APril 25, 2019 | 10:21AM ET
BY DAVID PAGNOTTA, The Fourth Period
LEAFS HAVE ROSTER TINKERING TO DO
TORONTO, ON – As the dust begins to settle on their 2018-19 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs enter the off-season with a number of questions surrounding their roster.
As it currently stands, the Maple Leafs have $4.5 million in available cap space, which will increase when the cap itself jumps to as much as $84.5 million next season. They could gain an additional $5.3 million in space by placing Nathan Horton on long-term injured reserve. However, most of that $9.8 million (and some) will likely be eaten up by star right wing Mitch Marner, a pending restricted free agent, who is due for a significant contract.
Marner, 21, wants a salary in the neighborhood of $11 million annually, multiple sources close to the organization have told TFP, and he and his agent are more than prepared to dig their heels.
Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas also needs to get pending RFA forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson inked to new deals, and they’ll see solid bumps in their salaries, as well.
Defencemen Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey can become unrestricted free agents July 1 and it appears Gardiner will price himself out of a return to Toronto. Hainsey could return on a one-year deal worth around the same $2.4 million he earned this season (his cap hit was $3 million), but the Leafs might decide to go younger on the backend.
Gardiner, 28, had a cap hit of $4.05 million this season and will likely seek a deal worth around $6 million to $7 million this summer – and given his offensive game, he’ll likely get around that figure.
And for all the Leafs fans rolling their eyes at that, relax. Gardiner’s not the reason the team failed to get past Boston in Round 1. There are a lot of other fingers to point from Nazem Kadri’s emotions getting the best of him to head coach Mike Babcock and his ‘interesting’ decision-making to William Nylander’s disappearing act, and so on. To lay it all on him is ridiculous – give you head a shake!
But I digress.
With Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin on the left side, and Travis Dermott, a left-handed defenceman, also on the blueline, the Leafs will look to bolster their right side – Nikita Zaitsev occupies one of those spots (Dermott played the right but will likely shift back to the left side) and the team will want to see if 2018 first-round pick Rasmus Sandin can crack the team in camp, but they don’t want to rush him.
For argument’s sake, at least one more body is needed on that right side.
Dubas could enter the free agent market and pursue top right-handed pending UFA blueliners Tyler Myers and Anton Stralman, or he could look to go the trade route, which might be more likely.
During the trade talks between Carolina and the Leafs earlier in the season, the Hurricanes expressed interest in Kadri. I expect those discussions to pick up in late-June. The ‘Canes want a top-six centre and are willing to move one of their right defencemen. I wouldn’t be shocked to see a Kadri/Brett Pesce swap (as centerpieces) this summer. That move would give Carolina what it wants and the Leafs want they want – and save them $475,000 against the cap (every penny counts). A potential issue, though, centres around Pesce’s performance in these playoffs, as he’s been vital for Carolina thus far and the team might opt to hold on to him. Do the Leafs value Dougie Hamilton or Justin Faulk the same they do Pesce?
Kadri does own a 10-team no-trade list, but given the Hurricanes’ performance this season, I’m not so sure he’d balk. And whispers around Scotiabank Arena all season seemed to hint he wasn’t overly thrilled with his playing time this season – he went from back-to-back 32-goal seasons as the club’s second-line centre to 16 goals as their third-line centre.
The Leafs might explore other options, as well, as Connor Brown’s name swirled around the trade market during the season and he and his $2.1 million cap hit could be dealt, as well.
With the blueline a top priority for the Maple Leafs, outside of re-signing Marner, Kapanen and Johnsson, second on the list for Dubas is a proven backup goaltender. In hindsight, letting Curtis McElhinney go over Garret Sparks wasn’t the right move, but the Leafs went with the younger kid and at the time you couldn’t fault him.
Dubas could try to bring McElhinney back as a free agent or look elsewhere. Several veteran goalies will be available this summer and the Leafs will have plenty of affordable options.
But if Kadri is dealt for a right-defenceman, that leaves a hole at the third-line center position, and that might jump ahead of finding a veteran backup on Toronto’s to-do list.
With each of the division leaders knocked out of the first-round of the playoffs this seasons, panic may subside as GMs could simply chalk it up to one of those crazy years. Tampa Bay isn’t going to blow things up. Neither is Washington or Calgary. Nashville will tinker, as well Winnipeg and Pittsburgh. The Leafs should be right there with them.