Kasperi Kapanen

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Pressure ratchets up on already cap-strapped teams

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News of a lower-than-expected salary cap for the 2019-20 season would have put a damper on the 2019 NHL Draft over the weekend for some NHL outfits.

The number, $81.5 million, came down shortly after the conclusion of the final round of Saturday’s seventh round and was $1.5 million shy of what was expected to be around $83 million since December.

For some, they leave Vancouver unperturbed by the news. Not every team is experiencing a cap crunch this season. But for others, the flight home may have been slightly sweatier, and not because of any in-flight turbulence, but rather the increased instability on the balance sheet heading into next season.

Let’s take a look at a few teams who are feeling the squeeze the most with the news.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs 

For a team that still has a player hoping to make $11 million at least, it’s not ideal that even with the trade of Patrick Marleau, there’s only $13.5 million to play with and roughly $7 million of that expected to go to Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen as soon as Sunday. Toronto’s price to shed Marleau came in a future first-round pick, which came along with Marleau to Carolina. That means Kyle Dubas needs to trim even more fat off his roster to make way to accommodate Marner’s Auston Matthews-like cap hit.

2. Vegas Golden Knights

As of Sunday, the Golden Knights have $0 in cap space. In fact, they’re over the limit. And they still have William Karlsson, a restricted free agent, to pay, and perhaps Brendan Pirri, and unrestricted free agent, too. Someone’s got to go.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

The sell-off began on Saturday when J.T. Miller and his $5.25 million contract was shipped to Vancouver. The Lightning must make room for Brayden Point, who is going to command a pretty penny. With Miller’s departure, they have just over $10 million to spend, with most, if not all, going to Point. And it gets worse for Tampa next season when Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s time as a very underpaid Vezina winner comes to an end.

4. Winnipeg Jets

Perhaps the best example of building through the draft and then having to consider parting ways with players they’ve pumped all sorts of development into, the Jets have been forced into making decisions such as trading Nikolaj Ehlers (along with trading Jacob Trouba, although in a much different scenario).

The Jets have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor this offseason, two deals that could combine for $18 million or somewhere in that region. Winnipeg has $23 million to throw around at the moment, but Laine and Connor are just two players on a roster that only has 14 signed so far for next season. Like it has in the past, the Jets will employ the services of players they’ve developed after drafting them.

* * *

It’s hard not to sympathize with teams who draft well, develop better and then have to sell off those players or others as a punishment for doing a good job as an organization.

But the realities of a capless world means teams with owners that have the deepest pockets would most likely reign supreme.

Perhaps there’s a compromise? What about teams not having to count players they draft and develop against the cap? Or perhaps only a portion of their salary, so they don’t have to sell off those players down the road because they’re forced to be cap compliant?

For now, every team dealing in the upper limits is forced to adapt.

We saw that on Saturday with the trade of P.K. Subban out of Nashville to the New Jersey Devils. We saw it with the aforementioned Lightning and Miller. And we will see more of it in the days and weeks to come with other teams plastered to the ceiling.

“I know we’ve taken a good player off our team so I can’t sit here and say we’re a better team for doing that,” Preds GM David Poile told the media in Vancouver on Saturday.

“We had to make a business decision. With an aim at strengthening our forward corps this offseason, and the continued strength of our defensive group, we felt it was necessary to clear up salary cap space this way.”

Parity in the NHL comes at a cost, but one has to wonder if that cost won’t become a point of contention somewhere down the line.

Being penalized for drafting well or pulling off a shrewd move or two shouldn’t sit well for teams in an uber-competitive league, where every advantage is needed to get ahead.

At the moment, it’s a feeding frenzy for bottom-feeding teams who can absorb large contracts and get immediately better — see: New Jersey. The Devils could go from a terrible team in 2018-19 to a playoff contender with Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban. Meanwhile, a team like the Predators — a legitimate Stanley Cup contender — perhaps ceases to be that caliber of a team, at least for now.

Nobody said life was fair.

MORE 2019 NHL DRAFT COVERAGE:
• Shero on Subban trade, Hall’s future with Devils
• 
Round 1 draft tracker
• Rounds 2-7 draft tracker

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Hurricanes acquire Marleau, set to buy him out

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Patrick Marleau is a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, but only for a moment.

The Toronto Maple Leafs shipped the 39-year-old, a conditional first-round pick, and a seventh-rounder in the 2020 NHL Draft to Raleigh in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the same draft. The condition of the first round pick is this: If the pick is in the Top-10 in 2020, Carolina instead receives Toronto’s 2021 first-round selection.

Marleau, meanwhile, is expected to be bought out by the Hurricanes after waiving his no-movement clause, although the Hurricanes are expected to try and convince him to play with the ‘Bunch of Jerks’.

As Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports, Marleau would like to return to San Jose once the free agency period opens on July 1.

For the Leafs, they get something in return in the way of a late draft pick next year, but the real reward is the cap space it frees up. Toronto doesn’t retain any of Marleau’s salary, meaning they have $6.25 million added to a budget that was getting increasingly tighter.

The team is trying to re-sign Mitch Marner on a deal that’s reportedly going to be worth north of $10 million. They also have to sign Kasperi Kapanen in a deal that was reported as being “close” yesterday and basically done today.

Marleau played two seasons with the Maple Leafs after signing in Toronto as a free agent in July 2017.

Marleau had played 19 seasons with the San Jose Sharks prior to joining the Maple Leafs. He scored 508 goals and 1,082 points in a Sharks sweater. With Leafs, Marleau had 43 goals and 84 points in 164 games.

More importantly, Marleau was a mentor to Auston Matthews et al.

“He’s so important,” Matthews told the Toronto Sun recently. “I talk to him all the time. For myself, it’s really tough to put into words. He’s just such a good human being. He’s so unselfish. Puts everyone above him. I could tell you a hundred stories where we go to dinner and before we know it, he’s given his credit card to the waitress when nobody was looking. He always took care of guys.

“It didn’t matter if you were a veteran or a rookie, he treated everyone the same. No matter what happens, that relationship with him and Mitch isn’t going to change. It’s going to suck not seeing him all the time and spending time with him.”

If Marleau is to be bought out and is to return to San Jose, it’s likely he could sign a very team-friendly, bonus-laden deal given he’s already getting paid for next year and anything on top of that is double-dipping.

Carolina’s cap situation, with Marleau, looks like this at the moment:

Patrick, through his wife Christina’s Twitter account, posted a thank you note to the Maple Leafs, their fans and the city of Toronto.

“It was an honor to play with the iconic Maple Leaf on my jersey and be a part of Leaf nation,” Marleau wrote.

MORE:
• New Jersey Devils take Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick
• Rangers select Kaapo Kakko with second overall pick
• USA Hockey big winner of Round 1
• 2019 NHL Draft tracker — Round 1

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

2019 NHL Draft primer: Hughes vs. Kakko; draft bloodlines

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VANCOUVER — The Stanley Cup Final is over, the NHL Awards have been handed out, so it’s now time to look toward the future as the NHL Draft arrives this Friday and Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. Here’s the rundown of some of the biggest topics heading into the weekend.

When is the 2019 NHL Draft?

Round 1 is Friday night, June 21 beginning at 8 p.m. ET (livestream). (Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live.) Rounds 2-7 will be held Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. ET. You can watch full coverage on NBCSN and on the NBC Sports app.

Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will host coverage alongside Pierre McGuire and NHL Insiders Bob McKenzie, Craig Button and Darren Dreger.

The last time Vancouver hosted the draft was 2006 when Erik Johnson went first overall to the St. Louis Blues.

Who’s going No. 1 and No. 2?

It’ll be Jack Hughes to the New Jersey Devils with the first pick, followed by Kaapo Kakko to the New York Rangers at second overall. These two have been the consensus top picks all season long and despite a late push by the Finnish forward with a very strong performance at the World Championship, Ray Shero will be announcing the American forward’s name Friday night, two years after he chose Nico Hischier with the top pick.

If the top two picks are decided, what about No. 3?

This is where the draft really starts and the fun begins. The Chicago Blackhawks hold the third pick. It’s only the second time the franchise has had a top 10 pick since 2007 when they took Patrick Kane No. 1 overall. GM Stan Bowman selected defenseman Adam Boqvist with the eighth pick last year and he could go that route again with Bowen Byram (Vancouver, WHL). But after taking defensemen in the last two drafts and adding Olli Maatta this week via a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, they may leaning toward a forward. Alex Turcotte (U.S. National Team Development Program, USHL) is a local kid; Kirby Dach (Saskatoon, WHL) was nearly a point-per-game player in junior and has size at 6-foot-4, 198 lbs.; Then you have Dylan Cozens (Lethbridge, WHL), and the U.S. National Team Development Program trio of Matthew Boldy, Trevor Zegras, and Cole Caufield to choose from.

[MORE: Rotoworld’s 2019 Mock Draft]

What’s going to happen with Vasili Podkolzin?

The talented forward has two years remaining on his contract with SKA St. Petersburg and he plans on honoring it. The No. 2 ranked international skater on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings, Podkolzin is hoping teams will show patience and wait the two years before he’s able to come over. That extra development could bode well for a team if they pick him as many scouts and draft analysts don’t see many players in this class jumping into the NHL next season outside of Hughes and Kakko. 

Will Spencer Knight join an exclusive goalie club?

Among the numerous USNTDP players likely to go in Round 1 Friday night, Knight, the top-ranked North American goaltender by NHL Central Scouting, is likely to hear his name called. If selected, Knight would become only the seventh netminder to be picked in the first round since 2009. Only 19 goalies have been taken in Round 1 since 2003.

It’s going to be a good year for USA Hockey

Nineteen players from the USNTDP Under-18 team were included on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings for North American players (17 skaters, 2 goalies). That includes the No. 1 spot for skaters (Hughes) and goaltenders (Knight), along with half the top 10 for skaters and half the top four for goaltenders.

What kind of family ties and NHL bloodlines are we looking at in 2019?

Among the bloodlines in the 2019 draft… Jack Hughes’ brother, Quinn, plays for the Vancouver Canucks. Nick Robertson’s brother, Jason, was picked by the Dallas Stars in 2017. Ryan Suzuki’s brother, Nick, went 13th overall to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. Jonathan Williams’ cousin is Ben Bishop. Julius Honka‘s brother, Anttoni, is eligible to be drafted this year. Max Paddock’s uncle John was a longtime NHL coach. John Farinacci’s uncle is Ted Donato, making Ryan Donato his cousin. Nolan Foote is looking to join his dad, Adam, and brother, Callan, as NHL players. Alex Vlasic is cousins with Marc-Edouard. Alexander Lundqvist’s uncle is Nicklas Lidstrom. Mason Primeau’s dad is Wayne and his uncle is Keith. Nathan Staios’ dad, Steve, played 1,001 NHL games.

Who needs to hit a homerun in the draft?

If you’re the Los Angeles Kings and you’re in the middle of trying to get younger, you need to strengthen the prospect cupboard during this transition phase. It might be two years before they’re playoff contenders again, which would align with bringing along a Kirby Dach, Bowen Byram, Dylan Cozens, Cole Caufield, or Trevor Zegras. Ken Holland’s scouting staff in Detroit helped the team build a good prospect collection and help turn them into NHL players. Now in Edmonton, and holding the No. 8 pick, he’ll need that kind of draft success in order to turn the Oilers around.

Is it going to be a quiet or loud weekend on the trade front?

Well, that depends. After news this week that the NHL and NHLPA are still finalizing the salary cap range for the 2019-20 season, and we won’t get an answer until likely Saturday, that could put a pause on any trades this weekend. Teams will want to know what limits they’re working with before they go pursue any big fish in the pond. The cap ceiling may not increase higher than $82M for next season, which would be lower than the $83M projection general managers were given in December.

If there are trades, who’s most likely to be dealt?

Third time might be the charm for Jason Zucker and the Minnesota Wild. After failing to send him to the Calgary Flames at the trade deadline, and then having their hopes of a swap with the Pittsburgh Penguins fall short because Phil Kessel shut that down, GM Paul Fenton will have to look elsewhere to ship the 27-year-old forward. Jesse Puljujarvi‘s time in Edmonton seems up and a “change of scenery” deal is coming for him. With the way Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher has been active of late, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make another move as he reshapes the team. Could Shayne Gostisbehere be the odd-man out on a crowded blue following the additions of Justin Braun and Radko Gudas?

Are the Penguins going to finally draft in Round 1?

The Penguins have made only one pick since 2012 in the first round when they took Kasperi Kapanen 22nd overall in 2014. GM Jim Rutherford, and Ray Shero before him, have used their top pick in trades as they contended and won two Stanley Cups in the last seven years. Following a disappointing playoff exit and the trade rumors that have swirled around the team since, it would be wise yet again to use that first pick as trade bait if they can acquire a player to help them contend again in 2019-20. Sidney Crosby is turning 32 this summer and Evgeni Malkin‘s 33rd birthday is next month. The two superstars are still playing at an elite level, so why wait two-plus years for a late-round prospect to develop when you can potentially add an impact player now?

SLAP SHOTS:
• Jack Hughes will join Brian Lawton (1983: North Stars), Mike Modano (1988: North Stars), Bryan Berard (1995: OTT), Rick DiPietro (2000: NYI), Erik Johnson (2006: STL), Patrick Kane (2007: CHI), and Auston Matthews (2016: TOR) as the only Americans to be selected with the first overall pick.

• The Avalanche, Kings, Sabres, and Ducks are the only teams with multiple picks in Round 1.

• The Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs, Sharks, and Blues are the only teams without a first round pick.

• The Devils, Kings, Red Wings, Canadiens, Hurricanes have the most picks in the draft with 10, while the Blue Jackets (Round 3 and Round 7) have the fewest with two.

The full Round 1 draft order:
1. New Jersey
2. NY Rangers
3. Chicago
4. Colorado (from OTT)
5. Los Angeles
6. Detroit
7. Buffalo
8. Edmonton
9. Anaheim
10. Vancouver
11. Philadelphia
12. Minnesota
13. Florida
14. Arizona
15. Montreal
16. Colorado
17. Vegas
18. Dallas
19. Ottawa (from CBJ)
20. Winnipeg (from NYR)
21. Pittsburgh
22. Los Angeles (from TOR)
23. NY Islanders
24. Nashville
25. Washington
26. Calgary
27. Tampa Bay
28. Carolina
29. Anaheim (from SJS-BUF)
30. Boston
31. Buffalo (from STL)

MORE 2019 NHL DRAFT COVERAGE:
Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey
Dylan Cozens eager to make Yukon hockey history
Kakko ready to make NHL leap next season
NHL draft in 2020 awarded to Montreal

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer?

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Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.

No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.

Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.

With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.

These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.

Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers

It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”

The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).

They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.

What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.

Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.

His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.

He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.

At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.

There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.

It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.

Other than that, things are pretty good.

If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.

Really good.

Really, really, really good.

Championship contending good.

The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.

But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.

The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).

Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.

Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.

Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.

Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.

No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.

Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets

He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.

He did that by betting big on keeping his own pending free agents (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) but by acquiring several more at the trade deadline in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.

Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.

Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?

Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).

The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.

Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.

Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres

This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.

The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.

Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I do like it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.

But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?

The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.

Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.

This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.

More NHL offseason
Lessons NHL teams should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues
Capitals trade Matt Niskanen to Flyers for Radko Gudas
Islanders re-sign Jordan Eberle
Binnington’s next contract challenge for Blues
Bruins could look different next season

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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?

MORE:
In a series full of questions, Mike Babcock short on answers
Bruins win yet another Game 7 versus Maple Leafs

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.