Elimination Eval: Toronto Maple Leafs

Oh where to begin with this one… For the seventh time in eight years the Toronto Maple Leafs are first round exits from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. On top of that, this year becomes their sixth consecutive Game 7 loss with it being their fourth loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 7’s since 2013. There’s no way to sugar coat it, this postseason was a total underachievement for the Leafs and will go down as a complete and utter failure. Sure, there were some underlying reasons as to what went wrong for the Leafs here and perhaps that can really only be chalked up to dumb luck. However there’s no way around it, their lack of playoff success over the last decade plus is going to be grounds for a major change of some kind and that was rather clear going into this series. Let’s take it from the top. 

The Leafs got off to an incredibly disappointing start after dropping Game 1 by the score of 5-1. The writing of this series was on the wall well before the puck even dropped and as a result, it was imperative that Toronto got off to a strong start. Of course, it wouldn’t play out that way. Arguably one of the biggest concerns right out of the gate for the Leafs was goaltending. Ilya Samsonov struggled significantly from the start, to the point where there really wasn’t much confidence in counting on him to make a save. This left plenty of doubt in Toronto moving forward but luckily, they were able to bounce back in Game 2. 

Running it right back with Samsonov in net, the Leafs gave up the lead to Boston around the midway point of the first but Max Domi was able to respond just 14 seconds later. I’ll get into Domi more when we get into the contract stuff but the one positive takeaway from this series should be Max Domi. David Pastrnak finished the opening period with a goal to regain Boston’s lead but the Leafs got a response from their Captain, and their top player who probably should be their Captain. 

Now before we get into the rest of the series, there are a couple of important disclaimers. William Nylander did not play through the early parts of the series for what was rumored to be significant migraines. It would come out soon after the series ended that it was indeed migraines and they were so bad they were affecting his vision. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Auston Matthews had been off since the start of the series despite picking up a big goal in Game 2. These two factors would end up being the game-changing moment of the series seeing as the Leafs would be without their top two players at 100% for essentially the entire series. 

As a result, the Leafs dropped Games 3 & 4 by scores of 4-2 and 3-1. The fact of the matter was they weren’t getting the goaltending they needed, weren’t playing at a high enough level to get them playoff wins and were on track to getting embarrassed by the Bruins for yet another year in a row. To make matters worse, Game 4 would be the breaking point for Matthews as he was deemed too ill to play in what was potentially going to be a series clinching game back in Boston. On the bright side, they had gotten William Nylander back for Game 4. 

With no Auston for Game 5, the Leafs needed someone to step up and frankly it would be Max Domi and Justin Woll. In hindsight, the Leafs likely should have turned to Woll sooner but there were rumors that he wasn’t at 100% either. Woll would come up with 27 saves to help the Leafs bring the Bruins to the first overtime of the series. Right after Woll came up with a series saving save, a rush from Tavares created a rebound opportunity for a familiar OT hero in Matthew Knies which gave his team a massive boost to force a Game 6. 

The concern regarding Auston Matthews continued to amplify as he would again be unavailable for Game 6. At this point, there was enough reason to believe that there was something bigger going on, that whatever this illness was, it had to be more than that. Luckily for Toronto, William Nylander remained good to go and came up with a pair of goals to help his team force a Game 7, bringing the series back to Boston. Setting the stage for either an incredible comeback or a colossal failure. The big question of course would be, does Auston dress for Game 7? 

Sure enough, there’d be good news and bad news. The good news was Auston Matthews was given the green light and returned to the lineup for the most important game of the series. The bad news, Justin Woll picked up an injury in Game 6 and was ruled unavailable just a couple of hours leading up to game time. It was later reported that Ilya Samsonov found out around 2:30 that day he would be playing. Perhaps that was for the best seeing as Samsonov came up with 30 saves to keep the Leafs in it, forcing another overtime in the process but alas, it wouldn’t be enough. The series winning goal wouldn’t be a great look for the Leafs as Pastrnak beat everyone in a rush for the puck and pulled off a simple forehand-backhand deke to beat Samsonov, another brutal end to a failed Toronto postseason. 

What do you do now? What can you really even do? Can you justify losing this series considering there were injuries involving your top two players and inconsistencies in net? It may not necessarily be the fair answer but there is no justifying this outcome. Forget the injuries, forget the opponent even, this is a team that has only sniffed the second round once throughout the entire foundation of this hockey team’s current construction. Regardless of all the variables, failing to get back to the second round was going to result in some massive questions. This of course brings us to the biggest question for the Toronto Maple Leafs heading into the off-season: Is this finally it for the “core four?”

You have to think major changes are going to come as a result of this. You’re obviously not going to move Auston Matthews, you just signed William Nylander to an eight year extension so the attention turns to the other two in John Tavares and Mitch Marner. The time to seriously consider moving on from one, if not both of those players is now. You cannot run it back with the same group next season, especially without addressing some of the more glaring needs for this team. They need a clear, defined, capable starting goaltender they can rely on come playoff time and they need more reliable defensemen. All the more reason to consider a massive trade involving Marner or Tavares. 

In terms of a potential return, Marner would obviously have the higher possibility of bringing back several pieces that could help this team compete in the playoffs moving forward. While there may be teams willing to give up some key assets to acquire a highly coveted veteran such as Tavares, he is getting up there in age which could drag the price down significantly. Not to mention, Tavares will be entering the final year of his contract and may be willing to re-up with the Leafs on an extremely team friendly deal in more of a reduced role. This would probably be the only scenario in which he would stick around past next season. 

As far as expiring contracts go, the Leafs have a great deal of names possibly coming off the books. Max Domi, Tyler Bertuzzi, Mark Giordano, T.j. Brodie, Ilya Lybushkin, Joel Edmundson, Ilya Samsonov, Martin Jones, Jake Muzzin (LTIR), Matt Murray and John Klingberg are all pending UFA’s, most of which likely won’t return. The only player General Manager Brad Treliving should prioritize getting signed to an extension is Max Domi. Everything about Domi’s game, especially in these playoffs exemplified what this Leafs identity should consist of. He played hard, with tenacity and came up in the big moments. Not to mention his family history with the franchise helps him carry an understanding of what it means to pull on that blue sweater on a nightly basis. 

Assuming the Leafs move on from all the other pending UFA’s, they’ll have roughly $18.5 million to work with. If they do get Domi signed to an extension, they could have anywhere between $12-14 million. With which, there are plenty of holes the team needs to fill. For starters, they need a starting goaltender which again given the market, may need to be addressed via trade. On top of that, more reliable defensemen, especially right handed shot defenders, are among the more pressing needs. All the more reason they could look to trade Marner in attempts to address several needs at once. 

Right now, if all UFA’s were to walk, this is what the Leafs could look like to start next season:

? - Matthews - Marner

Knies - Tavares - Nylander

Robertson - Holmberg - Jarnkrok

McMann - Kampf - Gregor

Dewar Reaves

Rielly - ?

McCabe - ?

Benoit - Liljegren

Theoretically, this team doesn’t necessarily need a ton of pieces to put together a full lineup but it’s clear a shake up is needed. If they can bring Domi back, they’ll have him to put on the left side of Matthews but a Marner trade could get them an answer in net, some help on defense and perhaps a middle six, 16 game type of player. For instance, could some trade involving Mitch Marner bring back a package of (just an example) Jacob Markstrom, Rasmus Andersson, and one or both of Yegor Sharangovich and Andrew Mangiapagne? We are talking potential blockbusters but regardless, a Marner trade would have to involve several key pieces in order for it to make sense on Toronto’s end. 

In addition to Domi and other UFA’s, the Leafs have some pending RFA’s to take care of including Timothy Liljegren, Nicholas Robertson, Noah Gregor and Connor Dewar. I’d expect most, if not all four of them to come back at least for another year but depending on cap space and how contract talks go, perhaps Liljegren ends up on the trade block as well. You have to think at this point, practically anything is fair game but if they can bring on a surrounding cast, Liljegren should be fine on the third pairing. 

As far as prospects go, the Leafs do have a handful of exciting names including Fraser Minten, Easton Cowan, Topi Niemela and goaltender Dennis Hildeby but none of which will likely be NHL ready for the start of next season. The organization may want to start spending less at the trade deadline as they’ve given up a lot of draft capital the past couple of years which not only failed to get them anywhere, but has left their prospect pool quite drained. There’s no question they’re goal will continue to focus on competing and making runs in the playoffs but at a certain point you can’t forfeit the future of this franchise. 

At any rate, you can certainly add the Leafs to the list of teams that are bound to have a fascinating summer ahead of them. The likelihood that major changes are coming is incredibly high whether it be regarding player personnel, coaching or even higher ups like Brendan Shanahan. Whatever they decide to do, they will certainly hope they can find some answers on the back end as well as in net to help them finally get back out of the first round and into the deeper playoff run their fan base has been begging for, for so long.