Maple Leafs after NHL Free Agency: Better, worse, or the same?

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In the grand scheme of things, it seems like the Maple Leafs covered most of their offseason to-do list after signing Ilya Mikheyev. Sure, they need to settle things with RFA Travis Dermott. And there might be some cap-related wrangling on the margins.

(As you may remember from re-acquiring David Clarkson‘s contract and other tweaks, GM Kyle Dubas isn’t afraid to get into the weeds.)

But, overall? It sure seems like the Maple Leafs we see today should be close to what (eventually) hits the ice to kick off the 2020-21 NHL season. So, after all of that, what’s the verdict? Are the Maple Leafs better, worse, or basically in the same spot?

Looking ahead, let’s break the Maple Leafs’ offseason changes (or lack thereof), position by position.

Forward group: Worse, but how much worse?

To review, the Maple Leafs lost Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, Kyle Clifford, and Frederik Gauthier during the offseason. On the other hand, they brought in Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey, and Joey Anderson.

No doubt about it, it’s crucial to consider the salary cap with virtually all of the Maple Leafs’ moves. This time around, that belt-tightening really happened regarding their forward group.

Losing Kapanen and Johnsson largely for cap space hurts, particularly Johnsson.

Even with Johnsson and Kapanen in the lineup, the Maple Leafs leaned quite a bit on big names such as Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. There’s a strong chance they ask even more of them in 2020-21.

As far as forwards added, your results may vary, and quite a bit is up in the air. At 41, and after a long layoff, what can Joe Thornton bring? Will the Maple Leafs account for his lack of footspeed, or will “Jumbo Joe” prove to be an awkward fit?

In our memories, Wayne Simmonds is a net-front dynamo, and the sort of gritty player many see the Maple Leafs lacking. However, recent years haven’t been kind to Simmonds.

The drop-off from the Maple Leafs’ top-six to their bottom-six could be even steeper in 2020-21.

Maple Leafs after offseason, NHL Free Agency, Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Reilly
(Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

That said, it would be a blast if Simmonds, Thornton, and Jason Spezza all turn back the clock a bit and impress. Heck, Thornton occasionally passing to Matthews on the power play could be a fun way to mix things up if that PP unit needs the occasional remix.

Overall, though, the depth took a hit. Maybe a substantial one.

Defense: A better fit?

When Tyson Barrie was traded to the Maple Leafs, his stock was probably overly inflated. Now, after a frustrating season, it seems like it was artificially diluted. Ultimately, the answer’s likely somewhere in between: the Maple Leafs lost a flawed-but-useful defenseman.

That said, they also parted ways with Cody Ceci. It’s probably a little harsh to call that “addition by subtraction.” Then again, the problem with defensemen like Ceci and Jack Johnson isn’t always that they have issues. It’s also that teams sometimes stubbornly insist on sending them out for top-four minutes when they might be better off teetering between bottom-pairing work or watching games in street clothes.

Such a reality might be the case for Zach Bogosian, who might need to battle with the likes of Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott, and Mikko Lehtonen for reps.

Overall, the most promising addition overall — not just on defense — comes in adding T.J. Brodie. As much as anything else, he seems like a better fit for what Toronto needed. Maybe he doesn’t have the same offensive “pop” as Barrie, but he figures to be more versatile.

Goalies: Deeper

Heading into the offseason, there were rumblings about trading Frederik Andersen. After all, Andersen’s mix of a generous cap hit ($5 million AAV) with a tiny post-bonus actual salary ($1M) would have made him appealing to a team like, say, the cost-conscious Coyotes. One can’t totally blame Maple Leafs fans for dreaming about what Darcy Kuemper might accomplish.

But who knows how Kuemper would transition from the low-event Coyotes to the high-drama Maple Leafs?

While there’s always a chance Dubas has a trick up his sleeves, it looks like the Maple Leafs will stick with Andersen for 2020-21. They also get a chance to integrate Jack Campbell into the mix a bit more, and added Aaron Dell as a reasonable third goalie/reclamation project.

Personally, I believe the Maple Leafs leaned too heavily upon Andersen over the years. Such usage might have explained a bumpy 2019-20.

Getting Campbell and maybe also Dell in the mix more could make Andersen fresher. Doing so might be worth it, even if it means hurting your odds at better seeding. (Passing the Bruins and especially the Lightning will probably be a tall order, either way.)

Coaching: More cohesive

Let’s face it; the clock felt like it was ticking on Mike Babcock right from the beginning of 2019-20. Between his sniping at Dubas, stubbornness with Auston Matthews’ ice time, and general clashing of style, it just seemed like a strained situation.

Even if Sheldon Keefe isn’t an outright upgrade, it seems clear that he’s on the same page with Dubas. Or at least they’re reading the same book.

That cohesion might be the takeaway from this Maple Leafs offseason … you know, beyond wiggling under the salary cap. On paper, I don’t believe the Maple Leafs are better. Instead, they maybe took a slight step back.

They do seem to be in a better overall rhythm, and for all we know, that could pay off in 2020-21.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

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Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

“We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

“I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

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OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.