It sounds counter-intuitive: Having overachieved as a team loaded with rookies, the Toronto Maple Leafs must change before the puck is dropped next October.
You’d presume that there’s a strong case to be made for continuity. Everything was trending up in Toronto. Everyone knows the obvious: This team that finished dead last a year ago took the Presidents’ Trophy winners to the wall in each of six games in the playoffs.
Some people may have forgotten, however, that back in October and early November the Leafs weren’t on the playoff grid, that it looked like they were going to wind up in the lottery again. The Leafs weren’t just better from one season to the next but better as this season went along. It would seem like simple patience would be in order, like the status quo is the way to go.
That, however, is just not how things get done in the NHL.
Even a Stanley Cup-winning team has to shuffle pieces in and out over the summer. Some of it is the function of contracts and salary-cap management. And in a couple of months the Vegas Golden Knights will be stocking their roster by plucking bodies from every organization around the league.
But even in the days before the salary cap, even when the league was adding a team or two, teams have to let players move on or, more coldly, have to move them on down the road. Making changes sometimes winds up being a mistake. Making no changes, however, is always a mistake.
That was a message from on high at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday afternoon.
One theme that general manager Lou Lamoriello kept returning to: Don’t expect to see the same lineup in October. Another theme, a refrain that coach Mike Babcock joined the GM in chorus: There will be internal competition.
These don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other, but they in fact overlap.
There will be new bodies in the lineup—for all the genius that the Leafs have up front, they need upgrades in their top two defence pairings. That was plain all season long and ultimately cost them a chance at upsetting Washington in the first round. And it might take moving one of these shiny rookie talents to pry loose a blue chip blue-liner.
The price could be high—of course, Auston Matthews is your franchise player, but would it take William Nylander or Mitch Marner to get someone who projects as a top-pair quality defenceman, something along the lines of Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones, or Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson? That seems to be the price point.
It doesn’t seem like the Leafs can look to the farm system for any help next October, certainly not when they were throwing in Martin Marincin and Alexey Marchenko. Consider the case of Nate Schmidt, who logged a ton of minutes for the Capitals but only dressed for Washington because of an injury to veteran Karl Alzner. Schmidt would vie for a top-four spot with the Leafs.
One of the more interesting developments to watch, however, will be changes from within, namely the other rookies. They might stick around but they may see their roles change.
Zach Hyman played the entire season on Matthews’ left side, and while everybody admired his industry, more than a few thought he should have something more than 10 goals and 18 assists to show for 82 games beside the league’s second-leading goal scorer. Pro scouts I talked to loved his game from Game 1—and that they even noticed him when Matthews was scoring four goals against Ottawa is saying something. The consensus, however, was that Hyman would be a better fit as a third-liner rather than a first—that his ability to dig out pucks along the wall and his awareness in his defensive zone are better suited to a shutdown role rather than as a sidekick to the wunderkind. It’s easy to project him into a role more like Leo Komarov’s than to see him as back on Matthews’ left, especially with Uncle Leo having turned 30.
Hyman is a restricted free agent, but said on Tuesday he was confident that "contract stuff will get settled" and he completely embraces playing for his hometown team. Hyman isn’t the type who would regard a shuffle off Matthews’ line as a demotion so much as a repurposing for the team’s benefit.
"Coming into this season my goal was just to stick around and try to have an impact," he said. "That’s all any young player wants to do."
Another to watch would be the Leafs’ handling of right wing Kasperi Kapanen, who spent most of the season on the ice with the Marlies or watching the Marlies, sidelined with injuries.
"I didn’t get called up all season and I really didn’t want to think about it," he said. "I tried to work hard and stay patient."
Kapanen’s turn with the big club was relatively brief, limited to the fourth line, but wholly memorable. His first NHL goal, scored in his seventh career game, might have been the difference between the Leafs making or missing the playoffs. And then there was his pair of playoff goals, including the overtime winner in Game 2 against Washington. Kapanen didn’t see a lot of ice time, but he caught your eye almost every shift—the Leafs don’t play a heavy game at all, so they have to rely on speed and he was probably the fastest forward on the ice when he had his chances.
Kapanen’s caught in a numbers game—Nylander, Marner and Connor Brown are ahead of him on the depth chart and he only got called up because of an injury to Nikita Soshnikov, a pest favoured by Babcock. For a few games it looked like Kapanen didn’t have a compass out there, but by the time the Leafs played the Capitals you were pretty sure he got more done than Soshnikov had.
Kapanen didn’t equivocate—he doesn’t see himself on the top two lines. "I look around this room and see the talent here and really I don’t think I belong [in the top six]," he says. "I’ll come to camp and battle for a spot, whatever they want to give me."
A spot again on the third line, though, might hang out there next fall. Although the 23-year-old Brown scored the goal against Pittsburgh that put the Leafs into the playoffs in Game 81, the 20-year-old Kapanen has greater upside. Kapanen was assigned back to the Marlies for their playoff run—he had 43 points in 43 games during the regular season. You have to think these will be the last games of his AHL career.