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Report: Leafs already have Bozak’s replacement in place?

The best bet for the Leafs may be right under their nose...

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It’s no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs will look a lot different next season. Veteran players like James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and Tomas Plekanec are all slated to hit the open market as free-agents and with high priced extensions coming up for youngsters like William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews something’s got to give. 

While the Leafs may be able to squeeze together enough change to retain one of their impending free-agents, most likely van Riemsdyk, it’s inevitable that they will lose some veteran talent. Arguably the most important player set to depart this offseason is Bozak. As the Leafs’ third line center behind Matthews and Nazem Kadri, Bozak has quietly put together a productive season. While it’s nothing close to the 18 goals and 55 points he put up in 78 games last season, Bozak’s 11 goals and 38 points in 72 games this season are nothing to sneeze at. If and when Bozak leaves the Leafs, who’s going to step into the role as the Leafs’ 3rd line centre? Dominic Moore in unlikely to return, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t have much faith in former first round pick Frederik Gauthier and the free-agent crop looks remarkably thin… could the Leafs be forced to look for their next 3rd line centre from within?

In his latest article for The Athletic, Leafs analyst Jonas Siegel proposes a perfect solution to this potential problem: William Nylander. Siegel argues that Nylander has earned a shot at playing down the middle of the ice, but will the Leafs give it to him? Or will they continue to keep him on the wing as Matthews’ sidekick?

“Centre, wing, it doesn't matter — wherever Babs wants me to play,” Nylander said when asked about replacing Bozak down the line.

“You have more options,” Nylander explained of the difference he feels at centre. “In the middle I can go right or left versus when I'm playing right wing going into the middle is kinda hard — I mean, guys are back-checking and stuff so usually you can only use the outside.”

So, what does Nylander have to do to get a shot at centre? Babcock has made it clear what he expects out of his centremen saying, “Each and every night there's a test for you. It's never a skill-set [issue for Nylander], it's your determination to play without the puck, it's your puck pressure in D-zone, it's your ability to sort things out. And some nights the matchups are easier than others.”

It remains to be seen what the Leafs do in the offseason to replace Bozak, and to be fair Nylander is only one option. Still, he’s an intriguing option and may end up best the team’s best option. If nothing else, the kid is raring to go.

“Yeah, I enjoy playing centre,” said a smiling Nylander.

Five potential free-agent destinations for JVR

In case you missed it, Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk was in fine form last night in the Leafs’ 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The big man put up two goals, both of which were vintage JVR as he scored from right on top of the crease.

Check it out:

Just hanging out between the hash marks without anyone touching him… hey TB, here’s a tip for you: you might want to defend that area of the ice. 

JVR followed that up with another goal from nearly an identical location:

There are only a few players in the league who can get a backhander off that quickly and raise it that high from in tight. And, as Leafs fans know, JVR is a wizard at handling the puck in those tight areas. 

Unfortunately for the Leafs, they would blow a three goal lead to the Lightning despite JVR’s strong play. Regardless, with seven goals and eight points in his last five games, the 28 year old winger has been on an absolute tear lately. It’s no secret that he’ll hit unrestricted free-agency this offseason and there’s a very good chance that he’s currently playing out the final string of his career with the Leafs. If that’s the case, where does he end up?

TSN insider Craig Button laid out five potential destinations for JVR this summer and guess what, Leafs fans? Button’s list doesn’t include the Leafs. So… where will JVR end up? Let’s look at Button’s list:

Edmonton Oilers - This is an easy prediction to make. So long as he’s breathing, Connor McDavid is going to attract talented wingers to Edmonton. Given the Oilers’ scoring woes and the lack of high-end talent on the free-agent market, this seems like a natural fit.

Carolina Hurricanes - It’s no secret that that the Hurricanes need a jolt of offense. The team hasn’t made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2009 and with new owner Tom Dundon in place, look for them to make a splash in free-agency this offseason.

New Jersey Devils - Don’t look now but the Devils are young, fast and fun. Oh… and they have a TON of cap space. If Devil’s general manager Ray Shero is serious about improving his team this upcoming offseason, a JVR - Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall line is a real possibility.

Arizona Coyotes - After dismissing the Buffalo Sabres as a realistic option, Button declares the bottom-feeding Coyotes as a potential fit. Why? Like the Devils, the Coyotes have a ton of cap space and despite their spot in the standings they’ve made significant improvement during the second half of this season. They’re moving in the right direction and JVR could help move them along even more in 2018-19.

Columbus Blue Jackets - This makes sense for a whole host of reasons. Like the Devils and Coyotes, the Blue Jackets have a ton of cap space. Unlike those two teams however, the Blue Jackets are a legit Stanley Cup contender. In fact, of all the teams mentioned by Button, it’s likely that the Blue Jackets are the only playoff team. If JVR is intent on getting his cash AND winning a Stanley Cup, CBJ might be his best bet. 

Then again… there’s always the possibility of re-signing in Toronto. In fact, JVR’s teammate Auston Matthews may have helped him do just that without evening knowing…

Report: Matthews’ injury could save Leafs from salary cap problems in 2018-19

As they have for each game over the past month, the Toronto Maple Leafs will take to the ice tonight without injured centre Auston Matthews. The young superstar hasn’t seen any game action since February 22nd when he suffered a separated shoulder courtesy of New York Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck. Since then Matthews’ injury has progressed to the point where he’s a regular in Leafs practice, but still not quite ready for game action.

Matthews has already been ruled out for tonight’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, making it the 20th game this season that he’ll miss due to injury. In his latest column for The Athletic, Leafs insider James Mirtle highlights Matthews’ injury and examines just how it could benefit the Leafs moving forward.

You see, by sitting out for such a long stretch, Matthews is unlikely to hit many of his performance bonuses this season, saving the Leafs potentially millions of dollars in cap space for 2018-19 and beyond. 

From Mirtle:

According to a source with knowledge of what's in Matthews' contract, he is likely to miss out on the majority of the bonuses in his entry-level deal this season due to all of the injuries. While he will earn $850,000 in Schedule A bonuses, he will almost certainly miss his $2-million Schedule B bonus.
Matthews' contract has a section — standard among first-overall picks — which reads as follows:
Scoring Bonus (Goals, Assists, Points or Points per Game)Top 10 forward in NHL: $2,000,000

Had Matthews not missed 20 games and counting, he’d almost certainly be amongst the league’s top 10 scorers and have earned himself a cool $2,000,000 for his efforts. That cap ding would roll over to next season, further hampering the Leafs’ ability to re-sign pending free agents like James van Riemsdyk or Tyler Bozak.

“The injury probably cost him the $2-million, as he would have been top 10 in goals,” said Mirtle’s source. “Technically, he could still make it in points per game but highly unlikely.”

On top of Matthews’ $850,000 bonus for this season, the Leafs will also owe bonuses to Mitch Marner in the same amount and William Nylander in the amount of $637,500. All together these amount to a $2.34 million cap overage which will be applied to next season. That’s a pretty healthy chunk of change, but it could have very easily been $4.34 million had Matthews earned his big bonus. It’s very likely that this would have cost the Leafs any chance at re-signing JVR, for instance. In fact, that $4.34 million is higher than JVR’s current salary and nearly 75% of the $6 million salary that it’s believed he’ll command on the open market.

With just $2.34 million in bonuses being paid out this summer and with Joffrey Lupul’s $5.25 million coming off the books, it’s not unrealistic to think that the Leafs could bring JVR back, should they choose to do so. They could also use the money to pursue a top four defenceman, either on the free-agent market or via trade. Vancouver Canucks defenceman Chris Tanev and his $4.45 million salary seems like a perfect fit.

Regardless of what the Leafs decide to do with their newfound cap space next season, there is still one way in which Matthews could mess it all up. He still has a $2 million performance bonus for winning a major award. While the Hart, Richard and Selke all seem like a long-shot, we’re willing to bet that Leafs fans would be happy with the team paying out a $2 million bonus for a Conn Smythe Trophy win. Yeah… pretty safe bet there.