After the John Tavares deal was officially announced in Toronto on July 1, many were quick to celebrate a true Ontario-born superstar finally deciding to return home to play for the Leafs. In fact, early Stanley Cup odds out of Vegas put Toronto as the league favourites to take home the championship trophy for the first time in over 50 years.
Tavares is the most exciting free agent forward to hit the open market in the salary cap era. In the prime of his career at age 27, the five-time All-Star comes to Toronto having scored 84 points last season, 15 more than any current Maple Leaf.
But predictably, detractors were quick the point out the Leafs had done little to improve their defence, other than allowing the oft-criticized Roman Polak to sign with the Dallas Stars. It was, by and large, very similar to the group who often struggled to keep shots away from their team’s net, and were largely outclassed in the team’s first-round exit against the Boston Bruins.
It’s in their best interest to look for an upgrade, but it’s not a dagger to their hopes if things remain the same.
Here’s three reasons why the Leafs can be one of the league’s best teams, even without a top-class defensive unit.
1. It’s been done before
The clearest example of an inspiration for the Leafs would be the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins, who featured their own Ron Hainsey on the team’s top pairing throughout the playoff run.
The Penguins, like last year’s Leafs, also finished with the fourth-most shots on goal allowed. Of course, it didn’t hurt having two legitimate superstar centres in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, who made up for the absence of Kris Letang, scoring 28 and 27 playoff points, respectively.
Seeing as the Leafs can complement Tavares with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Nazem Kadri, who all topped the 55-point plateau last season, it’s fair to say that it’s not out of the question they could conceivably “do a Pittsburgh”.
2. Goal differential
While the personnel may not jump out of the page at you, the Leafs as a whole ended up coming out okay with their patchwork defence this past season. Toronto’s goal differential of +45 ranked fifth in the league, while their 232 goals against was the 11th-lowest.
It’ll take another big year from Frederik Andersen and whoever of Calvin Pickard, Curtis McElhinney, or Garret Sparks ends up taking the backup goalie job.
Of course, the easiest way for the Leafs to win games would be to simply overpower their opponents offensively. If the Leafs are able to utilize their offence in a way that adds to their 277 goals from last season (which finished second behind just Tampa Bay), a few defensive mistakes a game won’t necessarily be the end of the world.
The Leafs of this past season finished with the same exact record as the Washington Capitals, who went on to… win the Stanley Cup. Toronto actually scored 18 more goals and allowed seven fewer than Washington, so it’s not out of the question they’d be able to manage a deep playoff run.
3. The unknowns
Lastly, the Leafs still have a fair amount of uncertainties within their own d-corps. Travis Dermott heads into his first full NHL season after impressing, and while it looks like Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Connor Carrick, and Jake Gardiner will make up the rest of the six-man unit, there’s still questions to be asked.
Jake Gardiner remains with just one year under his contract, with the possibility of being an unrestricted free agent down the line. With money needing to be handed out to the Leafs’ young stars, there’s a chance he could be dealt, or simply not re-signed following this season. But he makes the team better when he’s in the lineup than when he’s out of it, evidenced by a career high 52 points this past season.
After the NHL regulars, the unknown potential of the Leafs’ prospects continue. While he might not be quite ready yet, there’s a chance 2017 first-round pick Timothy Liljegren finds his way to the NHL roster by the end of the season. Andreas Borgman played over 50 games with the Leafs last season, while Justin Holl scored twice in two fill-in games midway through last season.
While it seems unlikely the Leafs are going to make a trade splash for a defenceman before the season gets underway, there’s also the possibility of a trade deadline acquisition. The team still has cap flexibility to acquire most deals, and as long as that upgrade comes before playoff time, the Leafs can float along just fine with the group they’ve got now.