William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Nikita Zaitsev.
The Leafs will enjoy a fun Cup-contention window for a couple seasons, but they’ll have to be careful managing their cap as the kids earn massive new contracts.
Welcome to 2020 Vision, our new feature taking a look at how the roster of each NHL team may look three seasons from now when the 2019-2020 season begins.
Over the next month we’ll profile one team, in alphabetical order, each day and project what their roster (12 forwards, six defensemen, two goalies) will look like.
There were some ground rules for this exercise. We didn’t allow any blockbuster trades or free agent signings, but we did make assumptions about teams re-signing their own UFAs and RFAs.
Therefore, this isn’t intended to be a fantasy-like look at the league in 2019-20. Instead, since this is part of the THN Future Watch family, it’s meant to be a realistic, best-case-scenario projection for each team based on players already under contract, and prospects in their system.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ long-term outlook has changed dramatically. The franchise was a laughing stock a few years ago but, thanks to a total regime overhaul under Brendan Shanahan and several years of drafting in the top third of the first round, Toronto has one of the league’s best, deepest youth crops. Last year, the rebuild warped ahead of schedule as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander became the second trio of rookie teammates in NHL history to each top 60 points. The Leafs got to the playoffs far earlier than most people expected and gave the first-place Washington Capitals a scare.
It’s possible Toronto regresses after tremendous injury luck in 2016-17, but all those late-game and shootout losses from last season should also correct themselves to normal levels and offset that. The Leafs should continue growing into a true Stanley Cup contender over the next few seasons, while the Edmonton Oilers do the same out west.
We know this Leaf team isn’t perfect, of course. Team defense was well below average last season, ranking 22nd in the league. Drafting Timothy Liljegren was an exciting move this June, as he was rated as a top-two talent a year earlier before a down year, which could be blamed partially on mononucleosis, dipped his stock. But the Leafs still need major help on defense, which is why they aggressively pursued (and whiffed on) Travis Hamonic. Mobile Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev are respectable building blocks, but this team desperately needs a shutdown monster on the blueline.
Luckily, the Leafs have such a logjam at forward that they can afford to spare some combination of existing roster players or prospects to land that elusive blueliner. It’s not just the Matthews, Marner and Nylander show. Nazem Kadri scored 32 goals last year and has blossomed into a strong two-way pivot. Connor Brown notched 20 goals as a rookie, and Zach Hyman has become a useful grinding forward. Kasperi Kapanen lit up the AHL and made an impressive late-season splash with the Leafs during the playoffs in a checking-line role. Toronto still has a promising scorer on the way in Jeremy Bracco, too, while Adam Brooks has posted some eye-opening point totals in the WHL. So forward is a huge position of strength for a Toronto team that already finished top-five in goals last season.
The question now is whether the Leafs will nudge aside their veterans to make room for more kids by 2019-20 or deal some prospects and re-up some veterans. By the time that season arrives, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and Dominic Moore will all see their deals expire. It’s unlikely the Leafs keep them, as their top-flight kids finish their entry-level deals and will command massive extensions in the summers to come. Nylander’s an RFA in 2018. The low end of his asking price on a long-term deal might be what Filip Forsberg signed in Nashville: six years at a $6-million cap hit. The high end, if Nylander has a big year, could flirt with Leon Draisaitl money in the $8-8.5-mllion range. Marner should command something similar as an RFA in 2019, and Matthews…oh boy. He likely won’t land in the Connor McDavid zone barring a Hart Trophy campaign in 2017-18, but $10 million per year sounds realistic.
That’s why I also don’t see Patrick Marleau finishing out his contract as a Leaf. To me, his “three-year” deal is more about using him during a crucial two-year window. By the start of the 2019-20 season, he’ll be 40. Count on him to land on long-term injured reserve by then, getting his money off the books.
Looking down the road at the Leafs’ depth chart, however, they are loaded on the right wing and strong at center, too, but no JVR, Marleau or Komarov would open a gaping hole on the left. I thus almost forecast a new JVR contract for the 2019-20 depth chart. The truth is if the Leafs lost him, they’d end up searching for another version of him. Still, it’s difficult to imagine them affording him, especially when Gardiner will need a new deal by 2019-20. van Riemsdyk will command $6 million per year on the open market, easily. If the Leafs don’t find a cheaper replacement for JVR outside the organization, it makes a ton of sense to switch Kapanen to the left side. The only way he climbs the depth chart to where he’s truly useful is if he switches wings, and he’s played plenty of left wing in his career dating back to his days in Finland.
The Leafs have their medium- and perhaps long-term starting goaltender in Frederik Andersen. Scratch his nightmare five-game debut last year and he posted a .923 save percentage over his next 61 games. His calm temperament suits him nicely for Toronto’s pressure-cooker atmosphere.
GOT IT: Scoring won’t be a problem for years and years, even if it isn’t evenly distributed across each forward position. Matthews scored 40 goals as a teenager. We could see the Leafs regularly field three top-20 scorers in the NHL. They should contend with Edmonton and Winnipeg to lead the league in goals in seasons to come. Toronto’s blueline has pretty good offensive acumen, especially once Liljegren joins the fray. I predict he gets one more year in Sweden, then one year in the AHL, joining the Leafs for his rookie year in 2019-20.
NEED IT: Toronto isn’t hard enough to play against on the defensive side of the puck. Dominic Moore is a stopgap checking center after Brian Boyle walked in free agency, but the Leafs will need a younger, long-term investment to be that penalty-killing, faceoff-winning defensive pivot. More than anything, Toronto needs a true defensive defenseman. Think Anaheim’s Josh Manson or Arizona’s Niklas Hjalmarsson, who blend physicality with enough skill to keep pace with other team’s top lines.
CAP WATCH: The Leafs should remain tight to the cap by 2019-20. Right now, it’s because of all their veteran deals. By the time those expire, the star kids will inherit that money on their extensions. General manager Lou Lamoriello will have to keep tap dancing, just as Stan Bowman does every year in Chicago.
BOTTOM LINE: The next few years should be wild in Toronto as they chase a Cup with a two-year window before Matthews and Marner get their big money. By 2019-20, they may have to rely more on their youth than their veterans, but since it’s a talented group of young players, that’s hardly a bad thing.
Previously: Anaheim Ducks | Arizona Coyotes | Boston Bruins | Buffalo Sabres | Calgary Flames | Carolina Hurricanes | Chicago Blackhawks | Colorado Avalanche | Columbus Blue Jackets | Dallas Stars | Detroit Red Wings | Edmonton Oilers | Florida Panthers | Los Angeles Kings | Minnesota Wild | Montreal Canadiens | Nashville Predators | New Jersey Devils | New York Islanders | New York Rangers | Ottawa Senators | Philadelphia Flyers | Pittsburgh Penguins | St. Louis Blues | San Jose Sharks | Tampa Bay Lightning
Up next: Vancouver Canucks