The rising salary cap is sure to help a compromised Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, but why is such a star-studded lineup continuing to sputter their way to the playoffs?
As the new season started, the Toronto Maple Leafs were undoubtedly expected to be a Stanley Cup contender. The offensive powerhouse led by captain John Tavares and the spectacular scorer Auston Matthews was set to take the league by storm.
Tavares is the perfect leader for this Leafs team; he isn’t one to become rattled when things start to go south. Tavares is a “do-it-all” center. He’s a premier scorer, tremendous playmaker, capable in the faceoff circle, wonderful and composed in all three zones on the ice. Tavares has all the traits of a leader; he’s the definition of a captain.
While Tavares is an all-around talent, Matthews is the perfect complementary player; the Robin to Tavares’ Batman. Matthews isn’t quite as well rounded as Tavares, but it takes time. Matthews is the definition of an NHL sniper who can score at will. There isn’t anyone in the entire NHL with a quicker release; it’s a thing of beauty watching Matthews operate like a brain surgeon in the offensive zone. He currently sits third in the goal-scoring race with 46, just two behind the league leader, Boston’s David Pastrnak.
To go with these two stars, the Leafs have an abundance of talented complimentary players. Morgan Rielly has grown into a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, which is awarded to the leagues’ top defender each season. Along with that, the Maple Leafs deploy Frederik Andersen, arguably a top-five netminder between the pipes coming into the season.
That makes up Toronto’s core-four, but there are plenty of stellar players not yet mentioned. Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott, Tyson Barrie, Zach Hyman, and the list goes on.
Marner is a spectacular set-up man, Nylander is primarily a goal scorer. Both players are point per game talents to go alongside Matthews and Tavares. Don’t expect Toronto to move any of these four forwards in the near future, but perhaps it’s something that needs to be considered.
The four forwards combine for nearly 50 percent of the team’s salary. With Rielly, Muzzin, and Andersen all due to see new deals, the rising salary cap is a breath of fresh air to the Leafs organization.
That being said, why aren’t the Leafs dominating the Atlantic Division?
The Leafs moved forward without head coach Mike Babcock back in November after a six-game winless skid that capped off an underwhelming 9-10-4 start to the season. Nearly immediately after Babcock had been relieved of his duties, plenty of drama surrounding his coaching methods surfaced, drawing questions as to whether he would continue working in the NHL.
Injuries have hampered the Leafs’ backend this season. It’s a defensive core that tails off after Rielly, Muzzin, and Barrie. Sure, the Leafs have plenty of prospects, but they’ve yet to make an impact at the NHL level.
While Barrie has been healthy, both Rielly and Muzzin have not. It’s a group that can’t afford to suffer serious injuries and expect to keep their head above water. Toronto continues to struggle to find consistency, as they’ve lost three in a row during their west coast road trip and have a date set next with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It’s been frequently documented that the Leafs have struggled to overcome the division-leading Boston Bruins in recent years. The Lightning, their potential playoff partners, remain second in the Atlantic, as both clubs have very similar skill-sets when they’re on their game: high-end scoring forwards, reliable secondary scoring, solid goaltending, and a profound defense core.
The Leafs check two boxes: great scoring forwards and solid goaltending. Toronto’s secondary scoring drops off after the top four scorers, and the defense as a whole isn’t that deep. The Leafs need to address their defensive woes this offseason, and the only route I expect general manager Kyle Dubas to travel is examining the trade market for Nylander or Kapanen in exchange for a top-four defender. Toronto won’t be able to afford a top-tier free agent this summer, moving a proven forward or two in exchange for a defender is the only logical solution.
This current roster experiment just isn’t working and changes seem imminent. The Leafs currently sit third in the Atlantic Division, only three points ahead of the Florida Panthers. The Bruins lead the way with 98 points, followed by the Lightning with 91.
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