After the astonishing loss to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games, in a series where the Leafs had a commanding three-to-one series lead, where they were a simple goal away from overcoming the demons that have haunted them for five seasons, there were some very unhappy customers spanning from Kyle Dubas and his team, to the players, and obviously to the fans.
Speaking of Maple Leafs’ fans, the reaction coming out of that series seemed to be a consensus, and it’s felt like that since the series loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Many fans believe a large change is needed, and the name brought up seems to be Mitchell Marner. Dubas has made it well known that he is sticking with this core for better or for worse, and his moves this off season have reflected that.
In this article, we are going to go through the moves and additions made by Dubas this off-season and use a revisionist view to see what he missed, some potential diamonds in the rough, and the question marks that lead us into next season with the answers far down the road.
Value additions; Both signed and acquired in trade
We might as well start on the positive note.
With only around $10 million in cap space heading into the offseason and with a backup goalie spot as well as multiple forward slots needing to be filled, it was apparent that Dubas was going to have to find a lot of value in the players brought in.
Brennan Menell is a 24-year-old, right-shot defenseman clocking in at 5’11” and 177 pounds. He was acquired from Minnesota this off season in exchange for a 2021 conditional seventh-rounder. Menell was traded in an attempt to get him more ice time.
Menell spent the last season playing for Minsk Dynamo of the KHL, where he put up an extremely impressive five goals and 33 assists for 38 points in 47 games. This was good enough to make him the second highest scoring defensemen in the KHL, which is impressive considering it is a typically lower scoring league and is considered by many as the second best league in the world after the NHL.
Menell was not only productive in the KHL though. In 199 AHL games played fore the Iowa Wild, the offensive defender put up 116 points, where 91 of those points game from his last two seasons. He has five games of NHL experience under his belt, but with no results.
Looking past the numbers, Menell is obviously a tremendously talented offensive defenseman. He is a stellar powerplay quarterback who makes excellent passes that translate to high danger chances by creating space for himself with his positioning and great skating.
In the clip below, you can see Menell (Light Blue jersey, Number 27) receive a pass at the blue line and push up to the top of the circle, swapping places with the Dynamo Forward. He then takes the space in the middle of the ice quickly and puts himself on an inside position of the defender to eventually roof a nice backhander to win it for his team. It is a perfect example of how his positioning and awareness allow him to create and capitalize on high danger chances. When paired with good finishers, he can surely rack up points, and for a Toronto team that struggled to find power play efficiency especially from their back end at points, two potential quarterbacks in Rasmus Sandin and Brennan Menell could make for a great combo.
Menell’s Defensive game could use some work, but being paired with a defensively responsible player could help him elevate his game to an NHL level. Some could see this as a Mikko Lehtonen type of project, but I just do not see it due to Menell’s production on North American ice in the AHL. Menell could be a big add for the leafs this season and could play his way up. He will need make a strong impression in training camp take the Third pairing right handed slot which seems to be slated for Timothy Liljegren, who we will get to later. Oh, and for a little bonus, Menell has a pretty nice fight card.
The 25 year old Scarborough native just came off of a ten-goal, 13 points in 21 game season with the Arizona Coyotes where he was not qualified and hit the free-agent market. He has made it known that money was left on the table when he signed for a 950k AAV across two seasons, but the idea of playing for his hometown team was worth it.
At 5’11” and 197 pounds, the left winger has had some very productive AHL seasons with 152 points in 193 games since 2017-18. When he was called up to the Arizona Coyotes around the middle of the season, he dug his foot into the ground as a good top 6 complimentary/finisher, spending most of his ice time with a combination of Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, and Connor Garland. He also produced very good defensive stats while facing pretty good competition. While facing an average of 0.2 expected goals above replacement (which is good considering what other players face), he contributed a total of 0.6 GAR and contributed 0.7 WAR to his team (According to Evolving hockey). He is also very good at suppressing shots against. When looking at his RAPM chart, his Corsi Against was past the first SD. He also contributed heavily on the powerplay, having a total of 2.4 Goals above replacement on the power play.
When Bunting was on a line with Garland and Schmaltz, they shared majority of the goals for % with 59.43%. For a below .500 team, it is welcoming to see a player with positive impacts at both offense and defence, as well as on the powerplay.
Bunting produced majority of his goals in net front, high to medium danger chances off a lot of rebounds or tips. he is a great net front player and is good on forechecks. He doesn’t back down from opponents who are better physically and is a great finisher. As a top-six complimentary piece, this player could fit really well with the top line of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner if he does what he always does. Filling the shoes of Zach Hyman is not an easy task, but this player was definitely signed in the hopes to try and replicate the same chemistry. I think Bunting will be a fan favourite for his two seasons here and people will love his relentless nature as well as his hometown story.
Missed Opportunities that the Leafs should have pounced on.
This off season saw a lot of movement. With that movement, came a lot of confusing decisions from general managers that saw a lot of valued opportunities through trade that could improve every team. Here are a couple players I thought would have made a good acquisition for the Maple Leafs at the price they were acquired at.
Alex Nedeljkovic has been an extremely fascinating goalie this season. At 25 years old, he came into the Carolina Hurricanes goalie rotation and impressed heavily during the regular season putting up a stellar .932 save percentage in 23 games as well as 15 wins and totaled a 13.25 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) which is great considering the Hurricanes defence allowed a large volume of high danger chances (16th most with 459). The Hurricanes also placed 2nd in High Danger Save Percentage (HDSV%) with an .851. This was largely contributed by Nedeljkovic with his own astounding .869 HDSV%.
The cons with Nedeljkovic are obviously that this season was a small sample size. 23 games is a bit small to rely on as a career predictor for Nedeljkovic, and he’ll probably crawl down from the .932 SV% and 13 GSAx that he totaled from this season, but at 25 years old and the potential starting job with the Red Wings where he will probably face a lot more shots, he will have a lot to prove with his 3 million dollar cap hit. At the cheap price Steve Yzerman was able to acquire him at, it seems as though it would have made sense for Dubas to make the same swing for Nedeljkovic.
For a third-round pick and a three-year contract, Dubas could have had a potential great goalie to tandem with Jack Campbell and potential take the crease for the future. 25 years of age is still young for a goalie, and looking at the leafs current pool, there isn’t a standout prospect right now that will be a guarantee to take the crease for the future. Acquiring Nedeljkovic would have been good insurance for that while making sure the team would have a great high danger goalie to play behind them for the short to mid term future of the team. Paying Nedeljkovic $800,000 less then Petr Mrazek would also help in the cap department, and would probably lend better results too. Although Mrazek is a great goalie and was one of the better options for the leafs on the Free agent market, It feels as though there could have been a better option for an extra draft pick.
In the midst of the completer disaster that has been the Edmonton Oilers off-season, we saw the young 24 year old defenceman in Ethan Bear get traded to the Hurricanes for forward Warren Foegele. This deal did not seem to make much sense considering the Oilers continued to downgrade on defense, and parted ways with multiple of their great defensive-defenseman, a group that included Bear.
Bear mainly played on two defensive pairings last year, playing around 250 minutes with Darnell Nurse and around 230 minutes with Caleb Jones. Both placed 96th and 67th respectively in lowest goals against per 60 (GA/60) out of pairings with at least 200 minutes played, which is decent considering the oilers as a whole were the 12th highest team in the league for GA/60. In Expected Goals against per 60, the Jones-Bear pairing saw only 2.02 xGA/60 and placed 41st in the league. This year, whatever pairing Bear played on, they were at least average defensively which is a pretty nice feat.
But, the pairings he has been on do not reflect how good he really has been defensively over the past year, even with a huge cut in his average time on ice going from around 21 minutes to 17 minutes a game. This past season, he ranked ninth in the league for lowest high danger chances against out of defensemen who played at least 500 minutes. When comparing his ice time to the rest of the players in that area, he still had logged more around 50-100 more minutes then the rest of his peers in the ice time range. Players like Ryan Ellis, Haydn Fleury, Noah Dobson, and even Zach Werenski allowed more HDCA in the same 10-20 minute range of ice time as Bear. He also ranked 12th in xGA in the league when he was on the ice with only 20.7.
In a market where bottom-four right-handed defenders seemed to get paid outrageously, Ethan Bear is still locked up for another season at $2,000,000 and will be an RFA for the 2022-23 season. When compared to Justin Holl, He bests him in almost every defensive stat and has shown that he does not need to play with great talent like Jake Muzzin to produce good results. Although Holl does have an extra year at the same cap hit as Bear and will be a UFA at the end of the contract, Bear still would have undoubtedly been an upgrade for a surprisingly cheap cost with a mediocre middle-six winger.
If the Maple Leafs could have attempted a move where they traded possibly a player like Alex Kerfoot who makes $750,000 more then what the Oilers signed Foegele for, or even if they attempted a trade using Ilya Mikheyev, they could have acquired a defensemen that would have yielded better results than Holl at the same cap hit. Even if they run into a problem in the next year or so where a younger defenseman like Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren need more ice time, they could just trade Bear’s RFA rights and call it a day.
Questions that need answers this season.
In this section, we’ll talk about some question marks surrounding the Maple Leafs heading into the season and see either how they can be answered, or where they have gone wrong in their attempts to answer them.
Timothy Liljegren has been an intriguing prospect ever since his draft year. After a disappointing draft year where Liljegren missed a lot of playing time with Mono, he fell in draft rankings and ended up with the Leafs at pick 17 and was widely considered as a steal. Nearly four years later, his value as a prospect and player has diminished from what he was once touted as, but he is still a valuable piece to have for his unique skillset and transition in playstyle. This is still a valuable player that some of the Leafs fanbase has seemingly given up on for reasons that are not in Liljegrens control.
Liljegren still has solid potential to be the excellent two way defender he has shown he could be in the AHL. He is able to play on both special teams adequately and uses strength to win puck battles frequently without taking penalties. He has an extremely active stick and can use it along with his positioning to block off passing lanes and to land excellent poke checks on the opponent. His ability to make a first pass out of the defensive zone is also great, as he is able to consistently have his linemates create great chances on the other end through his quick and decisive ability to either stretch a pass to a streaking forward or to fake a forechecker to another area so that he could find an open man. His offensive instincts are also great and he uses his passing ability in the offensive zone to create chances. Liljegren is also a great skater and can use his skating abilities in transition, which is an area he should continue to work towards improving to make him a huge threat in all areas of the game.
The main reason has not played is the amount of stop gaps acquired to make the team better now(Players like Zach Bogosian, Cody Ceci), without giving Liljegren a proper chance to prove himself at the NHL level. In the 2019-20 season, Liljegren only played 11 games. Although his results were fine, there were nights where he was playing as the seventh defenseman on a struggling leafs team where the blue line sustained multiple injuries. In this past season, Liljegren was supposed to get a bigger chance and only found himself in two games and spent parts of the season on the taxi squad due to the success of the Dermott-Bogosian pairing for 75% of the season. This season, Liljegren must make the third pairing spot out of training camp if he wants to find himself with the NHL team with the rest of the year.
The young defender is still only 22 and has plenty of time to improve, but as his career moves on, he has to find a way to solidfy himself to become an NHL defender in the near future, and it feels as though he has the potential to make the impact now. The question is now, will Head Coach Sheldon Keefe give Liljegren the proper ice time and opportunity he has worked for in the AHL so that the prospect can grow and develop further as a player and provide future value for the Leafs Blue line which could need help later as Justin Holl hits free agency in two seasons and TJ Brodie continues to get older.
Winger Depth/Forward Core having a lot to prove
As I said earlier, Dubas was going to need to find a lot of value contracts and deals in free agency to try and fill the void at the Left Wing position and other forward spots as players like Zach Hyman, Joe Thornton, Nick Folingo, and Alex Galchenyuk did not return to the team. With any contract signed at a lower value, there is likely going to be a bet on the player that they can perform higher than the cap hit signed, but potential risk to that bet could be injury problems, not fitting with the team, or not being able to repeat a good season the player had.
Fowards Like Michael Bunting who we just talked about, and Ondrej Kase have a lot to prove this season and could be vital parts to the Maple Leafs top-six if they can prove themselves. Bunting who had a great 21 game stretch with the Coyotes will need to show the success he found was not just a shooting bender, and Ondrej Kase will have to find a way to avoid injury and keep himself in the lineup, as we have all seen the potential he can bring to a top-six as a great two-way, 20 goal scoring capable player.
The list does not end at those two free agents that need to prove themselves. Prospects like Nick Robertson and Joey Anderson are both players that have had solid AHL contributions and look to make the jump to the NHL. Nick Robertson specifically will likely get a shot with the top-six either in training camp or during the season, and will need to rebound himself after suffering an oblique injury that hindered his success in 2020-21. Joey Anderson will simply just need to prove that he can chip his style into the bottom-six and prove himself as a real option, similar to what Adam Brooks did this year. Hopefully, the Leafs will give the return for Andreas Johnsson a chance to succeed instead of giving him one game on the fourth line like they did this year.
On top of this, the top end players need to prove themselves in the playoffs. the past four years have simply not been good enough and results are expected now more then ever. Hopefully they take their experiences from the past year and apply them into next season where they can hopefully beat their demons.
In conclusion, we all know the story behind the Leafs. There are not many moves that will take the spotlight off their playoff struggles, and its very easy for the fan base to get negative. Even after all this, Leaf fans should still try to keep their heads up for this year. Even if there have been some missed opportunities and question marks, this group should be poised to finally prove everyone, and themselves wrong.