Predicting Which Maple Leafs Defensemen Will Return in 2020-21

Yes, the 2019-20 NHL season is only 16 days away, and I’m just as excited as you are. However, like most NHL front offices, I am always enjoying the present with an eye to the future.

With the Mitch Marner saga resolved, the Toronto Maple Leafs have their well-documented ‘Big 3’ restricted free agent (RFA) deals on the books as Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander are under contract for at least the next five seasons, Marner’s contract runs an extra season. The same cannot be said for the blue line. Of their 10 defensemen under NHL contracts for the 2019-20 season, only Morgan Rielly is under contract beyond this campaign with his deal running through the 2021-22 season.

With contract talks soon to be geared towards the team’s blue line, let’s predict which of this season’s Maple Leafs defensemen will be back for the 2020-21 campaign. Keep in mind that I will only focus on the 10 defensemen currently on NHL contracts, a list that will include Travis Dermott despite his being a two-way deal at this point. The full list can be found here.

Morgan Rielly

As noted, Rielly is the only Maple Leafs defenseman under contract beyond this season and given his ascension to one of the best defensemen in the game, he’s a lock to remain with the club next season.

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly is the only current Maple Leafs defenseman under contract beyond the 2019-20 season. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

With a $5 million cap hit for two more seasons beyond 2019-20 in a deal signed at the conclusion of the 2016 season, Rielly is also one of the more valuable players in the league, considering he finished third among defensemen with 72 points last season. He is just entering his age-25 season despite already playing six in the league. The majority of NHL defenders don’t mature until their late 20s. If he wasn’t a bonafide Norris Trophy candidate last season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him nominated for the first time in 2019-20.

Jake Muzzin

Acquired well in advance of the 2019 trade deadline, Muzzin immediately stepped into a top-four role on the Maple Leafs’ blue line and performed well at both ends of the ice, tallying 5 goals and 16 points while posting a 53.7% Corsi For (CF%) in all situations despite starting more than half of his shifts (51.1%) in the defensive zone.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Muzzin
Jake Muzzin’s two-way production is a nice fit in Toronto, but contract demands could price him out of the roster in 2020-21. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

However, at 30 years old, footspeed not his strong point, and a raise on his mind, Muzzin isn’t likely to be back with the Maple Leafs in 2020-21. He will surely look for a raise on the $4 million he’s set to count against the cap in the final year of a bargain five-year, $20 million contract he signed with the Los Angeles Kings in Oct. 2014.

If the RFA stalemates taught us anything – and if we didn’t know it already – today’s NHL is a young man’s game. As a result, team’s are less willing to hand out big-money deals to players entering their 30s, especially for a player like Muzzin who can look slow on occasion. Unless his goal is to compete for a Stanley Cup with this elite young core – and take a discount on his next contract – expect Muzzin to play elsewhere in 2020-21.

Tyson Barrie

This one is interesting, and we shouldn’t expect a resolution any time soon. Barrie, the Maple Leafs’ offseason marquee acquisition, is apparently looking for $8 million annually on his next contract as he too is set for unrestricted free agency at season’s end. Whether he gets that remains to be seen, but handing out another long-term, big-money contract isn’t what general manager Kyle Dubas is going to rush into at this point.

Tyson Barrie
New Maple Leafs defenseman Tyson Barrie has put himself in a position to earn big money on his next contract. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

To be fair, Barrie has earned a lucrative long-term deal. He will be 28 years old when unrestricted free agency opens on July 1, 2020 and he’s been one of the most productive defensemen in the league of late. Over the last two seasons, his 0.79 points-per-game ranks sixth among defensemen. His 55 power-play points in that time ranks third behind only John Carlson (65) and Keith Yandle (57) despite missing 18 games.

Though his play in his own end has been questioned at times, he’s among the premier offensive defensemen in the game. The betting here is that he will get his $8 million – or close to it – but with Rielly due for a big-money extension within the next couple of seasons, Dermott due for a raise during or after this season and the Maple Leafs having more than $40 million tied up in Matthews, John Tavares, Marner and Nylander for each of the next five seasons, it’s hard to envision Barrie signing a long-term deal in Toronto with a cap hit in his asking range. As a result, I wouldn’t anticipate seeing Barrie back with the Maple Leafs in 2020-21.

Cody Ceci

Ceci, acquired in the first blockbuster trade on July 1, 2019, is playing this season on a ‘prove it’ one-year RFA contract before walking towards unrestricted free agency at season’s end. After some tough seasons with the basement-dwelling Ottawa Senators, both Ceci and the Maple Leafs are going to see if there’s a long-term fit throughout the 2019-20 season.

Cody Ceci
Cody Ceci and the Toronto Maple Leafs are set to see if there is a long-term fit with the defenseman in Toronto. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Still just 25 years old, Ceci tied a career-high with 26 points last season with the Senators, but he won’t be asked to produce much offense in Toronto. Those roles will be filled by Rielly, Barrie and Muzzin while Ceci will be primarily asked to keep the puck out of his net. That said, Ceci is in a prime spot to enjoy a career season and therefore earn a long-term deal with the Maple Leafs – or someone else – thanks to the opportunity in front of him.

Early indications are that Ceci will skate to the right of Rielly on the Maple Leafs’ top defense pair. As a result, he will face top-flight opposition on a nightly basis while being given the opportunity to put up career high points. In other words, he will be able to showcase the best of both worlds in the hopes of gaining long-term security in the NHL. With Barrie’s return next season a big question mark and given the Maple Leafs’ need for right-shot defensemen in their top four, I believe we will see Ceci return to Toronto next season and beyond.

Travis Dermott

Dermott will begin the season on injured reserve for the first 12-14 games, giving the Maple Leafs blue line depth an early chance to shine. However, the next contract situation Dubas will be asked about is for the 22-year-old rear guard as he will be an RFA at the end of the 2019-20 season.

Travis Dermott #23 of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Maple Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott’s contract status will be a big priority for GM Kyle Dubas as the season progresses. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Don’t expect these negotiations to be anywhere close to what we’ve seen with Marner and Nylander each of the last two summers, but Dermott remains a vital piece to the Maple Leafs’ blue line of the present and future nonetheless. A numbers debate on his next deal is a story for a different day, but the one thing we do know is that he is a lock to return to the team in 2020-21.

Justin Holl

After skating in 12 games for the Maple Leafs last season – but spending the entire season on the roster – Holl is in a good spot to crack the club’s top-six on the back end this time around.

First, he gives head coach Mike Babcock – a big favorite of lefty-righty combinations on the blue line – another right-shot defenseman behind Ceci and Barrie. Second, the Maple Leafs aren’t overly deep on the right side – at least not as deep as they are on the left. Trade acquisition Jordan Schmaltz along with former first-rounder Timothy Liljegren are his main competition in training camp.

Justin Holl Maple Leafs
Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl would appear to have the upper hand for a bottom-pairing role to open the season. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Schmaltz is also inexperienced with just 42 games under his belt, and considering Holl’s size advantage (he’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds compared to Schmaltz at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds) and Babcock’s familiarity with him, he appears to be in a good spot to win a bottom-pair role this season. Liljegren may challenge for a spot later in the season, and you can read more on his situation here.

A late bloomer at 27 years of age, Holl has the size and reach that Babcock appreciates in his depth defensemen. For a big guy, he also moves well on the ice. The Maple Leafs need cheap, efficient defensemen for next season and there’s a good chance Holl will be one of those players. I expect him back for the 2020-21 campaign.

Martin Marincin

For better or worse, it seems that Marincin has been donning a Maple Leafs uniform for longer than he has. He signed a one-year deal to return to Toronto this summer, reclaiming his role as a depth defender for the fifth time. Seemingly a Babcock favorite, Marincin’s size (6-foot-5, 213 pounds) and long stick make him a viable contributor in a limited role that includes penalty killing time.

Martin Marincin, Maple Leafs
Defenseman Martin Marincin signed a one-year deal to return to Toronto this offseason. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Despite his somewhat lengthy tenure as a Maple Leaf, I don’t expect Marincin to be part of the 2020-21 blue line picture. Perhaps he is brought back to help out the Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate Toronto Marlies, however there’s simply too much competition to remain with the big club. The Maple Leafs added Ben Harpur, Kevin Gravel and Teemu Kivihalme to their left side this offseason, not to mention top prospect Rasmus Sandin who seems bound for NHL duty sooner than later. Not helping his cause is Dermott’s pending return, although he’s available to play the right side as well. Despite that Muzzin is likely to depart this offseason and Marincin is willing to play on a league-minimum salary, don’t expect to see him as part of the Maple Leafs blue line next season.

Ben Harpur

Harpur was involved in the Ceci deal, but he may soon play a larger role than some think. At just 24 years of age, Harpur is younger than most of the Maple Leafs’ defensive depth and his size (6-foot-6, 222 pounds) will fit right into Babcock’s good books if he has a good training camp.

Ottawa Senators Ben Harpur Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
New Maple Leafs defenseman Ben Harpur will lean on his physicality to carve out a role in the NHL this season. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

With size often comes physicality, something the Maple Leafs lack and something Harpur will apparently lean on to carve out a role with the big club this season. He’s not going to put up much in terms of points with just seven points in 103 career NHL games, however he recorded 50 penalty minutes and 86 hits in 51 games with the Senators last season. Aside from Muzzin, the Maple Leafs don’t really have a physical presence on the blue line. It’s what could present him with an NHL role and an RFA contract to return next season as well.

Jordan Schmaltz

Schmaltz, acquired in a July trade from the St. Louis Blues, gives the Maple Leafs another right-handed defenseman to work with, although he’s yet to skate in more than 20 games in his three seasons in the NHL. Furthermore, he hasn’t been a presence offensively with just five assists in 42 career games and an average of 11:29 per game across 20 contests in 2018-19.

Jordan Schmaltz Blues
Maple Leafs defenseman Jordan Schmaltz will likely serve as right-shot depth while skating with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies this season. (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

He’s only 25 years old and has room to grow, but the betting here is that Schmaltz will serve as depth with the Marlies in case of injuries to the Maple Leafs’ right side on defense. That said, he’s still a restricted free agent at season’s end, meaning the Maple Leafs will most likely re-sign him at a league-minimum one-way contract again next season, assuming he isn’t claimed off waivers if/when the Maple Leafs send him to the AHL this season.

Kevin Gravel

Another one of the Maple Leafs’ offseason depth moves, Gravel was brought in on a one-year, one-way NHL contract in late July. The former Kings draft pick skated last season with the Edmonton Oilers and tallied three assists in 36 games.

Anaheim Ducks' Brian Gibbons Edmonton Oilers' Kevin Gravel Cam Talbot
Maple Leafs defenseman Kevin Gravel was brought in to serve as depth on the left side of the Maple Leafs’ blue line (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Unlike Harpur and Schmaltz before him, however, Gravel is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at season’s end and could be viewed as a depth piece by any of the league’s other 30 clubs. He has the size (6-foot-4, 211 pounds) that the Maple Leafs value on their bottom pair, but the competition will be fierce to earn that left spot in training camp. With Harper and Marincin seemingly ahead of him on the depth chart, Dermott returning in November and Sandin playing his way onto the NHL roster, it’s hard to envision Gravel playing a role with the Maple Leafs barring further injuries. As a UFA at season’s end, it’s likely his career makes another stop next season.