Where Do The Leafs Go From Here?

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The dust has sort of settled on another disappointing playoff performance by the Toronto Maple Leafs. But, there is certainly plenty of anger, bitterness and sadness still out there over this stinging playoff defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. 
However, there isn’t much that can be done about it now. The team lost, in a really bad way blowing a 3-1 series lead, and it is time to move forward. 
There are so many things that General Manager Kyle Dubas and his staff will have to handle this off-season. 
No one really knows how to unlock the mystery of their top players failing in big games that matter most. That seems like an internal issue within the player and they need to figure that stuff out on their own. That doesn’t seem to be a lineup, linemate, deployment issue. 
The bottom line was, the likes of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews failed to show up when the games mattered more and it eventually cost them this series. And there is definite concern considering their payouts and shortness of their contracts on top of the fact this has been 5 kicks at the can to win a series which they’ve never done. At the end of the day, it will be up to them to shed their reputations as regular season only players. 
Understandably it was not in their control the fact that John Tavares, one of their top players and team Captain, went down within the first few minutes of the series and could not return. That was a big loss. But, there was enough star power among the rest of the team to overcome such a loss and when they couldn’t overcome it, the confidence level in this group has waned significantly in Leaf Nation.
So that is where Dubas needs to step in and continue to work on finding the right mix of skill with intangibles to help, at the very least, take the team towards a step in the right direction. That direction is to at least win 1 playoff round and then work towards going beyond that. 
It is a tall task with the Cap remaining stagnant at $81.5 million and not going up. Its a problem for a team that has invested $40 million into 4 players. 
Clearly, after the loss of Tavares, and then later Jake Muzzin for the series, and also Nick Foligno playing hurt, the lack of depth again was telling. 
While the Leafs did receive contributions from lesser lights, it wasn’t enough and they couldn’t find the right mix of players to win, despite some rather significant turnover of the roster in back to back seasons. 
Dubas will need to be brilliant again in an off-season with several unrestricted free agents, other players who have contracts coming due, an expansion draft to navigate, a draft to go through with just 3 picks, and not much opportunity to look at prospects, and on top of all that, fix a roster that has holes and that wasn’t good enough to win anything. 
With that, lets run though many of the questions Dubas will need to find answers to:
1. The Big 4
Its a legitimate question that has come up. Do the Leafs break up the core four of Matthews, Marner, Tavares and William Nylander?
Well, Matthews is one of the best players on the planet and just won his first Rocket Richard Trophy. He seems to be continuing to get better, at least in the regular season. The Leafs need him to step up there and they’ll be willing to wait for that to happen. 
Tavares signed here to come “home” and has a no-movement clause. He is the team’s captain and for all intents and purposes has been really good as a Leaf. The playoff results have not occurred in the 3 years since he’s been here, but he is an invaluable player and leader and gives Toronto that 1-2 punch in the middle, so long as they’re healthy. He controls his own destiny so its unlikely he leaves. Absolutely, as he ages, we may see some decline. But he is a world class smart player who will find ways to get on the scoresheet and produce. We won’t be cheated on effort in that regard. 
Nylander had the best playoff among the 4 and in a word, was excellent vs Montreal. He has his warts, but at the end of the day, he is asked to put up points and he did that when it mattered. At $6.9 mil, yes, it certainly looks high in comparison to the likes of David Pastrnak, Nate MacKinnon and Brayden Point, but at least he contributed on a more regular basis in the playoffs. That is a good sign and you accept the fact he may show signs of some laziness out there. If in the end, he is giving it everything he has and producing in the playoffs, can’t ask for much more. 
So, this brings us to Marner. What to do with him? Well, it seems likely he won’t be going anywhere either. The fact is, it seems this regime, Dubas, Brendan Shanahan and the current management group are married to all 4 of these players and if anyone goes, it will be after this management is gone. 
Marner is an electric player in the regular season. But he has slumped badly in playoffs. While his point production has been good for 82 games, its in the playoffs where that contract he has, paying him close to $11 million, becomes an anchor even if players don’t get paid in the playoffs. 0 goals in 18 games from one of your top players is probably not good. 
If there was any one of the 4 players who’d be moved, it would be him. Despite the fact he is a local product, a player they’ve drafted and developed, the large contract, the cap constraints and the poor playoffs are making it harder and harder to keep a player like him, while trying to build the rest of the 23 person roster. 
But, as mentioned, he goes only when the likes of Shanahan or Dubas go, so best guess here is that all 4 of these players stay at least 1 more season. It might be 1 more year for this particular core to accomplish something together. That is a lot of pressure yes, but that will continue to mount as we continue to see no playoff advancement and see another year come off those shorter term contracts some of these players signed. 
2. Zach Hyman
It appears Hyman’s days as a Leaf may be over. Clearly he sees himself as someone who has done all he can to score a large contract and there may be many teams around the league who feel the same way. He clearly has value. There is no doubt about that. But with the Leafs hampered by cap constraints, there may not be room for a player like Hyman if his demands are high. It is definitely not the case where the team wants the player to leave. They simply may not be able to afford him. 
The Leafs likely have a price point they won’t want to, or simply can’t, go over. So, if he leaves, that is a huge hole in the lineup because he brings a lot of elements that the Leafs simply do not have. Someone who can play both special teams. Someone who can play either wing. Someone who can fill in on top lines or a checking line. Someone who has a tireless motor and can win puck battles and keep plays going with his energy. 
Unfortunately in Toronto, the precedents were kind of set when they gave home run contracts to Marner and Matthews that were extremely player friendly. Other players, who may feel they’ve contributed a great deal to the team, close to what those players have anyway, likely may feel cheated or disrespected if they’re low-balled or asked to fit in under a different scale. Hyman may be one of those players. It is hard to say, afterall, he gained most notoriety here, he may not find the players to play with as he has here in Toronto and he is from here and certainly would want to stay “home”.
But money talks and there may be quite a few teams, Edmonton maybe, LA maybe, and probably many others, will be poised to make super large offers to Hyman that he may, for himself, not be able to turn down. 
Best guess? The Leafs can probably max out at a $5 mil AAV. Other teams may be able to go to $6 million. Certainly not an easy decision for either side. Hyman is 29, has had 2 bad knee injuries and could either continue to grow or start a Milan Lucic, David Clarkson kind of slide as he ages. It seems likeliest the Leafs will need to find someone to replace Hyman. 
3. Nick Foligno
If there is a player who could bring similar elements to the Leafs that Hyman brings, it would be Foligno. Should they lose Zach, Foligno would be a solid, shorter term, and likely cheaper replacement. 
Foligno was not 100% health wise during his tenure as a Leaf. At least not for all of it. He brings a lot to the table if healthy. He can check, he is responsible defensively, he is versatile, he works hard, he will play physically and he can play with upper echelon talent. 
Those traits may help bring him back should he choose to stay instead of leaving or maybe more likely, go back to Columbus where most of his roots are established. 
The former Jackets captain is 33 and with those injuries he had last year, it is concerning that he is on the downside of his career. But, the reality is, the Leafs really can’t lose both Hyman and Foligno because it is already so hard to find players that play that way. The Leafs do not have any in-house replacements that do what they do and thus one or the other must be kept. 
Foligno stands the better chance of returning simply because he will cost less on the open market. No, he won’t be around the $2.2 million that Hyman made last year, but he certainly isn’t making the $5+ million he made last year or the kind of money Hyman will likely demand. 
Look, if the Leafs ended up re-signing both, that would be massive. Players like these will help this group more than any other kind of player you could find. They’re so capable of playing in any situation that it would be important not to lose that. 
Best guess is Foligno stays, maybe around the $3.5 to $4 million dollar range on a multi-year deal. Understandably there will be some cringe reading that, but at the end of the day, they need to still have guys who will put on the workboots, play physical and be hard to play against. 
4. Morgan Reilly
Another boost, if they kept Foligno, would be the leadership presence he would bring which would be important because there may be a void that needs filling should Reilly be moved.
Now, Reilly has 1 more year left on his deal at $5 million and is certainly not someone the Leafs would really want to move out. He isn’t among the upper echelon of defencemen in the NHL but he certainly is in that next tier who can produce offence and play a lot. 
But, after seeing JVR, Jake Gardiner, Tyler Bozak and likely now Freddy Andersen and Hyman leave via free agency, it’ll be really hard to see that happen with Reilly. 
The Leafs need to be proactive. They need to find out this off-season where Reilly stands contractually. If he is looking for something well out of the Leaf’s price point, they need to act rather than go into the season with a player likely to leave. 
They can’t really afford any more losses without any returns. They could earlier when their young stars were on entry level deals. And back then, the cap wasn’t stuck on a number so there was more flexibility. So if they get a sense of where Reilly stands, they can actually act accordingly. 
Best guess here is Reilly will be traded. Now again, this isn’t like say the Kadri trade where they have to or want to get rid of the player. The Leafs really like Reilly. 
But, it seems they won’t be able to sign a player to $7, $8 or even $9 million per season. And, if this management is fully married to their big 4, then someone else may have to go. 
Yes, Fred comes off the books, but in the end, with the needs they have and roster spots to fill, some other big number may need to go and that money spread for other needs and other player types. 
5. The Defence
If Reilly is gone, the Leafs will need to retool the D. If he stays, they will likely try and continue to build what they started this year around their top 4 blue liners.
But, it seems really hard to a) see Reilly re-sign for a discount in the $6 million dollar range and b) see the team just ride it out and let him walk for nothing. 
So, there may be a need to make change here. This would be the 3rd straight year with extensive turnover on D. 
The intriguing thing is, do they continue with being a very mobile, offensive minded group? Or do they mirror these teams in the final four who all seem to have mutants on D. 
Jeff Petry, Ben Charoit, Shea Weber and Joel Edmundson of Montreal all stand 6’3” and over 200 lbs. 
Alex Pietrangelo is 6’3, Nick Holden is 6’4, so is Brayden McNab. Nik Hague is 6’6 and their smallest D for Vegas is Shea Theodore listed at 6’2 195 lbs. They’re monsters and a lot of the time they play that way. 
Scott Mayfield stands 6’5. Noah Dobson is 6’4. Adam Pelech is 6’3 and Ryan Pulock is 6’2. They play mean and hard for the Islanders. 
And even Tampa, a more skilled, speedy bunch, has Victor Hedman 6’6, Eric Cernak 6’3 and the heavy David Savard patrol their D and are tough.
It will be very curious if Dubas decides to go this route. Right now, Only Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl offer any size. This would especially be true if they don’t bring back Zach Bogosian who is a free agent. 
Their best prospects, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are both smallish defenders. Even Travis Dermott, who is a restricted free agent, isn’t very big. 
Best guess is they do in fact move towards a blueline that is a bit bigger in size. This is not just recency bias. The trends have more often been a blueline that is big and can take up space are the ones that seem to find the best success in the playoffs. Give or take a couple of teams, that has been the way things have worked for the most part for both the cup winners and those who have won multiple rounds. 
The Leafs need to continue to grow their defensive game which was overall pretty good. And while they do need to see if they can deliver consistent offence, which at times in the playoffs looked stuck, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need all these smallish but fast blueliners out there. They can get the best of both worlds if they wanted to move in that direction and for a team that relies on numbers, trends and analytics, the facts are all there.
6. Bottom 6 forwards

Whatever the Leafs do, be it not keeping Hyman or trading Reilly or whatever else that may come about, at the end of the day, the Leafs may be trying to find ways to lengthen the lineup. 
Coach Sheldon Keefe tried desperately to field some form of a 3rd line by putting Hyman there to have another weapon to go with their top 2 lines. 
Unfortunately they never found the right mix of wingers to play in the top 6 to use him there with regularity. And now, hardly any teams are going to be paying $5-6 million for a player to play on your 3rd line. 
Somehow, some way, they will need to have guys who are not reclamation projects or veterans on their last legs or guys who can’t score playing 3rd line minutes. In other words, they can’t have 2 4th lines. 
It’s great having your top guys out there every other shift almost but is that optimizing their effectiveness? That is the question and so far, seeing both extremes, they have not yet found that optimal spot. 
So, they need to find better players to add depth. 
Best guess is they find a stronger 3rd line Centre. Someone who can anchor that line and be an all purpose player for them. Probably 31 other teams want that. But they need someone in that spot that’s better than Alex Kerfoot or Pierre Engvall or using Jason Spezza in that spot. That in the end may not be as hard to find someone better than those 3. 
The question is money. If they could find players in the range of what Hyman was paid last year or what Kerfoot makes, then, they may be able to actually have 3 lines and have Spezza do what he did last year and be a productive player in limited, 4th line minutes. 
The likelihood is these types of players coming outside the organization. 
7. Entry Draft and Prospect Pool.
The Leafs have 3 picks at this time for the 2021 draft. This draft is arguably the most wide open draft of all time because so many prospects either didn’t play or played in a limited amount of games. 
There isn’t a lot Dubas has to work with as it may be hard to start shifting around more draft capital. But he may not have the luxury to think 4-5 years down the road anymore as there may be more urgency to get results now considering the core is going to be another year older and closer to seeing their contracts expire. 
But, as seen in the 3 drafts he has run, there are some good prospects he has accumulated. But most are long term projects with really no one save for Sandin and Nick Robertson who could help next year. 
Time is going to be needed for the likes of Rodion Amirov, Roni Hirvonen, Topi Niemela, Nick Abruzzese, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev among others. 
They need time to properly develop and work their way to the NHL level. It wouldn’t be prudent to throw them into the fire. In time, they may help. And they offer a lot of skill which has been a regular theme in the Dubas drafts. 
Best guess is they continue that theme trying to find high skill level players to pad the organization’s depth charts. It seems almost remote that Dubas would start drafting big, physical, rugged players. 
His M.O has always been to accumulate as much skill as he can. There isn’t anything wrong with that. But, it doesn’t give the team much immediate help based on the players he has chosen. The guys he has chosen have mostly been overseas or college players who take longer. But, a league like the OHL didn’t even play this year so those players there may be big projects too this year. And without a 1st, its hard to find a ready made player in the later rounds. 
Its likely a few moves will be made to add a few more picks for the scouts to work with. But its not out of the realm of possibility that this was by design, considering the difficult nature of junior hockey this season thanks to the pandemic, to really not have as big a focus on players in this draft year. 
Perhaps too they seek some undrafted players, especially those who couldn’t play this year and maybe sneak them an opportunity. You got to get creative.
8. Expansion Draft
Another option where the Leafs could creatively find players is to have the Seattle Kraken help them. 
The Leafs will likely have some activity via free agency and certainly will explore trades. But having a team that does not currently have any cap commitments, could be one that could help the Leafs immensely. 
Toronto will have their own expansion questions but they are not in any dire straits when it comes to who to protect and who to expose. 
Their top 4 forwards will be protected. Their top 4 D likely will be protected, if they’re all still around, as will Jack Campbell, their starting goalie. 
That would leave Kerfoot as likely the best player available. But there could be some things done that may not follow that script such as lose Holl instead, or find a way to keep both those players and lose someone else. 
Best guess is they will likely lose one of those 2 aforementioned players to Seattle, but, with some other (future) assets they have left, they will both, a) acquire a player that Seattle can claim and b) have Seattle retain some salary. 
Yes, Toronto isn’t flush with young assets, but depending on what Seattle wants to do, they may want to have organizational depth or think more in the future than Vegas did, and Toronto has players who are more long term projects with talent than short term fixes. 
9. Jack Campbell
The expansion draft won’t impact the Leafs goaltending picture as Campbell will be protected, likely no other goalie will get selected and almost certainly Andersen will move on in free agency. 
Based on what we saw, once Campbell returned from injuries for good, the Leafs are happy with Campbell as their no. 1 goalie going forward. 
Next season will be where the Leafs can truly decide on that as Campbell will be the top guy going in, on the last year of his deal, and try to prove over 82 regular season games and playoffs that he can be a true no. 1. 
The numbers didn’t lie. He was very good. Excellent really. It is all a question on whether that is sustainable. It will all be on Campbell to determine that. He needs to ensure he can be durable enough to not be one who’s always in and out of the lineup. No, that doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to prove he can play 60-70 games, but he definitely can’t be just a part time goalie. 
The Leafs currently don’t have anyone to take that mantle. Michael Hutchinson is signed but he is at best their 3rd goalie. They have some minor league options that they could look at in desperation, but there is no firm answer.
Best guess is Campbell is their no. 1, but they acquire an experienced player to join him. It could be David Rittich, who ended the season with the Leafs, or it could be someone else via free agency. 
They need someone who they could realistically believe could play 40 games. A career backup kind of guy like a Curtis MacElhinney isn’t ideal. They need someone who they could maybe consider a 1B kind of starter. I think they will focus on that. No, not a A-lister to pay what they paid Andersen but they need someone decent. The last thing the Leafs need are goaltending issues. 
10. What’s Out There?
As mentioned, the Leafs are going to have to explore everything and anything to find players to fill out their roster. They will need to be creative in how they do it with the constraints they’ve put themselves in paying half the cap to 4 players. 
They will likely be big players in both trade and active in free agency. May not necessarily be big game hunting like when they signed Tavares, but they may be active like last year finding bargain players who want to be here. 
Teams like Seattle, Detroit, maybe even Ottawa, who have some leeway to help with salary retention are going to be or should be considered. The Leafs need to be creative and that is one thing this management group should get credit for with some of their past moves. 
And yes, they don’t have draft capital or ready made prospects to entice teams. But they do have some things to offer.
It is just a matter of who they want that would of course be the judge on how much they need to spend. 
If they want a goalie, there are certainly many out there in unrestricted free agency. Other than Philp Grubauer or Tukka Rask, any of the other names out there could be intriguing.
Here’s a list: Pekka Rinne, James Reimer, Antti Raanta, Petr Mrazek, Rittich, Linus Ullmark, Brian Elliott, Mike Smith, Chris Driedger. 
Any one of these could help give them a 1B possibly to support Campbell.
It doesn’t seem likely they’d trade for a goalie so its probably going to be one of these names. 
On defence, they could explore many avenues.
Trade? How about the biggest catch and go after Seth Jones who, by all indications, will not be re-signing in Columbus. 
Or maybe they explore what a lot of people have wanted for years in Toronto: Josh Manson. He is a monster. If he is healthy. He is also on the final year of his contract so…..why not?
Or maybe lower key, go after a Nikita Zadorov, a huge mutant on defence who can play pretty violently. They may have a need on the left side should Reilly be moved. 
Maybe they dip into free agency. Jamie Oleksiak, a local product, he is also a mutant. What a change in complexion of your defence that would be to have someone 6’7 roaming around out there hitting people. 
And, in both cases with Zadorov and Oleksiak, they are both very mobile and are decent enough to make a first pass out of the zone. Are they Quinn Hughes skill wise? Absolutely not. But you can’t teach size. 
Besides some of their own free agents, like Hyman, Foligno and others, the interest in free agent forwards will be fascinating to watch. They did a lot of experimenting with the likes of Jimmy Vesey and Alex Galchenyuk. But could they find guys to fill their plentiful needs at an affordable price?
Some to keep an eye on: Casey Cizikas, Mikael Granlund, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Mattias Janmark, Brock McGinn, Michael Bunting, Corey Perry. 
Trade wise, guys like Tyler Bertuzzi or Rickard Rakell are intriguing. There are options all over. 
Best guess is they’ll find some names that weren’t listed here. Maybe a shocker or two. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant surprise for Leaf fans?
This may be the hardest off-season for them to fill their roster, but Dubas showed last off-season some ability to reshape the mix and learn each time out what needs to be done.
While he may be stubborn in some ways, him adapting last off-season should give some hope that he will find and bring in some unique names to help somehow change the fortunes of this team. 
The Leafs will be back in their regular division facing difficult opponents like Tampa and Boston again. Florida emerged as a good team finishing ahead of Tampa in the standings. Montreal beat them in the 1st round. That will be some battle to get one of the top 3 spots in the division or the wild card where they would also fight the difficult Metropolitan division teams. 
In the end, they need to find a way to continually build on the defensive success this season, while trying to develop a more consistent offence. They need to unlock that power play that was awful in the 2nd half. They need to basically continue to show growth, while surviving the grind of a regular season that seems pretty meaningless since we’ve seen this song and dance of regular season success before.
But, to not get ahead of ourselves, they need to be successful in the regular season to secure that valuable playoff spot. Maybe as well a valuable seeding. This way, maybe they can actually carry that success over, raise their level of play and accomplish something in the playoffs. 
It would be too hard to do that by limping into the playoffs and hoping a switch is turned on. We haven’t seen that ever with this group. Its a process and a process that will be long and sometimes hard to wait for. 
Step 1, retool. Step 2, have a good regular season. Step 3, win a playoff round. Step 4, well lets see if we can do the 1st 3 steps first. 

Author: Allan Chow