In this four-part series, I’ll explore where each of the Toronto pro sports teams stand going into the future, and what we can reasonably expect from them:
The least anticipated regular season for the Maple Leafs in the Matthews-Marner era is upon us. We’re now entering year EIGHT of the “Shana-plan” and the only post-season results the team has yielded is a cumulative record of 13-19 with a deciding series record of 0-5. General manager Kyle Dubas, along with the rest of the Leafs brain trust, continue to try to re-invent the wheel and outsmart the rest of the league by signing their top-4 forwards to BIG money while filling in the rest of the roster (including key roles) with cheap, value signings.
In a twisted, monkey’s paw kind of way, it’s their own version of moneyball that they’re playing. Long story short, this strategy has not worked, but given the way the Leafs have spent against the salary cap, it forces the Buds to implement the same financial game plan, once again going back to the NHL’s island of misfit toys to find those diamonds in the rough that are paid under 2 million, but play like a $4-5 million player. Simply put, according to the hosts at TSN 1050’s Game Day (Mike Richards and Matt Cauz), the Maple Leafs can’t win it all with Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander all signed under their current contracts given the way their roster has to be built around them.
The most common contrarian response to the Leafs dilemma is “well, Pittsburgh won twice with 45% of their cap being allocated to their top four players.” Well, for one, that’s 5% less than the Leafs have spent on their top four, but also one of those four for Pittsburgh was defenseman Kris Letang, meaning they didn’t put all their eggs in one basket like Toronto. Besides that, the plan hasn’t always worked to perfection in Pittsburgh either; for as many Cup Finals runs the Pens have been on, they have had almost twice as many first round exits in the Crosby-Malkin era.
A big problem with this strategy (as Toronto saw first-hand last playoffs) is that if one of your big boys goes down, it’s incredibly hard to replace that production when you’re filling in your roster with players that were acquired on the cheap. This obviously is not a perfect way to build a roster, for if those players were playing like the players the Leafs want them to be, they wouldn’t have acquired them for so little.
For every Jason Spezza, there’s a bunch of Joe Thornton’s. Zach Hyman is gone and cheaper options like Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunting and Ondrej Kase will be asked to compete for the newly available top-6 minutes. Maybe one or more turn into something worth playing top minutes, but until then there is a ton of uncertainty surrounding these new signings given their limited skillsets. Even with perfect health and production from some of the cheaper players, if one or two of those big boys are struggling to create offensive production, the entire house of cards falls down; the Leafs are right in cap hell with no one to help them.
Another problem facing the team is the similar skill sets that a lot of their players have. It’s fine to go after skilled guys that can score (these are usually the cornerstone of any effective top-9 forward group), but when so little of the players on the squad have any real bite to their game, it gives the Leafs the appearance of being a soft team. As Mike Richards put it, ” the Leafs are a sports car. SUVs win you championships, not sports cars.” In the last 5 years, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Washington, Vegas, St. Louis, Boston, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Montreal have been the teams to go to the Stanley Cup Finals; besides the Penguins, all of those teams are big and heavy while still possessing reliable scoring. The Leafs don’t inspire fear in their opponents like teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning do.
You have to be on your best game if you want a CHANCE against Tampa. Sure you still have to bring a strong game against the Leafs, but everybody knows the Leafs can be bullied and can be knocked off their game if you take away their time and space in the offensive and neutral zones. One has to wonder that if a lot of these problems might have been avoided if Lou Lamoriello had stayed on a GM and done things the old school way, but given some of his moves with the Leafs, his thinking may not have been a great fit with where Shanahan wanted to go. If the Leafs are unable to win a playoff round again this year, this will probably be the last year of this strategy for the Leafs and a huge overhaul could be on the horizon.
The two players that it’s easiest to look at them as trade bait are Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly. Marner is the most overpaid player on the team, but he also has one of the highest skill ceilings on the team which would make him a difficult asset to move on from. Besides, trading him would likely alienate Auston Matthews, which would almost guarantee that Matthews would walk as a UFA on July 1st, 2024. Rielly is by far the more intriguing option; the Maple Leafs defense is their biggest strength (who would’ve thought that just a year ago?) with the additions of Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie with Rasmus Sandin coming up through the ranks. In fact, Sandin’s production on the powerplay this season might be the biggest factor of all when it comes to the trade availability of Rielly. Sandin is considered the Leafs puck-moving defenseman of the future and if he has a true breakout season, it would render Rielly as redundant. The only thing is Rielly only has a year left on his deal, so if the Leafs want to move on from him, they’ll have to decide fast.
I could go on about what to expect from this team in the regular season, but we all know it’s about the playoffs at this point. That’s not to say that the Leafs will get a free pass during the regular season. The team’s goalie tandem of Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek will be under the microscope (especially Campbell) as this is somewhat of an unproven tandem and no one wants to see the Leafs goaltending regressing back into a black hole that it was for an entire decade. But the biggest hurdle of all for the Maple Leafs this season is the Atlantic division.
Last year the Leafs were able to walk through a weak North division in the regular season, but the competition won’t be even close to a pushover this season. Tampa is obviously the class of the division, but Florida isn’t far behind with an even deeper lineup than last year. And then there’s rivals Boston and Montreal. Both teams have taken a step back, but given the Leafs struggles against these teams, it’s concerning that these are the teams they’ll likely be battling the closest for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic and maybe even one of the wild card spots as well. I have a feeling that this is going to turn into a long season for the Toronto Maple Leafs with many fans looking past a lot of the regular season, waiting on the impending doom of the Leafs in the playoffs. Can this FINALLY be the year that the Maple Leafs turn things around? I highly doubt it, but that’s why they play the games, right?