Maple Leafs take a step back with offseason moves

Yahoo Sports Canada

There’s probably only one item left on Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas’s to-do list for the summer, and that’s to re-sign Mitch Marner. Obviously.

And while Dubas made numerous moves to free up cap space in the past week or so, much of it has already been hoovered up again. With the new contracts for Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, Alex Kerfoot and Cody Ceci, the Maple Leafs now have a little under $3.8 million in space, plus the relief to be provided by Nathan Horton’s extension.

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That only gets you to $9.1 million in cap space, and that’s probably not enough to re-sign Marner. But let’s suppose for a second that it is, and Marner comes in around $9 million for four or five years on a sort of bigger-than-usual bridge contract that locks this core in for a good long while.

The question becomes whether that version of the Leafs is better than the group trotted out last year. Because while it may not seem like there were a ton of changes, the bottom of that lineup is going to look very different.

Of the guys leaving, only Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri had a notable impact on the Leafs’ success, and the rest were fine. Only Nikita Zaitsev was actively bad last year.

But of the guys they brought in, Ceci and Ben Harpur were actively bad — really bad, in fact, albeit for a dead-end team with little talent — while you could argue Kerfoot and Tyson Barrie were positives for their previous club. The other guys probably aren’t moving the needle or even playing much for you, but Jason Spezza could be a decent surprise if they put him in a position to succeed.

On the whole, though, it looks like a safe bet the Leafs took a small step back with their roster. Kerfoot is pretty good and looks like a suitable Kadri replacement (though that’s admittedly with Kadri coming off a down year). His new contract should age quite well indeed because he also has room to grow at 25 years old. Barrie is an off-brand Gardiner, which is fine since Gardiner is a solid NHL defenseman whose value was actually a bit depressed by having to play with Zaitsev, but it’s still a bit of a downgrade, though he too is a few years younger than the guy he replaces.

You can say they didn’t really add any goals, which is true, but they scored 286 last season so they also really didn’t need to. Plus, the young guys like Marner, Auston Matthews, Kapanen, Johnsson, William Nylander, et al should continue to improve in all areas, further boosting their value and, potentially goal output. It’s tough to see this team getting better offensively because of how good it already was, but it very well could.

The same cannot be said for the defense. Again, Barrie’s fine but his reputation as an undervalued guy a few years ago probably has his value a little inflated in people’s minds. The bigger issue is the Leafs’ decision to swap out Zaitsev and Hainsey — the latter of whom wasn’t as bad on the whole as people would have you believe, though that was probably down to his collaboration with Morgan Rielly — for Harpur and Ceci.

Flatly: Ceci is a bottom-of-the-barrel NHLer and while the Leafs originally looked shrewd for acquiring him because he was an RFA they could just opt not to qualify, or walk away from his arbitration decision, it seems they’re going to not only keep him, but put him into the top four. Whether he plays with Muzzin or Rielly, his partner is going to be worse this year than last because Ceci is one of the least-aware defenders in the league.

He suffers from what you could call Rasmus Ristolainen Syndrome. Even though he’s an albatross, people think he must be decent because he got top-four minutes and power-play time on an awful team for years. That the Leafs are giving him a similar role on their actual good roster and $4.5 million boggles the mind. They’d be better off getting that money in loonies and dumping it in Lake Ontario.

Jake Muzzin might be spending most of his minutes paired with Cody Ceci. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Jake Muzzin might be spending most of his minutes paired with Cody Ceci. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

And Harpur is worse. The good news is his contract is league-minimum and he can be stashed in the minors with no cap penalty, but if he’s getting NHL time, that’s a problem, especially because anyone the Leafs could call up from the Marlies — Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin, etc. — would be a better option. The team’s hand will be further forced here by Travis Dermott’s long-term absence to start the year after offseason surgery.

You have to remember, too, that as good as the Leafs were in 2018-19, it was almost entirely driven by their offense; their expected-goals against per 60 in all situations was eighth-worst in the league. Worse than Edmonton, worse than Florida, worse than Los Angeles. They succeeded in large part because Frederik Andersen was better than average. They will need him to be as good, or better, this time around against a potentially tougher workload, and that’s after only three other netminders (John Gibson, Jacob Markstrom, and Connor Hellebuyck) faced more expected goals.

Another problem comes from the fact that, oops, the Lightning and Bruins are still in this division. This team finished third in the Atlantic and while neither Tampa nor Boston has improved this summer, on the balance you have to say Toronto hasn’t either. The Leafs have the advantage of their younger stars maturing to improve their overall quality, while the Bruins — and to a lesser extent Lightning — cannot say the same. And yet, does it not seem like we’re already headed for another Leafs/Bruins playoff series?

Dubas has been pretty creative in trying to work himself out of cap trouble, and he’s still not out of the woods on that front. There’s little he can do to improve this group with extra bodies, so he has to hope the ones he has can step it up instead.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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