The Toronto Maple Leafs enter this weekend still fightning to secure their first playoff berth since 2013, and their second since 2004. That's a considerable improvement over where they were a year ago, when they finished at the bottom of the overall standings.
Regardless of the outcome of the two remaining games, Leafs management will attempt to build upon this season's gains in the off-season. They could face some difficult decisions this summer.
With over $56 million tied up in 18 players they have plenty of cap room to re-sign restricted free agents Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman. Recent reports indicate the 25-year-old Zaitsev could receive a seven-year deal worth $4.5-million annually. They'll also have enough if they wish to bring back unrestricted free agents Brian Boyle, Roman Polak and Curtis McElhinney.
Despite the Leafs progress in 2016-17, defense was a notable weakness. Their shots against per game (32.8) ranks among the league's worst. They must add one or two skilled defensemen.
Free-agent possibilities include Washington Capitals blueliners Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner, but both could be expensive. They could also target clubs carrying depth in good young rearguards. The Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild are two possibilities. Both club face losing a good defenseman in the expansion draft. The Carolina Hurricanes are another option as they need some scoring punch.
Whatever additions the Leafs make this summer must also factor in the need to maintain sufficient salary-cap space to re-sign rookie stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander within the next two years. Nylander's entry-level contract runs through 2017-18 while Matthews and Marner are signed through '18-'19.
Despite the trio's lack of arbitration rights, they'll all be in line for substantial raises at their current rate of development. They've quickly established themselves as invaluable members of the Leafs roster and are largely responsible for the club's improvement this season.
Fitting those star rookies within the Leafs' cap payroll recently prompted Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman to ponder the future of left winger James van Riemsdyk, who's eligible in July 2018 for UFA status. With 26 goals and 59 points in 80 games, the 27-year-old is among the Leafs' scoring leaders and also a key factor in the club's progress this season.
The Leafs can open contract negotiations with van Riemsdyk this July. Given his solid play, he'll likely seek a considerable raise over his current $4.25-million annual cap hit on a long-term extension.
Such a deal would eat up valuable cap space, making it difficult to bring in a top-four defenseman and to re-sign their younger stars. Friedman wondered if the Leafs will keep van Riemsdyk for next season at the risk of losing him to free agency or trade him this summer to address other needs.
Given van Riemsdyk's age and offensive skills, he should attract considerable interest in this summer's trade market. He could be just the bargaining chip the Leafs need to bolster their blueline.
The Leafs could also decide to let JVR play out his final season and use the savings from his departure via free agency to pursue a big-ticket defenseman via a possibly deeper free-agent market in 2018. Possible options next year could include Anaheim's Cam Fowler, San Jose's Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Washington's John Carlson.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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