It was no hidden secret that massive changes were coming. Every insider was saying that GM Kyle Dubas would be moving players around and trying to change what the Maple Leafs look like heading into the 2019-20 season.
Compared to how they finished last season, there was really only one option and expectation for the following year. Suffering yet another first-round loss and the second in a row to the rival Boston Bruins isn’t the best feeling for fandom or for the young franchise full of promise.
The outlook of this team felt inevitable at that moment — a great team that will always be in the top-10 during the regular season, maybe sprinkle a couple Presidents’ Trophies in there, but they would never fully take advantage of the talent on the roster. Each year would have its own excuse. A key injury to a star player or just a rough week for the goaltender.
It would certainly be overreaction to what was laying out there, sprawled out on the ice as they have yet to win their first true modern era playoff series, but it would have a sliver of truth lodged in there. That little voice in the back of the fandom head that is trying to be rational.
How the roster was constructed, some elite-level forwards and an extremely suspect group of defenceman, that seemed to never work. Even if someone hastily points out that the Pittsburgh Penguins won the whole damn thing with Ron Hainsey, Trevor Daley, and a couple of other less mobile blueliners in 2017, that whole theory seems to not work the instant it’s applied to any other team. It requires some insane luck, or a league-high 8.77 shooting percentage at even-strength.
If Leafs management tried to recreate that and fail, it would feel like a year wasted. A year that they could have just secured some talent on the backend and make the team a little bit better.
Even if the Jake Muzzin acquisition was a fair one and young players like Travis Dermott stepped-up majorly, it still didn’t feel like that coming off another Game 7 defeat. Everyone can try and lie to themselves whether or not the Leafs were the better team in the 2019 playoffs against the Bruins (which might be true), but they were on the other end of the first round yet again.
It felt like a failure and it played out that way.
There was change needed and with some contracts coming off the books, there was space to do so. Moving a veteran and future Hall-of-Famer Patrick Marleau for contractual reasons, moving disappointment Nikita Zaitsev to the Ottawa Senators for basically the same player on a shorter term, Connor Brown being attached to the Zaitsev deal — these were moves that were needed. Needed for both cap reasons but also simple personnel reasons.
A total of nine players that appeared in at least one single game for the Leafs last season were traded away, either this summer or during the campaign. It’s possible that the Leafs’ group of defencemen to start next season will feature only two players, Rielly and Muzzin, that played a game last season. These are significant changes that Dubas made and made with good reason.
There is a clear window of contention and it’s slowly closing as each first-round exit passes. If another year was wasted, trying to go at it with the same depth players that clearly have not been working, heads would roll.
That is why Dubas clearly made it his goal to change the surrounding complimentary players to the core that’s already here. Trading away the longest-tenured Leaf in Nazem Kadri for an improvement on the right side of defence while also acquiring a young forward that is here for the long-term, is one way he did this.
The biggest move that he realistically could have made this summer, he did so with eyes both on the present while also keeping things open for the future.
There is a team that, with some hope thrust upon players like Ceci to improve just the slightest bit, might be able to realistically make it out of the first round. And if this year’s postseason has shown the hockey world anything, it’s that anything can happen and the puck just needs to bounce the right way for a couple games to make all the difference.
Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin are two top-four defencemen that only have one season guaranteed in Toronto, both becoming unrestricted free agents after this season. Besides a restricted free agent like Travis Dermott, Morgan Rielly is the only defenceman that is on the current NHL roster that is signed beyond next season.
This has been spread around the league as a negative, no cost certainty and for a team that wants to be as competitive as possible, to leave the future group of defenceman up in the air might not seem like the best move. But this opens something that is so desired around this league that every team wants but teams prevent themselves from having it — roster and cap flexibility.
Teams want to make moves but the last remaining years on a giant free agent contract they signed three years ago is preventing them from getting better, it is insanely familiar for every team. Dubas and the Leafs front office know what forwards will be in the lineup for the next few years, now they can built around them a stable blueline built for the future.
Keeping one foot in the present and one in the future, they have options. If Barrie has a massive breakout season in Toronto and shows willingness to stay here, then maybe he’s another long-term option. But if any of those one-year defencemen flame out and aren’t worth keeping for the future, Dubas can just let them walk with no repercussions and thank them for their services on the way out.
They have insane flexibility and a ton of options to consider. The Leafs are prepared for every possibility to happen.
There are expectations for next season, while anything can happen it’s also a season of hope and quiet promise laid out in front of every fan. With these trades and free agent signings, this team is expected to have a better end than last season, or else those moves will be heavily questioned and even more pressure will be on this management.
It might be the first year that this team really feels like they are all-in, some key players are potentially here for a good time and not for a long time.