Welcome to the first in what will be a long run of Toronto Maple Leafs coverage for Full Press NHL. I’ll be the link between the team and readers, and I’ll be posting weekly coverage in this space for the foreseeable future. First, full disclosure: after my first run with The Hockey News, I was hired by the Leafs to write for their website; that lasted a handful of years until I could no longer attend games and practices for personal reasons. My father had a health scare, and I moved northwest of Toronto, where I currently reside. But I can still provide you with educated, insightful work on the team, and I hope to entertain and engage readers in a productive fashion.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s examine the latest Leafs’ news, which broke early in the day Tuesday: after re-signing veteran forward Jason Spezza a couple of weeks prior, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas retained another experienced hand – rugged winger Wayne Simmonds – by signing him to a two-year, $1.8 million deal. The two moves together are a tacit endorsement of the team that finished first in the COVID-makeshift North Division, only to fall apart in the first round of the playoffs by blowing a 3-1 series lead to the eventual series-winning Montreal Canadiens. But fans should not see keeping Spezza and Simmonds around as a sign the Leafs will be dependent on either player to carry the youngsters that make up the core of the team. Rather, they should understand that Toronto, like every high-functioning group, needs the development of other young players, and management members, to give the core a notable boost.
At the moment, we’re talking about forwards Nick Robertson and Adam Brooks, and defensemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liligren. These are the players who’ve been honing their craft in the American League with the Toronto Marlies. They’re under contractual control of the team during this current competitive window for star forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander; even if Dubas figures out a way to bring back unrestricted free agents like forwards Nick Foligno, Zach Hyman and Joe Thornton, and D-man Zach Bogosian – all of whom could still make a dent in the opposition, if they accept less money to remain Maple Leafs – Dubas will still need to turn to prospects like Robertson, Sandin and Brooks to fill out the roster and give head coach Sheldon Keefe enough evidence to make difficult lineup decisions each and every game.
That in-house competition for jobs is the hallmark of great NHL teams. A push from below can only help top-shelf talent like Matthews and Marne raise their respective games to new heights. It also can plug any holes left in the team after the expansion team in Seattle plucks one name off Toronto’s roster. And this is where the Leafs can take advantage of the absence of a salary cap in the minor leagues: assistant GM Laurence Gillman has been in charge of the Marlies, but Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has promoted him to senior vice-president of the Marlies and added another solid hockey man in new Marlies GM Ryan Hardy. The Marlies’ production matters more than ever, and Hardy has a wealth of experience developing talent in the United States Hockey League. He and Gillman will work together to generate young, skilled, and determined players for Dubas to elevate to the NHL level when the time comes.
And the way the NHL works today, there almost assuredly will be a time for youngsters to step up. With an increasingly compressed schedule, injuries, “load management” (see the handling of NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard as a harbinger of what is to come on that front) and the stresses of the cap, it is more crucial than ever that the fruits of a team’s minor league be plentiful and regular. Going out and paying for talent in free agency will nearly always result in an overpayment, which is why it is so important for cheap employees to rise through a system and wind up as members of the NHL roster.
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Dubas has leaned on emotional, hometown connections to Toronto to bring in Spezza, Simmonds, and Thornton to pad his team’s overall skill level, but it’s entirely likely he won’t be able to find those talents forever. This is why the Marlies’ successes mean so much to the successes of the Leafs: if the big-league club can always depend on their feeder systems to replenish the roster, that is a huge load off Dubas’ mind, and puts him in a positive leverage position when diving into the trade market.
So don’t fret just yet, Leafs’ fans. The team that imploded against the Canadiens will be very similar to the one that takes the ice for the 2021-22 season, but there will be a need and a focus on fringe players other than Spezza and Simmonds to improve on the final result. Those two will have important voices in the dressing room, but if either one is bitten by the injury bug – and the bug took a bite out of Simmonds last season, so there’s reason to expect either he or Spezza will be sidelined for a stretch this coming year – there will be players ready to take their spot and carve out a permanent place at the NHL level.
That’s what to keep an eye out for in the immediate future. The regular season matters, but as we’re seeing now, it doesn’t matter as much as being prepared and committed to a long and difficult playoff run. And those young players – by which, I mean Marner/Matthews/Nylander, as well as other youngsters lower down on the roster – need to be confident and aggressive when that time of the year rolls around. The good news is that Dubas, Shanahan and the rest of Leafs management knows this, and they’re doing everything in their power to assist Gillman, Hardy and the rest of the Marlies in that pursuit.