The best chance at sugarcoating the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2018-19 season is to claim it was “a weird year,” that even the division-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames, Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators bombed out in the first round of the playoffs. But we all know that’s a stretch. Besides, according to the established underdog rules of this post-season, the Leafs should’ve beaten the Boston Bruins, right?
They fell to the Bruins, in Game 7, in Boston, a year ago despite leading in the third period. They resolved to improve in the off-season, signing star UFA center John Tavares for seven years and $77 million. He delivered a career-best 47 goals. They made an aggressive and highly successful trade for the stretch run, bringing in physical and well-rounded defenseman Jake Muzzin. The net result was not only a regression in the standings, from 105 to 100 points, but another Game 7 loss, in Boston, in the first round. Yes, the Leafs were far more competitive this year, winning Game 1, leading the series three times and winning twice in Boston, but that just makes the exit all the more discouraging for them. No progress. A year wasted. Another missed opportunity for the young core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson and Travis Dermott to grow via deep-water playoff experience. If we were willing to declare the Leafs Stanley Cup contenders the day they landed Tavares, it’s only fair to declare this season a major failure.
The potential silver lining of another first-round defeat is that it’s more likely to mobilize GM Kyle Dubas to re-evaluate his team and work aggressively to improve it. What are the biggest questions facing the Leafs this off-season? Consider these five.
DOES MIKE BABCOCK GET ANOTHER CHANCE?
Babcock apologists will point to a Toronto team that has flashed dominance over the past three seasons, making the playoffs three straight times, ranking among the league leaders in offense and, in 2017-18, setting a franchise record with 105 points. That’s one way to look at it.
The other way to look at it: Babcock has a team featuring Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander, Johnsson, Kapanen, Nazem Kadri, Rielly, Muzzin and Frederik Andersen and lost in the first round a third consecutive time. Even factoring in their defensive deficiencies, Toronto has one of the most talented rosters in the league. Three straight Round-1 exits qualifies as underachieving. Merely making the playoffs no longer feels like a significant accomplishment. It would be pretty difficult to miss the playoffs with this group if you tried.
There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest Babcock got in his own team’s way this season. His unique approach to line deployment is well documented. No Maple Leaf cracked the top 30 in average time on ice among NHL forwards this season. That’s partially a product of their excellent depth – the Lightning, as deep as any team in the league, placed just one forward in the top 30 – but Matthews’ 18:33 slotted him way down in 64th. Across his three NHL seasons, he ranks second in the NHL in even-strength goals, first in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes and fifth in 5-on-5 points per 60 – and he ranks 78th in average time on ice among forwards. By comparison, Connor McDavid, the only player with more even-strength goals, ranks first in ice time over that three-season stretch. In Toronto’s Game 7 defeat to Boston, 39-year-old Patrick Marleau, struggling to win puck battles, got more ice time than Matthews, who, during Thursday’s exit interviews, expressed an openness to playing more.
The members of Toronto’s regular first power-play unit – Rielly, Tavares, Marner, Kadri and Matthews – ranked 117th, 118th, 120th, 121st and 125th in power play minutes per game. The Leafs also had the fewest power-play opportunities in the league, contributing significantly to those low ranks, but that doesn’t completely account for them. By comparison: the Washington Capitals, who ranked 17th in power-play opportunities, boasted four of the top 11 players in average power-play time on ice. Tampa, which had the league’s No. 1 power play, placed Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos among the top 12 in power-play minutes per game. The Leafs finished with the league’s No. 8 power play, but that reflected a hot start to the season. It cratered in the second half and struggled against Boston in the playoffs – as did the penalty kill. Special teams, more than any element of the game, tend to be influenced by coaching.
The list of coaching head-scratchers goes on and on. Was Ron Hainsey, 38, the right choice for regular top-pair duty all year? Should Trevor Moore have gotten a look on the third line in Marleau’s spot? Babcock made a litany of scrutinized decisions this season. He also publicly demonstrated a less-than-cohesive relationship with Dubas on more than one occasion, including Thursday’s exit interviews, when Babcock stated that his roster “needs more.” There’s no questioning that Babcock’s seat is hot. The question is, how hot? There’s a decent chance his reputation and contract score him one more shot to get this team deeper, but it doesn’t feel like the runway stretches any longer than one more season, and Dubas did not guarantee anyone’s job security, including his own, during the exit interviews.
HAS JAKE GARDINER PLAYED HIS LAST GAME AS A LEAF?
The haters love to save every clip of every giveaway he makes – which, when then they do happen, tend to be of the highlight-reel variety – but Gardiner’s impact across his eight seasons as a Leaf has been far more positive than negative. He’s a huge offensive driver in the possession game and not nearly the liability he’s perceived to be on defense. Among the seven Leafs D-men who logged 500 or more minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Gardiner allowed the fewest goals per 60, third-fewest shot attempts per 60 and third-fewest scoring chances per 60.
But even though Dubas, an analytics-minded GM, knows all the positives about Gardiner, and even though his teammates have stressed time and again how beloved he is in the room, none of that may matter. For one, Gardiner projects as the No. 2 UFA defenseman available league wide. No. 1 is Erik Karlsson by a wide margin, and even if you see Tyler Myers as a superior option to Gardiner, then fine – Gardiner’s the No. 3 option at worst. He’s an excellent puck-mover, good enough for almost any team’s top four. He should command a multi-year deal with an AAV of $5 million or more, easily. So even if the Leafs want him back, his market value may price him off the team anyway, especially because Toronto has such a surplus of left-shot blueliners between Rielly, Muzzin, Dermott and top prospect Rasmus Sandin.
Lastly, the pressure and jeers clearly got to Gardiner at times this year. He was emotional after a January Leafs loss in which fans booed him on home ice, and he displayed jitters handling the puck in his own zone for a second straight Game 7. It’s fair to ask if re-signing is even the best option for him. He’s expressed a tentative interest in remaining a Leaf even if he doesn't expect to be, but he’ll get more money – and serenity – elsewhere.
WHAT WILL THE RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS’ CONTRACTS LOOK LIKE?
The physicality of playoff hockey seemed to get the better of the 175-pound Marner at times, just as it did Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary this spring, but the sample size was small. Marner is a star. His 94 points were the most by any Leaf in more than two decades. Marner will score a monster long-term contract as an RFA. He and agent Darren Ferris have the right to ask for an AAV approaching or even equalling Matthews’ $11.634 million. If Marner’s deal comes in lower, maybe it’s because he gets a maximum eight-year term rather than the five Matthews got. Whatever happens, it’s a near certainty Marner gets a big-money, long-term extension.
What about Kapanen and Johnsson, however? Kapanen’s second-half swoon, in which he managed five goals in his final 29 games, might be a lifesaver for Dubas. Kapanen looked like a 30-goal scorer with a case for a long-term deal earlier this season. Instead, he wound up a speedy 20-goal man who could fall in the bridge tier. Johnsson showed more and more upside throughout the season, with his post all-star break pace extrapolating to 27 goals and 57 points. He’s arguably established a higher ceiling than Kapanen, whose tremendous wheels and hot-cold finishing skills call to mind a young Michael Grabner. Johnsson, even more so than Kapanen, might be best served to sign a bridge deal in hopes of exploding for a monster 2019-20 now that he’s fully established himself as a top-six regular. The left-wing minutes look particularly wide open after Toronto announced Thursday that first-liner Zach Hyman tore his ACL during the Boston series and will miss a minimum of six months recovering. The Leafs need Johnsson more than ever, so a 30-goal season is well within reach.
DOES DUBAS FINALLY FIND A RIGHT-SHOT DEFENSEMAN FOR THE TOP FOUR?
It was a problem a year ago. It went unaddressed all season. Even when the Leafs landed Muzzin, Babcock expressed that the deal “was not perfect” in that it didn’t provide help for the right side of the D-corps. Hainsey was miscast as a 38-year-old top-pair partner for Rielly and is no lock to return as a UFA. That leaves the underachieving Nikita Zaitsev, who did play his best hockey of the year alongside Muzzin in the playoffs, as Toronto’s only top-four righty, and it’s debatable whether Zaitsev should be a top-four guy. Dubas thus has to get to work.
The question is where to look. The UFA class doesn’t burst with viable right shots aside from Myers, and he’s a tier below what Toronto needs. It appears the only way to get the help the Leafs wants is the trade route. Arguably no defenseman potentially available would fit Toronto’s needs than RFA Jacob Trouba, but it was reported during his 2016 trade request out of Winnipeg that he preferred to play outside Canada if traded, though he later refuted that claim. He’s just one potential option, so expect Dubas to scour the league for righty help. Logical targets include P.K. Subban in Nashville or one of Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce in Carolina. The only problem is, of course, that those players carry significant cap hits, and Toronto’s RFA cap conundrum will make it extremely difficult to add a marquee blueliner. Unless…
WILL THE LEAFS TRADE ONE OF THEIR IMPACT FORWARDS?
It’s pretty clear the Leafs’ only way to get and afford what they need on defense is to acquire it by executing a hockey trade for a forward that sends significant salary the other way. Moving a relatively inexpensive depth piece like Connor Brown won’t cut it, and $6.25-million man Marleau isn’t going anywhere during what may be his final NHL season. The Leafs will have to look at moving someone from the group of Kapanen, Johnsson, Nylander and Kadri. Even though Dubas promised previously he wouldn’t trade Nylander, and even though he’s a far better player than the prehistoric thinkers want anyone to believe, he’s a logical candidate to go simply because of his price tag. His cap hit is just south of $7 million. A 1-for-1 swap with a team desperate for offensive upside and possessing a surplus on ‘D’ would make sense. Nylander for Subban or Hamilton, anyone?
There’s also Kadri, of course. He hurt the team – and perhaps his trade value – by getting suspended for a selfish, emotional cheap shot a second consecutive season. But given his skill, shutdown ability and affordable $4.5-million cap hit across the next three seasons, he’d still be an attractive trade target for a team looking to maximize his ability more in a second-line center role.
Dubas has vowed repeatedly that he wants to give the core a shot together, and that was even a condition pitched to Tavares as part of his pact with the Leafs, but it’s clear Dubas will have to sacrifice someone to land that defense help. The UFA market just doesn’t have what the team needs, and the Leafs need to move money out to get what they need anyway.
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