TORONTO – The stakes have been raised. Now it’s time to see what else the Toronto Maple Leafs front office can bring to the table.
As the organization puts a transformational 2016-17 campaign in the rear-view mirror, it enters a unique window of opportunity.
This is a time for ambition, a time to be bold.
The Leafs will see $21-million worth of contracts come off the books in an off-season expected to feature increased player movement because of the expansion draft. They have one more year of William Nylander playing well below market value on an entry-level deal and two more of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner doing the same.
In other words, they are currently much closer to behaving like a Stanley Cup contender than they’re comfortable admitting publicly.
“Close is a funny word,” general manager Lou Lamoriello said Tuesday. “Then you get into hypotheticals.”
Here’s a hypothetical that shouldn’t be lost on any of the men running this team: The task of building a winner in the next two seasons may end up being easier than three years down the road, when the Matthews-Nylander-Marner trio will probably be accounting for north of $20-million in payroll.
Even more cap creativity than usual will be required then.
For now, there is room to maneuver.
The Leafs are due to shed $14.15-million from the deals of Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Stephane Robidas and Colin Greening. Another $6.925-million comes off for Roman Polak, Brian Boyle, Matt Hunwick, Ben Smith and Curtis McElhinney – although it’s possible one or more of those veterans returns on a new contract.
When you factor in a bonus overage of $5.37-million, and the $4.25-million per year extension Nikita Zaitsev is expected to sign later this week, that leaves somewhere in the neighbourhood of $13-million in available cap space with only Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and Brendan Leipsic to be signed as restricted free agents.
That’s a fair chunk of change to start addressing needs on the blue-line. They’ll also be in the market for a backup goaltender and more forwards, with one source recently suggesting the Leafs “are in on everyone” eyeing a move to North America next season.
Among those believed to have received interest is forward Vladimir Tkachev, who has yet to decide if he’ll return for another season with Ak-Bars Kazan in the KHL.
There are others as well.
In fact, the next business trip for Leafs coach Mike Babcock comes in a week or two when he travels to Europe for the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
“There’s a few players there that we’ve identified that I want to see,” he said Tuesday.
The crop of NHL free agents includes some intriguing options, with defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk and centre Joe Thornton at the top of the class. T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Patrick Marleau, Alex Radulov and Cody Franson are some of the others due to hit the open market.
There is also the matter of a June expansion for the Vegas Golden Knights, which should present more trade opportunities than usual.
“I don’t know if anybody can gauge the market because, from my experiences with expansion, a lot of things are going to take place prior to expansion,” said Lamoriello. “Whatever you might think a team has excess of, might not be.”
The Leafs will turn the page quickly on a year where they managed a 26-point improvement in the standings and pushed the heavily favoured Washington Capitals to six games in the opening round.
It was a season that sent a surge of excitement through the front office – “How could you not (be invigorated)?” said Lamoriello – but concluded with a cautionary tone about what to expect moving forward.
“It’s a step. It’s a step,” said Lamoriello. “Now it’s our job to convince the players that it’s only a step. It’s going to get more difficult. Teams are going to look at you a little different the way they approach you. Teams are going to know your tendencies as a player and how they can stop you.
“So there’s a lot that has to transpire, that’s why it’s just a step.”
The GM will turn 75 in October and is entering the final season of his contract with the organization.
He sidestepped a question about his personal future, saying, “I’ve got enough problems just getting up in the morning.” But he's no doubt feeling some urgency to help this group take another significant step next season.
Ideally, they’re aiming to recreate what happened in Chicago and Pittsburgh by winning a Stanley Cup with core players still on entry-level deals.
That isn’t the stated goal publicly – Babcock believes a reasonable expectation for 2017-18 is simply getting back to the playoffs – but given what we saw from Matthews and the other rookies this season it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.
That’s why they should be aggressive in building on the foundation this summer. Their first championship window is open for the next two years, and they’ll have to adjust beyond that.