Until Mitch Marner signs — be it in the summer, fall or beginning of winter, and either in his hometown or another city all together — the perspective on the Toronto Maple Leafs will remain stuck in partial view.
All the heavy lifting that has gone into transforming the roster over the last few weeks has been carried out with the team’s best interests in mind, but also with a sensitivity to the Marner footprint that he created for himself with three immensely productive entry-level seasons.
The end result from those restricted free agent talks — or the last, significant contract negotiations for Toronto as this iteration leaves its adolescent years behind — will determine the fixed amount of resources at management’s disposal as it endeavours to seal the cracks that have formed from such significant offseason modifications.
Only then will the Leafs be given the chance to prioritize the concerns that exist on a roster that will remain incomplete until Marner scribbles down a signature.
Here are those troubles as they exist now, appreciating that the stalemate with Marner still takes precedence, ranked.
1) Still one short on D
The Leafs trended closer to blue-line optimization by trading Nazem Kadri to the Colorado Avalanche to acquire Tyson Barrie. But despite reaching deep into the centre surplus, they weren’t able to fill all the holes that existed previously on the back end.
Barrie steps in to earn the money Jake Gardiner occupied last season, but shifts his similar (yet enhanced) talent to the right side. With Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin positioned already, the Leafs are three quarters of the way to a potentially elite top four defense corps.
The problem lies through positions four through six.
Travis Dermott is probably the best option to round out the top four and replace Ron Hainsey on the right side with Rielly, but would have to transition as a left-shot once he returns from offseason shoulder surgery rehabilitation.
At least until the Leafs are whole on the back end, it seems the top-pair responsibility will land at the feet of Cody Ceci. Acquired for Nikita Zaitsev in a trade with the Ottawa Senators that included multiple pieces, yet basically boiled down to a switch between two well-paid, but limited defenders, Ceci could soon be miscast again should the Leafs decide to feed him major minutes on their top pair.
In a best-case scenario, Dermott and Ceci combine on Toronto’s bottom twosome, and together take advantage of lesser competition and far more manageable matchups. But the chances that the Leafs are able to acquire a right-shot defender capable of logging major minutes with Rielly seems slim — so it’ll likely be Ceci, until it might have to be Dermott. Either way, it will be slim pickings for the sixth man to complete an inherently disadvantaged bottom pair.
2) Can Kerfoot hold down the 3C?
Toronto would not have traded one of its most cost-effective contracts if it wasn’t confident that Alexander Kerfoot couldn’t replace much of what was lost, but there is reason to be concerned that the potential drop off from Kadri will be a substantial one.
Elite in the faceoff dot and boaster of top-end defensive metrics, Kerfoot has the elements to suggest that he can be a plus No. 3 centre.
So then why hasn’t he stuck in that role?
Despite taking a lot of draws, Kerfoot was primarily deployed as a winger in the Avalanche middle six. So while he could still prove to be a quality whistle-to-whistle performer through the middle, the Avalanche at the very least felt they had superior options.
With what’s left on the tread for Jason Spezza and the very limited Frederik Gauthier next in line down the middle, it seems paramount that Kerfoot holds down the position and is able to anchor a bottom six that has been compromised already by the departures of Kadri, Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown.
3) A brand-new PK
With three of Toronto’s top four penalty killers — as well as the assistant that orchestrated the defensive side of the special teams — now in Ottawa, Zach Hyman recovering from a torn ACL and Marner still without a contract, Kasperi Kapanen is the only Leaf that logged at least 100 shorthanded minutes last season that is promised to start the year with the club.
It goes without saying, then, that Toronto’s kill will look a lot different.
Now, that’s not necessarily a horrible thing; D.J. Smith didn’t exactly lock down the opposition before securing the head coaching role for the Senators. It will take some finessing, though, on the part of Mike Babcock and his new-look coaching staff, to assemble a unit that performs in the top half of the league.
Barrie, Kerfoot and Spezza did not factor at all on the penalty kill last season, so it’s best to not pencil them, but Ceci seems destined to play a part having logged the most shorthanded minutes for Ottawa last year. Still, with Hainsey and Zaitsev out of the picture, and with the expectation that he will forfeit some power-play time with Barrie in the fold, it seems imperative that Rielly steps up in this regard.
It will definitely be a patchwork situation early, but by the end of the season, and presuming that Hyman and Marner will be ready to assist the likes of Kapanen, Muzzin, Ceci and potentially Rielly, there should be enough to build around. But there’s no guarantee that it all comes together to form an improvement on the one aspect of the game that contributed most to the Leafs’ most recent postseason downfall.
4) Help for Freddie
With more and more parallels being drawn between curbed workloads and success for netminders in the postseason, most expected the Leafs to pursue a more reliable option to spell Frederik Andersen. It’s possible that Kyle Dubas had chased an upgrade at backup netminder but was ultimately handcuffed by the direction the Marner negotiation was taking.
Either way, it’s looking like a real possibility that Michael Hutchinson will be the backup of choice on a bargain-rate salary, and that shouldn’t necessarily breed confidence.
Can Hutchinson overshoot expectations, or is there an opportunity for Garret Sparks to re-emerge after the forgettable start to his NHL career to solidify the position? Sure. But the more likely scenario is that the Leafs are forced to accept below-average contributions from their backup and are constantly weighing the risk of repeatedly starting Andersen against the consequence of potentially losing ground in the standings.
Given the complete lack of postseason success the franchise has had under Mike Babcock, commitment to resting Andersen shouldn’t hinge on the quality they receive from his support. We have, however, seen this movie play out before.
5) Thinning at the wings
The best way to overcome uneasiness over the left-wing depth that without Hyman currently features Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore and a combination of Ilya Mikheyev, Nic Petan and Kenny Agostino is to just slide your attention immediately right.
William Nylander, Mitch Marner (again, presumably) and Kapanen are as talented as any collection of right wingers in the NHL, and the Auston Matthews-John Tavares one-two punch down the middle remains an unbelievable luxury as well.
Still, the Leafs have thinned some at the wings, having sent Marleau and Brown away for cap savings while also moving on from Tyler Ennis. It shouldn’t be a problem when the Leafs are at full strength, but there’s no promise, even from the start of the season, that they ever will be.
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