How do the Leafs move on from here?

Three things in Leaf life are certain: Death, taxes, and an early playoff exit.

Death, taxes, and an early playoff exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs. These three things remain certain in what has become an otherwise uncertain world.

There was hope for the Leafs this season. There always is. But with one of the most promising forward groups in the NHL, an all-star on the blue line and another in the crease, the Leafs couldn’t tackle the Columbus Blue Jackets – a team that never had a full, healthy lineup in 2020 and that utilized two injured defensemen during a Game 5 the Leafs never controlled. Toronto was the better team overall in the series with more shots, more high-danger scoring chances, and better puck possession. Of course, none of that matters when you simply can’t beat a hot goalie like Joonas Korpisalo.

There are always excuses. Fans are quick to offer solutions and, even when the Leafs address them, it doesn’t seem to change anything. Is this the time for the Leafs to disassemble the young core that was supposed to lead the pained franchise to glory for the first time in the post-dinosaur age?

The Leafs have built a foundation around scoring, which hasn’t been a problem during the regular season. But rough, hard-working, grinding efforts from recent teams like Columbus and St. Louis have proven that NHL clubs need more than a high-flying offense to win playoff games. With a flattened salary cap and very little cap room to play with, that focus is becoming ever-so clear, though it’s easier said than done.

So…how should the Leafs tackle the future? 

Real Kyper at Noon

Moving contracts will be tougher than usual

The NHL has seen its salary cap change each season since the $39 million allotted to teams back in 2005-06, the first year of the cap era. That’s not going to be the case next season. The cap is staying at the current figure of $81.5 million in 2019-20, with the COVID-19 outbreak – among other concerns – pressing pause on the annual increase.

For the Leafs, this is a big concern. Toronto has $33.53 million tied into its big three stars – John Tavares ($11 million), Auston Matthews ($11.63 million) and Mitch Marner ($10.89 million).

Add in William Nylander’s $6.92 million hit and the Leafs have a whole lot committed to a group that hasn’t produced success just yet. Teams obviously couldn’t have predicted the global pandemic, but it makes you wonder just how careful Toronto was when considering that a flattened salary cap was always a possibility, no matter the year or circumstance. It’s expected that the Leafs will move on from Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie on defense, with Kyle Clifford and Jason Spezza’s futures left unclear (both made under a million). In all, the Leafs could be forced to fill eight roster spots with around $4.9 million in cap room. You can see the problem here.

Are there any buyers? Well, every team is in the same boat financially. There isn’t extra room to spend this off-season, so unloading isn’t going to be simple, especially if teams believe Toronto’s stars were overpaid. Was it the cost of doing business to keep the core together? Absolutely. But now Toronto finds itself needing to unload, and that’s tricky business.

The answer shouldn’t be to break up the existing core. It should be to manage it effectively. That could mean moving a contract or two, but there aren’t many teams looking for expensive payouts. The Leafs do have a few young guns they can promote from within on cheap deals – Nicholas Robertson, Yegor Korshkov and Alexander Barabanov come to mind – but sacrificing experience for youth won’t necessarily equal success.

Feb 13, 2020; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) prepares for a faceoff against Dallas Stars in the second period at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Defense is the biggest priority…again

How long has defense been Toronto’s biggest deficit? Twenty years? More? It feels like, no matter what, the Leafs need to get creative to put together a strong six-man group. The team addressed its subpar D last summer by acquiring Barrie from the Colorado Avalanche, in a deal that sent versatile center Nazem Kadri down south. Barrie struggled to get up to speed but was reliable enough when at his best, which just wasn’t enough. This was the big-name defenseman the team was looking to add, though he’s set to become a UFA and the Leafs simply won’t have the cap room for him.

That’s a big top-four name out of the equation, and the team doesn’t have the space to replace him as effectively as possible. Instead, they’ll likely need to address depth concerns. Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Travis Dermott were good when healthy and all non-issues. But what about Ceci and Martin Marincin? Ceci was a liability more than anything for Toronto while Marincin isn’t capable of playing more than a few games in a row as it is. Hot prospects Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have promising futures but are still inexperienced. What the Leafs really need is to inject another bottom-four option that can be reliable in spurts – Trevor van Riemsdyk, Mackenzie Weegar or Matt Grzelcyk, anyone?

Once the Leafs build a group they can rely on without needing to overwork Rielly, they’ll be in good shape. Rielly was overused late in Game 5 and looked gassed near the end. You’re supposed to milk the most out of your top players, but they can’t be expected to do everything. If the Leafs can figure out the depth issue, they’ll be in better standing moving forward.

What about in net?

Here’s the thing about Frederik Andersen: he was not the problem against Columbus, nor the problem against the Boston Bruins last year. He wasn’t a difference-maker, however, and was instead outplayed by Tuukka Rask and an unproven Korpisalo (and even rookie Elvis Merzlikins for a game this year). 

Take Andersen’s playoff record into account. He had a spectacular 11-5-0 run in 2015 after winning the Pacific Division with the Ducks, who found themselves within one win of making the Cup final. Andersen had just one loss against Calgary over the first two series that year, before the Chicago Blackhawks eliminated Anaheim in the conference final and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Fair enough, they were the best team when it mattered. But since then, Andersen has failed to win a playoff series during his tenure in Toronto. When things started to look promising against Columbus, a handful of weak goals erased any momentum the Leafs had generated. Andersen has the ability to steal games for Toronto, but he also needs to be more consistent in the postseason. At this point, this is the Achilles heel of his career.

This isn’t just a post-season problem, either. Andersen’s .909 save percentage and 2.85 goals-against average at all strengths were far below his career average and by far the worst numbers of his career. His -0.40 goals-saved above average was an incredible fall from his 14.48 from a year ago and he had a brutal knack of allowing the first goal in a game. Was it just the product of a rough season? Sure, and he still made the NHL all-star game. But the numbers don’t lie: he needs to be better or the Leafs may need to consider other options in net.

This summer will set the future

It may seem silly to think the Leafs’ window for the Stanley Cup will close drastically if they don’t nail the off-season, but it’s not far from the truth. Andersen is a UFA next summer and it’s growing increasingly clear that he might not be in the picture by then. Rielly will be a UFA in 2022, and the Leafs may not be able to afford to keep their best defenseman since Tomas Kaberle. If the Leafs don’t address their cap concerns now, they’ll be forced to do it again next year.

Toronto won’t likely be able to dip into the free agency pool in a meaningful manner, which is tough given the class available this season. Add in the fact that the Leafs don’t have a first-round pick this year and there are legitimate reasons to be worried if you’re a Leafs fan. If you couldn’t advance this season, how are you going to manage next year?

Will the Toronto Maple Leafs advance in the post-season next year?