2016-2017 season captivated Leafs Nation like no other season in recent memory, we witnessed records breaking and a 6 game playoff series against the NHL’s best Washington Capitals and this happened against a backdrop of the most talented and highly skilled rookie classes the NHL has ever witnessed.
However with all that top end talent on the offensive side of the puck, what was apparent all season and in the playoff series against the Washington Capitals was the Maple Leafs need for a top four defenseman and one or two defensemen to round out the group of Morgan Reilly, Jake Gardiner, and Nikita Zaitsev. If the Maple Leafs are to take the next step in their progression towards being Stanley Cup contenders, this defensive group needs to be improved or this team will only spin its wheels.
However here is where I defer for the likes of Howard Berger and others who have called on the Maple Leafs to divest themselves of possibly William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen or any mix of the rookies and prospects to make this happen with sexy and flashy names like Drew Doughty & Marc-Édouard Vlasic being thrown out as solutions to fixing the Maple Leafs back-end coming back in return.
As exciting as acquiring one these big names would be, I am always leery on giving up on prospects and rookies when the core of this group is made up of two 19 year olds and a 20 year old. It isn’t like the Maple Leafs are facing the closing of their competitive window to win a cup, if anything the Maple Leafs window is just starting to open. So why the rush now? Why deviate from the plan that saw homegrown talent that were drafted and developed in the Maple Leafs system of play dominate like they did in their first full season?
This offseason offers the Maple Leafs with many scenarios given that some teams may feel the pressure to move assets to protect themselves from the expansion draft, we have other teams that disappointed this year like Colorado, Los Angeles and others who may commence a tear down and rebuild of their own. There is also free agency where the Maple Leafs could reacquire Cody Franson or take a run at Karl Alzner as a stop gap measure to allow Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott time to develop and make their way up to the big club.
With these options and more, why give up so much of the future which would be required to acquire one of the flashy names, when the Maple Leafs need to protect the core which should include the likes of William Nylander & Kasperi Kapanen at all costs. A package of James van Riemsdyk and a pick could still permit you to acquire a young defenseman that would complement the group of youngsters already in place. It never makes sense to create a new hole in your organization when trying to plug another.
With that said, nothing is promised for next season. The Maple Leafs could shore up the defense and still find themselves down to the wire to earn another playoff spot with the Hurricanes, Flyers, Islanders all making progress in their rebuilds. Let’s not forget the Lightning who will have Steve Stamkos back on their active roster after recovering this summer from his injury all this makes what the Maple Leafs do this summer so complicated.
So jumping into a bad trade or even worse free agent signing isn’t a prudent move. The Maple Leafs will need to keep their eyes on long term goals because nothing will be lost if the Maple Leafs take a step back next season, when you compare it to what will be lost when fixing the defense if it means to dealing from the Maple Leafs young core. We have seen what happens when this franchise panics or feels the pressure to build off one successful season (Remember David Clarkson signing everyone?).
Also to keep in mind in any trades or signings this summer is how this will impact the salary cap which may arise when Auston Matthews & Mitch Marner come off their rookie contracts. Money needs to be kept free for the eventual re-signings of these key stars in the 2019-2020 season. So as big trades ad signings get the fan base excited and talking, they can easily slow or stop any progress already made by management when juggling the cap restrictions moving forward.
One long term solution could be the reported signing of Swedish defenseman Calle Rosen who is rumored to be signing with Maple Leafs when the World Championship tournament is over. It is these nothing lost, everything to gain scenarios which the Maple Leafs can take advantage of to net the team assets they require without taking on too much risk or by giving up far too much to make something happen.
So buckle up Leafs Nation, this could be a busy off season yet again! Let’s hope this management team has learned from the past and doesn’t take the step of making the same mistakes from the past that media scribes in Toronto already are proposing this off-season.