NHL: Where do the Leafs go now?

The Leafs head into a summer full of question marks.
(Photo via Fred Kfoury III/ Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

After a Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the first round for the second straight season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in a tough spot. They have two players earning over $10 million dollars next year (Matthews, Tavares) and possibly a third player when rising superstar Mitch Marner signs a contract extension this offseason. Wingers Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen need new contracts this summer as well. Add in the fact that the Leafs are in a cap crunch and have 40 year old Patrick Marleau making $6.25 million next season, which hamstrings the team. They also have holes on defense, with Jake Gardiner likely leaving via free agency and questions about the future of Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev. Did I mention that the Leafs need a backup goalie as well?

Wait, there’s more. The Leafs don’t currently own a first round pick in the upcoming NHL draft, and their first pick in the draft as of now won’t be until the 56th pick. They also have an irate fanbase at the moment who want Head Coach Mike Babcock to be fired after another early playoff exit. Babcock was a source of controversy all year long for the way he handled certain players and their ice time, notably Auston Matthews. 33 year old Kyle Dubas, who’s entering his second offseason as General Manager of the Leafs clearly has plenty of work ahead to keep this team as competitive as possible.

Questions Entering the Offseason

Coupling all these factors together, it would be easy to say that the sky is falling in Leafland. With just $13 million dollars in projected cap space, how will Dubas sign the likes of Marner, Kapanen and Johnsson to new deals? What does management think of the way Babcock managed ice time in the playoffs? For reference, Zach Hyman, who was playing on a torn ACL in Game 7 still had more ice time than a healthy Auston Matthews. Why was the 4th line used so much in the third period of games as well? Why were the lines rarely shuffled, especially when the team wasn’t producing offensively? Did Patrick Marleau deserve to be on the third line the entire series despite his lack of production?

These are all decisions that need explanation. Hopefully Leafs management holds their $50 million coach accountable in this regard. After all, the pitchforks are out in Toronto and Mike Babcock is only halfway through his 8 year contract with the Buds.

Changes to the Roster

While there are many upcoming issues for this team, the sky is in fact not falling. The sun will rise again for the Leafs. Remember, Brendan Shanahan outlined a 5 year rebuild plan when Auston Matthews was drafted in 2016. This season was year 3 of that plan. In other words, nobody in the Leafs’ management will overreact to this loss.

Changes on the roster will occur, undoubtedly. Based on the cap crunch the Leafs are dealing with, expect a number of players to be moved, such as Conner Brown and even Nazem Kadri. Patrick Marleau will be tough to move as he has a full no move clause in his contract, meaning that he must approve any trade that the Leafs attempt to make involving him. Regardless, with a couple smart moves, Kyle Dubas can get out of the salary cap issues that the Leafs are dealing with, albeit with some pieces falling by the wayside.

Coaching change?

Chances are, Mike Babcock won’t be fired. That would be a monumental shift in the Leafs’ long term plan and there’s no guarantee that the team would be better off with a change behind the bench. Many people see Sheldon Keefe, who currently coaches the Toronto Marlies as a potential replacement. However, the grass is always greener on the other side. The way Leafs fans talk about Keefe, you’d think he’s the second coming of Scotty Bowman. He’s had tremendous success at the AHL level, but there’s no guarantee that success at lower levels translates to the NHL. After all, hockey lifers will tell you that the AHL and NHL are two very different leagues. Ultimately, Babcock has championship pedigree, experience and superior knowledge of the Leafs’ roster. Whether you like it or not, it seems that the Leafs have faith in their coach, at least for now.

Put the Pitchforks Away

Leafs fans, don’t fret. It’s an emotional time, I know. The coach will stick around, and hopefully he’ll manage ice time better next year and be able to close out a series, which he’s been unable to do thus far with Toronto. Dubas and Shanahan, along with the rest of Leafs management will form a plan to keep the core intact and escape cap hell. A good summer of growth, reflection and smart moves can go a long way for a young team. Don’t hit the panic button just yet.

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