Day one of NHL free agency was a relatively quiet one for the Maple Leafs, but on day two, Brad Treliving made his mark.
In one of the weaker free agent classes in recent memory, the Leafs signed arguably the best free agent on the market given his age (28) and pedigree in Tyler Bertuzzi, who is a legitimate top-six winger and difference maker. In his last three full seasons, he has scored 21 goals twice and 30 goals once.
Not done there, Treliving also added Max Domi to the mix, adding depth scoring and insurance on Matthew Knies should he struggle in his first full season in the league.
How this all comes together makes for a puzzle in need of sorting out. It’s not a clear-cut roster where we can instantly identify how everything logically fits together, but there is high-end talent, some depth, and versatility. That’s a great place to start.
More speed, jam embedded throughout the lineup
In discussing both Bertuzzi and Domi specifically, Treliving noted (unprompted), “With both of these players, I think there is a DNA part of them. We need a little bit more snot to our game. I think they both bring a bit of that.
“They need to be able to play. But as much as the game has changed, some things have never changed. At the most important times, the rink shrinks. There is no space. You need courage. We wanted to add players like that.”
The Leafs added Ryan Reaves to bring some jam into the lineup, but we have seen this strategy play out in the past with the likes of Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford. It’s not as simple as taping grit/physicality/jam to the core. The grit has to be embedded throughout the lineup.
Bertuzzi and Domi aren’t heating-seeking missiles on a nightly basis by any stretch, but they do bring a bit more jam. Potentially three of the team’s four lines will have at least one player of this description. Younger players like Matthew Knies and Bobby McMann, should they crack the roster, will also look to throw the body around.
That’s nearly half a forward group turned over and a much different look overall. Probably three of those players will be spread out across the top nine. Compare it to starting last season with the likes of Dennis Malgin, Pierre Engvall, and Alex Kerfoot in the mix.
The other aspect to note is the injection of some speed back into the lineup. Alex Kerfoot was one of the Leafs’ fastest players on a team that looked quite slow and methodical against the Panthers. Bertuzzi is not exactly fleet of foot, but Domi can really scoot, and Knies and McMann bring pace to the lineup as well. Add in Nylander and Lafferty, and this team should be able to play much faster than they did last season.
The slower pace of play was a problem in 2022-23. The Leafs were 16th in team corsi and ninth in team fenwick at 5v5, and I’d argue more speed is needed to cut through the neutral zone and attack off the rush. More speed is needed to get in on the forecheck and cause turnovers as well. The roster is set to have a bit more pace and a bit more physicality to battle, turn over pucks, grind in the corners, and retain possession.
The offensive strengths and defensive question marks of Domi and Bertuzzi
There are a few reasons why Tyler Bertuzzi was only able to sign a one-year contract this summer. He has battled a number of injuries in recent seasons, including hand surgery last season and a back injury that cost him pretty well the entire COVID-shortened season (he played nine games). When healthy, though, there’s little doubt he’s a productive player on the offensive side of the puck.
A great net-front presence with an uncanny ability to locate pucks in scrums, Bertuzzi has soft hands in tight to make plays (be it when getting shots off or making little passes to teammates in the slot/backdoor). This is something we talked about ahead of the Panthers series – Bertuzzi was great in front of the net against the Panthers in round one, producing five goals and 10 points in seven games.
Defensively, it is a bit of a different story. Bertuzzi can struggle along the wall in his own zone (with and without the puck). This was the first season in which he has come out ahead in possession, and only twice has he been on for more goals for than against. Playing on a poor team for most of his career definitely plays a role here, but if he wants to play on the Leafs’ top line throughout the season, he is going to have to make sure he takes care of his own end as well.
A similar sentiment is true of Max Domi. He has been a productive player who has averaged roughly 53 points per 82 games in his career thus far. He possesses speed, a really nice saucer pass, and when he wants to, he can really step into a shot. The latter is something he should do more often – he averages two shots per game throughout his career – but much like Bertuzzi, Domi needs to be strong enough in his own end.
This will be Domi’s seventh team in nine seasons. He has played on some very bad teams in that time including Arizona, Columbus, and Chicago. In the past two seasons, he has been traded at the deadline and has been a contributor on teams who have achieved some level of playoff success.
There is a good player in there, but going from a Chicago team with no real structure – he was playing with two players who don’t give an effort defensively (Patrick Kane and Andreas Athanasiou) – to a Leafs team that has prided itself on checking properly for a few seasons now – where the spotlight shines bright each and every game – is a different story altogether.
In terms of solid possession play and outscoring opponents at 5v5, Domi’s best season came under Claude Julien on a structured Habs team. He has been good in these types of situations before.
When Brad Treliving was introduced (and before he committed to Sheldon Keefe as his head coach), the new GM noted, “I think Sheldon has done a lot of really, really good things. I look at how a group of really skilled players has gotten better at checking, defending, and doing those things you need to win.”
It was the first quote I thought of when it came to these two signings. Can Keefe get these two to check, commit defensively, and buy into playing 200-foot hockey regularly so that they aren’t lineup liabilities he has to work around? He can’t just say, “Player A is good defensively and Player B is bad defensively, so we can just pair them together and all will be well.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Both players have shown they can be gamers capable of elevating their games in big moments. The ability is there.
With Domi and Bertuzzi added, how does the lineup (tentatively) fit together and what question marks remain?
Treliving mentioned today that the team likely views Domi as a winger to start, and unless something changes, this means the Leafs should start with a top-three center group of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and David Kampf just as they have for each of the past two seasons. Both Keefe and Treliving have made a note of Kampf’s ability to play the 3C role and provide important minutes for the team. I don’t think they gave him term and a raise in order to play 4C.
How the Leafs fill out the forward group around those three centers is anyone’s guess right now, though.
In the past two seasons, Keefe has built checking and matchup units around Kampf with players like Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev. In their absence, who can they use?
Calle Jarnkrok might be the first one that comes to mind, and while he’s reasonably responsible defensively, he doesn’t drive play forward well enough as Engvall and Mikheyev did in that role. Kampf and Lafferty produced some good moments together in the Panthers series, but they got completely out-shot in the regular season and playoffs together. Even if Keefe did pair them together, it would bump a player such as Jarnkrok or Domi to the fourth line, which is likely a net loss.
In theory, Mitch Marner could do it, but the Leafs would be wasting his talents pairing him with Kampf. Asking players like Domi or William Nylander to play with Kampf in a shutdown role would make no sense whatsoever.
With Kampf in a shutdown role, Matthews would also take tough head-to-head matchups while the team looks to shelter the John Tavares line and load it up with offensive opportunities.
The Leafs have used Matthews head-to-head, which might have to continue and should be fine, truthfully. Matthews can do it and still produce, and when we’re talking about one of the highest-paid players in the league, this really should be the expectation.
If the Leafs take this approach, the domino effect is quite interesting. Do they reunite Matthews with Mitch Marner or William Nylander? Nylander was in the role in the first half of the season and performed well there. Marner is the better overall player, but he’s also been better with John Tavares than Nylander is.
If Keefe rolls with the combinations of Matthews – Nylander and Tavares – Marner, it becomes about sorting out which two of Bertuzzi, Knies, Jarnkrok, and Domi play alongside them. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Jarnkrok was legitimately good alongside Matthews, is responsible defensively, and has shown he can finish. Matthews was vocal about enjoying Jarnkrok as a linemate. He is in this mix.
A big part of the discussion boils down to the utility of the third line. The Leafs don’t appear to have the type of wingers who are ideal to play alongside Kampf in his role. With that in mind, do they make it more of a “two-way” line that can chip in some offensively while Kampf anchors it defensively?
Kampf is not a skilled offensive player by any means, but the puck does not die on his stick, either. Ilya Mikheyev produced a career year playing alongside him, and while Mikheyev is good enough offensively to suggest it was primarily his doing, Kampf wasn’t a complete blackhole alongside him.
Is Domi going to be on Kampf’s line? Knies? Jarnkrok? Keefe will have to sort it out as the season goes along. It is a bit of an awkward fit right now, but bringing in talented players and sorting it out as the year goes along is really all part of a natural, worthwhile process in the regular season.
The Leafs currently sit over the cap, and even if we account for Jake Muzzin on LTIR and a potential Matt Murray buyout, realistically, it would not leave enough cap space to sign Ilya Samsonov. Even with 12 forwards, the Leafs would have just over $1.5 million in space, and if they got rid of a defenseman – unless they gave one of their better ones away for picks/prospects – it wouldn’t open up enough space.
At least one other shoe has to drop. Treliving has been vocal about wanting to change the defense. Adding Klingberg gives them more offense from the point, which they desperately needed – and Bertuzzi, in particular, gives them a net presence to make what Klingberg does even more productive. However, much like the situation upfront, the question revolves around who would handle the tough assignments. Is it TJ Brodie and Timothy Liljegren? And if so, who would play with Morgan Rielly?
The Leafs trended up on day two of free agency by adding offense along the left side of their forward group, which was their clearest weakness. But there is more work to do.
A few additional thoughts
– I keep looking at the roster and thinking Bobby McMann has a spot to lose as it currently stands. If Dylan Gambrell is his biggest competition, I like his odds.
McMann was snakebitten when he played last season — and at some point, he will have to actually show he can chip in to some degree — but he flashed potential. He moves well, forechecks well, and he can make plays with the puck. Sheldon Keefe returning probably helps his case; he is familiar with him already and appeared to like the player.
McMann – Lafferty – Reaves could actually be a fun fourth line. All three will hit, and two of the three have speed. They would just need to prove that they can keep the puck out of their net.
– I like that Treliving noted that he’s always on the lookout for centers and defensemen. Wingers are a dime a dozen. Center and defense are premium positions in which a team can never have enough depth. The more, the merrier.
– When ROR was in Toronto, he played on the top power-play unit as the Leafs looked to generate more traffic in front. Tyler Bertuzzi is even better than ROR in front of the net, so I wonder what they do here. Nylander just scored 40 goals and is one of their most talented players; they can’t possibly ask him to play on the second unit for the majority of the season. John Tavares just scored 36 goals and 80 points; why should he be relegated? They could actually run a decent second unit with options like Bertuzzi, Domi, Klingberg, Knies, and perhaps Jarnkrok.
– Three of the Leafs’ top four penalty-killing forwards are returning in Kampf, Marner, and Jarnkrok. Lafferty got reps there as well when he came over. The general nucleus appears to be in place for this unit up front.
On defense? Justin Holl led the team in shorthanded time on ice. Mark Giordano was second – those were tough minutes and almost certainly played a role in his decline as the season went along. Bringing in John Klingberg solves none of this. Jake McCabe, Timothy Liljegren, and TJ Brodie should all feature there (provided they are all still on the team). Who will be fourth, though?
– There are some real wildcards with this team when it comes to youth. In particular, Joseph Woll and Matthew Knies both have the ability to become difference-makers. Either one emerging would change the entire complexion of the team in a great way. They should both receive reps and the opportunity to prove themselves in the first half of the season. Timothy Liljegren has more experience, but his solidifying a top-four spot once and for all would go a long way toward improving the defense.
– And then there is a second wave of young players that includes Nick Robertson, Pontus Holmberg, Bobby McMann, and Conor Timmins. It’s hard to bank on young players, but you can make a case for any of those players becoming legitimate full-time contributors. An injection of youth is a positive thing.
– Just taking a look around at the division, who is the biggest competition? The Panthers improved their defense, but is Sergei Bobrovsky going to turn into a pumpkin again? Tampa continues to shed talent. The Bruins are set for a clear step back. The Sabres are emerging, to be sure, but to what extent (i.e. playoff team vs. actual contender) is very much debatable. Ottawa appears in a stalemate until they trade Alex DeBrincat. The Red Wings and Habs are signing veterans and trying to improve, but how much better are they really? It feels like the division has never been more there for the taking.