My debut was ready after July 1, and focused mostly on the fact that the Maple Leafs still had plenty of room to do something interesting and that it was worth the wait to evaluate first free agency GM Brad Treliving in Toronto.
Thank God I waited. And he went to work on Sunday.
The Leafs don’t have much room left to work with, but they do have a more complete roster after signing Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi. They both only have one-year contracts, which is a win in this environment.
Together, they’ll earn $8.5 million for the cap, which is almost true considering their projected roles. They both have advantages, especially since they will be supported by a powerful group around them.
Here’s a reasonable lineup for 2023-24, with newcomers at the seams and goalkeeper Ilya Samsonov signed at a realistic pace.
Bertuzzi feels like a natural fit with Auston Matthews, for the reasons Jonas outlined here over the weekend. Domi, meanwhile, gives Awraq some positional options, including using him in a protected third line first to attack in the middle, as shown above.
I suspect they will both move around the lineup early in the season to see where the best fit is, but the fact that they offer just as much offense as they have over the years is significant given how many forwards (and goals) Toronto has lost to free agency this year.
The Leafs clearly needed another positional option after losing Ryan O’Reilly (to Nashville), Noel Akari (to Pittsburgh) and Alexander Kerfoot (to Arizona) over the past few days.
Where does the addition of Bertuzzi and Domi leave the stock? Well, it’s very tight.
With the above roster of 23 players, with two more players in each position, they’re $5.4 million over the cap.
Treliving can get by hiding Matt Murray’s full cap in a trade and downgrading Pontus Holmberg, leaving Toronto with a whopping $56,000 to start the season.
Thus, with this limited wiggle room, it is possible to “finish” the foliage to reconfigure the list.
Possible, but I wouldn’t say it’s probable.
The biggest complication is likely to be William Nylander’s situation. They are not quite close to trading and the gap seems wide enough to force a trade.
If that happens, it will look like a very tough deal to beat. Nylander has a 10-team no-trade clause that went into effect on Saturday, so if his team wants to play hardball, they can only field the 10 teams that have the most space and/or are most likely to bid for him.
Nylander’s current contract is also a deal for a player who scored 40 goals last season. How do you substitute that production in a deal where you have to transfer roof space for roof space?
Any team that gets acquired will also want to extend Nylander, so if the figure is $9.5 million or more in the long term, that would be a very short list of teams willing to part with a good asset and then sign that contract.
The best case scenario for the Leafs is that they can sign Nylander within the next couple of months, but I’m afraid there are several hurdles in play that could prevent that. Another story of failed negotiations in 2018, which continued minutes after he missed the season. There’s the fact that the Leafs’ other three big hitters have hit at least 56 percent more than Nylander and have been for some time, though his production hasn’t been far off in recent seasons.
And there is the fact that the cap is likely to rise exponentially in 2024-25, which will outpace negotiations like this at league level over the next 12 months.
I always thought the contract Philip Forsberg signed last year at Nashville — eight years at $8.5 million a season — was the right contract for Nylander. For the maximum of $87.7 million, a potential 5% increase for the 2024-25 season, Forsberg’s contract would equate to more than $9 million per season.
That number doesn’t bother me at all, even though Nylander was in his thirties during that decade.
But, obviously, the Leafs want something smaller, starting with an eight. And Nylander wants something higher. Maybe much higher.
Perhaps they will find common ground, but time is running out. It would be very difficult to get a deal with Nylander that you can at least identify with this season. It seems like it would be completely impossible to get into the season, especially with every team likely to be crowned by then. (About 20 teams entered the season last year at or above the limit using LTIR.)
My other concern is what are the Leafs getting in return that makes sense?
It can be very easy to lose this deal, given all the variables stacked against you.
There’s been a lot of talk about Treliving watching their former team in Calgary and eyeing some tough stuff potentially available, but any package for Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev or Nikita Zadorov is at high risk considering they’re all in the same year. . Free agency without strings attached.
And after the Leafs bet $4 million on John Klingberg, whose salary is high enough that it didn’t make any sense in the third-choice role, they never had a hole in the top four at the end without eliminating everyone else.
Any combination that involves moving Nylander’s cover to add more defense would also deepen the Leafs’ danger up front. Although still a dangerous team, they finished ninth in goals per game during the regular season and scored a paltry 2.22 goals in 60 minutes in the quintuple playoffs. (Vegas won the Stanley Cup with a 3.65.)
Even if the Leafs find a way to keep Nylander, who is also by far the preferred option, they are not an overwhelming offensive force. Perhaps Matthews is healthier and therefore more dangerous, but Tavares is a year older than him. And their blue line contains older pieces that have also struggled to contribute offensively.
Although Bertuzzi and Domi are able to replace the offensive punch the Leafs lose on a free delegate, they return some of it to the defensive end of the puck, more so than the players they replaced.
Then you have a bottom six that somehow still seems to be struggling to score. Ideally, David Kampf isn’t your third-line center and can only eat hard minutes with other controllers, but if he’s playing Ryan Reaves, how many minutes can you realistically give to that line? And can they really play against the best lines of other teams?
On the other hand, if Reaves was playing elsewhere, how would deep players like Holmberg, Nick Robertson and Bobby McMann fare with someone who can’t make points at all?
Given that the list is still being created, I don’t see a lot of settings for not only the third and fourth line of Leafs, but also for the Defender, which is a no-brainer. It looks like a group outside the front lines with a lot of pieces that don’t fit together well.
Now, there are three possibilities here on that front. #1: I’m wrong about this one, and it will work. Number 2: The front office miscalculated, and they have such a mixed roster that it’s hard for Coach Sheldon how to put it together logically.
Or, option three, this range is not a finished product, and there are still bigger moves.
To be honest, I think at this point this is the most likely answer.
After signing Bertuzzi and Domi, there isn’t enough room for the Leafs to continue their free agency business, and there aren’t many contracts they can easily get rid of to make room for the Leafs. But with the difficulty of pooling UFA, this isn’t really an issue.
What’s a little troubling is that Treliving entered this off-season talking about wanting to make his rear end bigger and meaner. Klingberg’s addition certainly isn’t.
Add that (a) Nylander’s negotiations don’t seem to go well, (b) foliage seems relatively sparse for positioning options in general, and (c) purpose-built lines and pairs seem difficult to create throughout training, and there’s still Much to wonder here.
I could create a better scenario for this list including Matthew Kniss (or Joseph Wall) breaking out into his first full NHL season, Robertson finally recovering, and Kellenberg back to being something closer to what he was three or four years ago.
But you can also see the worst cases here which lead to a weaker team offensively and defensively than last year, especially if things don’t pan out in the moves ahead.
Honestly, for me, all eyes are on the Nylander front now, because this may ultimately be where he wins or loses.
(Top photo: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)