Photo by Luis Fallas on Unsplash

Unique opportunity for Maple Leafs to improve next season

Last season was supposed to be the long-awaited breakthrough for many Ontario sports fans. Following a six-season streak of bowing out in the first series of the postseason, the Toronto Maple Leafs crushed the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 in 2023 to get to the Second Round.

While that resulted in a 4-1 loss, it was to the Florida Panthers, who went to the finals that year. Still, the 2023/24 season powered by optimism and finally getting that monkey off of the franchise’s shoulder reverted to much of the same. At 3-3 in the series, the Buds showed their nerve and lack of gear change to bow out to the Boston Bruins.

Some want a tear-up of the roster. Others see very specific pieces of the roster who need replacing just on a playing style basis. Already, head coach Sheldon Keefe has been replaced by Craig Berube, but what else needs to be done to improve in 2024/25?

Bowing out early again

A lot went wrong in Round 1 of the 2024 playoffs for the Maple Leafs. The second-highest scoring team during the regular season with 298 goals failed to light the lamp again in the postseason. The 3-2 win over Boston in Game 2 now stands as the Buds’ only postseason game with two or more goals scored in their last 14 playoff games.

The powerplay turned to mush, going one for 21 with a man advantage, which is primarily why Marc Savard has been brought into the coaching team, according to the Sun report. Add to this the injury troubles of Auston Matthews and William Nylander, and you’ve got a team that couldn’t set up against a stubborn Bruins team.

So, there have been calls to break up the core. Nylander and captain John Tavares were adamant after the May 4 loss that the core’s fine, and they lost by a very narrow margin. In the larger picture, this core seems incapable of going up that extra gear needed to win in the rigorous Stanley Cup playoffs.

As a core, Matthews, Nylander, Morgan Rielly, and Mitch Marner are 1-8 in playoff series, with Tavares 1-6 as a Bud in the postseason. It’s a big reason why, as of June 24, the NHL odds have the Maple Leafs as the joint-seventh favourites at +1600 to take the Cup. It’s on par with the Vegas Golden Knights and well behind the +800 favourites.

Lots of cap to play with

Uniquely, and luckily, the front office will have plenty of cash to throw around this offseason. As of June 24, their projected cap space is nearly $20 million, with Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, TJ Brodie, Joel Edmundson, Mark Giordano, Ilya Lyubushkin, John Klingberg, Matt Murray, Martin Jones, and Ilya Samsonov currently set to be UFAs.

Letting them all go, or even just most of them, will allow for a rework of the blueline corps, and a whole set of new goaltenders to accompany Joseph Woll. With three RFAs among the forwards and this being Toronto’s strongest area, it’d be wise to concentrate on upgrading the starting lines on defence and getting a worthy goalie.

It’s a unique and advantageous situation that can be turned into a strong reworking of the lines to make the team more playoff-ready. With the charitable Marner, Tavares, Matthews, and Nylander in the forward lines, and good complementary scorers like Calle Järnkrok, Matthew Knies, and Nicholas Robertson, the focus needs to be further back.

Most important position to get right

It’s the toughest position to get right but also the most important, but the Toronto Maple Leafs need to find their number one goaltender. The Samsonov experiment has ended with distinct indifference. He won 23 of his 40 games, but the 3.13 GAA and .890 save percentage were clearly sub-par compared to the 20 goalies with more wins.

Giving the Russian a lead role made sense after his superb efforts in 2022/23, but in 2023/24, his numbers fell off a cliff. Similarly, Matt Murray’s injury problems continued to stop him from recapturing the magic of his Pittsburgh Penguins days. Martin Jones can’t be trusted beyond a light rotation role, but Woll showed promise in his time.

Even with Woll ready, he’s very young, and to be in a good place for the postseason, you tend to need a goalie experienced in postseason play and who can string together a good 50-odd regular season performances. As it happens, the trading market has already seen Darcy Kuemper and Jacob Markstrom move, but the Buds have very little draft capital they’d want to play with.

While we still had the Eagles secure a place in the Schmalz Cup playoffs, it was more disappointment for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The team has a unique opportunity to retool in the free agency and make a tougher team that’s got a better mentality for the postseason and is stronger in goal to at least beat the First Round in 2024/25.

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