Last week on our podcast and on Kyper and Bourne, I broached the subject of the Maple Leafs not going all-in this season and the formation of legitimate secondary scoring in the lineup. 

I want to flesh out those subjects further in this space, particularly when managing expectations for the organization and its players this spring.

First and foremost, I don’t think it’s acceptable to punt during a strong season from the team’s top players nor do I think the Leafs are doing this. The team is four lines deep, they have eight NHL defensemen when healthy, and they have three NHL goalies on the roster. Their three stars are playing at an elite level. There is legitimate talent and depth on the team.

As things stand today, a healthy Leafs forward group for Game 1 of the playoffs looks something like this:

Knies – Matthews – Marner
Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander
McMann – Domi – Jarnkrok
Dewar – Kampf – Reaves
Holmberg, Robertson, Gregor

Assuming Reaves is in the lineup to start, all of those players except Bobby McMann have already played in the playoffs. They are, give or take, the 12th oldest team in the league overall, so it’s a good spot in terms of the mix of youth and experience. It’s a deep forward group with a good mix of options that can be configured into all sorts of interesting combinations.

Where it gets dicey is on defense (clearly), where the Leafs are hoping to enter the playoffs with a unit of:

Brodie – McCabe
Rielly – Lyubushkin
Edmundson – Liljegren
Benoit, Giordano

At best, it’s a defense-by-committee approach, but it’s a limited group. The Leafs rank 19th in goals against per game and are a middling possession team (16th in 5v5 corsi and 14th in 5v5 fenwick). Their breakouts aren’t sharp, and they struggle to make crisp, clean exits from their zone with possession.

When the Leafs do possess the puck in the offensive zone, they are really effective, but they can find it difficult to move up the ice and opponents can hem them in for extended shifts. The defense is likely not good enough – this is simply the reality – but there also hasn’t been ample opportunity to add legitimate quality to it in the past year. 

The two best defensemen to move since Brad Treliving took over the Leafs’ GM seat were Noah Hanifin and Erik Karlsson. As we’ve discussed repeatedly, Hanifin wanted to return to the United States – making it a moot point for Toronto – while Karlsson, with his huge salary and age, wouldn’t have made much sense for the organization (nor was he the type of defenseman who filled a true need for them). There isn’t much regret about the defensemen who changed teams over the past year when contextualized within the reality of the defense market itself. 

Treliving has attempted to plug holes with veterans and some familiarity in the meantime (Ilya Lyubushkin has played in Toronto before while Mike Van Ryn previously coached Joel Edmundson). You can understand how we got here, to some degree, but the grace period will end in the offseason.

Only Rielly and McCabe are signed for next season. Benoit and Liljegren are RFAs. Liljegren, in particular, is currently receiving every opportunity to prove he should receive a nice contract this summer and be part of the group in Toronto for years to come. Some quality defensemen are currently slated to hit the free-agent market this summer. The team will have some cap space to make a splash.

Glancing ahead to next season, only Bertuzzi and Domi are unrestricted free agents. Nick Robertson is also in the mix and has been a semi-regular this season. Some of those players, like Dewar and the aforementioned Robertson, are on expiring deals as well, but they are restricted free agents whom the Leafs should easily be able to retain.

Simply re-signing those two RFAs and doing nothing else would already give the Leafs 12 NHL forwards under contract for next season. Not only is there continuity, but they are building a base around a group of inexperienced players. Matthew Knies is playing his first full season right now, and Bobby McMann is to some degree as well (he will end the year at 58 regular-season games played if he plays out the rest of the season). Holmberg and Robertson have been around for most of the season, but neither is playing what I’d consider a “full” season this campaign, either. This will be Dewar’s second full season in the league as well. 

That’s nearly half of a forward group, and the Leafs have contractual control over all of them. This isn’t a perfect team by any means, but they are third in goals per game, fifth in power play efficiency, and are led by stars about to turn 28 (Nylander), and 27 (Matthews and Marner). The Leafs don’t have infinite time on their hands, but they aren’t about to fall off a cliff, either. 

This all sets up for an offseason where the team is well positioned to address their biggest need (defense), but the group as is needs to show something this spring to justify staying on the current course. I’m sure management could have moved future assets – a first, Robertson, even a young defenseman such as Liljegren – to add veteran help with the goal of winning right now. But they held firm and are presumably a) trying to develop organizational depth, and b) very much still evaluating this group under a new GM.

Fans are tired of seeing the same faces, but the truth is, with so many new players emerging plus their veteran acquisitions, basically half of the roster has nothing to do with previous playoff failures. There are enough ingredients to go on a run with the scoring, the depth, and the goaltending on the team. They have largely come up short because they haven’t been good enough in any of those areas in past playoffs.

The organization is well-positioned to pivot as needed. Marner is a year away from free agency, so they will have to make a decision there. Tavares has a year left on his deal. A decision, one way or another, should happen with Liljegren. There is a collection of younger, cheaper players developing who are under team control, and they have a young goalie in the fold for pennies. 

Treliving didn’t push all his chips in with a “Cup or bust” mentality this year, which will frustrate large chunks of the fanbase. It looks more like an organization prioritizing depth and youth while looking to patch some holes in hopes of a deep run along the way.

Programming Note: The rest of my notebook — Notes, Quotes, Tweets of the Week, and 5 Things I Think I’d Do — will follow later today.