It’s been an exciting year to be a Leafs fan. Let’s see….
1. Jumped from last in the league to a playoff team
2. Matthews, Marner and Nylander are amazing
3. Reilly, Gardiner and Kadri improved a ton
4. Andersen has been steady with flashes of amazing in net
5. Zaitsev, Brown, Kapanen and Hyman are useful rookies
6. Babcock proved he’s the best coach in the NHL
7. Pushed Washington to 5 OT games and won two of them in the playoffs.
If they field mostly the same team next year, there is some risk to the team making the playoffs. The Leafs were very healthy this year and that may not be the case next year, and one or more of the Leafs important rookies may suffer from a sophomore slump. On the flip side however, it’s easy to see how the team can improve in the standings, like by learning how to hold onto a lead or win a shootout.
But the real question is, how does this team become a true Stanley Cup Contender?
The most important two pieces to a Stanley Cup winning team is a #1 Centre and a #1 Defenceman. Here are Centre/Defence combos of the Stanley Cup winners since 2008:
Toews/Keith x3, Kopitar/Doughty x2, Crosby/Letang x2, Bergeron/Chara, Datsyuk/Lidstrom,
The importance of the #1C/#1D combo are that you can put them on the ice when you are down 2-1 late in the 3rd period or when you are up 2-1 late in the 3rd period and they win the game for you.
#1 Centre – Check
DE-FENCE *clap cap* DE-FENCE *clap clap*
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the biggest need for improvement for the Leafs is on the blueline. Reilly, Gardiner and Zaitsev were all good this year and I believe they can be part of a Stanley Cup winning team in the future, but none of them proved they can be the guy you send out when you’re protecting a lead and be confident they will lock it up. So where can the Leafs turn to for that #1 guy?
Option #1 – The Draft
Most top D in the league are still playing for the team that drafted them (eg. Karlsson, Hedman, Keith, Doughty, Pietrangelo) but unfortunately, scouting D is insanely difficult. Most of the top forwards were drafted with a top 5 pick but defenseman are a lot more random. There are plenty of highly drafted D that bust out and plenty of 2nd rounders that turn out to be amazing (Weber, Subban, Keith to name a few). It also takes longer for defense prospects to develop so even if the Leafs hit on a draft pick this year or next, we won’t know it for a couple years. Of course the Leafs will try to draft the next Erik Karlsson, but we can’t count on it.
Option #2 – Trade
This one terrifies me. The price tag for defense on the trade market is insanely high. Seth Jones was acquired for the price of Ryan Johansen and Adam Larsson was acquired for fucking Taylor Hall. That means the price tag for a young #1 D for the Leafs is equal to Mitch Marner or William Nylander. I’ve grown attached to both of these two over the past year so the thought of trading one of them for someone like Dougie Hamilton is pretty scary. No thanks as far as I’m concerned.
A more reasonable option may be to pull something similar to the Islanders in 2014 when they managed to acquire Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy for a fraction of the cost thanks to the Blackhawks and Bruins cap constraints. In today’s world, it may be the upcoming expansion draft that makes some of the Ducks or Preds deep defense available at a reasonable price.
A final hope for a reasonable trade is a disgruntled player, namely Jacob Trouba, who just doesn’t seem to like Winnipeg. I imagine the price for Trouba would still be high, but could potentially be achieved without including Nylander or Marner.
Option #3 – Free agency
The Leafs have a bunch of dead weight salary coming off the books at the end of this year (Milan Michalek, Colin Greening and Brooks Laich) and they may be able to toss Vegas a draft pick to take Eric Fehr off their hands. That should free up enough money to pay all of Auston Matthews’ performance bonuses and still make a splash in free agency. The problem is, who do they go for? The only UFA in 2017 that’s newsworthy is Kevin Shattenkirk and I don’t think he’s a true reliable #1. More people think the Leafs will end up with someone like Karl Alzner instead but that’s not a #1 either.
Perhaps the answers lie in 2018 or 2019. While the big fish in the 2018 free agency will be John Tavares, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and John Carlson will also be UFA’s. There’s no doubt that San Jose and Washington will be trying to re-sign them before they reach UFA status, but if they hit the open market the Leafs may be able to entice them.
Now comes the fun part. 2019. Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty and Oliver Ekman Larsson all become UFA. While I suspect that Vlasic and Carlson will re-sign where they are, I could really see one or two of these guys hitting the open market looking for a big payday, and they’ll get one. Karlsson has openly criticized the Sens cheapness, OEL is probably tired of losing and maybe Jeff Carter sleeps with Drew Doughty’s girlfriend or something like that. Why not offer one of Karlsson or Doughty 8 years x 10 million? I’m down. Maybe 8×8 for OEL.
Faith in the Shanaplan
We may need to wait 2-3 years to see this play out but I have faith in the Leafs management that they will be able to fill the missing piece and deliver a Stanley Cup contender to Leafs Nation.