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Maple Leafs

Another year of close but not close enough in Round 1 leaves more tension in Toronto. Are the Leafs in position to set up a breakthrough in 2022-23? (John E. Sokolowski)

2022 NHL Offseason Guide: The Toronto Maple Leafs

Another year of close but not close enough in Round 1 leaves more tension in Toronto. Are the Leafs in position to set up a breakthrough in 2022-23? (John E. Sokolowski)

2022 NHL Offseason Guide: The Toronto Maple Leafs

There were only supposed to be two paths for the 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs. Either they were going to win the franchise’s first playoff series since 2004 (and maybe one or two or three more) and be revered and celebrated by all who love them. Or they would fail, and everything going forward would be different. GM Kyle Dubas would assuredly be out the door. Perhaps head coach Sheldon Keefe would join him. And one of the league’s most dangerous core groups up front would no longer be together.

Instead, a third path has opened up in Toronto. It’s not what the Maple Leafs did or didn’t do last season; it’s how they did it. Anyone who watched the Maple Leafs last season didn’t see the same team that undeniably choked against the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 playoffs. All season long, Toronto hung with the league’s elite, playing a more physical, responsible style, even while its biggest stars racked up historic numbers and hardware. That was true even in defeat. Toronto pushed the then defending-defending champion Lightning as far as anyone had at that point. They may have fallen just short in one goal losses in Games 6 and 7. But this was simply a case of one great team playing just slightly better hockey than another great one. A disappointing outcome, but nothing to be ashamed of.

The drought isn’t over, but neither is this era of Maple Leafs hockey. And it probably won’t be for a while if Toronto’s core has anything to say about it. For the first time in a few years, the Maple Leafs have momentum as a new season approaches. Whether they can ride that into May (or farther) obviously remains to be seen. As does whether Dubas settles for merely tinkering with the team this summer or ushers in a new supporting cast to supporting Toronto’s core four.

The Roster

The blueprint for the Maple Leafs since John Tavares arrived in 2018-19 hasn’t been a secret. Toronto has four outstanding first line talents — two of which are among the elite of the elite — who are tasked with outscoring some of the depth challenges that come from investing so much money in four players. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares finished 1-2-3-4 in both regular season and playoff scoring for the Maple Leafs. Matthews and Marner were both significantly above a point-per-game, with the former notching the league’s first 60 goal season.

Nylander was right at that level and Tavares just a tick under. Tavares’ contract is starting to become a slight concern; the 31-year old is still owed $11 million for three more years, and he’s been more “very, very good” than undoubtedly elite the last two seasons. But there are far worse problems to have, and as long as these four are holding up their end of the bargain, Toronto is in solid shape.

Much criticism has been directed to Toronto’s defense in years prior, with critics arguing that unit took too big of a blow to accommodate the big four. But that wasn’t really the case in 2021-22. The Maple Leafs were top 10 in shots against per game, expected goals against per 60 minutes (both at 5v5 and all situations), and penalty kill percentage. Yes, Toronto finished just 19th in the NHL in goals against per game, but that was in large part due to inconsistent goaltending that stabilized just before the playoffs.

Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, and Jake Muzzin are a strong foundation for any blue-line. Re-signing the still effective Mark Giordano at a steal of an $800K cap hit only helps matters. And the development of first round picks Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren will also be crucial. That doesn’t even count the defensive-minded Justin Holl or the possibility of re-signing Ilya Lyubushkin, a physical trade deadline pickup who fit in well. The Leafs have lots of options here.

And while Toronto’s forward depth may not be the league’s very best, it’s not exactly weak. That group is lead by Michael Bunting, who is honestly too good to be considered a depth piece. Bunting racked up 20 goals and 63 points in his first full NHL season, finishing second in Calder voting. He proved to be arguably the league’s biggest bargain, providing first-line caliber play for just a $950K cap hit. Part of that is the natural boost from playing mostly alongside Matthews, but Bunting deserves credit. As does Dubas for singing such a shrewd deal. Same goes for David Kämpf, who didn’t come at as much of a bargain or produce as much as Bunting. But a lockdown defensive center for $1.5 million is nothing to scoff at, as Kämpf had a solid first year in Toronto. Both he and Bunting are free agents in 2023.

The same is true for Alex Kerfoot, Toronto’s most well-known forward outside of their big four. He brings versatility to the table and is coming off a career-high 51 points. Pierre Engvall and Ondřej Kaše are RFAs coming off bounce back years, though the latter has a scary history of head injuries. The Maple Leafs also have a bevy of young players in the AHL that could see NHL time this year. Touted forward prospects Nick Robertson and Nick Abruzzese are chief among them. There’s still lots in the cupboard here; it’s just a matter of finding the right mix.

Team Needs

Look closely at the last section, and you’ll notice one very important position that’s. That’s because Toronto’s goaltending situation isn’t exactly set in stone. Starter Jack Campbell is a week away from hitting free agency. Negotiating a new contract is a difficult task given Campbell’s lack of experience but strong play as Toronto’s starter over the last year and a half. That especially stands in stark contrast to how much Petr Mrázek struggled (.888 save percentage) in his first year in Toronto. It’s no secret Dubas wants to get rid of Mrázek’s contract ($3.8 million for two years with a 10-team no-trade list). Erik Källgren and Joseph Woll are youngsters with brief NHL experience. One could be the backup, but the Maple Leafs need to either re-sign or replace Campbell. That’s no small task.

In a perfect world, another proven top-four defender to go alongside Muzzin on the second pair would be great, but that’s probably not feasible. What is, though, is restocking the forward depth. Toronto likely won’t be able to afford Ilya Mikheyev after a breakout 21-goal campaign, although perhaps bringing back deadline pickup Colin Blackwell is an option.

Cap Situation

Perhaps no team has been as adversely affected by the COVID-induced flat cap than Toronto. The Leafs currently have just under $6.5 million in space, per CapFriendly. That accounts for a roster of 10 forwards, six defensemen, and two goaltenders. That number was larger a few weeks ago before Liljegren inked a 2-year, $2.8 million contract. Kase, Engvall, and Sandin all need new deals. Clearing Mrazek’s contract would alleviate a lot of pressure. But doing so won’t be easy. Dubas has done a good job in recent years moving undesirable contracts for actual assets (see the Nick Ritchie or Andreas Johnsson trades). That cleverness would be especially clutch this summer if Dubas can find a way to avoid making a Mrazek trade a pure giveaway.

The Draft

Toronto has just three picks in this year’s draft, although that does include their first (No. 25 overall). That pick is only accompanied by Winnipeg’s seventh and their own third, though. Things get a bit better looking ahead. The Maple Leafs are missing their 2023 third and seventh and 2024 second, but nothing else. Some of that draft capital will undoubtedly be moved to support future playoff pushes. After trading their 2021 1st for Nick Foligno, except Toronto to keep this year’s selection. They have solid prospects at all positions, so there isn’t really a clear area of need.

No member of Toronto’s big four upfront is easier to trade than William Nylander. The return would undoubtedly be huge. But could Toronto even justify

Overall

Toronto finds itself in both a familiar and unfamiliar position all at once. On one hand, the Maple Leafs lost their first playoff series for the fifth straight year. They haven’t won a series in a league-worst 18 years. But the big picture isn’t nearly as gloomy. This is still a team that has the reigning Hart winner and Calder runner-up. Two of their players cracked the league’s top ten in points. And other than Tavares, most of the core’s best years are still ahead of them. And it’s not like the veterans they do have are slouches.

The Maple Leafs should enter the 2022-23 season with momentum, barring a calamitous offseason. And other than maybe shuffling the deck to find the right starter in net, Dubas probably won’t shake things up very much. There is reason to believe that, with an easier (not necessarily) easy first round matchup and finding a way to maintain faith in the law of averages, Toronto truly is closer than ever to its long awaited playoff breakout.

But momentum results in pressure if it isn’t capitalized on. A lot of people have wondered what it will take to break up Toronto’s core four. The answer isn’t in a number or a round; it’s in a feeling. Nihilism, to be specific. There was a lot of it in the fanbase after 2021’s disappointing ending, but none from Dubas and management (at least publicly). Once that sets it; not in fans, but within the organization, whether from management, ownership, or the big guns themselves, that’s when the end begins. The Maple Leafs haven’t reached that point yet. But after ending a season with the feeling of progress for the first time in a few years, the cap and the math leave little room for regression. It’s time for the Maple Leafs to make this work.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 and via Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise stated

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