The Toronto Maple Leafs have been eliminated from the playoffs, and you know what, that’s okay. While the elimination of the Chicago Blackhawks has some asking whether it’s the beginning of the end for them, it’s the opposite for the Maple Leafs. This is only the end of the beginning for them.
The 2016-17 season will go down as a great stepping stone. They had great seasons from Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Nazem Kadri took another step ahead and became a shut down center of all things. Frederik Andersen is probably the best Leafs’ goalie since Eddie Belfour.
When the Leafs finished in the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, they drew the Washington Capitals in the first-round. No on gave the Leafs much chance, but boy, were they wrong. All but one game in the series went to overtime. The Leafs even managed to get a 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4. Unfortunately, the Capitals won the next three games and the Leafs season was done.
Now that the season is over, the focus now switches to the off-season.
First up is the expansion draft, where every team will lose a player to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. The Leafs really don’t have to worry about who the Knights will take as their most of their core is exempt and doesn’t have to be protected. Depending on who is protected and whether the Leafs make a trade to further protect more players, the Leafs will more than likely lose a Toronto Marlies player. Kerby Rychel might be a good bet. If the Knights do take a Leaf, you’d have to think it would be either Josh Leivo or Martin Marincin.
The Newest Leafs
After that comes the 2017 NHL Draft. Depending on when/if the Nashville Predators get eliminated, the Maple Leafs will either pick 17th or 18th. Pension Plan Puppets went over possible players the Leafs could take with their pick and it seems that defensemen could be the target. Nicolas Hague and Callan Foote are two potential defenseman that could be available at those spots. Earlier this season, I was covering an OHL game between the Hamilton Bulldogs and Mississauga Steelheads. I was told that Mark Hunter was at the game. Judging by the spot the Leafs were in the standings at the time, the only player that Hunter would be scouting (at least for the first round) was Hague.
After the draft comes free agency. The Leafs have three restricted free agents, all of which are important players. Zach Hyman, Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev all need new contracts. There were rumors that the Leafs and Zaitsev were nearing a seven-year deal, but that has yet to happen. Hyman and Brown are also important core players and deals will eventually get done. The Leafs just have to be careful, since they will eventually need to sign Matthews, Marner and Nylander to deals in the next few years.
The Leafs have five unrestricted free agents, two of which were acquisitions at or near the trade deadline. Brian Boyle provided stability as the fourth-line center while Curtis McElhinney gave the Leafs a more reliable back-up goalie after struggling to find one that worked. Both players would still be of use to the Leafs if they want to re-sign in Toronto.
The other three are Ben Smith, Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick. Since it seems that even Mike Babcock soured on Smith, it looks like he won’t be brought back. The question is whether Polak and Hunwick will be brought back. While are definitely not one of Leafs Nation’s favorites, they were good on the penalty-kill later on in the season. With the Leafs defense prospects probably needing at least one more year with the Marlies, the Leafs could possibly sign one or both of them.
One thing that could determine whether the Leafs re-sign Polak or Hunwick is whether the Leafs make a trade for a defenseman. The player that is most likely to get traded is, of course, James van Riemsdyk. With one more year on his contract, he has definitely priced himself out of the Leafs plans when he needs a new contract. So unless the Leafs want to lose him for nothing, it would be smart to move before the 2017-18 season starts in order to get as much for him as possible. It could possible happen at the draft.
What lies ahead this offseason for the Maple Leafs? What will be the next step in their road back to the top? It sure will be an interesting time for Maple Leafs fans.