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The remaining question marks on the Maple Leafs’ roster this offseason

The remaining question marks on the Maple Leafs’ roster this offseason

The Maple Leafs have been active on the free agent market for over a week now and have already filled some holes, but there is still plenty of work to be done.

For the off-season, we have identified the team’s four key needs (in no particular order):

  • Two real top four defenders
  • A legitimate top-nine center
  • A good quality left winger (this does not necessarily have to be a top player)
  • A good option for a goalkeeper in net, next to Joseph Woll, and probably an (experienced) third player behind those two as injury insurance

The Leafs have clearly focused on improving their defence and goaltending first, which is understandable. They’ve signed Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Chris Tanev on defence, while adding Anthony Stolarz and keeping Matt Murray in net. Their forward group, which was second in the league in goals scored last season, is essentially the exact same, save for the departure of Tyler Bertuzzi.

However, as things stand, they can’t afford to fill out their forward group with their two remaining RFAs, Connor Dewar and Nick Robertson. With 11 forwards, seven defencemen and two goalies under contract, the Leafs have about $2.055 million in cap space with the pair yet to sign.

They may seem like small signings, but the Leafs probably can’t afford to sign both and call it a day. Dewar just filed for salary arbitration and has a better case than many likely expected. He’s scored 11 goals this season, averaged 11:39 a night and was a solid penalty killer on two different teams, playing center and wing. AFP Analytics projects his salary at $1.43 million. Because Dewar has filed for arbitration, the Leafs can only get away with it if the award is $4.74 million or more, which it clearly won’t be. Even if the Leafs were to win the arbitration hearing and his salary lands in the $1.15 million range — more than reasonable for a potential double-digit goal-checking winger with some ability to play center, hit the penalty kill and push the game up the ice well — they still wouldn’t have enough to keep Robertson.

Robertson’s qualifying offer is $813,750, but he’ll be eligible for a raise after a season with 14 goals and 27 points in just 56 games. AFP Analytics projects Robertson’s salary at $1.38 million. Even if we round both projected numbers down to $1.4 million and $1.3 million deals (which would give the Leafs 14 forwards, seven defencemen and two goalies), they’d be about $645,000 over the salary cap with this selection:

Even if you wanted to argue that Dewar and Robertson are being overpaid by hundreds of thousands, they’re still making more than $2 million between them — rightfully so — without blinking an eye. The Leafs can’t get this roster under the salary cap ceiling.

The only waiver-eligible player mentioned above is Matthew Knies, and sending him down to be cap compliant is (or should be) a non-starter as he is arguably the best left winger on the team. Technically they could just cut someone, still have an extra body and become cap compliant, but the question of who to cut becomes a difficult one unless they are willing to cut Ryan Reaves at forward.

In terms of defense, it would be hard to imagine them cutting any of the players mentioned, as they are all solid NHL defensemen and would be claimed. But there is the question about Jani Hakanpaa in general.

Hakanpaa is not listed on the Leafs’ official website, and the Leafs have not formally announced the signing. While Brad Treliving acknowledged the acquisition in his July 1 press conference, they have yet to confirm his contract, suggesting there is some validity to the reported knee issue. At the very least, it would be fair to say that the contract is not officially in place yet.

That said, if we were to trade Hakanpaa for Conor Timmins, the Leafs still wouldn’t be able to get the roster under the salary cap unless they can reduce Dewar and Robertson’s salaries by at least $250,000 (which is certainly possible). Or Dakota Mermis could become their seventh defenceman, which could work in terms of salary cap.

However, it raises other questions if they go the Hakanpaa-less route. While the Leafs have added Chris Tanev and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and retained Timothy Liljegren, Hakanpaa’s absence will have a significant impact on the defense’s outlook.

With a healthy Hakanpaa, I’d say the Leafs have a very nice balance between their top seven defencemen in terms of skills, skill, physicality and defensive ability. A healthy Hakanpaa would immediately become their second or third best penalty killer behind Chris Tanev and maybe Jake McCabe, either playing in the top unit or driving in the second unit. For a Leafs penalty kill that ranked 23rd last season, he’s a very important addition. They can’t ask Chris Tanev to do it all, and honestly, at Tanev’s age, having an option like Hakanpaa to fill in for Tanev for an 82-game season would be a valuable resource.

Hakanpaa is a defensive specialist, mainly used in difficult minutes with a lot of defensive zone faceoffs and penalty killing. He won’t provide much offensively and he generally hasn’t moved the puck well enough to be a full-fledged top-four player. But he plays his role well. He is essentially a bigger, more mature, right-handed version of what Simon Benoit would ideally become.

That fits nicely with the OEL acquisition, as OEL is ideally deployed in the exact opposite way. In Florida, OEL started 57.65 percent of the time in the offensive zone, the highest mark of his career. In his first season in Vancouver, he posted the lowest percentage of starts in the offensive zone of his career and, not coincidentally, the lowest points per game of his career. He’s an offensive-oriented player—which is fine; it’s a huge need for the Leafs—but it’s fair to wonder whether he’s a versatile, full-fledged defenseman at this point. He’s coming off his lowest time on ice per game since his rookie year 13 seasons ago, and he played less than 16 minutes per game in the playoffs. All of this means the Leafs need enough quality elsewhere to optimize OEL to his full potential.

Maybe they still can, as Benoit and McCabe played that type of role competently as a duo last season, but it forced McCabe to play on the right and Benoit hasn’t proven himself on the penalty kill yet. But the general idea of ​​a Rielly-Tanev top pairing, an offensive OEL-Liljegren pairing, and a defensive McCabe-Hakanpaa/Benoit pairing is a good mix. It really has the potential to mesh well together and form a strong unit overall.

The defense has improved with or without Hakanpaa, partly because the bar was set so low. But without him, it still feels like they’ll need to bring in another defender by the time the transfer deadline rolls around, unless a few players really step up this season. That’s relevant to the salary cap situation; we don’t have a solution with Hakanpaa yet, and even if he does get signed, it’s hard to fully trust his ability to stay healthy.

There’s still a lot to be determined up front. The Leafs need to shift cap dollars to accommodate player(s), and several young players could be candidates early. Max Domi should fill one of the top nine spots, whether it’s center or wing, but they don’t have enough cap space to keep both Robertson and Dewar (unless the Hakanpaa deal really falls through). Even if they did squeeze both in, they’d likely have to buy at the deadline anyway, unless Knies and McMann and Domi (center or wing) all perform well in the top nine and Robertson, Holmberg, or a rookie (Easton Cowan, Fraser Minten, etc.) grabs a spot and runs with it.

It’s certainly possible—and maybe (arguably) worth trying in the first half of the season to see which young players hold up—but part of the equation is that the Leafs don’t have the assets to buy big at the deadline. They have a 2025 second-round pick to dangle, their 2026 first, or prospects they may or may not want to trade (Minten, Cowan, Danford, etc.). That’s it.

I also think about the way Brad Treliving approached the transfer deadline last season:

“I also think you have to be careful with the trade deadline. We continue to monitor our team, but I don’t really believe in getting your team (at the deadline). You have to be careful with that.

Are there any adjustments you would like to make? Definitely.”

Anyway, something will go wrong at some point.

Last offseason, Treliving waited until the end of the preseason to trade Sam Lafferty and become cap compliant. But this shouldn’t just be about cap compliance. Arguing over a few hundred thousand dollars anyway to land Dewar and Robertson to return the same forward group minus a 21-goal veteran while counting on juniors (Cowan, Minten, Grebyonkin) and second-year players (Knies, McMann, Holmberg, Robertson) to produce is a lot of hope, not a plan. It would make perfect sense for a team that’s still developing. It doesn’t make sense for a team that paid a lot of money to hire a Cup-winning coach, is scheduled to run their core for a seventh year, and just paid multiple veteran defensemen long-term.

The Leafs have made some sensible additions to the defense, taking steps to shore up their goaltending by signing Woll for the next four seasons, adding a tandem partner and signing an experienced third goalie. However, the forward group is both incomplete and unaffordable.

The two most logical options at this point are to add a two-way center for the third line – allowing Max Domi to move up in the lineup as a winger and focus on what he does best with his game – or add a solid left winger to play higher in the lineup. The LW could play alongside Matthews and Marner, though it would also work to play with Nylander on the second line so the Leafs aren’t relying on both Knies and McMann to be full-time top-six wingers.

The only way any of the above options can happen at this point is via trade. Can the Leafs pack some salary (David Kampf or Calle Jarnkrok) along with a young player to upgrade one of those two spots?

We’ll wait and see how Treliving addresses the remaining needs up front before taking full stock of his 2024 mid-season.