This past season was inarguably the best we’ve seen from the Maple Leafs since the 2004 lockout, and while that wasn’t a high bar to clear, there’s just so much to be pleased with from the last year from a fan perspective. But we don’t need to yet again re-hash the point that this team is one on a major ascent. We all know that by now.
What’s of most interest now that the playoffs are over for the blue-and-white is what happens next in the immediate term. And that means this summer. Obviously Toronto has a core shaping up that has the potential to make them a juggernaut in the East, and their moves this off-season could go a long way in bringing that into reality. But a big part of that is not being too in love with what the team already has, even with such a promising season just put in the books. [Don’t worry, this isn’t a stupid “Trade Nylander” piece.]
The expectation is for the Leafs to get better and be a shoo-in for the playoffs next season. And that’s not unreasonable when you assume this crop of rookies is only going to get better, because, you know, they are rookies. The plan is for the team to be in steady climb as that main core of 34, 16, and 29 improves. But even with that in mind, we should remember this team had things some things go very-much their way this season, mainly in the form of injury luck. Had a player like Matthews gone down and missed a month or so, they’d have been cooked. Same likely goes for Gardiner or Rielly. If more-or-less the same group is brought back again, that likely still rings true, even with young players taking another step forward.
Toronto has a few needs, but tops are the following: Ideally a top-pairing defenceman (or at least one good enough to at least push a player like Zaitsev down the depth chart), and a play-driving center for Mitch Marner to ride shotgun with (or at least someone who frees up Kadri to get into that role). We’re going to get into speculating some names over the next couple months, but for now I just want to identify those places as needs I think they should look to address.
That’s why it’s a bit alarming to hear rumours like we did a few weeks ago about Nikita Zaitsev being close on a 7-year contract. A move like that sort of reeks of jumping the gun like the old front office did when they locked in guys like Lupul and J-M Liles as soon as the going got good. They quickly overvalued what they had, and that sort of sounds like what could be happening with Zaitsev when you see contract term like that tossed around. It hints at them believing he’s a top pairing guy because he played those types of minutes. But considering how tough a time he had staying above water in that role at 5v5, it’s clear they need upgrades to push him down the lineup. Do you give a player who’s probably a stretch as a true top four a seven-year contract? I don’t know.
A somewhat similar conversation can be had about Brian Boyle, a perfect deadline addition who’s great as a player and all-round human, but will bring about a tough decision for the front office as a pending free agent. The Leafs already threw ten-million dollars at a fourth-line mainstay in Matt Martin just last summer in free agency, and got nine points in return in his first season. Boyle should seek a similar contract, and while he’s definitely closer to being worth that kind of coin than Martin, the former will turn 33-years-old next season. It’s hard to justify giving him Martin Money when Martin is already making it, and again, there is money that should be spent closer to the top of the roster in the form of high-end UFA targets or trades of magnitude.
But those are the types of decisions Lamoriello and company need to tackle this summer, without getting too caught up in the hype of this somewhat unexpected run over the last eight months. Toronto seems well on the way to contending in the seasons to come, but I think that’s still contingent on making some substantial changes to the roster and not getting too comfortable with what they currently have. [And trust me, I recognize that not blowing things up too much in the recent past is the reason the Leafs are where they are this quickly, as opposed to, say, the Sabres.] The front office has to walk that rope in a city that is now exploding with expectation on the heels of this little run. Hopefully they can continue to find that balance and keep the noise out, or else they could fall into some of the traps past groups have.