Welcome to the latest file in THN.com’s ongoing breakdowns of each NHL team's off-season. On this day, we're looking at the Toronto Maple Leafs..
2021-22 Record: 54-21-7
Finish In The Atlantic Division: 2nd
Salary Cap Space Available (As Per CapFriendly.com): $0 ($1.493,116 over cap ceiling)
Restricted Free Agents: Rasmus Sandin, D
What Toronto Has: An elite core of star forwards, including Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander; a new goaltending tandem of two-time Stanley Cup-winner Matt Murray and former Caps netminder Ilya Samsonov; a deep and balanced defense corps, including star Morgan Rielly, quietly-effective T.J. Brodie, youngsters Timothy Liljegren and Ramus Sandin, and high-bargain veteran Mark Giordano; new depth signings up front in forwards Calle Jarnkrok, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Adam Gaudette
What Toronto Needs: Salary cap space; new homes for 2023 unrestricted free agents Alex Kerfoot and Justin Holl; better health for veteran D-man Jake Muzzin; big seasons from at least one of their new goalies; step-up seasons from AHL prospect Nick Robertson
What’s Realistic For Toronto Next Season: The Maple Leafs had a rather splendid regular season last year, setting a new franchise record for points in a single season, and finishing only seven points behind the league-best Florida Panthers. Of course, that meant nothing to Leafs fans when they failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs, blowing a 3-2 series lead to the eventual Eastern Conference-champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
As we saw later in the playoffs, the Leafs weren’t the only team frustrated by superstar Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and gave Tampa arguably their toughest series in their three Easter Conference rounds. That’s part of the reason why Toronto GM Kyle Dubas kept most of his roster together, with the notable exception of goalies Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek. The former was, in this writer’s opinion, not good enough, consistently enough, to warrant the five-year, $25-milion contract he got from Edmonton; the latter was an unmitigated disaster in his first and only year as a Leaf, and Dubas had to pay a steep price to unload the final two years of his contract on the tanking Chicago Blackhawks.
To replace them, Dubas turned to 28-year-old veteran Matt Murray, and 25-year-old Russian Ilya Samsonov. Murray has won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, but more recently, in Ottawa, he was an often-injured washout who at one point was demoted to the American League. Samsonov was once regarded as one of the top young netminders in the world, but he struggled in each of the past two seasons, seeing his save percentage plummet in both years to the sub-par .896 SP he posted in 44 games with Washington in 2021-22.
Clearly, the biggest gamble Dubas is taking is in regard to his goalies, but if Toronto’s defense corps does their share of hard, smart work and the Leafs’ offense provides enough goal-scoring support, you can see the possibility of the new goalies working out. If not, there will be a revolt from Leafs fans, and bigger change may come to the Buds’ lineup.
Regardless, Dubas still has work to be done before the regular season begins, as the Leafs are over the salary cap upper limit by nearly $1.5 million, and they still have to sign restricted free agent D-man Rasmus Sandin. The expected victims of the upper cap breach are veteran forward Alex Kerfoot and defenseman Justin Holl. This is not to suggest either player does not have value, but combined, their salary cap hit is $5.5 million in 2022-23 is simply too rich for Toronto, which has younger, cheaper talent that should be able to step in and contribute what Holl and Kerfoot have contributed.
Otherwise, Dubas changed up the bottom two lines of his forward group, signing UFAs Calle Jarnkrok and Nicolas Aube-Kubel to give the Leafs more experience. But Toronto’s destiny still will come down to how superstars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares perform in the 2023 post-season. Yes the Leafs will need Murray and/or Samsonov to hold up their end of the bargain, but Toronto’s blueprint for success continues to center around their elite forwards. Should they run into the Lightning in the playoffs again next season, there can be no excuses for the Leafs. Failure will result in widespread change, which may include the GM role. Patience can only get you so far before results are all that matters, and that’s the point where the Leafs are in their competitive trajectory.