Maple Leafs’ 2022 Offseason Could Include “Summer of Kawhi” Move

It’s been five days since the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games. There are already tough questions and scenarios being brought up as they try to find a solution for this club.

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For a team with an exciting core of young talent with six straight first round exits isn’t exactly great results. There’s talk about running it back with this group they have after everyone showed up and played at a high level in a tough, hard-fought battle. 

Related: Maple Leafs Making Right Call By Keeping Dubas & Keefe  

On the latest episode of the 32 Thoughts Podcast, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman proposes the notion that this may be Dubas’ version of Masai Ujiri’s “Summer of Kawhi”, where he traded DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard to push the Toronto Raptors over the top. 

Although one of the Raptor’s top players seemed safe, Ujiri made a move that ended up paying off with a 2019 Championship. Could a shakeup happen involving one of the Maple Leafs core players to really push this team over the top? It’s possible, but it’s going to be a tough decision whether to shake things up with a major move or run it back with the stars and make moves to surround them with even more support.

Trade Could Push Team Forward

The Maple Leafs showed that they were able to compete and deserved a better result this time around. However, a loss is still a loss and even though we saw the team at their best, it still wasn’t enough. 

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

At the end of season press conference, Dubas stated that he would do anything to try and improve the roster. Doing a big trade may be what the team needs to push them over the top and take a big step forward. If it improves the team, all options should be on the table.

As much as everyone wants immediate change after a sixth straight first-round exit, Dubas shouldn’t be in a rush to make a rash decision knowing how close the Maple Leafs came to dethroning the back-to-back Champions, Tampa Bay Lightning. This team was close and if there’s a move that makes sense, he shouldn’t hesitate at the opportunity to do so, even if it costs a little more including a prospect. They’re in win now mode and should have that mentality.

Should a major move happen, you have to think that William Nylander may be the one to fall. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are the faces of the franchise and John Tavares has a really high contract to move plus he has a full no movement clause. Which brings us back to Nylander. His name has come up quite a bit in trade talk and speculation dating back to his contract stalemate that saw him sign minutes before before his deadline

Many will look at his effort and how he’s backed off in tough situations and think that he doesn’t have the drive and will. Though, he has shown throughout the season and even in Game 5 and on, that he is capable of getting into the tough areas and battle hard with his speed and skill. 

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While many will point to that as a reason to trade Nylander, it’s his offensive production and skillset why the Maple Leafs may be reluctant to do so. He scored some key goals for them during the playoffs. He had a career season in goals (34), assists (46) and points (80) and he had great possession numbers in the regular season. Let’s not forget that he carries a very affordable contract at $6.96 million for the next two seasons. Teams would instantly lineup for that kind of production and value right away.

If Nylander was dealt to bring in someone with a bit more sandpaper to their game or upgrade the defense that would be ideal. Daily Faceoff’s Matt Larkin suggested Nylander for Jakob Chychrun as a potential starting point to make a significant trade. That alone would be a substantial return as it’s a key piece the Maple Leafs could very well use. 

If there’s one thing to take from the end of season press conference it was the faith that president Brendan Shanahan has in both Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe. This team showed an aggressive mindset and ability to bounce back and play with conviction when they needed to, but they’re still lacking “killer instinct”. While it was better in the series, it wasn’t enough to push them forward. Now, it’s up to Dubas to try and make the necessary moves.

Make Changes, but Keep the Core

After the Maple Leafs series against the Lightning, it would probably be best to run it back with the current top players. If Dubas decides to not move anyone in the core four unless it’s for a bigger piece, then what moves should he make during the offseason?

Dubas is once again going to have to clear out some contracts. Cap Friendly currently projects the Maple Leafs have around $7.8 million in cap space for next season. If the Maple Leafs want to move some names for an upgrade or even for targets that can provide a big upgrade in free agency, they would need to move on from contracts like Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5 million), Justin Holl ($2 million) and Petr Mrazek ($3.8 million). 

Alexander Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alexander Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While Kerfoot had a career season with 51 points, there were times where he didn’t quite fit in as a second line winger. He did bring in great energy and was great on the penalty kill, but he can be replaced with other options on the market. Timothy Liljegren showed great promise and improvement as the season went on. As a result, Holl’s spot on the roster might be in trouble as Liljegren could provide more consistency and Mrazek was below average in terms of his play in the crease. 

If they’re able to move out $9.3 million in cap space, it could make things easier in terms of decisions to make with their current unrestricted and restricted free agents while also dipping into the free agent pool. As Jeff Marek and Friedman discussed, they need to find a “miserable player” for the top-six. Some names that could be enticing would be Andrew Copp– the Maple Leafs did show interest at the trade deadline– or Reilly Smith as potential options to provide more speed and killer instinct to the team’s top-six. 

Related: 4 Maple Leafs Unlikely to Return Next Season 

There really shouldn’t be any scorched earth plan with this roster. They could still make a move to help fill out the middle portion of the forward group to support the core or even the blueline. 

An Interesting Offseason

If there’s one thing for sure, this is going to be an offseason to keep an eye on as Dubas is going to have a lot of decisions to make in his “Summer of Kawhi”. 

Does he change his mind and make a major move, like Ujiri? Does he make other moves to build around the core and keep them in tact as they were close to winning a round? There are arguments for and against making a major move. It’s a gamble because you don’t want to do anything drastic. It worked for Ujiri and the Raptors. Could it work for the Maple Leafs?

Changes should be coming, but it may not be a major deal that fans want. No matter what happens this season, they’re going to have to make moves regardless.

Salary cap numbers from Cap Friendly.