (get it? because they’re soft!!), they need to insist that they take a little less and sign deals that run for more than 5-6 years. As the cap rises their contracts will look far better and it would allow the Leafs to actually compete for a change. Instead, I believe that they’ll make another attempt to milk the cash cow that is MLSE and we, the loyal fans, will be left to watch this team continually struggle and fail.