Kyle Dubas began the off-season in a salary-cap straightjacket. Then, he wriggled free.
The Toronto Maple Leafs GM sent Nikita Zaitsev’s bloated long-term deal to Ottawa with Connor Brown for D-men Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur. Dubas then convinced Carolina to take Patrick Marleau’s $6.25-million cap hit. The price was a first-round pick, but Dubas had few options.
Toronto addressed its long-standing need for a top-four right-shot defenseman by acquiring Tyson Barrie from Colorado. Nazem Kadri, coming off yet another costly playoff suspension, was used to fetch Barrie. Also arriving in the deal was Alexander Kerfoot, a small but effective third-line center. With slim cap margins, Dubas signed a handful of cost-effective depth options, headlined by 36-year-old center Jason Spezza, who took a discount for a chance to win. Dubas finessed this shuffle with Mitch Marner unsigned and demanding big dollars. The Marner camp cited Auston Matthews and his colossal five-year extension as a comparable, and the impasse continued deep into the summer.
Coach Mike Babcock was criticized by fans and media for Game 7 deployment decisions in the opening-round loss against Boston – relying more on veterans over his young guns late in the game. Babcock is halfway through an eight-year contract. His new assistants are Paul McFarland and former Philadelphia coach Dave Hakstol.
Dubas reshaped Toronto’s blueline, customizing it to Babcock’s preference. The top pairs will consist of lefty-righty combos – an alignment Babcock has long campaigned for.
Toronto ranked fourth in scoring and tied Tampa Bay for the most 5-on-5 goals. Led by the duo of John Tavares (47 goals) and Marner (94 points), along with a full season of Matthews (seventh in goals per game) and William Nylander, expect another top-five goal output. Matthews, Marner and Nylander haven’t yet maxed out offensively.
Kerfoot is a downgrade from Kadri, but he’s well-suited for the No. 3 center job. He’s a selective but effective shooter who distributes the puck well.
Morgan Rielly leapt from 52 to 72 points, driving offense and creating off the rush, catapulting himself into No. 1 defenseman status. Both he and Barrie should easily eclipse the 50-point mark.
The new coaches and a revamped right side will help a blueline that surrendered the eighth-most shots. Barrie is the club’s best right-handed D-man in years. The rugged and intelligent Jake Muzzin will complement Barrie’s freewheeling style. Ceci has been assured a top-four role to start. He’s a wild card, rescued from the wreckage in Ottawa. Joining Rielly could rehabilitate him. Travis Dermott will miss time after shoulder surgery, but he may bump Ceci after returning.
Ben Harpur’s size (6-foot-6) might make him a Babcock favorite. The bottom pair will feature a rotating cast, with Harpur, Kevin Gravel, Justin Holl and Martin Marincin in the mix.
Frederik Andersen looked like a Vezina finalist before fading down the stretch. He played 60 games and faced the most even-strength shots. Those totals need to be lower. With Garret Sparks dealt, the battle for the backup role is wide open. Michal Neuvirth was signed to a PTO.
The power play was eighth but became predictable. Barrie is an adept quarterback and will see time on the top unit. Spezza’s vision and faceoff prowess can help the second unit. The 18th-ranked penalty kill leaned on the departed Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey, so Ceci will assume Zaitsev’s role, while Muzzin remains a vital piece. Speedsters Marner and Kasperi Kapanen will continue to frighten opposing power-play pointmen.
With Marleau and Hainsey gone, the dressing room loses father figures with a combined 37 seasons of experience. Babcock is tasked with integrating a new coaching staff and re-energizing his club after three straight first-round exits.
Jeremy Bracco, 22, had a 79-point AHL season and deserves a look, as do D-men Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. Babcock is high on Russian wingers Ilya Mikheyev and Yegor Korshkov.
The Leafs can coast to 100 points on talent, but they aren’t real contenders if they continue to defend and kill penalties like a lottery team.
Dubas is perceived as a weak negotiator after giving Matthews a blank cheque and allowing the Nylander and Marner contracts to drag out. Otherwise, he has impressed. Team president Brendan Shanahan signed a six-year extension in May.
– Casey Ippolito
Stanley Cup Odds: 13/1
Prediction: 2nd in Atlantic
The Leafs are loaded on defense, with Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren and Mac Hollowell leading the pack and Mikko Kokkonen, Mike Koster and Kalle Loponen joining this summer. Top 2019 pick Nick Robertson put up good numbers on a so-so OHL team that will get better. The brother of Dallas prospect Jason Robertson can also set up plays. The battle for goalie of the future is between Ian Scott and Joe Woll, while dynamic Jeremy Bracco is the top forward in the system.
1. Rasmus Sandin, D
Age 19 Team Toronto (AHL)
Smooth skater who is light on his feet. Impressive hockey sense as teenager in rookie AHL season.
Acquired 29th overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21
2. Timothy Liljegren, D
Age 20 Team Toronto (AHL)
The offensive results haven’t come yet for the right-shot defender slowed by injuries.
Acquired 17th overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
3. Joseph Woll, G
Age 21 Team Boston College (HE)
Acrobatic, athletic stopper turned pro after junior season. Makes highlight-reel saves regularly.
Acquired 62nd overall, 2016 NHL ’21-22
4. Jeremy Bracco, RW
Age 22 Team Toronto (AHL)
Excellent vision and passing ability. Good at creating space for his teammates.
Acquired 61st overall, 2015 NHL ’19-20
5. Nick Robertson, LW
Age 18 Team Peterborough (OHL)
Small frame but makes up for it with nifty puck skills and tireless work on the forecheck.
Acquired 53rd overall, 2019 NHL ’22-23
6. Ian Scott, G
Age 20 Team Prince Albert (WHL)
Posted stunning numbers in his fourth workhorse season in the WHL. Great reflexes, large wingspan.
Acquired 110th overall, 2017 NHL ’22-23
7. Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, C
Age 19 Team Peterborough (OHL)
Playmaker who has great patience. Draws defenders in to create opportunities for teammates.
Acquired 76th overall, 2018 NHL ’23-24
8. Mac Hollowell, D
Age 21 Team Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
Small but offensively gifted. Led the OHL in goals and points by a defenseman.
Acquired 118th overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
9. Mikko Kokkonen, D
Age 18 Team Jukurit (Fin.)
Effective in the transition game. His quick release with his wrist shot can trick goaltenders.
Acquired 84th overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
10. Pierre Engvall, LW
Age 23 Team Toronto (AHL)
Uses his imposing frame to gain physical edge. Has soft hands and scores at a solid rate.
Acquired 188th overall, 2014 NHL ’20-21