An offhand comment made mid-season by Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock — who, in our opinion, holds more front-office sway than any other NHL bench boss — stuck with us.
Babcock was explaining how Leafs draft guru Mark Hunter likes himself a good winger.
“Me? I like centres and D,” Babcock said. “So we’ll need to fix that.”
Yes, the Leafs went heavy on D at the ’17 draft and already inked left-shot Swedish prospects Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman to entry-level deals, but they’re not done shoring up a mediocre blue line.
“If we can improve our defence, that’s something we’re certainly going to do,” GM Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the draft. “It’s obvious we want to get somebody to make us better, but we’d be happy with the people we have.”
Centres and D — Toronto will be fixing to chase some in trade or free agency, and the club has the cap space to do it.
Forwards: $35.66 million
Defence: $17 million
Goaltenders: $5 million
Total: $60.95 million ($14.05 million cap space)
AREAS OF NEED
Top-four defenceman: In terms of both contract years and dollar values, three quarters of the Maple Leafs’ top two defence pairings appear locked in stone with speedy, talented blueliners in their mid-20s; Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner are on the books for a minimum of two more years at $4.05 million to $5 million each. While Toronto has already pillaged the Swedish league and the draft this off-season to complement that trio, this roster needs a proven right shot who’s ready now. Which is why the Leafs have been poking around Travis Hamonic, Chris Tanev and others in the trade market and will consider the best UFAs available here.
Fourth-line centre: Ben Smith ain’t cutting it, and Massachusetts native Brian Boyle (a nice deadline rental) is more likely to end up making more money elsewhere. Boyle said this week he’s looking at a return to Tampa as a “huge option.” A few face-off-winning, penalty-killing veteran pivots will be available this summer, and we’d be shocked if Toronto doesn’t add one.
Kevin Shattenkirk: The Leafs were said to be poking around Shattenkirk as a trade-deadline rental before he moved from St. Louis to Washington. Count the Capitals, who blew their wad of dough on T.J. Oshie, out on the Shattenkirk sweepstakes. The right-shot power-play beast will demand a pretty penny, and the Rangers and Devils are the presumed front-runners, but the Leafs should at least inquire before looking at cheaper Plan B options like Cody Franson, Michael Stone, Dan Girardi, Karl Alzner or their own Matt Hunwick.
Mike Fisher: “I love playing the game, I love being around the guys,” Nashville Predators captain Fisher said after losing in the Cup Final. “At the end of the day, this is a game. It’s an important part of my life but it’s not everything. There’s other decisions and other people involved. For me it’s faith, family and then hockey.”
Fisher, 37, is contemplating retirement, and tearing him away from Music City might be near-impossible, but the Preds could have cap issues when by the time they re-sign Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson, and Fisher — who grew up in nearby Peterborough, Ont. — would be the perfect depth centre in Toronto for a one-year stab at the Cup.
RECENT FREE-AGENT ACQUISITIONS
Matt Martin, $10 million, four years in 2016: Much derided by the analytics community and fans who generally enjoy seeing forwards score goals, Martin rapidly became a valued fixture of the Maple Leafs’ fourth line despite contributing a paltry five goals and four assists over 82 games. He’s beloved by his young teammates and doesn’t know the meaning of flinch. Babcock hated seeing his team getting pushed around in 2015-16, so in steps Martin with 13 fights in 2016-17 — a five-year high for the former New York Islander. A crasher/banger/scrapper/dressing-room guy who knows his role and is respected for it.
Jhonas Enroth, $750,000, one year in 2016: A disaster. The Maple Leafs missed out on the Great Backup Goalie Rush of July 1, 2016 (though they did take a run at Chad Johnson) and ended up signing the passed-over Enroth in late August. The 5-foot-10, 171-pound Swede was exclusively given the bitter end of back-to-backs but never gained Babcock’s trust. After an .872 save percentage and zero wins in four appearances, Enroth was waived and later traded to the Ducks for a seventh-round pick. He put up nice numbers as a San Diego Gull and hopes to work his way back into the bigs.
Roman Polak, $2.25 million, one year in 2016: The ’16 Leafs rented the lovable, indestructible Czech defenceman to the Sharks for their run to the Cup final, then signed him as a UFA. Though not the fleetest of foot, Polak plays a simple, hard-nosed brand of defence that endears the 600-game vet to his coach and teammates. The third-pairing right shot says he’d love to rejoin the Leafs for 2017–18 and expects the lower-body injury he suffered in Round 1’s playoff series against the Capitals to be completely healed for puck drop. But Toronto will have a bunch of young, new bodies vying for that third pair in camp.