When it comes to the actual hockey-playing part of the discussion, there is no question that the Toronto Maple Leafs had to get Mitch Marner signed and into training camp. In that sense, Friday’s contract agreement was mission accomplished.
As I discussed last week, the Leafs are ready to contend for a Cup right now, on paper. To have a major contract-holdout distraction hanging over their heads for a second straight season would have been criminal. They also have two strong top-four defensemen heading to free agency that are going to get paid, and it’s hard to imagine the team being able to afford both unless they make a trade to free up cap space.
Knowing that, it’s hard to imagine their defense being better in 2020-21; they are likely going to be ushering good, promising young defensemen into the league next season, which means an adjustment period before they’re ready to be quality top-four NHL defensemen. Just trading for Tyson Barrie alone indicates a sense of urgency to improve the defense; they could have easily kept a quality, cost-controlled center in Nazem Kadri, but the time to win is now and they balanced out their assets.
From a practical near-term point of view, it was crucial to get Marner in at the beginning of the season. We all saw what happened with William Nylander after missing training camp and the start of the season, and while we can’t just freely assume Marner would have had the exact same fate, the team couldn’t afford to take the gamble.
As far as the Leafs‘ contention window, for this year, signing the deal is fantastic and welcome news. Going into the season, I still think this team needs another top-four defenseman (or for Travis Dermott to return and prove he can ~20 minutes per night capably) as well as better forward depth that can preferably kill penalties and play some defense to free up their top offensive players.
From the business side of things, the deal leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. I won’t discuss the deal in too much detail as Alec has already covered it and I’d just be repeating a lot of what he said. What I will say is this: While GM Kyle Dubas’ now infamous “we can and we will” has been bandied about in celebration of signing the final of the Big Three, none of the deals are beyond reproach.
Nylander essentially used David Pastrnak plus inflation as his comparable and won, signing a deal that was slightly rich – Pastrnak was not an appropriate comparable for Nylander then and definitely isn’t now. At the time of the deal, I was generally happy with it as I am betting on Nylander to become a consistent top-line producer, making that deal a bargain for the duration of it. But the Leafs certainly didn’t win that negotiation.
Auston Matthews has an easy path to free agency with a five-year term, and he didn’t take a discount in those five years to get there – it is a short deal at a very high number. There aren’t many worse contracts that could have been signed from the Leafs‘ perspective than that deal.
Marner then somehow leveraged the Matthews contract and is now the second-highest paid winger in the entire league off of entry-level – and he’s not the second-best winger in the league. He isn’t even top five, and I could probably argue he’s not top ten yet, either (though, to be clear, he’s obviously very good, and I think both of these things can become true in time).
Over Dubas’ tenure so far, he has made a number of moves to really make this roster his own. At this point, it’s not an inherited team, although it required him making some concessions to get here, including trading a first-round pick to get rid of Patrick Marleau and taking on Cody Ceci to get rid of Nikita Zaitsev. He has generally made low-risk, bargain-bin free agent signings, which the team will have to do every year — it’s not only strategic but necessary. While it’s going to be nearly impossible to lose that kind of deal (they can send most of these deals to the AHL without cap penalty), let’s see if they can find players that can actually play up the lineup in the playoffs versus the Tyler Ennis’ and Nic Petans of the world.
Through trade, we’ve seen a number of good deals, but nothing that has come cheap or shown itself to be a massive slam dunk – Jake Muzzin cost two B-ish level prospects and a first-round pick, which is a good acquisition but basically the going rate for that kind of move. In terms of contract negotiations, though, there has been a lot left to be desired, save for convincing John Tavares to sign for less instead of heading to San Jose (which really seemed to be the result of a number of circumstances, including the allure of coming back home).
Now we will see how Dubas goes about putting the finishing touches on this team — arguably, it’s the best roster the Leafs have had going into a season since 2004.
With training camp officially underway, here are a few things I will be looking out for over the next couple of weeks through to the start of the regular season:
Toronto Maple Leafs 2019 Training Camp Storylines
- Who will get the tough matchups? Early indications are that the Leafs will pair Jake Muzzin with Tyson Barrie and Morgan Rielly with Cody Ceci. This makes sense for a few reasons – other top four options are sparse considering the Travis Dermott injury, Muzzin and Barrie have some familiarity through Team Canada, and Ceci has been continually buried in tough matchups while with the Senators. This likely means that Muzzin – Barrie will take on the tough matchups, and while we know Muzzin can do it well, Barrie has consistently been on the second pair in Colorado, not trusted with these tough matchups. How will he handle this role?
- On the note of Tyson Barrie – who will quarterback the top power play unit between Barrie and Rielly? Rielly is coming off a career year with 20 goals and 72 points, but Barrie can change the dynamics of the power play with his right-handed shot, and it would make it easier for him to find Matthews if he remains on his strong side on the power play (which is another thing we will all be watching closely). I think Matthews on his strong side with Barrie up top could actually work really well as Matthews appears to love receiving the puck from that angle and curling in. But it would also be silly not to try these top guys on their one-timer sides and also use John Tavares as more than just a net presence all year. New Assistant Coach Paul McFarland has a number of options and a lot to sort out for the power play.
- How will Alexander Kerfoot look at center? It looks like he’s penciled in to start as the 3C for the Leafs. He wasn’t really a fulltime center with the Avalanche, often taking draws and shifting over. A fulltime center role is not an insignificant jump and it’s a level of responsibility that can impact offensive production. Plus, what will the role of this third line be? Is it another sheltered offensive line? In an ideal world, that line can handle some tough assignments to free up Matthews and Tavares for an extra offensive opportunity or two each game (it’s a small thing, but a big thing).
- Speaking of offense, how will Kasperi Kapanen adjust to playing the left wing to start the season? He is getting an opportunity to play with Tavares and Marner due to Zach Hyman’s absence, and it makes some sense. He’s their next best winger, he can get in on the forecheck like Hyman does, and his speed should open up space. But playing your offwing is difficult; I think he’ll struggle to drive the net on his offwing, and doesn’t have the shot to scare defenders off the rush on a cut-in move.
- Also, how will the Leafs look without Hyman? Babcock relies on him a lot and the Leafs’ top six is paper soft. I’m sure they will produce just fine, but I’m interested to see the overall look and feel of the group without Hyman because he is extremely unique within this group due to his style of play.
- I am very interested in watching the Leafs’ most promising two young defensemen, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, this preseason. While the betting money is that they will start the season in the AHL, the bottom pairing spots are wide open with the injury to Dermott and there is not much in the way of quality among the options vying for the spots. I wouldn’t be shocked if they outshine some of these veteran depth defensemen in the preseason.
- How will Jason Spezza look and where he will fit? We’ve seen veterans such as Marleau and Ron Hainsey look really slow at the start of the season and then pick it up as the season wears on (in Hainsey’s case, at least). I also wonder if Spezza will have a spot in the top nine as a winger, or on the fourth line as the center. Spezza also noted earlier this summer that he will be used on the penalty kill – how will that go?
- Which depth forwards will impress? Kenny Agostino, Nick Shore, Nic Petan, Ilya Mikheyev, Pontus Aberg, to name a few. I thought Mason Marchment was very close to a callup last season before getting hurt. Can he make some noise this camp? He’d be a nice addition to the team in terms of adding in a bit of a different play style compared to many of the small, skilled players noted above.
- Ultimately, I am just excited hockey back and that William Nylander is here from the start of the year. I’m betting he has a big year after all the backlash he received last season.