The Maple Leafs announced Monday that James van Riemsdyk will miss the next six-to-eight weeks with a non-displaced fracture in his left foot, and it may as well have been an announcement that any potential playoff push has come to an end.
The injury will put van Riemsdyk out of the lineup until at least March, and the Maple Leafs, who are already sitting eight points out of a playoff spot and 27th in the entire league, could ill afford to be without their leading scorer that long if any movement up the standings was in the cards. In 40 games this season, van Riemsdyk had racked up 14 goals and 29 points and was on pace for the second 60-point season of his career, but now Toronto will be without one of their few offensive stars.
With less than two months remaining before the trade deadline, the choice to blow the roster up looks like a no-brainer with van Riemsdyk out. There’s not going to be any late push by the Maple Leafs, and, even if there was, it wouldn’t even really do Toronto any good. A top-five pick, however, could help speed up the Maple Leafs chances at turning things around.
Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello and his front office will have to decide who stays and who goes if Toronto decides to dismantle the roster, though, and the management group has plenty of players to choose from. On the current roster, Lamoriello has eight players eligible for unrestricted free agency at season’s end, all of whom could bring back some assets as rentals on playoff-bound teams.
Up front, Shawn Matthias, Nick Spaling, Mark Arcobello, Michael Grabner, P-A Parenteau and Brad Boyes are all on expiring deals. On the blueline, veteran defenseman Roman Polak becomes a UFA when this season concludes, and goaltender James Reimer’s contract is set to expire this off-season.
Of all the UFAs-to-be, Reimer should have the most value, but he’s also the one who is most likely to stick around in Toronto -- at least through the deadline. He has outplayed teammate Jonathan Bernier by a large margin this season, and coach Mike Babcock seems to have a lot of faith in Reimer’s ability. Whether that means Reimer stays in Toronto after July 1, though, is another story. If the Maple Leafs think Reimer doesn't want to stick around or could leave during free agency, he could very well be on his way out.
There are going to be fits for a number of the other free agents elsewhere in the league, too, and it wouldn’t be shocking if the lion’s share of those set to become UFAs on July 1 are headed elsewhere come Feb. 29’s deadline.
None of this is to mention the likes of Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul, both of whom could be trade candidates if the Maple Leafs can find fits for either player. Truthfully, outside of William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, it’d be hard to imagine there’s anyone on Toronto’s roster or with the AHL Marlies who would be considered untouchable.
If the Maple Leafs sell off assets at the deadline, it’s no doubt with a drop down the standings and potential top-five — or even first-overall — pick in mind. The Maple Leafs have only had a top-five draft pick 10 times in franchise history, and three of those picks have come in the past decade. Toronto took Luke Schenn with the fifth-overall pick in 2008, Rielly with the fifth-overall pick in 2012 and Mitch Marner with the fourth-overall pick in 2015. The Maple Leafs have two first-round picks after acquiring Pittsburgh’s in the Phil Kessel trade, but the Penguins' first-rounder is lottery protected should they not make the post-season.
The upcoming draft class is solid at the top with young standouts such as Auston Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine, Matthew Tkachuk and defenseman Jacob Chychrun. Matthews, Puljujarvi, Laine and Tkachuk all showed game-breaking talent at the 2016 World Junior Championship and could go straight from the draft to the NHL with their respective abilities. Landing any of those players could change the Maple Leafs’ fortunes for the better in a hurry, but it might require a barebones roster and even more short-term pain.