There’s really no getting around it: the Toronto Maple Leafs are good again. But, just how good are they? Are they “Stanley Cup contender” good? Or are they merely a pretender on their way to contender status? A surprise playoff run last season, after finishing dead last the season before, has put heightened expectations on the young team and, as a result, they’ve stumbled through an inconsistent 2018-19 season so far.
Lost in all of the discussion of playoff matchups, trade deadline rentals and Stanley Cup daydreams is the fact that the Leafs are just one and a half seasons removed from a 30th place finish in the NHL. When head coach Mike Babcock was hired in 2015, he warned the team’s fanbase that “pain was coming” and that things would get ugly before they got better. Less than three years later, have the Leafs gotten too far ahead of the program? Or, are they still taking the “day-by-day” approach and dealing with the growing pains of a young team?
One thing’s for sure, regardless of how this team performs down the stretch and into the playoffs, GM Lou Lamoriello and president Brendan Shanahan are facing a crucial offseason that will ultimately be a pivotal one in the team’s future success. Big name, big money players like James van Riemdsyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov will all need to either be retained or relinquished this offseason, as the trio gets set to hit unrestricted free-agency. The decision on whether or not to sign these players will affect not only the team’s on-ice plans for the future, but their off-ice plans as well.
Do the Leafs want to really tie themselves down with big money, big term deals to three aging players when they have contract negotiations for the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner on the horizon? Again… it’s a pivotal moment in this team’s development. So, what do they do?
"I think the Toronto Maple Leafs view themselves as a very solid playoff team, a team that - maybe - if everything were to fall into place, could do well in the playoffs," TSN insider Bob McKenzie explained Monday on Tim Hortons That's Hockey. "I just don't see themselves parting with any of these guys unless the offer you get absolutely knocks your socks off.
Interesting perspective. But it begs the question, what exactly would “knock Lamoriello’s socks off”?
"If somebody comes up to you and says, 'we're going to give you a first-round pick and an A+ prospect for James van Riemsdyk,' or 'we're going to give you a really good pick and a prospect for Tyler Bozak,' or 'we're going to give you a first-round pick for Leo Komaraov,' I guess you would judge each situation on its own merit,” said McKenzie.
“When I see the Toronto Maple Leafs' lineup and see James van Riemsdyk scoring at the pace that he's scoring - even though he's so far down the depth chart in minutes played - and when I see Tyler Bozak as an important centre on the team - obviously behind Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri, but nevertheless a significant role - if he leaves, there's a hole at the middle of the ice,” explains McKenzie.
No one is questioning JVR and Bozak’s value to this team right now. The two veterans have had a fantastic bounce back campaign and are definitely two of the team’s best players as of late. Komarov though? He has struggled lately, but it’s clear that he still has the trust of head coach Mike Babcock.
“When I see the minutes that Leo Komarov gets for Mike Babcock - 24 one night - and how much Babcock absolutely loves him, then you're taking a guy out of your lineup and getting a future consideration that's not going to be with your team for another year or two or three,” continued McKenzie. “How does that make sense for a team that wants to make noise in the playoffs?”
Indeed, it doesn’t make much sense. But, that’s presupposing that the plan is to make the playoffs by any means necessary. Do we know this to be the case? If nothing else this Leafs management group have shown themselves to be a patient and methodical group. While the prospect of having JVR, Bozak and Komarov may seem appealing right now, rest assure that management is weighing the positive and negative consequences of handing out deals to these players.
Ultimately, whatever happens happens. If the Leafs decide to bring back one, two or all three of their pending UFAs no one will really be surprised. If they elect to trade all three, it’s unlikely anyone would be surprised, either. A lot is up in the air right now in Toronto, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled on Lamoriello, Shanahan and the Leafs as the NHL’s February 26th trade deadline draws nearer.