What will the Maple Leafs do next? Exploring three possibilities

When the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated in the qualifying round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, there were immediate calls for changes to the roster.

Upgrade the defence. Consider changing the core. Maybe even the goalie.

Those changes started two and a half weeks ago with a six-player trade that sent Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins with the primary return being cap space and the 15th overall pick.

"Certainly, I don't think this is going to be it for us as we go along," Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said after the deal. "We wanted this (cap) flexibility so that we could be flexible inside the marketplace for either free agents or for trades."

In short, Toronto isn't done.

So what could be next for the Leafs? What are Toronto's options based on their most pressing roster needs and available assets? Here's a brief look.

1. Flip the first-round pick
The Penguins made the Kapanen trade just to try and keep a push going for the Stanley Cup. As long as they have Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, futures mean much less than the here and now. Toronto's core is younger and all under contract for a few more years, but the pressure to show progress is just the same.

So, Toronto must try and use the 15th overall pick to acquire an upgrade to the defence core. Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie are unlikely to return as they hit free agency and it's too much to expect Timothy Liljegren or Rasmus Sandin or Justin Holl to just fill in those roles and solve the problem. Experience, defensive awareness and, yes, even some toughness must be a goal for Toronto to add to its back end. Whether as a standalone asset in a deal or part of a package, the mid-first-round pick will be coveted around the league in a deep 2020 draft and the Leafs must use it to their advantage now.

2. Seek out other salary slicing deals
I don't believe it necessary to trade any of the Core Four forwards, unless one heck of an offer comes along, but Toronto should be trying other ways to re-shape its roster. To do that, salary cap space is vital.

The Leafs currently have a projected $6.1 million in cap space for next season before perhaps re-signing any of Jason Spezza, Frederik Gauthier, Travis Dermott or Ilya Mikheyev (and also before possibly sending Martin Marincin's and Calle Rosen's contracts to the minors). They need more space. It's hard to see Toronto getting enough room to take a swing at the biggest free agents like Alex Pietrangelo, but since a lot of teams will be tight to the cap this off-season, some available players might come cheaper than they otherwise would have.

So after Kapanen, Toronto must explore other moves to shave down some cap. Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5 million), Andreas Johnsson ($3.4 million) and Pierre Engvall ($1.25 million) are those mid-level contracts that should be expendable now in the right trade.

3. Explore options for Frederik Andersen's replacement
The Leafs' goalie has been solid for most of his time in Toronto, but the fact is he'll be 31 in October and entering the final season of his contract. Now is the time for Toronto to start exploring other options.

As they search for more ways to gain some cap space, can they find a way to reduce cost in the crease? With the cap staying flat and so much money committed to the top forwards already, the Leafs may be able to find a way to move ahead with a two-headed tandem that combined would come at a lower cost. This off-season's goalie market is ripe with options in free agency and in trade so the Leafs could take advantage of a buyer's market.

It's not that Andersen has to go, but he could be a tough re-sign a year from now, so it's time to seek out other opportunities.

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