Maple Leafs after NHL Free Agency: Better, worse, or the same?

James O'Brien
·5 min read

In the grand scheme of things, it seems like the Maple Leafs covered most of their offseason to-do list after signing Ilya Mikheyev. Sure, they need to settle things with RFA Travis Dermott. And there might be some cap-related wrangling on the margins.

(As you may remember from re-acquiring David Clarkson‘s contract and other tweaks, GM Kyle Dubas isn’t afraid to get into the weeds.)

But, overall? It sure seems like the Maple Leafs we see today should be close to what (eventually) hits the ice to kick off the 2020-21 NHL season. So, after all of that, what’s the verdict? Are the Maple Leafs better, worse, or basically in the same spot?

Looking ahead, let’s break the Maple Leafs’ offseason changes (or lack thereof), position by position.

Forward group: Worse, but how much worse?

To review, the Maple Leafs lost Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, Kyle Clifford, and Frederik Gauthier during the offseason. On the other hand, they brought in Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey, and Joey Anderson.

No doubt about it, it’s crucial to consider the salary cap with virtually all of the Maple Leafs’ moves. This time around, that belt-tightening really happened regarding their forward group.

Losing Kapanen and Johnsson largely for cap space hurts, particularly Johnsson.

Even with Johnsson and Kapanen in the lineup, the Maple Leafs leaned quite a bit on big names such as Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. There’s a strong chance they ask even more of them in 2020-21.

As far as forwards added, your results may vary, and quite a bit is up in the air. At 41, and after a long layoff, what can Joe Thornton bring? Will the Maple Leafs account for his lack of footspeed, or will “Jumbo Joe” prove to be an awkward fit?

In our memories, Wayne Simmonds is a net-front dynamo, and the sort of gritty player many see the Maple Leafs lacking. However, recent years haven’t been kind to Simmonds.

The drop-off from the Maple Leafs’ top-six to their bottom-six could be even steeper in 2020-21.

Maple Leafs after offseason, NHL Free Agency, Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Reilly
(Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

That said, it would be a blast if Simmonds, Thornton, and Jason Spezza all turn back the clock a bit and impress. Heck, Thornton occasionally passing to Matthews on the power play could be a fun way to mix things up if that PP unit needs the occasional remix.

Overall, though, the depth took a hit. Maybe a substantial one.

Defense: A better fit?

When Tyson Barrie was traded to the Maple Leafs, his stock was probably overly inflated. Now, after a frustrating season, it seems like it was artificially diluted. Ultimately, the answer’s likely somewhere in between: the Maple Leafs lost a flawed-but-useful defenseman.

That said, they also parted ways with Cody Ceci. It’s probably a little harsh to call that “addition by subtraction.” Then again, the problem with defensemen like Ceci and Jack Johnson isn’t always that they have issues. It’s also that teams sometimes stubbornly insist on sending them out for top-four minutes when they might be better off teetering between bottom-pairing work or watching games in street clothes.

Such a reality might be the case for Zach Bogosian, who might need to battle with the likes of Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott, and Mikko Lehtonen for reps.

Overall, the most promising addition overall — not just on defense — comes in adding T.J. Brodie. As much as anything else, he seems like a better fit for what Toronto needed. Maybe he doesn’t have the same offensive “pop” as Barrie, but he figures to be more versatile.

Goalies: Deeper

Heading into the offseason, there were rumblings about trading Frederik Andersen. After all, Andersen’s mix of a generous cap hit ($5 million AAV) with a tiny post-bonus actual salary ($1M) would have made him appealing to a team like, say, the cost-conscious Coyotes. One can’t totally blame Maple Leafs fans for dreaming about what Darcy Kuemper might accomplish.

But who knows how Kuemper would transition from the low-event Coyotes to the high-drama Maple Leafs?

While there’s always a chance Dubas has a trick up his sleeves, it looks like the Maple Leafs will stick with Andersen for 2020-21. They also get a chance to integrate Jack Campbell into the mix a bit more, and added Aaron Dell as a reasonable third goalie/reclamation project.

Personally, I believe the Maple Leafs leaned too heavily upon Andersen over the years. Such usage might have explained a bumpy 2019-20.

Getting Campbell and maybe also Dell in the mix more could make Andersen fresher. Doing so might be worth it, even if it means hurting your odds at better seeding. (Passing the Bruins and especially the Lightning will probably be a tall order, either way.)

Coaching: More cohesive

Let’s face it; the clock felt like it was ticking on Mike Babcock right from the beginning of 2019-20. Between his sniping at Dubas, stubbornness with Auston Matthews’ ice time, and general clashing of style, it just seemed like a strained situation.

Even if Sheldon Keefe isn’t an outright upgrade, it seems clear that he’s on the same page with Dubas. Or at least they’re reading the same book.

That cohesion might be the takeaway from this Maple Leafs offseason … you know, beyond wiggling under the salary cap. On paper, I don’t believe the Maple Leafs are better. Instead, they maybe took a slight step back.

They do seem to be in a better overall rhythm, and for all we know, that could pay off in 2020-21.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Maple Leafs after NHL Free Agency: Better, worse, or the same? originally appeared on NBCSports.com