Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
46-28-8, 100 points (3rd in the Atlantic Division, 5th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in seven games in Round 1 by the Boston Bruins
Man, those expectations were so high. How could they not be?
Coming off a summer where they won the John Tavares sweepstakes, the Toronto Maple Leafs, now with one of most formidable offenses in the NHL, were supposed to compete for the Stanley Cup.
They had Matthews and Marner and Nylander and Rielly. Sure, there were questions on defense but they had Frederik Andersen to make up for any mishaps. And with all that firepower, they could just outscore their problems.
Everything looked in place, at least until it didn’t.
The first blow came when Nylander and the club came to an impasse in contract talks and he missed training camp and the first two months of the season before it got sorted out.
That defense didn’t quite hold up, sort of unsurprising since it wasn’t really addressed in the offseason. And Mike Babcock decided to be stubborn, culminating in a seemingly crazy decision not to play Matthews and Marner more when they needed them most in the playoffs.
Yes, the Leafs scrapped together a 100-point season despite their underlying issues. But when the Bruins stood in front in the playoffs, as they’d done before in the postseason, a similar result emerged: disappointment by way of underachieving.
Welcome to the throes of beings one of the NHL’s most storied teams, one that has been marred by a monumental championship drought and years upon years of coming up short.
[MORE: X-factor | Three Questions | Under Pressure]
Tavares alone couldn’t save them, despite a career year that saw him establish new highs in goals (47) and points (88). For the second straight year, Auston Matthews missed a considerable chunk of time due to injury.
So general manager Kyle Dubas has gone about re-tooling his team in search of the right mix.
Nazem Kadri is out, sent to Colorado for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot. The Leafs addressed one issue with the move, as Tyson Barrie is expected to add some defense to the blue line. But the team seems to have lost Jake Gardiner, although the unrestricted free agent has yet to sign with a new team as of yet.
But Dubas and the Leafs have another distraction their hands: the needed contract for Marner.
Marner, like several big-ticket free agents, has yet to sign. And while others are expected to get deals done prior to training camp, it looks more and more likely that Marner misses some time.
He’s already searching for a team to train with if a deal doesn’t get done. Posturing? Maybe. But Marner wants a lot of money and the Leafs don’t really have much wiggle room. Instead of heading into the season with a clear mind, it appears the Leafs will have a repeat of Nylander’s situation from a year ago, and we saw how they turned out for Nylander’s performance.
Deals for Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen are completed, at least. But it’s hard to understate how big a loss it would be for Marner to miss any regular-season time. You don’t not feel the loss of your leading point-producer, no matter who else is on the team.
Still, Dubas has done well to navigate the salary cap. Moving Zaitsev’s contract out was a shrewd move, as too was shipping out the final year of Patrick Marleau’s deal, even if it cost a first-round pick.
The team will also have a fresh set of eyes from the bench with new assistants in Dave Hakstol and Paul McFarland.
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck