After losing to Buffalo and Vancouver this week by a combined score of 11-5, one thing is clear: The Maple Leafs have some serious work to do.
Toronto’s second line has underperformed, their fourth line is purposeless, their defense gives up too many chances, and their goaltending has been a nightmare for well over a month now. Even if they add a decent defenseman like Josh Manson, we probably won’t have to start planning a parade any time soon.
The Leafs should be trying to upgrade at all three positions. If Jake Muzzin can return to the lineup and somehow get back to his old self, their defense might actually be the least of their worries. If they don’t upgrade at forward, I think they’re making a mistake. The cost of adding a good goalie may end up being absurd, but they should at least be examining their options in net.
There are plenty of ways for the Leafs to create cap space.
Alex Kerfoot is currently playing on the wing in the bottom six. Given that he carries a $3.5 million cap hit, I want to see him drive his own line and play center if he’s going to play there. If they don’t like him in the top six and they don’t think he can play center in the bottom six, then the Leafs should consider a move.
If the Leafs don’t have any confidence in Petr Mrazek in a playoff series, they should consider moving him now and cutting their losses.
If they feel like they need to add a defenseman because they don’t trust Justin Holl anymore, it might be worth considering a trade there.
Adding one defenseman and declaring “I’m done” is not ideal. Let’s go through each position to examine what their options are.
First and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge that this is not a one year issue. Jack Campbell is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the Leafs don’t exactly have the next Igor Shesterkin waiting in their pipeline. They need to either sign or trade for a goalie at some point in 2022. It’s just a question of when.
Since goaltending is the most important position in hockey by a wide margin, this is their number one concern right now, whether the team admits that publicly or not. However, just because it’s their top concern doesn’t necessarily mean that they should trade an arm and a leg for a rental.
I understood the Mrazek signing at the time, but I think that deal was always signed to be traded if he struggled. Jack Campbell’s previous career-high in games played was 31, so it made plenty of sense at the time to add a 1B rather than a true backup. While the $3.8 million cap hit always seemed a bit pricey, the Seattle Kraken drove the price up for the rest of the league when they immediately signed two free-agent goaltenders.
Rather than giving up picks and prospects in a trade immediately, the Leafs chose to sign Mrazek, knowing that they might have to move a pick or prospect to get out of the contract if he performed poorly. Like Nick Ritchie, if you’re convinced that the player isn’t going to be worth his cap hit and you have better options, you shouldn’t be afraid to cut your losses.
Mrazek has underperformed thus far with a .890 save percentage in 14 games, in addition to his struggles to stay healthy. There is a chance that he turns it around and goes on a good run, but even if he does, I’m not sure that I trust him to stay healthy over four playoff series. I do expect his numbers to improve, but at this point, I think he’s more of a good backup than a playoff-calibre starter.
There is at least a chance that Campbell settles in again as the starter going into the playoffs. After performing well in last year’s series against Montreal, he was excellent at the start of the season. In a perfect world, he bounces back over the next few weeks, finishes the season strong, and we all forget this ever happened.
At this point, I think you at least look into the cost of trading Mrazek and acquiring a different partner for Campbell, but if Campbell continues to struggle between now and the trade deadline, you might not have a choice.
The Leafs could have given up a first-round pick plus a good prospect last offseason for one year of Darcy Kuemper. At this point, they can still likely pivot and make a similar deal if they so choose. If we use Timothy Liljegren as the Conor Timmins comparable from that trade, the Leafs can surely move Mrazek and acquire a good goalie for a first plus Liljegren. I’m not suggesting they should do this for a rental, but I do think giving Mrazek a shot was a reasonable decision back in the offseason.
One key question is this: What’s the plan for the goaltending situation for next season? If you’re planning on moving Mrazek and trading for a starter, is there an option to just do it ahead of the deadline instead?
Free-agent options could include Campbell, Kuemper, Ville Husso, Marc-Andre Fleury, Braden Holtby, and Pavel Francouz. If you only like one or two of those options, you’re probably going to end up acquiring someone via trade; some of the above options could either re-sign with their current team before free agency or end up pricing themselves out of the team’s range. You could even end up in a position of needing to trade for two goalies.
I don’t think the Leafs should trade a first-round pick for Fleury unless they’re completely desperate. Goalies are quite unpredictable, and there’s a decent chance that you get less value from them than you did from Nick Foligno. If Fleury struggles, they essentially gave up a first-round pick for nothing. If Campbell bounces back and performs as he did at the start of the season, Fleury might not even play.
While there is also plenty of upside in trading for Fleury, if they’re not willing to pay what it takes to extend him, the Leafs might find themselves trading more assets to address the goaltending situation in the offseason. There are some serious risks to consider, especially if trading for Fleury prevents them from making a move to improve at another position.
In an ideal world, the Leafs try to complete something similar to the Jack Campbell trade and end up with someone who they like more than Mrazek for a cheap price. Anthony Stolarz and Anton Forsberg are playing well this season; do the Leafs trust them more than Mrazek? Connor Ingram is currently playing for Nashville’s AHL team, but the Leafs could give him a few games and see what he can do.
All three players have a low cap hit, so they could run three goalies on the NHL roster and hope that one of the three will impress and win the job. Having three options is better than two, and either Stolarz or Ingram could be pencilled in as cheap backup for next season.
Since their goaltending tandem carries a $5.45 million cap hit this season, any raise on that will have to come out of the forward or defense budget. They’re probably going to need to acquire someone with a low cap hit anyway. If they’re planning on trading for an Ingram or Stolarz type in the offseason, there is logic in paying a little bit extra to execute the trade now.
First and foremost, the Leafs need more out of Morgan Rielly.
Morgan Rielly’s last 15 games by 5v5 xGF%
He’s finally playing a little bit better as of late, but given that he just extended for 8 x $7.5M, the Leafs need FAR more out of him defensively
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) March 6, 2022
Yes, he plays against top competition, but this shouldn’t happen to a player who just signed an eight-year deal at $7.5 million per season. The Leafs need him to be a leader rather than a liability defensively. You can complain that the Leafs’ depth defensemen are playing like depth defensemen, but it’s a much bigger issue that Rielly is under-performing of late.
When fully healthy, Rielly, Brodie, Muzzin, and Sandin have to be in the lineup in some capacity. Ilya Lyubushkin has exceeded expectations through six games; I have him penciled into the playoff lineup as of now. Both Travis Dermott and Justin Holl are playing well recently, and Timothy Liljegren has impressive on-ice numbers this season. I’m not going to say no to adding a top-four defenseman for a great price, but I’m not sure that defense is their biggest issue right now.
Morgan Rielly needs to be the $7.5 million player that the Leafs think he is, and Jake Muzzin needs to get healthy and back to his old self.
The Leafs don’t need another depth defenseman, so I’d have a “stud or nothing” approach. They have eight NHL-calibre defensemen, so if they acquire someone, it’s not like they’re replacing someone who is below replacement level.
One under-the-radar player who I’d consider is Carson Soucy given his extra year of term, strong results, ability to play either side, size, and low cap hit. I wrote more about the Soucy fit here.
The Leafs have two good forward lines right now. Michael Bunting continues to look outstanding with Matthews and Marner, while David Kampf continues to anchor a successful checking line with Ilya Mikheyev and one of Ondrej Kase or Pierre Engvall. Both of those lines have been outstanding.
The second line simply isn’t good enough. While Kerfoot has racked up a reasonable number of points, the line clearly wasn’t outplaying their competition on a nightly basis, which explains why Nick Robertson is now getting a chance to play there. Perhaps Robertson will look like he’s NHL ready, but in an ideal world, he moves down to a dangerous fourth line that outscores their competition. I’m not sure if a line with Robertson, Tavares, and Nylander will be good enough defensively.
If one of the big four forwards goes down hurt, this team will look awfully thin awfully fast. Even if Bunting falls injured, they don’t have a clear option to replace him on the left side on the top line. Ondrej Kase is probably the best bet to move up in the lineup if someone gets hurt, but he has his own issues with staying in the lineup.
There is little doubt that adding a legitimate top-six forward would improve this team considerably. You can make the case that the team has more depth on defense than at forward.
If the fourth line struggles come playoff time, it will likely be largely on Sheldon Keefe. Will he consider scratching one of Jason Spezza or Wayne Simmonds if the line continues to struggle? Or is this another Joe Thornton situation where the veteran player’s lineup spot is locked in regardless of how poorly they play?
I’d like to move Spezza to right-wing rather than the center, and I’m starting to wonder if Simmonds brings much more to the table than Kyle Clifford (He hasn’t scored in 2022). While I like having his physicality in the lineup, I also like having players who outscore their opponents when they’re on the ice.
I’d consider trading for a cheap two-way center like Johan Larsson, or moving Engvall or Kerfoot between Robertson and Spezza. Given that the Leafs’ third line is defensive-focused, their fourth line can’t be a complete zero offensively.
I hope Robertson pans out great with Tavares and Nylander, but adding one more top-six forward could help to improve the second line, add depth in case injuries occur, and improve the fourth line by pushing several players down one spot in the depth chart.
Toronto’s roster has holes at all three positions right now.
I’m guessing that Cale Makar, Adam Fox, and Victor Hedman are not available, so adding one defenseman isn’t going to suddenly make them the best team in hockey. Scoring has been a major issue in back-to-back playoff series for the Leafs. With that in mind, given some of the names that are available, I’d strongly recommend improving the second line.
The Leafs have plenty of NHL-calibre defensemen. However, Muzzin hasn’t been Muzzin this season, and Rielly has struggled as of late. Their deadline strategy should be greatly dependent on what they expect from Muzzin going forward. Since they’re still going to need to add defensemen in the offseason, I’d prefer to acquire a player with term like Soucy rather than paying to address the need twice.
Regardless of what they say publicly, the Leafs are almost certainly evaluating the goaltending market right now. Trading a first-round pick for a goalie rental is a major gamble, one I see as a last-resort scenario. If they’re going to try to trade for a cheap but effective goaltender this offseason, they may want to get it done now.
Let’s hope this team looks much better in a couple of weeks. Adding a reinforcement or two will surely help, but it’s also time for some of their best players to start playing like their best players.