In Part 1 of our offseason game plan, we pondered some fundamental team-building questions facing the Maple Leafs this summer.

As I outlined, everything starts with the decision about their number-one goaltender. They need to lock in a goalie of quality or, at the very least, a goalie with the potential to be a quality starter.

They will also likely need to make room for young players on cheap contracts to enter the lineup, give them the first half of the season to develop, and allow them to make their case to be a part of the playoff lineup. Depending on how those players perform, it will determine if it makes sense to run with a lighter roster that accumulates cap space before the deadline, allowing them to buy aggressively at the deadline and fill any holes that present themselves over the regular season.

Beyond betting on young players to emerge as well as acquiring a goalie of note (which could simply mean re-signing Jack Campbell, to be clear), Kyle Dubas will likely need to move out some cap dollars if he wants to improve the roster overall. That leads to legitimate debates about which RFAs to retain, depending on the paydays they might be able to command.

The area we have yet to really explore is the top half of the roster, where the Leafs have by and large committed their cap dollars. This concept of team construction is one Dubas is betting his job on: sign the stars, fill out the roster through the bargain bin, and eventually, the team will find the support pieces to finally push it over the hump in the playoffs.

Admittedly, this was the first end-of-season press conference where Dubas legitimately left the door a crack open to trading a top-of-the-lineup player. While I noted in Part 1 that I think a trade is unlikely, I wanted to expand on the thought a bit further here. Why would a deal be so difficult to find?

First off, the return would have to be a hockey trade of quality for quality. The Leafs aren’t going to liquidate a core player to improve the depth; it would have to be a star of some sort returning for it to make sense considering they are trying to make a Cup run this upcoming season.

What type of star would make sense? The three positions of need for the organization that stand out are a goalie, a top-flight defenseman, and a center. How many goalies are genuinely very good to elite season after season? The number is in the single digits, and teams aren’t in the habit of trading that kind of asset for, say, a winger.

The same could be said for top-flight defensemen. There are always good defensemen available, but the top-quality ones aren’t generally traded for wingers. The Leafs’ top two players could obviously net one, but one is completely untouchable and trading the other is akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Even if we quickly look at Frank Seravalli’s trade target list, there isn’t a single player on it – given contract situations and the hypothetical acquisition costs – that I would trade any of the Leafs’ top four forwards for. I’ll never say never – and sometimes players are available that we have no clue about – but given who appears to be available on the trade market, it’s hard to see the Leafs pulling off a trade that actually makes sense.

They would basically have to domino effect some sort of scenario where they trade one (not including Auston Matthews) for promising young players/high draft picks while clearing cap space followed by signing Fillip Forsberg on the free-agent market. I’m not going to hold my breath on that type of scenario actually playing out.

If a lack of major movement plays out as expected, the plan turns to how to properly fill out the group. Right now, we’ll work off of this starting group:

Bunting – Matthews – Marner
______ – Tavares – Nylander

Alex Kerfoot generally filled out the second-line left wing spot and he is under contract, so it’s possible it happens again, but it would be underwhelming if this is their plan. Tavares and Nylander posted worse underlying numbers with Kerfoot than without and were dead even in goals for and against with him at 5v5 this season. He’s a versatile enough player and enjoyed a career season in 2021-22, but he’s not bringing the line together and elevating it to new heights.

The simple truth of it: The Leafs are paying four forwards a ton of money with the general idea of running two number-one lines that create matchup nightmares for opponents, but it simply hasn’t played out that way. Over the past three seasons, this is how Tavares and Nylander have fared together:

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Nylander - Tavares1702:2255.255.3955.1360.87103110

They’ve generally controlled play as a line while not taking on the toughest matchups – and even shaded toward sheltered usage, especially with the David Kampf checking line now in the fold. They have been outscored over a three-year period (and in two of those three individual seasons).

That’s a long sample size to go on now. We can’t simply look at the other numbers and justify it – they aren’t paying two forwards nearly $18 million to play on the second line and be outscored. Conversely, Matthews and Marner have played nearly 2,200 minutes together at even strength in those same three years – against far better quality opposition – and outscored opponents by 65 goals in that same time.

Now, the Leafs do benefit from all four of them playing on the top power-play unit together. Over the last three years, the Leafs have had the third-best cumulative power play in the league, which should not be taken for granted. The Leafs’ power play is +27 compared to their penalty kill over the past three seasons.

Winning the special teams battle, owning one of the best lines in the league, and possessing two more point-per-game players who are capable of heating up at any time is a really good recipe for success. If they can make it two top lines that are routinely outsourcing opponents and creating the matchup problems they originally envisioned, that would be the best version of the team. But how do they get there?

Do the Leafs run back the top six exactly as-is for another go? Is the Tavares-Nylander duo a different winger away from clicking at a more productive rate? Is the answer in shuffling the deck among the top six or acquiring an additional center who can score while spreading out the talent among three lines? Is it finally time to move Nylander back to center or is that simply never happening again? There’s a lot to sort through here.

It’s possible the team adds a winger – or even develops one within – who can push the second line to new heights. If they acquire one, it will take assets of note and/or a good chunk of their remaining cap space. There would be a domino effect there.

Again, using the Seravalli Trade Targets list, there are some nice wingers available, but nobody that stands out specifically as someone who wouldn’t cost a ton in assets/cap room to acquire and would really elevate the line.

Leafs brass could feasibly look to shuffle the deck among the forwards. While most people love the Tavares – Marner connection (myself included), the odd thing is that they have worse underlying numbers than Tavares – Nylander. They have also been outscored together at even strength over the past three seasons together.

Sheldon Keefe was quick to dismiss Matthews – Nylander last season – which was partly unfair given the fact that Matthews was working his way back into shape after offseason surgery – so he seems loath to pair them up permanently. If nothing else, it seems unlikely the solution is simply flipping the two wingers unless they bring in another winger of note to tie it all together.

It’s also fair to wonder how much Tavares has left as a center. He can still produce no problem. But he’s not driving the line on a nightly basis and will be 32 years old before the season starts.

In 2017, Claude Giroux was coming off a 14-goal, 58-point season in 82 games, the Flyers moved him to the wing, and he exploded for a career-best 102 points. Steven Stamkos was back at center this season, but he has regularly featured on the wing in previous seasons. Matt Duchene moved to the wing and enjoyed a career season in Nashville. It’s not unheard of to move a high-scoring, all-star caliber pivot over to the wall.

That would almost certainly require Nylander to shift to center, and while there would probably be growing pains, the organization might be better for it in the long run. He’s a great skater who does a lot of damage through the middle of the ice. It would probably open his game up a bit more, but the role demands more defensively as well.

Depending on what else Dubas is able to do this offseason, it might be worth discussing. If they’re open to it, adding another center would not be a bad thing, either, to fill that spot or act as insurance for a potential Nylander shift to the middle.

Whatever management is or isn’t able to do with their second (and probably third) line will inform any possible decisions with their top line. They can reasonably run them together again. As mentioned, it was one of the best lines in the league last season. Auston Matthews is a perennial top-five player in the league who is in his prime. Mitch Marner is one of the best wingers in the league. Michael Bunting has shown he can play alongside them (and while it’s entirely possible he takes a step back, simply playing alongside those two should mitigate much of a drop-off). There’s no reason to think they won’t be great again next season.

Hypothetically, though, would you rather a top line that’s a 10 and a second line that’s, say, a seven or eight, or two lines that are nines? And if the answer is to keep the 10 line and increase the seven line separately, how are you going to go about it?

On defense, we’ve already talked about the depth and ensuring the young defensemen play (or, if they aren’t, moving them to better the team elsewhere). The blue line is feasibly set if they retain their RFAs.

The only thing that I’ll add for the time being: What’s going to happen with the top pairing? Morgan Rielly finished the most recent playoff series playing alongside Ilya Lyubushkin the whole time. While I like Lyubushkin, he’s not of the quality that’s ideal for a top pairing nor is Rielly a Victor Hedman-level defenseman (who the Lightning can pair with Jan Ruutta and he’ll make it work).

Rielly has been solid alongside TJ Brodie, but it’s probably a pairing that has been slightly overrated by the fanbase. They are essentially even in shot share over two seasons and benefitted from a ton of minutes alongside Matthews and Marner, who are the ones really driving play.

The Leafs have generally not used them in a shutdown role, which has been reserved for some combination of Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie, and Justin Holl. They could look at giving a Rielly – Liljegren pairing some real run next season in an offensive-focused role (they did play 151 minutes together last season and flashed promise).

This isn’t a hugely pressing need – it’s easy to pick and choose among their seven NHL defensemen and find sensible combinations – but knowing the makeup of the playoff pairing at the top, it has to be discussed.

Conversely, the Leafs could look for a Rielly partner outside of the organization. That might be too much work considering the other more pressing needs (goalie, sorting out the forwards), but it’s at least something to wonder about.

This Leafs team lives by the core and dies by its core, but it can’t just be about them. How they’re going to be better supported is a big question for Kyle Dubas and company to sort out this offseason.