The season opened with great promise, but, in short time, came to an unfortunate end, way too early. Yes, I am describing the way the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2018-2019 season unfolded.
Toronto came into the season with high hopes, after signing superstar centre John Tavares. They ultimately squandered an opportunity to go on a deep playoff run with an affordable young roster, being eliminated again by the Boston Bruins in the first round. So, where does the team go from here?
I have some thoughts on what the Leafs need to do this off-season, to be able to compete for a Stanley Cup in the 2020 season.
I’ll start with the obvious one. Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas needs to get Mitch Marner signed to a new contract, as soon as possible. For those unaware, Marner needs a new deal, as his current contract is set to expire as of July 1st. After what happened earlier this season, with William Nylander holding out until December to sign a new contract, consequently not being with the team until shortly after the contract negotiations were complete, it would be in Dubas’ best interest to get Marner signed before Canada Day.
Nylander did not have a great shortened season, finishing the regular season with just seven goals and 27 points. But, it’s not just the prospect of possibly not having the Leafs 2018-19 best point producer to start the season that should scare the Leafs GM. He should also be concerned about the possibility of Marner receiving an offer sheet, a practice that is rare in the NHL, but, with a player as talented as Marner, could happen.
Now, let me talk about the head coach. I know a lot of Leaf fans, on Facebook and Twitter, have recently been calling for the Leafs to fire Mike Babcock. I know during Toronto’s latest playoff run, I was one of those who contemplated what the team could do with a different face behind the bench, one who doesn’t overplay veterans such as Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau. But, as the emotion has started to wear off, from the sting of the latest playoff defeat, I thought logically about this and I think Toronto should hold onto one of the highest paid bench bosses in the league.
Mike Babcock may be stubborn at times with the way he does things, but he is still one of the best coaches in the league. He’s won a Stanley Cup, won the World Cup of Hockey, and has won gold medals at the Olympic level. With Joel Quenneville hired by Florida, there are no available coaches on the market who can bring the kind of pedigree Babcock does.
The Leafs also need to figure out the backup goalie position. I know in a past column, I defended Garret Sparks, but after the team removed him from the backup position, just before the start of the playoffs, it has become clear to me he doesn’t have the trust of management or the coaching staff. Therefore the Leafs need to decide if they are comfortable moving into next season with Michael Hutchinson as their backup, or if they feel Sparks deserves a second chance. If neither of those are the case, then the Leafs need to acquire a backup either through a trade or free agency. Just speculation, but Antti Niemi could be a fit, if Toronto decides to explore the free agent route.
Lastly, I’ll talk about Toronto’s salary cap situation, which seems to have been on Leafs fans’ minds since the start of this season. With the Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares contracts, and the expected big contract for Mitch Marner coming up, it is going to be a challenge for Dubas to put together a roster similar to what the Leafs had this season. He will have to be creative to work within the restraints of the salary cap. That could mean trading a contract like Nikita Zaitsev’s to make room, and possibly only re-signing one of Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson. who, like Marner, are on expiring contracts. Another way may be to let Jake Gardiner go to free agency and replace him with a young defender like Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren.
Leaf fans, I hope next season we will get to see the Leafs make it out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
We reserve the right to remove any and all comments for any reason. Comments with swearing will be deleted without exception.
Is a reporter for The Standard Newspaper, so if you see him, feel free to say hello. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @dancearnsy