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Despite Playoff Loss, the Toronto Maple Leafs Should Stay the Course

On May 25, the Toronto Maple Leafs secured a 3-1 series advantage against the Montreal Canadiens with a dominant 4-0 win. Six days later, they would lose their third game in a row, the decisive Game 7, en route to their eighth straight loss in a series clinching game. Rocket Richard winner Auston Matthews (41 goals in 52 regular season games) scored just one goal in seven playoff games. Mitch Marner, the fourth leading scorer in the NHL this season, managed zero goals and just four assists in seven games. Those two have received the bulk of the criticism from fans and media alike, Marner especially. The 24 year old winger hasn’t scored a playoff goal in eighteen games and had a costly blue line turnover in Game 7 that led to the opening goal for the Canadiens. 

This most recent playoff loss, the fifth year in a row that the Maple Leafs have failed to make it past the opening round of the playoffs, has resulted in many knee jerk reactions from fans, the most common of them being the wish for a Mitch Marner trade. Making just under $11 million per year, Marner soured himself to many fans during intense contract negotiations in the summer of 2019. Along with Matthews ($11,640,250 per year), captain John Tavares ($11,000,000 per year), and forward William Nylander ($6,962,366 per year), Marner and co. take up more than 40% of the team’s salary cap. 

Although Toronto did suffer injuries during the series (Tavares went out with a head injury in Game 1 and defenseman Jake Muzzin was out with a lower body injury for Game 7), certain players did step up in absence of the Maple Leafs’ missing skaters. William Nylander led the team with eight points in seven games; center Alexander Kerfoot, who replaced John Tavares on the second line, was second with six points in seven games. 

Certainly change will be made in the offseason for Toronto, as they are with all teams. The question for the Maple Leafs, however, is how exactly they should approach the summer. Twelve players will be unrestricted free agents, including former starting goaltender Frederik Andersen and top six forward Zach Hyman. They also don’t have a first round pick in this year’s draft, lost in a deadline trade for Columbus forward Nick Foligno, who added four assists in seven regular season games and just one point (an assist) in four playoffs games.

After a disappointing loss to the Blue Jackets in last year’s playoff qualifying round, General Manager Kyle Dubas attempted to add more physicality to his team, signing rugged defenseman Zach Bogosian and gritty forward Wayne Simmonds. He added more veteran leadership, inking longtime NHLer Joe Thornton to a deal, along with top four defenseman TJ Brodie. He also re-signed fourth line center Jason Spezza to another one year deal. Despite all this, the Maple Leafs were outhit in the series 252 to 202. Only in Game 7 did they manage more hits than the Canadiens, a 32 to 30 advantage. 

The lack of physicality is one of the main reasons fans have called for a Marner trade. Marner had two puck over the glass penalties in this series, seemingly as a result of shying away from an opposing player’s hit. Should Dubas really explore a trade for the winger, though? The most rational answer would be no. Despite his most recent lack of playoff scoring, Marner actually has slightly better postseason point production than Matthews (25 points in 32 playoff games versus 24 points in 32 playoff games). Though Matthews does have thirteen career playoff goals compared to Marner’s five, Marner remains an integral part of the Maple Leaf’s core. Trading him would be a mistake, and, combined with a possible free agent departure from Zach Hyman, would leave Toronto very lacking in the top six winger department. 

Dubas may deserve blame for handing out big money contracts and potentially hamstringing the Leafs in a flat salary cap world, it’s also important to remember that hindsight is 20/20. Dubas signed his three most expensive players prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created the flat salary cap for the foreseeable future. While Marner may be slightly overpaid by $1-1.5 million, it was crucial to lock him down as a top winger in the league. Additionally, Dubas and the management group have built the team the way many other organizations would like to. He has coveted center depth with Matthews and Tavares, a quality group of defensemen led by Brodie, Muzzin, and Morgan Reilly, and even added important goaltending depth by trading for Jack Campbell, who performed excellently in absence of Frederick Andersen. 

Looking at the Maple Leafs’ contract situation, their Stanley Cup window seems to be open until 2023-24, when Matthews, Nylander, Muzzin, and Brodie will all be free agents. Morgan Reilly will be a UFA the year prior. As of now, though, Toronto still has their core group of players under contract. Despite the twelve unrestricted free agents this offseason, none, other than Hyman, are big impact players. Jason Spezza, the most likely to be re-signed, provides quality depth scoring as a fourth line center (3.08 points per 60, third in the league), but won’t hurt the organization if he chooses to walk. 

Overall, however, there shouldn’t be much that the Maple Leafs need to do this offseason. Their defensive core seems to be set, with Reilly, Brodie, Muzzin, Justin Holl, Travis Dermott, and youngsters Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren; their forward group led, by Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares, is probably only in need of one middle six winger with the projected loss of Hyman. Prospect Nick Robertson will likely compete for a spot there, as will Kerfoot, barring him being taken in the Seattle Expansion Draft. Depth-wise, if they re-sign Spezza, they’ll probably be in the market for one or two more bottom six forwards, which shouldn’t be hard to come by in free agency, and also won’t be too expensive. Finally, they’ll need to sign another goaltender to tandem with Jack Campbell, as it’s unlikely they’ll bring back Andersen.

The key for Toronto is to not overreact to their first round exit. Though the media and fans will be talking about big changes needed, with the core group still intact for three more seasons, and with Matthews and Marner just 23 and 24 respectively, a handful of minor tweaks to the roster may be all they need. Maple Leafs fans may not like it, but for now, Toronto should stay the course, and not pull the trigger on any drastic changes.

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