Welcome to the Five-Year Plan. In this summer exercise, we forecast the rosters for all 31 current NHL teams for the 2023-24 season. Are we bound for folly? Sure, but the point of the exercise is to give some sense of where an organization is heading based on current long-term contracts and the prospects they have in the system.
Some ground rules: No trades will be made and no future draft picks will be included – so you won’t see the likes of Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield on any roster, even though they will almost certainly be NHL stars in 2023-24. All current contracts are honored and most restricted free agents are projected to stay with their teams, unless it is determined the player will lose his spot or move on in the future. Some future unrestricted free agents will be kept on if the players are deemed integral and likely to re-sign. The Seattle expansion draft is not considered. With all that established, let’s take a look at Toronto.
Over the past two years, the Leafs have handed big deals out to Matthews, Nylander, Tavares and Marner. In the cases for the first two, 2023-24 will be the last year of their deals and, who knows, it could be the end of their tenure in Toronto, too. Obviously, it’s way too early to even think about that, but could Toronto’s Stanley Cup window come crashing down in five years?
In terms of young talent, Robertson has done everything possible to elevate his game over the past few months. After strong showings at the World Junior Summer Showcase and the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, Robertson enters 2019-20 with confidence and should have a healthy stat line with OHL Peterborough this season. Of the Leafs’ current prospect pool, he has the best shot at cracking the top-six thanks to his pure skill and tireless work ethic. Abramov and Korshkov don’t project to be key contributors for the Leafs, but their mix of speed and tenaciousness around the net make them solid scoring options for the bottom-six.
Finding a spot for Bracco has been, and could continue to, be a challenging experiment. Bracco is coming off of a fantastic sophomore campaign in the AHL that saw him score 22 goals and 79 points for a good Marlies team. He’s small and not built for a physical game, but the Leafs have put an emphasis on building around skill. If the Leafs move on from Hyman, he could slot in on the third line since the right side is already quite full.
For the first time in many, many years, Toronto’s defensive situation looks bright – even if nine blueliners are set to hit the free-agent market next summer. Rielly has been the centerpiece of the back end for a couple of seasons now and the Leafs will look to sign him to another long-term deal when his contract expires in 2021-22. He’ll be surrounded by a youth movement, with Liljegren and Sandin not far away from being top-four contenders in the system. But for that to happen, it would require Dermott, a two-way defenseman with a couple of years under his belt already, to play a lesser role. Having Hollowell by his side would give the Leafs two relatively young, mobile, puck-moving defensemen on the third pairing, something that hasn’t been a luxury for Toronto in recent seasons.
The biggest question right now is whether Barrie is part of the team’s long-term plans. Defenders capable of 50 points a season don’t just grow on trees, but he could easily sign for eight years for $7-8 million a year, and with Sandin and Liljegren set for new deals before 2023-24, would the Leafs have the cap room to make it happen? It’s too early to tell at this point what Toronto will do with Barrie, but that could change the team’s outlook going forward. The Leafs could also elect to keep Jake Muzzin instead, but he’s two years older at 30. At 35, how much of an impact would he have?
Andersen is still one of the NHL’s best goaltenders and will likely be the backbone of the team’s crease for the next five years. But when 2023-24 rolls around, Andersen will be 34 and running out of time to win the Cup. Since 2008, only two starting goalies – Chris Osgood (35 in 2008) and Tim Thomas (36 in 2011) – have won the Cup over the age of 33. If he can stay healthy, though, he’ll be the man in charge. By then, Woll will have a few years of experience with the big club and can alleviate Andersen of 30-35 starts a season, but Ian Scott, the 2019 CHL goaltender of the year, will have something to say about that. We’re giving Woll the advantage, partly due to his age and his impressive NCAA resume.
The Leafs tend to have more pressure than any team when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup, after failing to take the prize in over half a century. GM Kyle Dubas’ cap issues aren’t going away anytime soon, requiring further salary heroics to keep the team competitive without losing key players. The Leafs currently have $15 million in salary space for 2020-21 with 13 contracts to worry about, so someone notable will have to move. Who? That’s the million(s)-dollar question, but regardless of who they lose, the Leafs still have the talent to project as a top team for at least the next five years – but it doesn’t matter if the team can’t finally break the Cup curse.
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