Fixing the Toronto Maple Leafs

\"\"

By Nic Osanic

In a crazy year filled with uncertainty, one thing remained the same: the Leafs underachieving and getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs. The Leafs have now tried several strategies to build around their “core four” of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. Although General Manager Kyle Dubas is best known for his analytical mindset, some of his recent roster moves haven’t reflected this. Toronto has experimented by giving bottom-six roles to unproven young guns such as Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Pierre Engvall, and Trevor Moore as well as gritty veterans like Kyle Clifford, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Nick Foligno, and Jason Spezza. Neither approach has worked, and the Leafs are still trying to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

With Toronto finally getting a playoff dance partner other than Boston the past two seasons, there is clearly a problem larger than just the 2013 Game 7 Bruins curse at play here. When the Matthews-Marner duo has been contained, the Leafs have had trouble. During their playoff careers, Toronto has gone 1-7 when they are both held off the scoresheet. Dating back to 2019’s Game 7 vs Boston, this has occurred 6 times (out of 13 games). As much as this weighs on the shoulders of Matthews and Marner, Toronto needs players who can step up when their top performers are quiet.

Despite this, the Leafs outplayed both Columbus and Montreal at even-strength with a higher share of expected goals in both series. This year against Montreal, the Leafs had a 56.15% share of expected goals and also managed to have 56.07% of actual goals scored at even-strength. In fact, the Zach Hyman-Matthews-Marner trio which was supposedly “locked up” by Montreal’s top line of Jake Evans, Phillipe Danault and Brendan Gallagher generated 10.62 individual expected goals based on the quality of their shot attempts, but only managed to put 2 past Carey Price. Additionally, the Matthews line drew five more penalties than they took and played exceptional defense (each player averaged about 0.5 goals allowed per 60 minutes played). For a normal team, one would be inclined to say the Leafs just got “Playoff Priced,” not unlike last year’s Penguins. However, that explanation is not going to fly in the Toronto sports market. So, what should the Leafs do to get past their first-round demons?

Leafs’ Free Agents

First, the Leafs have some decisions to make about their pending unrestricted free agents. Zach Hyman is the most impactful player set to hit free agency but should also be the most expensive, with rumours about his next contract ranging from $5 to $8 million. Hyman led all Leafs in individual expected goals during the playoffs and has been a significant part of Toronto’s 1st-line success. Hyman played 944 minutes at even-strength, 94 minutes on the power play, and 121 minutes on the penalty kill in 2021. Finding an immediate replacement for his impact would simply not be an easy task. With Frederik Andersen’s $5 million contract coming off the books this year, the Leafs will have the money to bring back Hyman should they choose to do so.

\"hymaninfo.jpg\"

After Hyman, things get interesting. Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Nick Foligno, Riley Nash, and Alex Galchenyuk are all forwards who will need a new contract. However, the Leafs have Nicholas Robertson, Rodion Amirov, Filip Hallander, and Pontus Holmberg signed to entry-level contracts as well as KHL signing Kirill Semyonov. A few of these new faces could compete for a spot with the potential to make a low-cost impact. Additionally, fringe players such as Ilya Mikheyev, Adam Brooks, Pierre Engvall, and Joey Anderson will fight for a spot. This means the Leafs can be selective on who they bring back.

Another 1-year deal for Spezza near or at league minimum should be a priority. Spezza brings secondary offense at even-strength and has done well on the Leafs’ 2nd power-play unit. He also drew four more penalties than he took this year, and 25 of his 30 points were primary points.

\"\"

Joe Thornton might be another player the Leafs consider bringing back on a 1-year league minimum deal if he doesn’t retire. Thornton put up 20 points in 44 games, with 13 of them being primary points. While Jumbo Joe is not what he used to be, he was in the 91st percentile in overall goals above replacement just two seasons ago. His placement in the 46th percentile this season essentially makes him an average player at league minimum cost. Thornton might still have some fuel in the tank, but I can understand if the Leafs move on from him.

Foligno and Nash are both great defensive players whose lack of offense balances them out. Unfortunately, Foligno did not end up being worth the first-round pick the Leafs traded him for. They should not aggressively pursue him in free agency as his overall production is just 1 percentile higher than Jason Spezza’s, yet Foligno will probably make at least $4 million on the open market. Additionally, Foligno and Nash are not players that will provide depth scoring if the Matthews line goes cold again. Similarly, Simmonds and Galchenyuk should probably be left for another team to sign. Simmonds is in the 6th percentile, and Galchenyuk is in the 9th percentile in overall goals above replacement since the start of 2018-19. They both had a few good moments, and Galchenyuk looked much better with Toronto than in Ottawa during his small sample on the Tavares and Nylander line. Even then, their limited recent history of good play and potentially higher contract demand (especially Galchenyuk) is a reason for concern.

Trade Opportunities

With the current forward core, the Leafs could also explore some moves. After Tavares went down with a concussion, the Leafs’ depth got a real test. Alex Kerfoot assumed the number-two center position, and although he put up 6 points in the 7-game series, he was on the ice for the most goals against per 60 minutes among forwards and still had a below 50% share of expected goals. Essentially, his offensive breakout was countered by poor defensive impact. Kerfoot struggled this past regular season and hasn’t been anything more than an average player during the past three seasons. He is making $3.5 million per season until the end of 2022-23 and could be exposed in the upcoming expansion draft if Toronto goes the eight-skater approach to protect either Travis Dermott or Justin Holl. Furthermore, Kerfoot’s point total and elevated role in the playoffs could inflate his trade value. For these reasons, I think the Leafs should explore trading him in a similar cap dump for a young player move that we saw in the Kapanen and Johnsson trades last offseason.

\"kerf.jpg\"

There have been some rumbles from Leafs Nation that Toronto should look into trading Mitch Marner. Although his $10.9 million contract is steep, Marner has produced over a point-per-game in each of the past 3 seasons and finished 4th in points this year. This type of production is hard to find and will be needed for the Leafs to make the playoffs again. With Marner’s cap hit and the flat salary cap constraining teams, it would be difficult for the Leafs even to consider moving Marner without having to eat some of Marner’s contract in return. Unless Buffalo is interested in a Jack Eichel for Marner blockbuster-type trade, it is unlikely that a deal will happen.

\"marnie.jpg\"

Free Agent Targets

Without the pending UFAs, and assuming Hyman gets around $7 million with $700k going to Thornton and Spezza each, Toronto should be about $8.8 million under the cap. This is where they need to be creative and take an analytical approach. The 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning are a great example for Toronto to follow. The Lightning had an elite core of high-end forwards (Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point) just like the Leafs but what really separated them was the impact of their depth forwards. Blake Coleman, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and Anthony Cirelli, along with the Lightning’s three star forwards, all had overall production percentiles above 80%. Matthews, Marner, Hyman, and Nylander were the only Leafs’ forwards in 2020-21 who met that threshold, and 3 of them went cold in the playoffs. I have no problem with Toronto trying to add gritty players who are willing to battle for the puck; however, these players must be making an impact at the same time. In the end, Toronto is likely going to need a few new bottom-6 forwards and a backup goalie.

Goaltenders Veini Vehvilainen and Michael Hutchinson are both under contract next year and could challenge for the backup spot, though Jack Campbell’s injury history should concern the Leafs enough to sign another goalie. One possible addition is Laurent Brossoit, who is a pending free agent from Winnipeg. Brossoit owns a .915 save percentage with 7.86 goals saved above expected (19th out of 153 eligible goalies) in his 54 games played since the start of 2018-19. Brossoit made $1.5 million this season and could probably be added for around $2 million in free agency. Other options include Chris Driedger, Petr Mrazek, Linus Ullmark, and Jonathan Bernier, but they should all fetch a larger contract.

\"brossoit.jpg\"

Out of all the available forwards, I think the Leafs’ top priority should be Nick Bonino. Bonino has been surprisingly effective over the last 3 seasons as he ranks 33rd out of 692 eligible forwards in Wins Above Replacement during this span. He is also a takeaway machine, which has led to him receiving Selke votes as the league’s best defensive player in the past and is backed by an elite 98th percentile defence rating. Furthermore, the Leafs’ management has been adamant that they need to develop a “killer instinct” after being eliminated in yet another game 7. Lucky for them, Bonino has played in 105 playoff games and seems to play his best when the game is on the line. He has two overtime series-clinching goals and scored the game-winning goal with 2:33 left in Game 1 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals on the way to his first of back-to-back Stanley Cup wins with Pittsburgh. Bonino has experience on the power play, is an effective penalty killer, and can easily slot in as Toronto’s 3rd line center. Last season, Bonino made $4.1 million, but his age (33 years old) and average scoring totals (10 goals, 26 points) could drop his next contract closer to the $3 million range.

\"bonino.jpg\"

Derek Ryan is another guy that I think the Leafs should pursue. Despite not possessing high-end skill, Ryan is a battler who is extremely difficult to play against and gets great results. He can win faceoffs as a centerman and has experience playing right wing, where he would likely play alongside Bonino on Toronto’s 3rd line. Ryan is another guy who would provide top-tier defence with some scoring touch. Ryan doesn’t have much playoff success but brings arguably the most resilient hockey resume with him. After going undrafted in junior, Derek Ryan dominated U Sports hockey and won MVP in both the EBEL (Austria) and the SHL (Sweden) before getting a chance with an NHL team. This type of “never quit” mindset is something that could be useful for the Leafs. Derek Ryan only scored 2 goals in 43 games this season, but he posted a career-low 5.4% shooting percentage and had 5.21 individual expected goals. If this was simply a case of bad luck, he should be due for a bounce-back year. Ryan is 34 years old and made $3.125 million last year but given his low offensive output and the fact that he went unclaimed off waivers this past winter, the Leafs could probably get him for around $2 million.

\"\"

My final forward signing recommendation for the Leafs is to try a flier on Nikita Gusev. This is a player who is highly skilled and dominates the big stage. Gusev has an Olympic gold medal, a KHL championship, two World Championship bronze medals, and a World Juniors silver medal. Along with these achievements, Gusev won the KHL MVP award in 2017-18 and was named the best forward of the 2018 Olympics (12 points in 6 games). The 2018 Olympic gold medal game is where Gusev really shined. He recorded a primary point on all 4 goals by the Olympic Athletes from Russia and sent the game to overtime by scoring a shorthanded goal with 56 seconds remaining. So far, Gusev’s NHL career hasn’t gone as planned, but his time has been spent with the basement-dwelling New Jersey Devils and the small market Florida Panthers. Relative to his teammates, though, Gusev has been above average in xGF/60 and xGA/60, and his 54 points in 97 career games is a serviceable pace. If Gusev is brought into a larger hockey market, coached by someone more modern than Joel Quenneville and Lindy Ruff, and is given the opportunity to replace a guy like Galchenyuk on the Tavares/Nylander line, he could be a steal. Gusev will be 29 this year and could be forced to take a cheap “prove it” deal after getting released by New Jersey mid-way through the season and signing for just $1 million with Florida in April. Toronto could probably take a gamble on him for around $1.5 million.

\"gusev.jpg\"

A few other forwards who should be considered if their markets collapse are Blake Coleman, Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Mathieu Perreault. These four players all possess outstanding impact numbers and will improve whichever team they sign. They should receive somewhere in the ballpark of $5 million each (except Perreault who could get around $3 million).

\"coleman.jpg\"

Defensively, the signing of TJ Brodie last offseason bolstered Toronto’s back end, and an entire season of Rasmus Sandin should make up for the potential loss of Zach Bogosian. Toronto might be at risk of losing either Travis Dermott or Justin Holl in the expansion draft, but they might orchestrate a deal to have Seattle pick someone like Ilya Mikheyev or Pierre Engvall instead (which would add another $1.5 million or so of salary cap space). As for depth, Timothy Liljegren appears ready for a more prominent role and could win the 7th defenceman spot. Overall, the Leafs have quality in-house defence options to replace any departures.

\"sandin.jpg\"

Projected Lineup

\"\"

If the Leafs follow a similar blueprint, they should field a more competent bottom-six which could be the difference-maker if/when the Matthews line gets shutdown. This lineup would be right against the salary cap’s upper limit but should be somewhat doable and would make them much harder to play against. Kyle Dubas is widely perceived as an analytical General Manager but many of his recent moves haven’t produced the desired result. If he decides to go all-in on the numbers, Toronto might finally advance to the second round.

Data from Evolving-Hockey, Capfriendly, and Spotrac

Cover Graphic credited to Dan Hamilton, USA Today Sports

2 thoughts on “Fixing the Toronto Maple Leafs”

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful and evidence-based article Nic! Clearly a ton of effort went into putting this together. As a Leafs fan, I can only hope Dubas & co share your thoughts on roster construction moving forward…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *