When the season ends for NHL teams, they all go through a year-end process of evaluation. Pro and amateur meetings result in strategies for the off-season and how to construct the roster. It’s an in-depth process that has many layers to it.
With the Maple Leafs out in Round 1 for the sixth season in a row, hard questions are being asked about where they go from here. Should they run it back for another go? Should they consider big changes or a new approach to roster building altogether? There will be some tough calls and no easy answers for them.
So we’ll do our own year-end evaluation of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The following is an unbiased analysis of Toronto’s roster and the potential moves that could assist them with getting over the hump in 2022-23.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office has implemented a vision of how they want to build their roster and organization and have stuck to it. Brendan Shanahan clearly has the trust of ownership and by extension Kyle Dubas has the trust of Shanahan. The team has come a long way over the past several years and just had a record-setting regular season. So the Leafs are an excellent team, but the playoff results have yet to arrive and ultimately nobody remembers, or cares, about how many wins you end up with in the regular season if there is no playoff success that follows.
At the end of the day, teams are judged on what they do in the post-season.
Adding a new voice, or two, to the hockey operations department would expand the viewpoints and opinions of the current management team. It’s never a good idea for any organization, pro sports or business, to have only like-minded people throughout the structure. New voices would give pause for thought, perhaps present new ideas, and potentially add a layer in the front office’s decision making strategies.
There is no doubt the Toronto Maple Leafs need more out of certain slots in their lineup. The status quo isn’t getting them over the top. It’s time to reconsider things and to make some bold moves this off-season.
2021-22 MAPLE LEAFS ROSTER ANALYSIS
Jack Campbell: After a great start to the season, he suffered through a prolonged slump and dealt with injuries. He wasn’t outstanding in the playoffs, but he certainly wasn’t a weak link. His body of work was acceptable for a goalie who hasn’t played this many games (49) in a season at the NHL level.
He’s not the kind of No. 1 goalie who will play 65 games. He will always need a strong partner. But Campbell has earned the opportunity to return and he’s a solid teammate. The next step will be determining his value as a pending UFA and come to an agreement on signing him to a reasonable extension. The issue the Leafs have is that the UFA goalie market is rather weak this off-season, which will give Campbell more control to dictate his salary expectation.
The UFA goalies this summer right now include Mikko Koskinen, Joonas Korpisalo, Martin Jones, Thomas Greiss, Jaroslav Halak, Pavel Francouz and Braden Holtby.
There are two outliers here: Marc-Andre Fleury and Darcy Kuemper. They will command salaries above what you’d like a 1B goalie to be and would be better fits as a 1A option at the position. If the Leafs went down this road with either of them, it would rule Campbell out of the plans.
Erik Kallgren: Gave the team some stability in a pinch. He has earned the right to challenge for the No. 2 job, but another year in the AHL will not hurt his development. If he does stick in the NHL he would have a $750,000 AAV.
Petr Mrazek: It didn’t work. It’s not going to work. Even when healthy his “athletic/active” style doesn’t fit the way this team plays. My trust is very low in Mrazek and a buyout may be on the horizon.
It’s an interesting dilemma the team finds itself in with their defence core. Four of their returning defencemen have either no-trade, partial no-trade, or no-move clauses in their contracts. Kyle Dubas is a stand-up guy who is true to his word with his players. There are going to have to be some difficult discussions here.
Morgan Rielly: Potentially a life-long Maple Leaf. He had a fantastic year offensively and played every game, scoring 10 goals and 68 points while logging over 23 minutes of average ice time. His defending will always be average overall. Signed to a long-term extension with an a full no-move clause until 2028, his AAV is a very respectable $7.5 million beginning next season. His identity coming into the league was that of a transitional defenceman who could quarterback a power play and he’s played to that identity.
TJ Brodie: Arguably their most valuable defender. Brodie brings some secondary offence and plays heavy minutes. He’s a solid defender, moves well and can play on the left or right side. Signed through 2023-2024 with a $5 million AAV, Brodie has a no-trade clause next season and a 10-team modified no-trade clause the following year.
Jake Muzzin: Injuries sidelined his season for stretches. He knows his body best, but concussions are a scary look, especially for players at this stage of their career. Assuming he’s healthy he’ll return next season but maybe in a lesser role. He’s not the same player he was. Declining offensive numbers and periods of slow play are concerning, but he can be utilized as a No. 5 at even strength still. He also has a no-trade clause for 2022-23 and a modified 10-team no-trade list for 2023-24. His AAV is $5.625 million, second-highest among the returning blueliners.
IIya Lyubushkin: A right shot who plays to an identity of being one of Toronto’s more physical defenders. He’s not a top-four option really, but he brings some bump and grind to the bottom pairing. A pending UFA, his return will depend on cost but he’s an in-house target. Last year’s salary was $1.35 million, and if it makes sense dollar-wise he’s definitely a consideration to keep around.
Timothy Liljegren: No question he has made strides. He’s still only 23 years old. His game management is more reliable, he’s ready for regular duty, and he now looks like he can contribute on an NHL power play. He’ll be an affordable option as an RFA. In 61 regular season games Liljegren produced five goals and 23 points, and though those stats don’t jump off the page I get the feeling there is more on the horizon for him. However, I don’t believe there’s enough room for both Liljegren and Sandin with the way the roster is constructed. It’s time to test the waters for a potential trade.
Rasmus Sandin: A two-way, transitional defenceman who can be used on the power play, Sandin is another RFA on the Leafs’ back end. who will be affordable on his next deal. He needs more volume. There are nights where Sandin turns pucks over at the wrong time, but he’s a year younger than Liljegren and on a more reliable path overall. In 51 games this season he produced five goals and 16 points. Sandin has potential to be a distributor on the second power play unit.
Justin Holl: He still has enough game to be an NHL regular, but when things went off the rails a bit for him this year it took some time to get back on track. Holl will be entering the last year of his contract in 2022-23 before becoming UFA eligible. He will be affordable for other teams in trade scenario with a $2 million AAV, though his modified 10-team no-trade list will make it more difficult. Still, it’s time to find a deal.
Mark Giordano: He provided steady minutes for Toronto and it was clear he had influence. He might only have another year (maybe two) in the tank and is a pending UFA. If the salary makes sense, he brings value as a No. 4 or 5 defenceman depending on the makeup of the group around him. In time his offence might dry up, but he still produced eight goals and 35 points in 75 games this season, averaging over 20 minutes of ice time.
Auston Matthews: Signed through 2023-2024 at an AAV $11.64 million. No need to over analyze this one. He isn’t going anywhere and will have to be part of the solution.
Mitch Marner: Signed through 2024-2025 at an AAV $10.9 million. No need to over analyze this one either. He’s also not going anywhere and will have to be part of getting this team over the hump.
John Tavares: Signed through 2024-2025 with a full no-move clause and an $11 million AAV.
An eventual move to the wing has to be considered for Tavares. His skating is too much of a concern to play a full 200-foot game as a centre. His best work comes from the hash marks down and out in front of the net in the offensive zone. He can also take key face-offs in all three zones. He’s here to stay so the team will have to build support around him on whatever line he occupies.
William Nylander: Elite skill. High-end pace. Pure offence. Nylander wasn’t poor in the playoffs, but he did take some time to get going. His attention to detail and lack of willingness to go to the hard areas and win battles can infuriate you. He is due a signing bonus on July 1 ($3.5 million) and after that will make $2.5 million in actual salary next season. He is owed the same bonus and salary for 2023-24. Sometimes you have to make a hockey trade and there will be buyers for his services. If the right deal can be found, it’s time.
Alexander Kerfoot: Playing quick and fast, Kerfoot can be used in a variety of roles and he had a very nice year offensively with 13 goals and 51 points in 82 games. The Leafs could have used more from him versus Tampa Bay in the playoffs, but his body of work contributed to their record-setting regular season. He’s a valuable player for them making a manageable $3.5 million for one more season.
Ilya Mikheyev: He’s a pending UFA coming off a year in which he was paid $2.19 million but carried a cap hit of just $1.645 million. The 32 points he collected in 53 games projects to 49 points over a full 82-game schedule and Mikheyev was also a plus-16 overall. His playoffs certainly could have been better, but he’s going to get a raise somewhere. His stats have likely pushed him out of the equation in Toronto and he had previously asked for a trade anyway. If there is some way they can still make it work with this player I’d prefer him over some of their other free agents and currently signed players (i.e. Kase and Simmonds).
David Kampf: A useful bottom-six forward who can contribute to a PK, he’s flexible enough to play either centre or the wing. Kampf will be entering into the final year of a contract that pays him $1.5 million against the cap next season. The team knows what they’ll get from him. He’s a durable two-way player and even scored a couple timely goals in the playoffs. Kampf’s defensive game gets most of the shine and is his primary strength, but he also provided some secondary scoring with 11 goals and 26 points while dressing for all 82 games.
Ondrej Kase: He just can’t stay healthy over a full season. This year Kase dressed for 50 regular season games and produced better than half a point per game, finishing with 14 goals and 27 points. He’s only 26 years old and if he could just stay in the lineup he projects to be a solid third line option who can occasionally be elevated to a second line. In the seven-game series against Tampa, Kase pitched in with three assists but was one of the Leafs in the middle of the lineup who was outplayed by Lightning skaters who played the same role for them. Is it worth the gamble to re-sign him as an arbitration-eligible RFA, knowing he might only skate in 75 per cent of the games and could be one more hit away from a career-ending concussion? As I write this I’m not shy to state that I’m sitting firmly on the fence with a decision on this player.
Pierre Engvall: A big body player, Engvall is still an excellent skater. In 78 regular season games he contributed 15 goals and 35 points as a third line forward who can play down the middle or on the wing. He’s an affordable RFA with arbitration rights. I would feel more comfortable with him if he played any kind of an intimidating game, but he does not fill that need.
Kyle Clifford: He will be paid the same salary in the minors as he would make in the NHL ($762,500). It’s one of the perks of playing for an NHL team with deep pockets and no salary cap in the AHL. He’ll have a diminished role at the NHL level, though, a character player who has had a nice career to this point. He’s 31 years old, but there are some long hard miles on his tires. He’s not a factor at the NHL level any longer.
Wayne Simmonds: One more year left on a contract paying the ‘Wayne Train’ $900,000 against the cap, with a 10-team modified no-trade clause. He’s a role player who has had a nice career and played heavy/hard minutes every step of the way. But this contract has one too many years on it. He can’t get it done at the NHL level any longer and I’m not sure where this goes, but if the team can get out from under this contract somehow it would open up some pennies for other moves.
Colin Blackwell: Depth energy provider who plays an honest game and was affordable this season. But he’s a UFA who might get a bit of a bump from his $725,000 cap hit. If the dollars make sense, he is a solid option to keep for the fourth line and can play in the middle or on the wing.
Jason Spezza: Player coaches used to be found in the low-end minor leagues and, occasionally, at the AHL level. Spezza looks like a playing assistant at this stage of his career. He’s had a fabulous career, but the time has come to move on.
Michael Bunting: It worked this year. He complemented his linemates and brought energy and enthusiasm. Bunting still has one more year left on his current deal that pays him $950,000 against the cap. He comes back and will have to not only prove he can do it again in an elevated role, but also have a better playoff next spring. Hopefully he’s healthy next go around after playing injured against Tampa. Don’t rush to sign him to an extension quite yet.
END OF SEASON LEAFS ROSTER
Pierre Engvall (RFA)
Ilya Mikheyev (UFA)
Colin Blackwell (UFA)
Jason Spezza (UFA)
Ondrej Kase (RFA)
Mark Giordano (UFA)
Rasmus Sandin (RFA)
Timothy Liljegren (RFA)
Jack Campbell (UFA)
It’s impossible not to hear the noise from Leafs fans and feel their frustration.
This team needs to add a different look to its roster and can do it without straying too far from their model of playing a fast, skilled style of hockey. You don’t make a trade just to make a trade, but if you can find the right fit, Toronto needs to consider its options.
I don’t have a crystal ball of what those options could be when they test the market with some of their players, but this is the kind of trade I would like the Leafs to at least explore:
William Nylander ($6.962 million AAV)
Jakob Chychrun ($4.6 million AAV)
Timothy Liljegren (RFA)
Lawson Crouse (RFA)
2024 first-round pick
2024 third-round pick
What Toronto would get in this deal is a young defender in Jakob Chychrun who is a two-way/transitional defenceman on a cap friendly contract ($4.6 million AAV) that doesn’t expire until after the 2024-2025 season. Don’t be misled by his statistics this past season. He produced his fair share of points in 47 games (seven goals, 14 assists) and though some may want to draw attention to his minus-20 rating, it’s not a concern. The Coyotes, as we all know, took a flame thrower to their roster and are in the beginning stages of a full rebuild.
Lawson Crouse is a pending RFA and is exactly the kind of player the Leafs lack. He’s 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and a very good skater. He has the IQ to be used in all situations and plays a power game that can translate into offensive production. In 65 games played he scored 20 goals and 34 points. He’s not mean like Tom Wilson in Washington, but Crouse doesn’t back down from anyone and creates space for his linemates. In 32 Thoughts this week, Elliotte Friedman mentioned one element the Leafs haven’t had much of is a “nasty piece of work who can play top-six forward minutes with their core four” — Crouse is that guy.
Some people are going to read this trade proposal and not like it at all because what Toronto has to give up is the offence that Nylander provides and the potential Liljegren is finally starting to portray. The other unfortunate loss is the first-round pick in 2024, but I’m banking on it being a late first and certainly not a top 10 pick (and maybe they could protect it). They would recoup a third-rounder that has the potential to be a very early one and resemble more of a late second-round pick.
It’s not easy to make these calls, but if you believe (as I do) that something needs to change after six straight first-round exists, these are the types of moves you have to consider.
One more to think about, as we figure out how to get to a new approach:
SAN JOSE TRADES
Justin Holl ($2 million AAV)
2024 fifth-round pick
Plain and simple. This deal opens up more cap space to spend elsewhere. No frills. No thrills.
FREE AGENT CONSIDERATIONS
The “potentially affordable” tier (ranging from $1 million to $4 million in AAV) who might fit with the Leafs’ needs is as follows:
Mark Giordano, Ilya Lyubushkin, Nikita Zadorov, Erik Gudbranson, Brett Kulak, Ben Chiarot.
The “unlikely affordable” tier (ranging from $5 million to $7.5 million in AAV) includes John Klingberg and Josh Manson. Either would be nice to get, but given Toronto’s cap crunch, they may be unattainable without more significant moves.
The bargains who could be out there and might be attainable for $1 million or less include Nic Deslauriers, and Maxim Mamin. Moving up a tier into players who could be had for between $1.5 million and $4 million, the Leafs may be able to find fits with the likes of Mason Marchment, Frank Vatrano, Nick Paul, Evan Rodrigues, Rickard Rakell or Max Domi. Going up into the “probably too expensive” tier, we see Evander Kane, Bryan Rust, Vincent Trocheck, Ryan Strome, Andrew Copp and Andre Burakovsky. Again, if you’re targeting any of those players, some other major work has likely happened to the roster.
The process of moving players in and out and making them fit under the salary cap has taken on a life of its own recently. The strategies I have presented would definitely take some manoeuvring but they would hopefully change the roster enough so I’m not back here writing about the same kind of scenario the organization finds itself in today.
Proposed Leafs roster for 2022-23
Keeping in mind the salary cap will rise to $82.5 million, that we’ve bought out Mrazek to save $2.766 million on the cap next season, have traded Nylander and Holl, and are assuming Giordano may be open to staying at a discount, here is one possibility for what the Leafs roster could look like next season, with these very specific moves.
Michael Bunting ($950K)
Auston Matthews ($11.64M)
Mitch Marner ($10.903M)
Alex Kerfoot ($3.5M)
John Tavares ($11M)
Lawson Crouse ($3M)
Pierre Engvall ($1.75M)
Nick Paul ($2.8M)
David Kampf ($1.5M)
Nic Deslauriers ($800K)
Colin Blackwell ($800K)
Maxim Mamin ($800K)
Wayne Simmonds ($900K)
Morgan Rielly ($7.5M)
TJ Brodie ($5M)
Mark Giordano ($1M)
Jakob Chychrun ($4.6M)
Jake Muzzin ($5.625M)
Ilya Lyubushkin ($1.5M)
Rasmus Sandin ($1M)
Jack Campbell ($4M)
Erik Kallgren ($750K)
This roster as constructed would be hovering right around the salary cap, just above $82.5 million, but the team would still have the option to send Simmonds to the minors, promote Nick Robertson, and be cap compliant. You can go over the cap by 10 per cent in the off-season and when you’re this close to the ceiling there are ways to get creative to become compliant by next season.
The process of moving players in and out and making them fit under the salary cap has become a very creative one over the years. The goal of this exercise wasn’t to predict what Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan will do (they’ve indicated a willingness to stick to their plan), but to give our readers an inside look at the year-end process teams go through when they assess what actions to take, and then present the potential results after evaluating this group without bias.