With the big waves of free agency behind us and training camp now under a month away, we are officially in the dog days of summer.
As things currently stand, a shoe or two will still need to drop for the Leafs. If we account for the team currently carrying an extra forward, the Leafs are roughly $750-800K over the salary cap and Rasmus Sandin is still toiling as an RFA.
No matter what, something else is going to happen. Half of me has been trying to wait it out to see what the move(s) will be, but we are far enough along that it’s time to start sorting through this offseason.
To date, the moves boil down to:
|Calle Jarnkrok||Ilya Mikheyev|
|Nicolas Aube-Kubel||Jason Spezza|
|Matt Murray||Jack Campbell|
|Ilya Samsonov||Petr Mrazek|
|Victor Mete||Ondrej Kase|
|Jordie Benn||Ilya Lyubushkin|
Figuring out this Leafs team has almost become a Rorschach test. On one hand, one could look and see a team full of stars that simply needs to break through. They finished fourth in the league and outscored a Stanley Cup finalist team over seven games. At some point, one has to think this team will get it done. They are a genuinely good team.
On the other hand, they have lost six straight years in the first round. At some point, we have to be honest about it. How many kicks at the can does this group of players need (and deserve)? It’s one thing to be good in the regular season, but it’s beyond fair to wonder if this group can get it done in the playoffs.
This isn’t a young team anymore – they are projected as roughly the seventh oldest in the league at the moment. Merely winning a single round might be good enough for some, but it shouldn’t be.
This is a veteran team. At the moment, there’s one starting defenseman who is under the age of 28. Auston Matthews has a year left on his contract after this season. Is winning a single round and getting bounced in round two while staring down a pending-UFA Matthews season actually a win?
Regardless of how one feels about the team, Leafs management clearly feels strongly about the overall core because they haven’t done anything to change it – or really add to it, for that matter.
This comes at a time when, for the first time in recent memory, the Atlantic Division appears prime for the taking. At least one team from the Atlantic Division has made the Stanley Cup Finals in each of the last four years, but let’s look at the state of it today.
Boston is taking a last kick at the can, it seems, by bringing back Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. But they are starting the season missing Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy. They will make a run of things in the second half when they are presumably healthy, but in the meantime, there is a huge opportunity to build an insurmountable points lead over them in the standings.
Down in the state of Florida, Tampa Bay will surely be strong again, but they are also starting the season without a key player – Anthony Cirelli – and have again shed talent by losing Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh in the offseason. The Panthers swung big for Matt Tkachuk, which should work out well for them long term, but in the meantime, their defense is worse, they are still over the cap, and they will need to shed more salary. Anthony Duclair is out to start the season as well.
Ottawa added to their team, but their defense is still an eye sore and we aren’t even sure if certain members of their team will be eligible to play this season. The other three teams could all be pesky nuisances, but they aren’t in the contender tier.
The long and short of it is that this is about as vulnerable as I can remember the Leafs’ division being in recent history. In that sense, the offseason to this point has felt like a bit of a missed opportunity.
The Leafs have a strong team that shouldn’t have much of a problem making the playoffs, but they haven’t done much of anything to move the needle forward. Calle Jarnkrok is a handy player who can reasonably handle the Ilya Mikheyev third-line right-wing role while scoring fewer goals, but he raises the floor of this team, not the ceiling. The goalie tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, the replacements for Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek, is not making anyone feel warm and fuzzy going into the season no matter which tandem one might prefer. All told, those are four players with more questions than answers.
It is again worth reiterating that while the gamble of Murray is – in my opinion – completely fine, to not extract picks of value (the highest pick is a third) or make Ottawa eat more cap hit (Murray was essentially out of the league and now the Leafs are paying him nearly $4.7M for each of the next two years) is a poor negotiation at best. Aube-Kubel is a nice player and fans will like him – he will be physical, which will stand out on this team – but he is not a difference maker. Short of moving a defenseman – which they have not done yet, obviously – the defense is essentially set and strong.
But there were opportunities, and while there is still time to make moves (Brendan Shanahan himself was acquired by the Red Wings in October – a move that really vaulted Detroit ahead of Colorado), it’s fair to wonder where Leafs brass envisions the improvement happening or if the goal is to roughly stay the same and bank on the divisional tide retreating.
Nicholas Robertson represents the only player of notable upside to potentially join the forward group. The five top players are what they are — and that’s great. It might seem stale to us – it has been so many years in a row, and the regular season feels pretty meaningless – but that top group is about as good as it gets in the league.
If Robertson can stick as a difference maker, the outlook of the team improves by a notable margin. Beyond a hopeful bet on Robertson, Alex Kerfoot is coming off of a career season playing alongside two stars. I don’t really think it can get much more productive for him. Maybe he produces in the same range, but notably better production in a manner that moves the needle for the team seems like a stretch at best.
David Kampf recorded a career-high 26 points last year at 27 years old. Pierre Engvall produced a career-high 15 goals and 35 points. Perhaps Engvall can push for 20 goals (he actually shot below his career shooting percentage last season!) but that line also benefited from Mikheyev’s contract-year heater.
The rest of the group is largely comprised of journeymen. Maybe Adam Gaudette rediscovers his 33-points-in-59-games form from a few years ago; it was interesting to hear Kyle Dubas note that Gaudette hasn’t been healthy, so they’re hoping there is some potential upside there after a healthy summer. But banking on significant improvement from this group is a stretch.
As a bottom six, there isn’t much in the way of offense or a player that can really change a game beyond David Kampf’s excellence in an underrated role. Depending on who rounds out the fourth line, there are few options that could competently move up the lineup should an injury or two strike in the top six.
It is an exercise in futility to wonder what a little creativity could have done for the team, but we did talk about the concept of adding a single needle mover and filling out the rest of the team with budget signings. If we include Sandin, there are seven defensemen in the organization that should be everyday regulars. It’s true that a team can never have enough NHL defensemen, but there is some decent insulation with Victor Mete and Jamie Benn in the fold. Moving around the pieces to improve the bottom line of the team (aka an upgrade at forward) is what this is all about.
Kerfoot, who we’ve talked about ad nauseam, was and still is a prime candidate to move coming off a career-high season. His bonus has been paid and he’s owed just $750K for the rest of the season, so it’s still entirely plausible that he is traded. Until it happens, though, I’m going to assume he’s not going anywhere. The coaching staff appears to really like him.
In the free-agent and trade markets this offseason, Nino Niederreiter has scored 20+ goals in five of his 10 full seasons (Kerfoot has never hit 20 goals) and offers more in terms of forechecking and size – a much more logical fit as a potential John Tavares and William Nylander linemate. He’s making $500K more than Kerfoot and only signed a two-year deal this summer. Oliver Bjorkstrand is coming off of a 28-goal season, makes a reasonable $5.4M, and moved for a third-round pick in the 2023 draft as well as a fourth-round pick in the 2023 draft. David Perron and Mason Marchment both signed for under $5 million per season.
Those are a few examples of the “doubles” potentially available to the team. It didn’t need to be a home run, but they’re more impactful needle-movers that would make any sort of Robertson (or any other prospect) emergence a luxury – thus creating all sorts of fun possibilities – rather than something closer to a necessity in order to elevate the team to the next level.
With that all said, this is a really strong Leafs team. I’d consider them the favourites to win the division as things currently stand, but instead of stepping on throats while their opponents are seemingly trending down, they signed two depth forwards, added two question marks in net, and are running the rest of it back. Hopefully, in saying that, a young player or two takes a step forward.
It’s not been a particularly inspiring or exciting offseason story to date, but this team is almost certainly going to be just fine.
Five questions remaining ahead of 2022-23 training camp
Based on where we stand right now, here are five questions I am still pondering:
How will the Leafs clear cap space?
As already noted, Rasmus Sandin is an RFA, and I can’t imagine the Leafs have any plans to punt him away. Who will go to clear cap room and will the player possibly be a defenseman? Justin Holl and Alex Kerfoot seem like the two obvious choices. Logically, I can’t really imagine anyone else moving to facilitate the signing. Considering Sandin is playing hardball for a roster spot, the betting money is on Holl.
Will they actually send down a veteran?
Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford are both signed for the upcoming season. Sheldon Keefe did like playing both together; he was vocal about it at times and even started the playoffs with that combination on the fourth line. If players like Adam Gaudette do not show well and youngsters like Alex Steeves don’t look ready (it’s unlikely they want to play Robertson on the fourth line), who is to say both won’t start with the big club? Furthermore, would they actually dare to put Simmonds on waivers?
Are they running the top six back?
Last season, Sheldon Keefe split up Tavares and Nylander down the stretch – presumably, in part, because he recognized that they haven’t actually been particularly strong together. The alternative options are slim unless you think Pierre Engvall is a legit top-six forward candidate alongside Tavares or Matthews (I don’t think he’s a real answer there, but I’m sure he can play the odd game beside them), or if you think Calle Jarnkrok is a strong center (I think he’s better on the wing).
If Robertson has a strong camp and emerges, it makes things all kinds of interesting. You could also conceivably swap Nylander and Marner – something Keefe did at the beginning of the season, but he reverted back to his regular combinations and noted that Matthews and Nylander weren’t bringing out the best in each other (note: I think this was a premature assessment as Matthews was returning from injury and didn’t look like himself at the time). Or do they simply run it back from last year and call it a day?
How will the defense pairings shake out?
Even if we don’t include Sandin right now, there are six legitimate NHL defensemen that could all reasonably make a case for top-four minutes (yes, even Justin Holl). Who is playing where? In what roles? In how many minutes? Other than Morgan Rielly leading Leafs defensemen in time on ice per game and playing on the top power-play unit, everything else is on the table.
Do they reunite Rielly with TJ Brodie? Does Liljegren play with Rielly, Muzzin, Giordano, or even someone else? He flashed promise playing with all three of those lefties. If Sandin is signed and Holl is still on the team, then what? Who will take the shutdown minutes? This is what I would categorize as a great problem to have: lots of good defensemen, only so many minutes to go around.
How will the goaltending tandem split starts?
For all the talk about the quality of Matt Murray’s play, it should also be noted he hasn’t played in more than 38 games in a regular season since the 2018-19 campaign. Not only is his play a question mark, but so is his durability. For what it’s worth, last season, Ilya Samsonov played in 44 games. Between them, one can envision a scenario where they platoon each other, but how will that shake out?
Is Murray the clear starter getting roughly two of every three starts? Even if he starts well, what’s the line between playing him enough to get him rolling in a routine and resting him enough so that he can last the season? In three straight seasons between 2016 and 2019, Murray played in 49-49-50 games. I think that’s about the maximum the Leafs can hope for from him.
They can enter into the season with a plan in net, but when it comes to two goalies with such a volatile range of potential outcomes, it’s probably already out the window as of a few weeks into the season.