Maple Leafs Round Table: Decision Time on Bozak, JVR and Boyle

With the offseason quickly progressing and the Las Vegas expansion draft around the corner, the Toronto Maple Leafs and their staff will have some decisions to make on the future of some of their veteran players.

In this edition of the Maple Leafs Roundtable, we’ll discuss the future of the franchise and whether or not the Leafs should consider extending Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. Joined, again, by Fusco, Slawson and Langridge, we consider the future of those two and whether or not the Leafs should bring back Brian Boyle to bolster their fourth line.

With Bozak ($4.2-million AAV) and van Riemsdyk ($4.25-million AAV) set to become free agents after the 2017-18 season, what should the Leafs do with them? Expose them, re-sign them, or trade them?

Forbes: Let me start by pointing you in the direction of their most recent seasons. Both had career years while playing with Mitch Marner – a kid with incredible hockey IQ and impeccable playmaking skills. Bozak finally surpassed the 50-point plateau (scoring 55) while van Riemsdyk notched 62 of his own.

I think you have to trade them if you’re going to let them walk at the end of the year anyways. You don’t want to lose players like Bozak and van Riemsdyk for nothing. That’s part of the reason I don’t think the Leafs even consider exposing them in the upcoming expansion draft.

Toronto Maple Leafs, Tyler Bozak, NHL
Tyler Bozak may have to accept a secondary role if he is to return to the Maple Leafs. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

That being said, while the Leafs proved that they’re going to get a lot of offence from their young players coming up through the system, they need to maintain some kind of veteran presence on the team. You don’t want to go out and overpay for a veteran player that doesn’t know these kids, so why not sign Bozak and van Riemsdyk to short-term two-year contracts if both players are willing?

Don’t forget, while the team hasn’t had a great selling point to free agents over the past few years, this is a franchise with a lot of upside and a high ceiling when it comes to their future potential. Bozak has the chance to remain with the franchise that took a chance on him out of college, while van Riemsdyk could be a part of something if they accept their roles and veteran players on a young team moving in the direction of in-house development. If the Leafs are able to get something in the works before the contracts expire, I’d say look for a short-term, mid-salary contract. Otherwise, I think Toronto has to strongly consider moving the two before or during the 2017-18 season so they don’t lose them for nothing.

Fusco: I’d like to see both remain Maple Leafs if at all possible. The Leafs depth down the middle isn’t where it needs to be just yet. Having Bozak there as insurance would be beneficial, even if he’s only in a third line role.

JVR is an interesting case. I’d like to see the Leafs keep him, but if a trade arises that sends a top defenceman back, I think you have to pull the trigger.

On the other hand, if van Riemsdyk can be re-signed for decent money, I think he’s a valuable piece of the offence. His defensive play is often subject to criticism, but I think the offensive pros outweigh the cons.

Slawson: In the cases of Bozak and van Riemsdyk, their futures with the team will ultimately come down to their player in 2017-18.

Kerby Rychel, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
The Leafs will surely look to the Marlies to fill some holes with players like Kerby Rychel. (Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports)

With one year remaining on each of their contracts, Bozak and van Riemsdyk will be looked upon more so than ever before to be offensive catalysts for the Leafs. In 2016-17, both struggled with consistency and were held off of the score sheet for considerable lengths of time, yet still managed to achieve new career-highs in points with 55 and 62, respectively.

However, potentially re-signing the two will be largely dependant upon a number of factors.

Firstly, are Bozak and van Riemsdyk expendable? Well, if Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic, Kerby Rychel or others prove ready for NHL ice time, they could develop into natural replacements for the veteran skaters. Carrying much smaller cap hits, promoting developing youngsters to take the place of Bozak and van Riemsdyk would also lift considerable pressure off of the Leafs’ salary cap situation.

On the other hand, what are Bozak and van Riemsdyk’s perceived values in a potential trade? If Toronto determines both to have reached the peak of their respective careers, it could be a good idea to move both while their value remains high. If Toronto’s management team does come to this conclusion, trading the pair could then be the most beneficial route for the Leafs who do, in fact, remain a rebuilding team.

So, ultimately, the Bozak and van Riemsdyk situation is strictly a case of wait and see. If both can excel in 2017-18 and lead the team back to the postseason, it would be a fantastic idea to re-sign each to a new deal – if the price is right, that is. On the other hand, if the Leafs struggle throughout the season and Bozak and van Riemsdyk falter, it could be time to usher in the next wave of Toronto’s youth movement.

Langridge: If van Riemsdyk isn’t dealt by the start of next season, I’d be shocked. There is no way the Leafs can afford to keep van Riemsdyk after his contract is up. Sure, they could keep him until the trade deadline, but they could get more for him if they trade him now. He’s been great for the Leafs for years but it’s time to move on and get some defensive help in return.

Maple Leafs, James van Riemsdyk, NHL
James van Riemsdyk could be the best trade option for the Maple Leafs. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

In the case of Bozak, he’ll probably stick around for the entire year. With the Leafs center situation the way it is, the Leafs need him. After this season, it really depends on how much he wants to stay and if the Leafs can fit him in under the cap. Whether or not William Nylander moves to center in the next few years could also be a factor.

What should the Leafs brass take from the Marlies’ playoff run?

Forbes: While the Marlies haven’t been able to capture the Calder Cup, I think it’s still a great sign that they’ve been a successful club over the past few years in the American Hockey League. Players like Dermott and Nielsen got a chance to shine, but Leafs’ brass should also be eyeing the growth of goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo who took over the starting role for the club in the playoffs.

Marlies’ coach, Sheldon Keefe, was basically forced to go with Kaskisuo in the playoffs, but it paid off and if Keefe has recognized the potential there, you have to assume the Leafs’ management has as well.

“What he’s show is he has confidence,” Keefe said to the Toronto Star about the 23-year-old. “He’s waited for his opportunity and now he’s ready.”

Antoine Bibeau, Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Marlies, NHL, AHL
Will the Leafs look to bring in a backup goalie for Andersen or is the answer in the Marlies organization? (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Leafs have, by far, one of the best prospect pools in the NHL. Guys like Rychel, Valiev, Bibeau and now Kaskisuo as well as the two defensemen that were mentioned earlier. Sure, maybe the Marlies haven’t gone all the way yet in the AHL playoffs, but the experience that these players are gaining from getting to the playoffs and playing at a higher level will ultimately benefit them when they make the jump to the big club. And as I’m sure some of my colleagues will point out – for a number of these prospects, that could be coming sooner rather than later.

Fusco: Leafs brass should be incredibly happy with how the Marlies run went. They advanced to the second round and took a very good Syracuse Crunch team to seven games.

They also proved they have some excellent prospects waiting in the wings, with Dermott being the most NHL ready. Look for him to make an impact as early as next year.

Slawson: Well, if there is one thing the Leafs’ brass can take away from the Marlies’ most recent playoff drive, it is that the organization is in possession of two quickly developing defenders who could make an impact with the club in the near future.

I’m talking, of course, about Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott – two rookie defensemen who have quickly and consistently turned heads despite their previous lack of professional experience.

During the regular season, both Nielsen and Dermott were sensational. Nielsen, a two-way force who excels at both ends of the ice, netted 14 goals and tallied 39 points in his initial season with the Marlies – a total which was good for third most amongst rookie defensemen. On the other hand, Dermott nabbed five goals and 24 points in 59 games played while missing substantial time due to injury. Further, Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe lamented the loss of Dermott at the time as well as alluded to his value, remarking that his team”hasn’t been the same” since his departure.

Travis Dermott, OHL, Erie Otters
The Maple Leafs have seen some major development from defenceman Travis Dermott. (Photo by Terry Wilson/OHL Images.)

In the postseason, both defenders continued to produce at a half a point per game pace – considerable output from two youngsters in their first trip to the Calder Cup playoffs.

On defence, a key area of weakness for Leafs, both Nielsen and Dermott’s showings in the Marlies’ playoff run, in addition to the regular season, should exude considerable confidence into Toronto’s management team. As two players who could act as bonafide depth options for the team as they strive for greater postseason success, the growth of Nielsen and Dermott is a development which Toronto as an organization should be extremely pleased about.

Langridge: At this point it’s just more development for their prospects. They haven’t been able to win any Calder Cup, so they are not getting any championship experience. Players like Kapanen, Leipsic, Rychel, Rinat Valiev and Dermott are all players that could challenge for a spot. Playoff pressure should be good practice for the fight they will be in to make the team next year.

There’s a lot of talk about Polak and Hunwick, but what should the Leafs do with Brian Boyle?

Forbes: I hate to play the wait-and-see card, but the truth is you don’t want to over spend on a fourth line player. That being said, Boyle amplified the fourth line for the Leafs, adding energy and experience to an otherwise misfit line. He showed defensive prowess in killing penalties for the Leafs and was able to be another net front presence on a line that turned into quite the forechecking line.

There will be a number of teams interested in his service – to think otherwise would be naive. But if the Leafs show their cards in terms of what their plan is moving forward, I think they could be in the running to keep the big forward.

Offensively stunted in his days with the Leafs, Boyle played a much bigger role than just what he did on the ice. Another veteran with playoff experience, he was key to composing the youngsters in their first-round loss to the Capitals. A teammate that can offer a lot of advice to this developing roster, Boyle has mentioned that Toronto is a special place and he is open to the possibility of returning.

That being said, the Leafs have to set a limit on what they are willing to spend for the aging Boyle – possibly a two-year contract in the $3.5-million range.

Fusco: I think re-signing Boyle should be a priority for the Leafs. He’s experienced and was a big part of elevating the play of the fourth line, especially in the postseason. The Leafs need center depth and Boyle is the perfect addition if they get him on a one or two-year deal.

Slawson: Sign him. I repeat, sign him.

When the Leafs traded for Boyle on Feb. 27, 2017, the team knew well the product which they were receiving. An imposing presence and intimidating force considering his immense size and physicality, Boyle steeped into Toronto’s lineup and made an immediate impact. However, Boyle’s influence did not come as much on the scoresheet as it did on the players around him and the team as a whole.

A natural leader, Boyle’s breadth of experience was of incredible value to the Leafs’ young roster, as he was able to motivate and drive his teammates towards success like none other. Not only was Boyle a resounding presence on the team’s fourth line, but he was essential to the considerable and growing confidence exuded by a number of the team’s developing talents.

Brian Boyle, NHL
After grabbing him from Tampa Bay, Brian Boyle played a major role for the Maple Leafs. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Fantastic in the face-off circle and a go-to on the Leafs’ penalty kill, Boyle is a player who is highly respected by his teammates, coaching staff and management team. Although it would be ideal to provide a developing young player with the ice time which Boyle receives, it goes without saying that Boyle was a major key to the team’s success in 2016-17 and could be once again in 2017-18.

As such, the Leafs should seriously consider signing Boyle, but only to a short-term contract. Yes, his offensive production is steadily declining, but Boyle can provide so much more to Toronto than the odd goal. Besides, with the amazingly lethal talent possessed by the Leafs, who needs fourth-line scoring.

Langridge: In my opinion, Boyle is not coming back. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for him to stick around but I just don’t see it happening. The draw to return to Tampa Bay will be strong and who knows how much money will be thrown his way. The Leafs will need to look for a good replacement, because I do not want to see Ben Smith as the everyday, fourth-line center. It’s unfortunate that the injury to Frederik Gauthier will keep him out until November. He could get the role once he returns, but the Leafs also might look for a cheap free agent.

Whether the Leafs are able to bring back any, or all, of the three mentioned by the roundtable, it’s clear that there is some unity in discussing the need for veteran presence on a young team still in the early stages of a rebuild. Whether it Bozak, van Riemsdyk or Boyle, feel free to have your say on who the Leafs should look to keep by commenting below and be sure to join us for the next Maple Leafs Roundtable.