Kyle Dubas laid out two clear objectives for the Toronto Maple Leafs this offseason:
1) Fix the defence
2) Become harder to play against
Toronto’s executive brass made eight key decisions with those intentions in mind, beginning with the trade that sent Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and now finishing (likely) with the free-agent addition of hockey legend Joe Thornton.
With the book apparently closed on adding impact players, let’s take a closer look at the avenues they chose, and see if we can determine whether or not the Leafs executed on the offseason mandate.
Where improvement is indisputable is on the Leafs’ blue line. With Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci shown the door, and T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian tabbed in free agency to replace them, the Leafs will introduce a far more compatible top-four defender on the right side of their lineup, as well as a more functional depth option, respectively, for far less money. While cheaper as a tandem, neither Brodie or Bogosian would be considered an extreme bargain. In fact, Brodie seems to be one of very few who didn’t have to settle for pandemic pricing, having commanded the third-highest annual salary among free-agent defensemen at $5 million. Still, Brodie and Bogosian are far more optimal fits and significantly better buys at $6 million combined, and the savings from last season is actually enough to cover the cost on another key and potentially game-changing defender being welcomed to the fold for the 2020-21 season, KHL standout Mikko Lehtonen.
While steps closer to optimization, there are still questions that need to be answered on Toronto’s defence core. Brodie can only fill one spot in the lineup on the right side, meaning that either Morgan Rielly or Jake Muzzin will be paired with something less than an obvious and clear top-four contributor. Bogosian has just proven in his title run with the Tampa Bay Lightning that he can log significant minutes with elite partnership, so he can eat up some of those shifts when called upon. But the most favourable design would have Bogosian assuming a bottom-pair, penalty-killing function, leaving another player to step into that critical top-four role. Justin Holl logged major minutes with Muzzin last season, so he’s in the mix. And so too is Travis Dermott, who management expects to see time on the right side this season. There is, however, a possibility that those two mainstays from last season’s lineup are on the outside looking in when the season. begins, and that Bogosian, Lehtonen and Rasmus Sandin fill in around the only three clear top-four pillars in Rielly, Muzzin and Brodie.
More than $3 million would be idle in the press box in the event that Holl and Dermott are squeezed from the lineup. But while that might be less than ideal, what seems to be made abundantly clear to the franchise after its latest postseason exit is the importance of able bodies on the back end. Toronto could have 10 defensemen rated higher on the depth chart than Martin Marincin, who simply cannot be the only option to turn to for a team will real ambition when injuries inevitably occur.
Many were expecting a dramatic shift from Kyle Dubas this offseason, a belief that was reinforced literal moments into free agency when the Maple Leafs signed Wayne Simmonds. Adding another local veteran with what he called “functional toughness,” and with the teachings from the Tampa Bay Lightning still top of mind, it looked as though acquiring Simmonds was the first step taken in a mini re-brand, or at least a shift in thinking. However it wouldn’t necessarily play out that way.
Much more than a physical presence, Simmonds is a clear upgrade on Kyle Clifford, who signed a reasonably cheap multi-year deal with the St. Louis Blues. However like Clifford, Simmonds will be on an island, of sorts, in terms of policing, as the Leafs filled out the rest of their open roster spots up front with players that fit their existing style. What’s clear is that Dubas’s idea of becoming “a harder team to play against” was more about doubling down on a current identity than it was adding different dimensions to the forward position.
What the Leafs lost in Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, who had to exit through trade in order to make the money work in this flat-cap reality, they will attempt to make up, largely, with diminished or stymied, and therefore inexpensive, additions with offensive upsides. Simmonds fits that category, too, as a player working his way across his own decline and months removed from his last NHL game, but the Leafs should have confidence that he can bring value on a $1.5 million deal. What’s less certain is that players like Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, and Jimmy Vesey can combine to offer meaningful utility and presence from the bottom six.
In Thornton and Spezza specifically, the Leafs have two players with the capabilities have helping achieve the concept of sending waves of sustained offensive pressure over the boards. On their best days, the two decorated scorers will help preserve the Leafs’ attacking zone momentum, and the club really will look at its best as the threat level will remain constant on the opponent. But on others, when the functionality from the opponents’ depth supersedes theirs, the Leafs’ bottom six might have a hard time contributing.
Maybe there’s a combination involving Simmonds and Alexander Kerfoot, maybe Nick Robertson or Ilya Mikheyev or the next Russian import Alexander Barabanov, that connects on that energy line, and introduces a new dimension to the Leafs forward unit. Maybe Simmonds or Thornton, or both, move up in the lineup to allow that. But right now it just seems like the Leafs have layers of likeminded talent and depreciating influence filling out one single mandate, and you have to wonder how wide the separation is between their extremely talented top six and the pool of potential in the bottom half of the lineup, and whether opponents will take advantage of it.
Like they have on defence now, the Leafs are set up to stage some serious competition for those spots, and maybe that helps optimize their current talent assembly. While it’s likely Thornton and Spezza have been given assurances, there will be nothing gift-wrapped for players like Pierre Engvall and Nic Petan. Vesey, Robertson, Barabanov, Joey Anderson, Filip Hallander and Travis Boyd will compete with several returnees from last season for what could be only two spots on the opening night roster.
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