The Toronto Maple Leafs have an incredible team.
The Toronto Maple Leafs also have quite unusual situation: They have two of their best players – arguably their two best players – on entry level contracts.
Stop me if you heard this one before.
With an $80 million salary cap, the Leafs are able to game the system for one year because players who should combine for a cap hit of roughly $20 million will make less than $2 million. Even with potential bonus overages of $4.5 million, that’s an incredible savings.
If you further consider that players like Gardiner, Kadri, Marleau, Hainsey, Rielly, Andersen and Tavares are at ages where they aren’t getting better, there is a definitely incentive for the Leafs to really go all-in this season.
But they need to act like it.
Patience vs Aggression
I’m sick of patience. It’s a garbage song and it’s an overrated attribute. You know what the best strategy in almost every single game is? Be aggressive. (Now that’s a good song).
The Toronto Maple Leafs were aggressive when they refused to move their UFAs heading into the playoffs, and they were aggressive when they signed the biggest UFA name and contract in the history of the league.
But since then?
With the best salary cap set up, and mix of young players and prime players ever assembled, the Leafs have the chance to go in for the kill.
Traditional hockey dogma says you wait until the trade deadline to find out what you need and what you can get. Like almost all traditional hockey dogma, it doesn’t stand up to critical thinking.
If you make your moves early, you set the tone. Your force other teams to react to you. You have a better team earlier and you build confidence. You give your coach a full season to find the best combos, instead of 12-15 games. You even get a chance to course-correct if you misfire.
And since you’re improving your team, you get the benefits over a whole season. Adding a player now is going to be worth some extra points in the standings over the next 65 or so games.
Which is kind of key when three of the NHL’s best teams (possibly the three best ones) all reside in the same division. By far the most likely scenario is that two of Tampa, Boston and Toronto play each other in the opening round. One of the NHL’s best teams is almost guaranteed to be done after round one.
So the points available in those 65 games are key.
See a Problem, Fix a Problem
Statistically speaking, Ron Hainsey is probably the worst top-line defenseman in the NHL at 5v5 (at least on a team that can consider itself a good bet to make the playoffs).
At best, Patrick Marleau is a third line player 5v5. He should not be on the top line. Josh Leivo would outperform him, if given a chance.
The team lacks a reputable defensively elite forward and defenseman.
They lack a big-name top pairing defenceman.
They obviously need to sign William Nylander.
So fix these problems. Maybe fixing all of them is impossible, but maybe not.
Borgman makes Dermott potentially expendable.
If Liljegren can’t make the team, which it appears he can’t, then he’s expendable because of Dermott, Borgman, Holl and Sandin.
The Leafs own all their future first round picks.
Nazem Kadri on the third line is great, but when you have excess wingers and could easily plug Nylander, Marner or even Marleau into the 3C spot, you’ve got to consider your options.
In my opinion, the players to target are Arteri Panarin, Chris Tanev and Nino Niederreiter.
If you bridge Nylander and dump Hainsey, you could probably fit in all three.
Is that realistic? I don’t know or care. As I said, be aggressive. Get three different players and trade for them using players I haven’t considered. Don’t care. I’m just using examples of how the team could think outside the box and go in for the kill.
Don’t take me wrong here. I’m not saying Trade Liljegren. Trade Kadri. I’m saying, think about it. Identify where you are strong, and use it to address where you are weak.
But most off all, be aggressive.
A top four of Gardiner, Rielly, Hainsey and Zaitsev is unacceptable for a contending team. It’s unacceptable for a team as bad defensively as the Leafs to return the next year with the same top-four.
So stop wasting time. You’re not going to learn anything you don’t already know. Ron Hainsey isn’t going to suddenly get better. He won’t stop being an anchor on your best defenseman. Patrick Marleau is good, if used properly. He’s not a first line player anymore.
Be aggressive. September is the time to make moves, not March.
The Leafs are on the verge of being a great team, and they’ve got a situation you couldn’t write. The only play here is to get very aggressive and stack the team as much as possible.