31 Thoughts: How different will Maple Leafs look in 2018–19?

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Gardiner and James Van Riemsdyk celebrate a goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Thursday, March 15, 2018. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

• Roster churn coming for Leafs?
• Gulutzan, Yawney make sense for Oilers
• Ducks want to play faster

The Toronto Maple Leafs headed into 2017–18 knowing some important long-term decisions loomed. They made a bold and interesting choice: They would wait and see how things turned out, allowing the results to determine the organization’s path.

“If you have time, use it,” GM Lou Lamoriello is fond of saying.

Sooner than they hoped, time is up.

Wednesday’s painful Game 7 defeat in Boston brings the end of the season, and the beginning of a critical decision-making process. And it starts near the top, with team President Brendan Shanahan needing to clarify the front-office structure.

Lamoriello signed a three-year contract as GM, but there is a provision for two extra years in some kind of advisory role. Shanahan doesn’t have to do it that way. He can choose to keep the status quo. In March, a week after Nick Kypreos, Chris Johnston and I speculated on the future, I ran into Shanahan at an Air Canada Centre morning skate. He stressed that any outside speculation was pure guesswork, because he had not made a final decision.

Complicating the process is how the decision affects Lamoriello’s lieutenants, assistant GMs Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter. Both are very valuable. The Maple Leafs think so highly of Dubas that they blocked Colorado from hiring him last summer. In most businesses, that means internal promotion is inevitable — and imminent.

As for Hunter, he finds players, and he’s great at it. At the 2015 NHL Draft, with head coach Mike Babcock pushing for a defenceman like Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov or Zach Werenski, Hunter stuck with his choice, Mitch Marner. This season, Marner validated that decision, pushing back against Babcock’s tough love with an impactful season, and it continued against the Bruins. From Game 1 to 89, he was Toronto’s best player.

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Dubas and Hunter are OHL rivals from London and Sault Ste. Marie. What does promotion for one mean for the other? And, what does it mean for Lamoriello? Would he want to stay in an advisory role? Or could another organization come calling?

Honestly, I don’t have a great feel for it. There are some executives who believe Shanahan will change things, others who believe he will keep status quo into 2018–19. We’re guessing, but we’re soon to get our answer.

It was interesting, however, to watch Lamoriello the past few days. He has the ultimate poker face, never showing his cards. One of the best stories about him comes from when he was still running the Devils, who were coming to Toronto for a Hockey Night in Canada game. Their flight had a scary landing, with players saying iPods flew around the cabin. Scott Gomez laughed that the only unruffled guy was the GM, who calmly sat there like nothing happened.

Before Game 5 in Boston, Lamoriello interrupted Frederik Andersen’s pre-game routine on the bench, ostensibly to offer words of encouragement. That caught us by surprise, because pre-game routines are rarely interrupted and we didn’t see that all year. He had a big fist-pump after that win, too. It stood out because it was different, especially from him.

The games are done, but heavy lifting remains.

31 THOUGHTS

1. We will get back to Toronto in a moment, but first a word about the Draft Lottery. Not sure how it will end up, but the NHL is considering a “split” on Saturday night. The first 12 picks would be unveiled during the pre-game prior to San Jose/Las Vegas, the final three during the second intermission.

2. This is always subject to change, but it looks like nine GMs will be at the lottery: Jim Benning (Vancouver), Marc Bergevin (Montreal), Stan Bowman (Chicago), Jason Botterill (Buffalo), John Chayka (Arizona), Peter Chiarelli (Edmonton), Pierre Dorion (Ottawa), Jeff Gorton (Rangers) and Ken Holland (Detroit). Also on the guest list: Bill Armstrong (director of scouting, St. Louis), Eric Joyce (assistant GM, Florida), Chris Lamoriello (director of player personnel, Islanders), Rich Peverly (player development, Dallas) and Don Waddell (president, Carolina).

3. With six unrestricted free agents, there is potential for roster churn in Toronto. Kasperi Kapanen is going to have an NHL job, and Andreas Johnson will be given every opportunity, too.

Last summer, as James van Riemsdyk headed into the final season of his contract, he came up from his off-season home for meetings with the coaches and front office about his role. Van Riemsdyk loves Toronto, wanted to stay and agreed to make it work. He had an excellent season, a career-high 36 goals in limited minutes. It’s hard to see how it can fit. Auston Matthews’s contract negotiations will dominate discussion, but Marner really raised his value, too. Matthews clearly wasn’t himself in the post-season.

4. Another decision Toronto held off was upgrading the blue line. The Maple Leafs kicked tires on some in-season options (Ryan McDonagh and Chris Tanev among them), but the feeling is they were never really close to making anything happen. Maybe they wanted to wait and see how the current group did. They know another Russian defender, Igor Ozhiganov, has made a commitment should he test the NHL. Travis Dermott earned more time, but this search is going to go deeper.

5. This is me thinking out loud, but I’d be curious to see if the Islanders ask to speak to Lamoriello should Toronto not keep him in the same position. Son Chris is already there, and Lamoriello has a good relationship with GM Garth Snow. There’s some logic to it.

6. There was a rumour floating around the league that Dean Lombardi was a consideration for the Islanders. But I don’t believe that’s happening.

7. Carolina made contact with University of Denver head coach Jim Montgomery, but that doesn’t appear to be a likely scenario. No harm in asking. It’s probably Rod Brind’Amour or Mike Vellucci behind the Hurricanes’ bench. Buffalo assistant GM Steve Greeley is there for another interview, and, apparently, there are others Dundon’s spoken to. I think there’s also been some contact with Montreal’s Rick Dudley, but I’m not sure that’s for the GM position.

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8. Word on the team is that Carolina feels it needs some edge — that they’re too easy to play against. Jeff Skinner is one year away from unrestricted free agency, and they’re going to test his value. You know who could be interested? The Los Angeles Kings.

9. The Hurricanes have asked Ron Francis to work from home. Business is brutal sometimes, but sad it ends this way between the organization and one of its greatest players.

10. Quietly, Edmonton locked down KHL goaltender Mikko Koskinen a little while ago. It is believed that the Islanders, who drafted Koskinen in 2009, were also looking. He had a 1.72 goals-against average in 35 regular-season and playoff games this season. Word is he was asking for two years at $2.5 million per, but no idea yet what the agreement is.

11. Another Canadian team that may dip into European free agency: Vancouver. The Canucks are looking at Par Lindholm, a 26-year-old Swedish centre. Several NHL clubs were interested, but believe Vancouver has a good shot at him.

12. There are a few Russian free-agent defenders to keep an eye on at the upcoming World Championships: New Jersey is expected to sign 26-year-old Egor Yakovlev. Overseas reports link Arizona to Ilya Lyubushkin. I can’t pin down the team, but it appears there is an agreement somewhere with Alexander Yelesin. And several clubs continue to chase Bogdan Kiselevich. He’s 28. That’s two years older than Yakovlev, four above Lyubushkin.

13. Paul Fenton was in Minnesota on Wednesday, interviewing for the open GM position, and is widely considered the favourite. But, at this point, the Wild still plan on going through the process. Fenton knows owner Craig Leipold well. Another candidate who also knows Leipold? New Jersey’s Tom Fitzgerald, Nashville’s first-ever captain when Leipold owned that team. Expect Fitzgerald to get an interview, and maybe Columbus’s Bill Zito, too. At some point, Lombardi is going to resurface. Leipold is due for hip surgery, and, for that reason, there is belief he’d like this done by the end of next week.

14. Leipold is an emotional guy, and that played out over the past two weeks. I think The Athletic’s Michael Russo has a good feel for that organization, so when he went from saying Chuck Fletcher is likely safe in the last week of the season to Fletcher is in trouble after their elimination, it’s a good window into what happened. I don’t believe one game should define anything, but I also don’t have hundreds of millions invested in the team.

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Leipold made it clear his vision is a Stanley Cup in the next three or four years, but the biggest obstacle may be the prime-aged players and how they performed. The Wild know what they are going to get from Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise (when healthy) and Ryan Suter. Fletcher re-stocked the cupboard with some promising youth, like Jordan Greenway. Mathew Dumba was a top-20 defenceman in points and goals, so he will be due a big raise. He was also one of the few who played up to potential in the post-season. At different times, Fletcher considered moving Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. There was interest. He decided to hold, and they were shut out by Winnipeg. Their futures will be an important decision for the new GM.

15. Another big decision for the Wild: Eric Staal. Forty-two goals at age 33. This century, only Daniel Alfredsson, Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne have done that. One more year at $3.5M. Centres are hard to find. Do you come back with him or see what’s out there? There’s a lot of respect for him.

16. There were rumblings last summer that Parise and Bruce Boudreau disagreed with the forward’s power-play role. Parise wanted to be in a shooting position, Boudreau wanted him in front of the net. Before Parise got hurt, he was in front of the net, and he was effective. I don’t think it was always easy between them, but they found a way.

17. Totally off-the-wall consideration for Minnesota? Paul Holmgren. From St. Paul, played at the University of Minnesota, for the WHA Fighting Saints and NHL North Stars. He’s 62 now — don’t know if he desires to do it, but would be curious to see what would happen if he wanted an interview.

18. There is word Dallas prefers a new path in its coaching search — nobody with previous connections to the club. But I’m also hearing they’re open to all situations. Don’t think the Stars or Rangers are in any hurry.

19. Depending on what the Oilers want to do, Glen Gulutzan and Trent Yawney make sense for their bench. Gulutzan probably wants to see what’s out there as head coach first. But both know Todd McLellan. The latter assisted McLellan in San Jose for three seasons. This is longer than I thought Edmonton would take, but word is Peter Chiarelli wants McLellan to return.

20. It would not be a surprise to see Tim Hunter back at the professional level. He coached Moose Jaw to the best regular-season record in the Western Hockey League. The Warriors lost Game 7 of their second-round series to Swift Current, the second-best WHL team.

21. AHL Hershey let go of head coach Troy Mann after a good run there. Watch Ottawa, where brother Trent is chief scout. Kurt Kleinendorst runs AHL Belleville. Those Senators didn’t have a great record, but that’s not always the most important thing at that level. Do your prospects improve? The outside response is yes they did.

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22. After Game 1 of the Toronto/Boston series, the Bruins got a, “We’d prefer if you could tell Brad Marchand to stop licking people” phone call from the NHL.

23. Anaheim GM Bob Murray was in Ontario this week, watching some of his players in OHL playoff series involving Kingston and Sault Ste. Marie. Murray likes scouting draft-eligibles, more so than many of his contemporaries. But there’s no question he’d prefer to be attending the NHL playoffs now. After their elimination to San Jose, he delayed the Ducks’ exit meetings.

“I’m not ready for that yet,” he said Wednesday. “There’s still a lot of emotion. I wanted to sit for a bit.”

They will begin Friday. He held an interesting debriefing with local reporters about the way his team needs to play.

“We are all in agreement the games are being played faster. I was watching Sault Ste. Marie the other night, and they have two or three guys coming back underneath to pick up speed. We don’t do that. We can’t have three forwards standing around waving sticks. I would say to [head coach Randy Carlyle] that we have to play fast, and sometimes we did. But he didn’t have the leverage all season, because we were so banged up that we were always chasing the playoffs. But we know we have to, because we are playing slow hockey.”

Murray credited Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski for being able to play fast without being the swiftest skaters.

24. The GM added two other changes he wanted to see. First, more usage of the fourth line. That was something Toronto questioned about Carlyle, too, but Murray gamely took responsibility for that. He credited old defence partner Doug Wilson (GM in San Jose) for getting the Melker Karlssons and Marcus Sorensens.

“Doug did a hell of a job finding guys (coach) Peter DeBoer could trust. I don’t want to force-feed Sam Steel and Troy Terry on the fourth line. That’s not a place for a 20-year-old.”

At the end of Game 3, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler were in the penalty box as the Sharks poured in goal after goal. That needs to be controlled.

“This is still a physical game,” Murray said. “But you have to play between the whistles. If others don’t engage, you can’t lose your cool mentally. That means you are not ready to play.”

25. Murray is hopeful a summer of rest will help Getzlaf and Kesler. He feels they have to ease the captain’s workload. He would not discuss Perry, but it’s clear there is some tension. This will be a huge summer (and 2018–19 season) for one of the franchise cornerstones. One player he did correct my opinion of is John Gibson. In the past, I’ve mentioned that the Ducks love their goalie, but worry about his propensity for injuries. The GM said that is no longer the case.

“That was when he had some hip flexor or groin issues. But he hasn’t had those in two years. These were different, and in some cases, he was held out for precautionary reasons. We’re not worried.”

26. I’m not one for predictions, so no chance I’m weighing in on a topical take du jour: whether or not this is Washington’s year. But, it’s hard not to be impressed with how the Capitals have handled this season. Last year’s defeat was devastating, and the franchise still isn’t over it. They’re not as deep as they were, there’ve been season-long contract questions about the GM (since answered), the coach (no contract) and the top defenceman (no contract). Just read John Tortorella’s and Barry Trotz’s lips here:

On top of all of this, the all-star goalie was benched. Despite all of that, they won the Metropolitan and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Columbus. One of the criticisms of the Capitals is that things have come “too easy” for them, and the playoffs are much, much more difficult. Nothing came easy for them in 2017-18.

27. I am very, very curious to see what the Blue Jackets do with Sergei Bobrovsky. Free agent in 2019, already at $7.425 million. Last negotiation wasn’t easy. No playoff success, but do not underestimate how hard it is to get there, and he gets them there every year. Challenging decision for them.

28. Best line I’ve heard about the NHL playoffs: “There’s a 31-team league, and then a 16-team league. The 16-team league is much harder to win.”

It’s amazing how the switch gets flipped and how much nastier it gets in the second week of April.

29. There are AHL meetings beginning May 7 and one of the decisions is whether or not commissioner Dave Andrews stays beyond June 2019. Andrews took over for Hall of Fame Builder Jack Butterfield in 1994 and he’s been a year away from retirement for the last three or four or five years, depending on who you talk to. He laughed at that characterization, joking, “I’m sure there are a few guys circling.”

As for the future?

“I’m not sure right now, to be brutally frank,” he said Tuesday. “I may extend, may not. Up until very recently I was not considering extending, but now I’m talking about it. I’m in good shape, enjoying the work, still have something on the fastball. I still have the passion and energy for it…. I’ll make a decision before that meeting.”

30. One of the reasons I thought Andrews might consider stepping away is the American League is in good shape. There are always going to be problems, but generally the news is positive.

“We’re not facing near the level of challenges we’ve had to deal with…. If the NHL expands to Seattle, we’ll have to manage an expansion process of our own. The last one was not that simple, but we were able to resolve it. We had new revenue records for the league and will get the Texas teams back in the Central.”

There’s no doubt the best stat is the amount of its graduates that go to the NHL. They want to be known as a developmental league, and they are accomplishing that.

But the lure of the job is a powerful one.

31. Tuesday’s van attack in Toronto was in an area called North York. We were born there, raised there, and raise our son there — just west of where the incident occurred. My wife and I ate lunch in a restaurant you can see in the photos, leaving minutes before it happened, although we were on the opposite side of Yonge St. It is a fantastic place to live, full of great people. I wanted to write something, but it was hard. I’ve heard people interviewed before say, when their neighbourhoods are affected, it makes them angry. I get that now. The families who suffered? We will do our best to pull them through.

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