What a season. The Leafs went from dead-last in the NHL to giving the best team in the league a serious scare in Round 1.
They did it all with a bushelful of youngsters, proving Toronto has a bright future.
But now is not the time for the Leafs to rest on their laurels.
Instead, Toronto should do everything in its power to become a Cup contender. Like, right now.
Despite their youth, the time to strike for the Blue and White is in the next three years.
The Leafs are in a unique situation, envied by numerous NHL clubs. With three star forwards signed for roughly $2.7 million combined in annual base salary, the Leafs need to capitalize while they still can.
50 years. No Stanley Cup. #Leafs
— Rob Keyes (@rob_keyes) April 24, 2017
Let’s break down the facts.
Toronto tallied a franchise record 123 rookie goals in 2016-17, with the trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner amassing 81 of them.
It seems Toronto’s young talent is about to get very expensive.
Nylander has one year left on his contract, while Matthews and Marner will need new contracts in two years.
It’s eerily similar to what happened in Pittsburgh roughly 10 years ago.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin signed for roughly $1.8 million in combined annual base salaries to begin their careers. The duo now costs Pittsburgh $18,200,000, or approximately 25 percent of the team’s available salary cap.
In 2003-04, Pittsburgh finished last in the league followed by the NHL lockout. Things were dire in Pittsburgh, and then Crosby registered 102 points in his 2005-06 rookie campaign.
It was a sign of transition, but the penguins still finished in the 29th spot. Once Malkin came over to the NHL in 2006, the march of the Penguins began.
Malkin tallied 85 points to help Crosby carry the Pens to a 10th place regular season finish, followed by a quick postseason exit in the first round to the Ottawa Senators. But the Pens responded in 2007-08 with an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
What happened one year later? The Pens won it all with a 21-year-old Crosby and a 22-year-old Malkin.
The Leafs are on pace to follow this trend. Toronto’s superstars came together in year one, shattered record after record, and made the postseason all while giving the Presidents’ Trophy winners a run for their money.
Positive parallels aside, the dream is realistic considering Toronto has $21 million coming off the books this summer in expired contracts. Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Stephane Robidas, and Colin Greening combine for $14.15 million, while another $6.925 million is factored in for Roman Polak, Brian Boyle, Matt Hunwick, Ben Smith, and Curtis McElhinney.
Other expenses easily handled are the $5.37 million in bonus overages, and Nikita Zaitsev’s annual $4.5 million contract hitting the books this season. Once factored in, Toronto is left with roughly $13 million to spend, with Connor Brown and Zach Hyman being Toronto’s only key skaters currently not under contract.
With Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Connor Brown, and Kasperi Kapanen in the mix, Toronto’s offence should be just fine. They need complimentary pieces, not an overhaul.
But for all of Toronto’s talented forwards, it’s evident that the Leafs’ blueline is in need of an upgrade.
An intriguing name is defenceman Chris Tanev of the Vancouver Canucks.
Locked in for the next three seasons earning a reasonable $4.45 million, Tanev is a reliable shutdown defenceman that is routinely commended for making the safe play in his own end. Toronto needs a quality stay-at-home defenceman, not to mention one who played alongside Morgan Rielly as Canada’s top defensive pair at the 2016 World Championships.
The Toronto-native is also a right-handed shot. Babcock would be pleased.
What would it take to get Tanev? A rebuilding team like the Canucks is looking for prospects and draft picks, so acquiring the 27-year old wouldn’t cripple Toronto’s lineup.
The Leafs could continue to load up on defence by dealing draft picks to rebuilding teams, or they could deal from a position of strength on forward.
James van Riemsdyk would interest a number of teams. Perhaps he could be included in a package to pry one of Anaheim’s young defencemen (Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, or Hampus Lindholm).
Just imagine Toronto’s blue line with those additions. The responsible Tanev plays alongside Rielly’s flash as the top two. The ever improving Gardiner suits up alongside one of the Anaheim studs, leaving Zaitsev and Carrick to fill out the final pairing. Toronto still has Marchenko and Marincin locked in for one more season, and re-signing Hunwick or Polak as depth d-men is always a good idea.
With regards to goaltending, Andersen was stellar this season and that’s all that needs to be said. Sure the Leafs need to sign another backup, but Toronto has their number one and that’s a staple for any Cup contender.
So while the Leafs brass are playing it down to keep the kids calm, there’s no denying the facts: Toronto is closer to winning the Stanley Cup than many care to admit.