Our Toronto Maple Leafs 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
The Maple Leafs finished 3rd in the Atlantic. They had 100 points as they finished the year 46-28-8, making them one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, but they had the misfortune of being in the same division as a best-regular-season-record-of-all-time tying Tampa Bay Lightning team and an insanely deep Boston Bruins teams. Because of the new divisional playoff format, the Leafs were set up against the Bruins in round one again. One seven game series later, the Leafs were unable to get past the Bruins. This upcoming season, the Toronto Maple Leafs will surely be looking to make it to the second round for the first time in 16 years.
Despite the fact that the team has made the playoffs three seasons in a row in a tough division, the team was forced to make some pretty dramatic changes this off season. Restricted free agent, Mitch Marner was due for a contract extension. John Tavares and Auston Matthews take up $22.6 million in contract space combined, and with last year’s roster, there was not a lot of space for Mitch. Neither Tavares or Matthews were the points leaders for the team last season, Mitch Marner was, which gives him a strong case to demand the same amount of money. He had 94 points and played all 82 games. Marner was a driving force of the offense at even strength and on the power play. He had an extremely positive chemistry with John Tavares in his first season as a Leaf, and propelled Tavares to a career year by assisting on many of his goals. Marner and Tavares both had career years, and for Marner, it’s always great to have a career year coincide with a contract year. The Leafs were between a rock and a hard place with the cap space they had available and a great player needing a contract.
Cap strapped to sign Marner, general manager, Kyle Dubas had to make a lot of moves to create some room. First of all, Dubas unloaded veteran Patrick Marleau and his $6.25 million salary. Dubas moved Marleau, a first-round pick, and seventh-round pick to Carolina in exchange for a sixth-round pick. Despite the cute off ice connection between Marner, Matthews and Marleau, Marleau was dumped in order to afford the young players. Marleau had a pretty rough year, and lost even more of his footspeed, but still accumulated 37 points in 82 games.. Losing his veteran presence could be a negative for the young team. What could be good though, is not having Marleau on the ice in the place of a younger, better players. The definite plus is getting rid of his atrocious contract in order to put more money to Marner. However, the rumours all season were that Marner wanted Matthews money, and just losing Marleau’s cap hit was not enough. Dubas needed to do more to accommodate Mitch’s contract ask.
Dubas traded out Nazem Kadri, Calle Rosen and a 2020 third-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche to bring in offensive defenseman Tyson Barrie, centreman Alexander Kerfoot and a 2020 sixth round pick. To me, this is a great move, it fills a need, and it freed up a little cap space. It’s no secret the Leafs needed a right hand defenseman for a long time, and with Tavares coming in last year, Nazem Kadri would be stuck at third line centre essentially for the rest of his time as a Leaf. He’ll be missed in Toronto, but it was a great move. Kadri was a valuable asset to sell, he’s got potential to play second line centre in Colorado, plays on the powerplay, has a great contract, and plays a physical game.The Leafs were able to replace Kadri with Alex Kerfoot, who has similar production numbers, and extended him to a cheaper contract than Kadri. They also picked up Tyson Barrie for one year at 50% salary retained. Barrie got a great right handed offensive defenseman in Barrie, who can also boost their struggling powerplay, which struggled for long periods last year. They were last in the league for power play conversion in January, but they were also in the bottom of the league for power play opportunities. They ended up finishing better at 8th in the league on the powerplay, but the power play did have some issues in the playoffs. Against Boston, the Leafs needed every opportunity they could to score goals against a hot Tuukka Rask, and they were not good enough. The team was unhappy with that performance and brought in Paul McFarland as an assistant coach to manage the powerplay. McFarland spent the last two seasons with the Florida Panthers, which were second in the league in power play conversions last season. Adding McFarland and Barrie will provide a far different look for the Leafs power play going into this season.
Dubas made a couple more moves to free up some space. He sent forward Connor Brown ($2.1 million), Ron Hainsey ($3.5 million) and Nikita Zaitsev ($4.5 million) over to Ottawa in a trade for Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur. Zaitsev actually requested a trade, which is great because he had a modified no trade clause in his contract, and his time in Toronto was not overall positive. He did get a lot of blame in his time in Toronto, and could get more opportunity in a struggling Senators franchise. The Leafs signed Ceci to a two year $4.5 million deal and now have Ben Harpur for one year at $725,000. Ceci will come at the same price as Zaitsev, but with three less years on contract. Dubas worked some wizardry here, as he was able to turn $10.1 million in contract to $5.2 million. Overall a great deal for Toronto in terms of cap space. The cost saving alone made this deal worth it.
All of these moves showed Mitch Marner the team was making every effort to make room for him and Dubas was able to negotiate in good faith. Marner accepted a six year $10.893 million per year contract. It should be noted that Marner, Matthew and Tavares account for $33.527 million in cap space, or 41% of the current salary cap. There’s no denying that those three forwards are amazing talents and worth their contracts, but I foresee that having enough cheap depth around these guys will remain a challenge for Kyle Dubas. The Leafs shed a lot of draft picks and roster players in order to make room for Marner, so they may not have as deep a prospect pool to draw upon in a few seasons. For now, they have a great supporting cast, but once those players need new contracts and earned a pay raise, they may simply leave town.
A good example of this is that the team had to let unrestricted free agent Jake Gardiner walk in free agency. Gardiner will always be known for his catastrophic errors in Toronto, which at times earned him boos from the Leafs fans. Despite that, he was actually an excellent defenseman in Toronto, and had a great breakout pass and offensive upside. Marner-watch 2019 forced him out, because the team does not have the cap space to sign him. I designate him as the first victim of a great player that was sacrificed during Marner’s contract.
Another potential interesting result of all these roster moves is that Kyle Dubas moved out a lot of Head coach Mike Babcock’s favourites. Babs has been criticized in Toronto for his reliance upon older gritty type players in the place of younger, more dynamic players. This is something Babcock has been known for during his entire career, so it’s nothing new. However, when Patrick Marleau is out there when the team is down a goal in game seven instead of Matthews, it’s a problem. It’ll be interesting to see how Babcock adjusts to an even younger team this season, and if he can place more trust in his young star players.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are an exciting young team. It still feels weird saying that. In 2016-2017, the team made the playoffs and was knocked out in the first round by the Washington Capitals. This was the first time since the shortened 2012-2013 season that the team had made the playoffs. In 2012-2013 they lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games in round one. In 2017-2018, the team had a really strong year and finished with 105 points. They were knocked out in seven games against the Boston Bruins in round one. This year the team finished with 100 points…and they were beat in seven games against the Boston Bruins in round one. The team has so much talent, and it’s a shame that they are reduced to a meme in the off season for losing to Boston in seven games. As a Capitals fan, I sympathize with Leafs Nation, but as a Western Canadian, it does get a little old hearing about the Leafs everyday on Canadian sports media. That being said, they are the largest market in Canada, and I can understand why they are the most prevalent in the news. With the offseason they have had, there actually is finally enough worth hearing about.
The forwards lineup will be pretty much the same in the top 6. The team has been able to wrap up their top end talent to some pretty hefty long term contracts, so it should be pretty consistent for the long term.
Last off season, the team looked to improve with some elite talent so they signed John Tavares as a free agent. Tavares dramatically improved the scoring on the top two lines. He also brought with him some valuable leadership skills, having served as captain for most of his time with the New York Islanders. He was signed for an $11 million per year, seven year contract. With that huge contract, he had to pan out for the club.
So far, he has. Tavares had a fantastic first season with the Maple Leafs. He ended up having a career/ team high in goals with 47, and a career high point total of 88. At even strength, he was great, and collected 69 of his points. Only Mitch Marner had more even strength points with 70. Tavares played all 82 games and served as an alternate captain for the club. Tavares played a lot of minutes with winger Mitch Marner, and the two had some great chemistry together. As two parts of a line, Tavares and Marner will likely have sophomore winger Andreas Johnnson round out their line. Johnsson showed some great potential in his rookie season last year, putting up 43 points in 73 games. He’ll get some more games this season, and will be an exciting player to watch as he develops further chemistry with his linemates.
Last season, restricted free agent William Nylander was waiting for a deal. The contract negotiations kept him out of the lineup until he finally signed on December 1st, 2018 at the signing deadline. The team and Nylander agreed to a $6.9 million, six year deal. Nylander struggled last season to get points, but slowly picked up throughout the year. He ended up getting 27 points in 54 games. It’s tough to say if he was worth it last season, as he sat out for the first couple months and never really hit his stride. He’ll be looking to perform at a higher level while playing the entire season this year.
In February, the team extended Auston Matthews to a five year $11.634 million average salary contract. Matthews went on to have a career year with 73 points in only 68 games. He’s battled injuries the past two seasons now, but has been a prolific scorer for the Maple Leafs. His performance will only improve with more games. He’s also due for an increase in ice time. Babcock has been using Matthews about only 19 minutes a game, which is at least two minutes too few. The best offensive threat has to get more ice time, and I predict that Matthews will get more ice time this season, as he and Babcock continue to develop their trust level. Matthews will continue to play with Zack Hyman and William Nylander this season. Hyman provides a hard forecheck and can battle for the puck. Nylander is the playmaker on this line, and Matthews is the triggerman. It should be a great line this season.
That’s up there for top six forwards in the league, and it’s no suprise the Leafs were fourth in the league in goals for per game. The bottom six is set to be pretty solid, but may have some guys rotate through the lineup.
Alexander Kerfoot is set to take over the third line with Nazem Kadri being shipped out. Kerfoot has very similar numbers to Kadri, and will be a more natural third line centre. In Colorado, Kerfoot had to play second line centre, and he will be more comfortable playing behind Matthews and Tavares. On his wings, Ilya Mikheyev is set to make his debut. The 24 year old Russian was signed to a one year deal, and will be playing for the first time on North American ice. He’s got good KHL numbers, and as with every KHL convert, we will have to see if he can transition his game to the smaller ice. It’s a low risk signing for the Leafs, as they can easily move the lines around if he does not cut it. There’s always a risk of sending KHL guys to the AHL, so it’ll be interesting to see if he would report to the minors or simply return to Russia if he’s not getting the time in the NHL he wants. On the other wing, Kasperi Kapanen will continue to provide speed and forechecking on the third line.
The fourth line will have a new centre this season. Jason Spezza was signed to a one year, $700k deal. He’s a 16 year veteran of the league and showed he still has some gas left. He’s a very cheap replacement for Marleau. He’s great on faceoffs and can still contribute offensively. The 36 year old, Mississauga native will be suiting up for his hometown team, which is always cool to see. Frederik Gauthier, Trevor Moor, Nick Shore will be looking to play on the fourth line also. Toronto definitely has a lot of options for it’s bottom six. Nic Petan, Pontus Aberg, Kenny Agostino, and Garret Wilson all can fill in if needed too. Pontus Aberg has a scoring touch that may come in useful at times.
At the end of January, Dubas acquired defenseman Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a first-round 2019 pick Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi. Muzzin came in and slotted in on the top two pairings and provided some much needed defensive depth. The team desperately needed a right-handed defenseman, and Muzzin is a lefty. Muzzin was the best defenseman available though, and the Leafs were definitely better with him in the lineup. Muzzin plays a simple, safe defensive game and has a level of physicality to his game that the blueline was missing.
This off season top six defenseman Ron Hainsey, Jake Gardiner, and Nikita Zaitsev left the team. Depth defenders Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman were traded away, and Igor Ozhiganov returned to the KHL. This blueline has had some definite turnover. It may take time for defense partners to get used to each other.
But as I mentioned, right hander Tyson Barrie was picked up. Barrie had 59 points last year, with 25 coming on the powerplay. He’ll be the new power play one defenseman undoubtedly. He’ll also likely match up with Jake Muzzin on the second pairing.
The Leafs also added right hander Cody Ceci and lefty Ben Harpur from the Ottawa Senators. Ceci got a bad reputation in Ottawa, but he still has some value. Ceci was relied upon heavily once Erik Karlsson left the Senators, and that’s a tough ask for anyone. Plus it is hard to evaluate how good the defense actually is for the Senators considering they’ve gotten rid of everyone making too much money. Ceci could have a real opportunity in Toronto to play on a successful, complete team. He could very well match up with Morgan Rielly on the first pairing, or bump down to play with Muzzin in a shut down pairing.
The top four is an improvement upon last season. Ron Hainsey will not be asked to play off side top pairing minutes anymore, and they have some legitimate right handed defenseman in Ceci and Barrie.
The Leafs also have young defenseman Travis Dermott, who is currently injured, to plug into the lineup when he is healthy. Rookie right-handed defenseman Timothy Liljegren could very easily push for a full time spot with the only other real righty being journeyman Justin Holl.
The Leafs have a lot of readily available seventh defenseman, with Ben Harpur, Martin Marancin, Kevil Gravel, and Jordan Schmaltz in the system. It’s a long shot, but 2018 first round pick Rasmus Sandin could even play at some point.
Andersen is set to have another great year. He has been an outstanding, consistent goalie for the Maple Leafs. He should be set for at least another 60 starts this year. He was sharp last year, keeping the Leafs in a lot of games. He looked great in playoffs too, he just had a hard matchup against an extremely hot Tuukka Rask, who had an MVP worthy playoff run.
Andersen is set, the real question in Toronto is the backup. The club had Michal Neuvirth on a professional try out, and he got cut, which means Michael Hutchinson has the job. He’s played very limited time in the NHL, and has not shown that he is capable of the full time backup role yet. He will be a very questionable backup for Toronto, and I could see the team playing Andersen more than they’d like to in order to avoid starting Hutchinson. Dubas could very well target a stronger backup goalie this year if Hutchinson does not work out as intended.
Toronto Maple Leafs 2019-2020 Prediction
The Atlantic is set to be a very difficult division. Tampa and Boston are perennial contenders, but Toronto has definitely made their team better on paper this offseason They have all the right pieces, but will all the new players fit together? The top end talent on this team should be enough to win the team games. Frederik Anderson will provide some outstanding goaltending this season, but his backup is questionable. This is a team capable of winning the division if Tampa and Boston do not, and at this point, it is just a question of if Toronto will face Boston in playoffs for the third straight year.