Leafs have big decisions to make this summer

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Another year, another first-round exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 2013, the Leafs have been knocked out by the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the first round three times. Last year, Toronto had a 3-2 lead against Boston in the deciding game, but they let it slip away. So what did they do? They added John Tavares in free agency and Jake Muzzin before the trade deadline. Still, it wasn’t enough.

So now what?

General manager Kyle Dubas will have his work cut out for him this summer. The Leafs have three key players scheduled to become restricted free agents in Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. They also have two important blueliners set to hit the open market in Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey.

Let’s start with the defense because we know that’s where the Leafs need the most work.

Leafs fans like to pin blame on Gardiner because he tends to make silly decisions with the puck at times, but nobody can deny that their defense is better with him than without him. The 28-year-old was clearly banged up in the playoffs, and that definitely affected his play. You’d have to think that his services will be in high demand on July 1st because there won’t be too many puck-moving defenders available this summer.

As for Hainsey, he played over 20 minutes per game in the regular season and playoffs. But how much longer can the Leafs continue rolling out a 38-year-old player on their top pairing? They need to upgrade on defense, which means Hainsey doesn’t come back or he gets pushed further down the lineup.

Dubas already has $75.759 million committed to the cap next season, which means that he’ll likely have less than $8 million in cap space. Marner alone will command way more than $8 million per season, so the Leafs will have to get creative when it comes to opening up dollars to re-sign players and to bring in new bodies.

Both Johnsson and Kapanen scored 20 goals and both surpassed the 40-point mark this season, but Johnsson (43 points) averaged under 14 minutes per game, while Kapanen (44 points) played over 16:30 per game. Could one of those two guys be on the move? Will it be Kapanen?

But the five players with expiring contracts mentioned above aren’t part of that $75-plus million cap hit heading into next season. Players under contract will have to move, too. 39-year-old Patrick Marleau is on the books for $6.25 million for one more year and he clearly isn’t the same player he once was. Can they find a taker for him? Dubas might have to send Kapanen to a team that’s willing to eat Marleau’s contract.

Nazem Kadri has three years left on his current contract at a very reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million. There’s no denying that his five-game suspension against the Bruins effected the outcome of the series. Has he worn out his welcome in Toronto? He’s still an effective player, but the trust between he and the organization may be fractured at this point.

Nikita Zaitsev‘s contract ($4.5 million AAV per year) forces him into a top four role that he probably isn’t suited for over an 82-game season plus playoffs. Other teams won’t be lining up to trade for that contract.

Dubas was the big winner last offseason, as he found a way to bring Tavares home. He also made a solid trade with Los Angeles for Muzzin and he was able to get Auston Matthews to sign a long-term extension, but this is the first major challenge he’ll experience as GM of the Leafs.

How will he respond?

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Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.