For a team coming off of a 105-point season in which their best player missed 20 games, the Toronto Maple Leafs have undergone quite a few significant changes in the last few weeks.
Their leading goal scorer, James van Riemsdyk, signed with the Philadelphia Flyers and their longest-tenured player, Tyler Bozak, will now be wearing a different shade of blue in St. Louis. Leaf regulars over the last few seasons in Roman Polak and Leo Komarov have also departed.
In response, the organization was able to add a legitimate superstar in his prime in John Tavares. Bigger roles appear in store for youngsters Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, and the defense has some wide open spots for some hungry players to claim them – Justin Holl? Connor Carrick? Martin Marincin?
The main talking point is obviously John Tavares. His $77 million total dollars and $11 million annual average are both the highest terms ever given in NHL free agency. And Tavares even left money on the table.
Tavares effectively upgrades on JVR as a goal scorer as a career .41 goals per game player compared to JVR’s .33, but that’s hardly the only area he upgrades on. Interestingly, last season was really the first time the Islanders used Tavares in a more two-way, best vs. best type of role.
For most of his career, they loaded him up with offensive zone starts and gave the heavy defensive workload to Frans Nielsen (when he left, they tried Casey Cizikas in that role the first year). According to Hockey Reference, he has a career 60.7 percent offensive zone start (compared to defensive zone starts only). Last season, it was split 52.6 to 47.4, which was the lowest it has ever been, and yet he had the second most productive season of his career.
Since being anointed a superstar as a kid while playing in Toronto’s minor hockey league, the GTHL, Tavares’ calling card has been his play in the offensive zone below the top of the circle. His skating issues, which he has worked tirelessly to improve to something that now is arguably a strength, have been well documented, but he was always able to dominate games in the offensive zone. A lacrosse player growing up and nephew of the best lacrosse player of all-time, Tavares boasts some of the best hand-eye coordination in the league. He also dominates the wall and gets in on the cycle game with a non-stop motor to go along with his 6’1, 210+ pound frame.
In his nine NHL seasons, Tavares has had a positive corsi relative to his teammates in eight of them, with the one exception being his rookie year. This past season was the first time since he was 20 that he was on for more shot attempts against than for (49.4% corsi), which falls in line with the more difficult matchups that he received while playing for a team that had some of the worse goaltending and overall defense in the NHL.
As a player turning 28 years old in September, there are different theories worth going over on when NHL players hit their scoring peak. Eric Tulsky has probably the most cited study on aging curves and he concluded that:
On average, players retain about 90% of their scoring through age 29, but the drop from there is pretty sharp — they hit 80% at age 31, 70% at age 32-33, and 60% at age 35.
A separate University of British Colombia study on aging curves found that:
In forwards, it’s typically at ages 27 or 28… But they’re extremely close to their optimal years along the way: forwards are in their prime between 24 to 32.
Tavares will have the benefit of being surrounded by stars in Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander, which should help him maintain his scoring, at least, when he passes 30. Interestingly, he’s one of the few superstars that didn’t totally dominate the league early in his career – he steadily improved as time went on.
When he’s 34, will it be a great contract? Probably not, but the Leafs are trying to win here and now, and for the first time in a long time, they have a team that is legitimately worthy of going all-in for.
Heading into this season and beyond, though, there are some questions Mike Babcock and his staff will have to sort out.
Who gets what matchups?
The conventional wisdom is that Nazem Kadri will continue to get the lion’s share of difficult match-ups, which would mean the Auston Matthews and Tavares units would be left to feast on second and third lines, respectively. Smart, competitive teams will game that system easily, though. The Bruins can and do play the Patrice Bergeron 20 minutes per night and the Lightning can do that with their Steven Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov duo.
On average, each team takes a little over three penalties per game – that’s around 12 minutes to 14 minutes spent shorthanded per game in total. Even strength ice time is a mixed bag for teams’ top players depending on deployment, but the highest last season was Ryan Getzlaf at 17:33 (there were only four forwards to pass that 17-minute mark). There were 15 forwards in the 16-minute mark range, 38 in the 15-minute mark range, and then the numbers get really big from there. That could leave roughly half the game of even strength ice time per night to split between Tavares, Matthews, and the fourth line.
Babcock has said he envisions a Hyman – Tavares – Marner line to start the season, and that is a line that is prepared to play against other top lines. Tavares and Marner did it last season and Hyman is one of the Leafs‘ better defensive forwards. Conversely, Kadri is set to play on a third line with some combination of Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson or Tyler Ennis – some good forwards that have shown well defensively, but maybe not who you want going against top lines at the expense of the Leafs‘ actual top forwards, who are more than capable.
Last season, Babcock used the Matthews line as a secondary line against top units as he did not trust the Bozak line with any defensive responsibility and the fourth line was a work in progress for most of the season. It’s far too early to read into summer line combinations, but they appear set to feast on second and third lines while the Kadri and Tavares lines split the tough matchups.
Stars on the penalty kill?
Last season, Tavares was a regular on the penalty kill, playing 1:34 there per night. Among regulars, the Leafs top penalty-killing forwards last season were Hyman, Komarov, Brown, Tomas Plekanec, and Dominic Moore. In particular, Hyman and Komarov were sixth and seventh among all NHL forwards in shorthanded ice time per game, and two of the forwards ahead of them didn’t even play 30 games.
Three of those five forwards are gone, although Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson appear set to fill in those gaps, making the top penalty killers some combination of Hyman, Brown, Kapanen, and Johnsson.
Whoever has been the fourth line center has traditionally received penalty killing ice time under Babcock as well, be it Moore, Plekanec, Frederik Gauthier, Brian Boyle, or whoever else has filled that slot. At this time, it appears Par Lindholm has that fourth line spot written in pencil, as Babcock made sure to mention him when asked about running Matthews – Tavares – Kadri down the middle, saying, “Lindholm is a real good player as well, so we’re going to be deep down the middle. That’s exciting for us.”
If I was betting money, I would not put it on the Leafs running their better players on the penalty kill anytime soon. But if they are looking for some extra ice time to spread around, Tavares has shown he can do it, Marner used to and has had some good moments shorthanded in extremely limited time, and Kadri is dropping down to 3C and could potentially stand to get some extra ice time wherever he can now.
11 and 7?
One of the first thoughts I had when the Leafs signed Tavares: Will they consider running 11 forwards and 7 defensemen at times? There’s some sound logic here, with the most obvious being that it just means an extra few minutes for their top players as opposed to playing someone 8-10 minutes on the fourth line. The Leafs are already a matchup nightmare, and they could just make it conceivably worse by rotating between throwing out Matthews or Tavares with the fourth line repeatedly.
On defense, it’s not a deep or strong enough group to worry about hurting their group. In the playoffs after going down 2-0 to the Sharks, Drew Doughty rather famously said, “I think everyone gets out of a rhythm when you dress seven D, for sure. I only played 23 minutes and I think that’s like the lowest I’ve played in who knows how long. I want to be playing 28 or 30 minutes, so I didn’t like it too much, but it’s not my decision.” The Kings lost the following game to go down 3-0 before coming back and winning the series.
The Leafs don’t exactly have a Drew Doughty on their defense. Ron Hainsey slowed down as the year went on and the Leafs will need to look at limiting his minutes more while also allotting Polak’s 2:30 shorthanded per game somewhere. That could potentially mean someone like Marincin being used as a penalty kill specialist, which could work in a seven-defensemen rotation.
I would not expect them to start the season like this, but it’s something to consider and probably worth trying at some point during the year.
Offense helps the defense?
Maybe the heading above should be changed to – does extra possession help the defense? Logically, yes. The more a team has the puck, the less opportunity their opponents have to score.
A dirty little secret for the Leafs is that all of their top forwards except Mitch Marner gave up more shot attempts than they created at 5v5 last season. It’s slightly deceiving because once Marner got paired with Kadri they were swimming above water the rest of the year (50.89). Also, Matthews and Nylander were actually above water together (50.87%) but were dragged down by their other minutes.
The Leafs should be better than 17th in shot attempts, where they controlled only 49.86% last year. As noted above, a Hyman – Tavares – Marner line is well equipped to do well against top matchups, while Kadri can easily provide spot duty. Last season, the Leafs used the Matthews line against top lines and split his zone starts partially out of necessity and partially out of growth – a step forward in development but also more offensive zone starts now that Bozak and JVR are gone (Matthews dipped from 63% in his first year to 50.8% in year two) should see him boost back up to controlling 55+% alongside Nylander, as he did in his rookie season.
Last season, the Leafs used the Kadri line in the matchup role, the Matthews line in the secondary matchup role, and the Bozak line with soft offensive zone starts. This season, they could tilt the ice with the Tavares line in that shutdown role, the Kadri line in the secondary matchup role, and the Matthews line eating up offensive zone starts.
The defense is still a question mark and they will have to improve there, but the Leafs can make their lives a little easier by controlling play better. And they still have a solid goalie in net.
Money should work
One of the biggest things people are pointing to – because there’s always a negative – is how will the cap allocation work?
The long-term deals currently on the books include:
Those numbers total $32.25M, without any of Matthews, Marner or Nylander signed. All of these contracts are far more complex than what we will get into at this point, but if we say quickly that Matthews won’t make more than Tavares and give them matching 11M deals, that’s a start.
The Marner deal is particularly tricky, although I’d love to use Johnny Gaudreau as a comparable; his AAV of $6.75M was signed in 2016. Recently, David Pastrnak signed a long-term deal worth $6.66M and Nikolaj Ehlers signed one worth $6M per year. Those are all good comparables, and even if we inflate a bit to a generous $7.5M for Marner and $7M for Nylander, that’s $36.5M between the four players.
That framework would give the Leafs a cap hit total of $57.75M for the 2020-21 season with six forwards signed, two defensemen, and their starting goalie. In present day, that would leave the team with roughly $22.25M to fill out the roster and sign five more defensemen, eight more forwards, and a backup goalie.
That’s not a lot of money left to sign 14 players. But it’s important to note a few things here.
The cap will be set to go up, and the Leafs can actually help themselves by going on a few deep Cup runs because the ratings and revenue will boost the cap number. If we assume the cap goes up around $3M per year and round to give us an even $29M of cap space — which is arguably conservative — things start looking up from here. They will need to have a few players on entry-level deals or making under a million – Timothy Liljegren would be for this season, for example. If the Leafs have a fourth line making a million each (roughly an entry-level deal), as well as their last two defensemen and their backup goalie, that would leave $23M to sign five forwards and three defensemen – so nearly $2.875M per player. The average player salary last season was $2.93M, for reference. With inflation, you can expect that to be a little over $3M by the time this would come into place.
All this quick math took place to say: This is hardly the end of the world, and if you have four all-star forwards locked in at that price, along with the bargain Kadri contract, you should feel quite good about building a roster around that group on an annual basis.
Just a few random questions, thoughts and notes to end:
- I’m fairly confident the Leafs are going to go into the season with their current group and see what happens. Who will make the team and can they have a player like Travis Dermott emerge? The market is pretty bare at this point on defense – Justin Faulk is the headline name available and he’s an offensive defenseman. That’s not what the Leafs are looking for. At this point, it just makes sense to see who shakes loose as teams realize into the year that they are not competitive and make players available.
- Are they going to trade a goalie? It still seems like something should give between Curtis McElhinney, Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard, but that might be a move that happens in training camp now as teams generally seem to think they are okay trying what they have in net until reality hits. The Leafs invest a lot in their sports science department and they can’t possibly think it makes sense for Frederik Andersen to start every game except on the second half of a back-to-back. They have to get him more rest this season.
- The biggest thing left this summer is that William Nylander contract. I said it on the podcast, but that’s a really interesting deal. A long-term deal would be a huge win, but I’m still expecting a bridge deal (and the deal he would get after that bridge is the type of deal that could really hurt the Leafs cap situation).
- Have a great summer everyone! I am not sure how much additional content I’ll be pushing out in the next month and change, but I do think we’ll have at least one more podcast, so questions are welcome in the comments below. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast here.
Enjoy your Saturday nights, because once the season starts, you’ll have to block them all off!