The Toronto Maple Leafs lost in the opening round of the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.
As the boys in blue packed up their lockers ahead of yet another long offseason, Toronto fans took to Twitter and other social platforms to weigh in on what went wrong. Was it a lack of Toughness? Defense? Effort? All three?
Many also pointed their fingers towards the lack of scoring from all over the roster. The Leafs were shut out twice in five games and only netted 10 goals in total – a far cry from the team that managed to score 238 goals in just 70 regular season games during the shortened 2019-20 campaign.
Look, you can criticize Kyle Dubas if you want. But what I see is a GM trying to adapt, and improve. It would be great if every move/contract was a slam dunk, but what #Leafs have done isn’t working, and Dubas is willing to go other ways. Much better than standing pat.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 11, 2020
Maple Leafs’ Moves So Far
Much to the delight of Leafs Nation, GM Kyle Dubas heard their cries and listened closely. Free agency officially opened at noon on Friday October 9th and Toronto immediately announced the signing of veteran winger Wayne Simmonds.
The 32-year-old Scarborough, Ont. Native signed a 1-year, $1M deal and brings a gritty, physical game that has been sorely lacking from the lineup for years.
He’s no longer the 30-goal scorer of season’s past, but he’s still capable of putting up north of 25-30 points and will be a welcome addition to the bottom six.
Nearly seven hours later, Toronto announced another high-impact signing – bringing home 30-year-old Chatham, Ont. native T.J. Brodie.
Brodie is a left-handed defenseman who plays on the right side. He consistently drives plays in the right direction and is typically good for around 30-40 points per season. He will likely play on the top pairing alongside Morgan Rielly but could even see time with Jake Muzzin, depending on how the tandems shake out.
Dubas & Co. remained busy the next day – signing veteran forward Travis Boyd to a 1-year, $700K contract. The 27-year-old has primarily been an AHL player throughout his career, although he did record three goals and 10 points in 24 NHL games with the Washington Capitals this past season.
An hour later, Andreas Johnsson was traded to the New Jersey Devils for young depth forward Joey Anderson. The 22-year-old Anderson split last season between the big Devils and the baby Devils (Binghamton Devils, AHL) – scoring 34 points in 44 AHL games and 6 points in 18 NHL games.
The Roseville, Minn. Native is still young and raw but comes with a pedigree – including captaining the United States when they took home the bronze at the 2018 World Juniors. He can also boast a Frozen Four championship victory as a member of the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (2018).
Rachel Doerrie, a former employee of the New Jersey Devils’ hockey operations department, had this to say about Anderson.
I firmly believe he can be a strong piece on the 3rd line that can shut down other teams and contribute, too. He won’t make risky decisions like the previous 3L wingers did
FWIW, Devils believed he’s the type of player who helps you win playoff games. For TOR, that’s important.
— Rachel Doerrie (@racheldoerrie) October 10, 2020
Things didn’t die down there, either. Just over an hour later, the Leafs signed veteran right-handed defenseman Zach Bogosian to a 1-year, $1M contract. The former 3rd overall pick has been injury prone and criticized for his inconsistent play in recent years, but managed to prove his effectiveness when deployed in a depth role – helping the Tampa Bay Lightning capture the Stanley Cup.
Luckily, Bogo stands 6’3, weighs in around 220 Ibs., and shoots right; therefore, he directly fits the narrative of the kind of defenseman fans have been pining for. The 30-year-old should excel in a bottom-pairing, penalty-killing role.
The very next day, the Leafs continued their bargain bin hunting and picked up 27-year-old winger Jimmy Vesey. The former Harvard University standout inked a 1-year, $900K deal and furthers helps Toronto shore up their bottom-six depth.
Vesey already has some ties to Toronto as his dad, also Jim(my) Vesey, is currently a scout for the Leafs. Third-line-centre Alexander Kerfoot is also a familiar face, as the two used to play on a line together at Harvard.
Jim Vesey. https://t.co/Q1xoAzjn6E
— Rear Admiral (@RearAdBsBlog) February 24, 2018
The Leafs’ top-six is more or less set to remain the same. Zach Hyman figures to stick with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, while John Tavares and William Nylander will likely stay together as well.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe liked the chemistry he saw last year when Mikheyev played with Tavares and Nylander. Mikheyev’s spot on the second line isn’t guaranteed, but it’s hard to picture many alternatives following Johnsson’s departure.
Nick Robertson could push for that spot if he has a stellar camp, but a full-time place on the Leafs’ roster isn’t a guarantee for him yet either. He’s too young for the Toronto Marlies (AHL), but a return to the Peterborough Petes (OHL) could very much be in the cards.
Unless he has an awful training camp, he will likely play the 9-game sample before being sent down. If he produces in that sample, it will be hard not to keep him up for good.
The only other player who realistically has a shot at second-line duties is Vesey. His skillset would naturally fit well on the left side, but whether or not he can excel enough to remain is the question.
On the other hand, there has been a buzz surrounding a potential third-line featuring Vesey-Kerfoot-Simmonds, and it’s certainly a nice thought that could possibly come to fruition. Robertson could even look good in that spot.
Barabanov is expected to play some kind of role in the bottom-six, bringing a well-rounded/safe style of game to the lineup. At 26 years old, he’s a bit more experienced with nearly 300 KHL games played and can likely fill a role similar to that of former Leaf forward Leo Komarov.
He also has a ‘European Assignment Clause’ in his contract, meaning he can go back to Europe if he doesn’t make the team out of training camp. That could heavily factor into whether or not he makes it.
— KHL (@khl_eng) March 6, 2020
With little cap space and a large group of hopeful bottom-six forwards, it would be hard to sign anyone else. With that being said, there are a couple of pending free agents who could provide value.
It’s no secret that Toronto’s bottom-six centre depth is on the weaker side, and there have been talks of bringing in 41-year-old centre Joe Thornton on a 1-year, league-minimum deal. The former first overall pick hails from London, Ont. and has pondered the idea of coming home in recent seasons.
Like Jason Spezza and Simmonds, he isn’t the player he used to be, but is still more than capable of performing in a depth role. His ability to play down the middle and his faceoff prowess would especially be welcomed.
Spezza is good at faceoffs as well, but relying on him up the middle is a little unsettling. Best case, Thornton can play reliable minutes as a third-line centre allowing flexibility for Kerfoot to play on the wing in the top six. Kerfoot has looked good up there with Tavares and Nylander in the past, so it’s nice to have that option should Mikheyev end up better suited for bottom-six duties.
To make this happen, Justin Holl and/or Dermott would likely have to be moved. Pierre Engvall and his $1.25M AAV has come up a lot in trade rumors as well – but is one year of Joe Thornton really more valuable than two years of Pierre Engvall?
It’s hard to say but regardless, many believe that someone else could perform just as well (or better) than Engvall while making the league minimum.
The Leafs have also been linked to 33-year-old centre Derick Brassard – certainly an intriguing option at the right price. Other considerations included Lucas Wallmark and Johan Larsson, both of whom have now signed elsewhere.
Joe Thornton to the Leafs? Don’t rule it out: https://t.co/Lt6VWXYmgH
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) October 13, 2020
For the first time in years, the Leafs have a blueline logjam. Rielly, Muzzin, and Brodie are all certainly locks for playing time. One would have to figure that Bogosian will see his fair share of minutes as well – something that was likely agreed upon during contract negotiations.
Holl seems to be a popular trade bait option as a means of clearing extra space, but he’s on a 3-year contract and a $2M AAV is typically a steal for a second-pairing defenseman – if he can perform the way he did early last season.
Dermott will likely make in the ballpark of $1.25M-$1.5M, or potentially less. The organization has always liked him, but a sign-and-trade certainly isn’t out of the question either.
Regardless of the arguments for both, it seems as though only one of Dermott/Holl will actually be on the roster come opening night.
Sandin and Liljegren could both serve well in at least bottom-pairing duties, but the room simply isn’t there right now. Sandin is likely closer than Liljegren, and probably has more upside, but both find themselves in a similar predicament and will likely end up in the AHL unless another defenseman is traded.
It’s hard to say what the 2020-21 AHL season could look like, given Covid-19, but the Leafs also had a lot of back-end injuries last season and the defense depth will come in handy.
Lehtonen is arguably the most intriguing of the group. At 26 years old, he’s not exactly a kid – not to mention he was touted as the ‘Best Defenseman in Europe’ last season by many industry professionals.
The Turku, Finland native registered 17 goals and 49 points in the KHL last year, first amongst the league’s defensemen. This season he’s recorded six goals and 13 points in 10 games so far, leading his entire team in scoring.
The offensive upside is intriguing, and his defense appears to be at least adequate. Some of his best qualities include his skating, his hockey IQ, and his ability to play the right side.
If he lives up to the hype, the Leafs’ defense corps will hit a whole new level of crowded. He was undoubtedly capable of neutralizing NHL-level competition, including Mark Stone, during the 2019 World Hockey Championship – Finland defeated Canada 3-1 in the finals to capture gold.
Like Barabanov, he has a ‘European Assignment Clause’ meaning he can also go back to Europe if he doesn’t make the team out of training camp.
future leaf mikko lehtonen being cheeky for the camera during jokerit’s game today (KHL) pic.twitter.com/4o3BZBmCOJ
— mitch marney (@marnylandersen) October 9, 2020
As previously mentioned, Toronto currently has $406K in cap space, so the likelihood of another bargain bin defense signing is unlikely. But what about a trade?
The Leafs were reportedly in on Florida Panthers’ RFA MacKenzie Weegar. A lot of that talk has died down giving the recent signings/the Johnsson trade, but this could still be something Toronto explores if they can swing it.
At 26 years old, Weegar has already become a very defensively-responsible, right-handed defenseman who can play upwards of 20 minutes per night. He doesn’t shy away from hits or blocked shots, either.
The AAV of the salary he ends up getting in arbitration will ultimately determine the feasibility of this option. Weegar and the Panthers managed to avoid arbitration last offseason by agreeing to a 1-year, $1.6M deal, but the young rearguard then only got into 45 games due to injury (although he did play in all four games of Florida’s qualifying-round loss).
His next contract could be anywhere from 1-3 years with potential AAVs ranging from $1.75-$2.5 (best case). If the number ends up being lower as opposed to higher, the Leafs could certainly explore moving some future assets, or even a player like Kerfoot.
If not Kerfoot, a combination of Engvall/Holl will likely have to be moved out to free up the salary to make this happen. Dermott could also become a casualty if this were to occur.
Acquiring Weegar would give the Leafs the best top-four they’ve had since the turn of the millennium. With Rielly, Muzzin, Brodie, and Weegar in the fold, it would be easy to move on from the Holls and the Dermotts of the roster.
Otherwise, their ability to make trades will naturally be very limited. A Nylander for Colton Parayko trade is not fully outside the realm of possibility but seems very unlikely at this point.
Notable remaining UFAs include Sami Vatanen and Travis Hamonic, but both would likely cost too much.
The Troy Stechers and Dylan DeMelos of the market have come and gone, and remaining bargain bin options such as Andy Greene and Cody Ceci are far from enticing.
So, what will Dubas do next?
@kyledubas I’ll bake you glittery cookies if you promise not to trade nylander, thanks
— maggie (@magnoliaplique) October 13, 2020