For Leafs fans, it’s time to turn the focus to 2015-16.
After a dive to the bottom of the NHL standings, Toronto has recently settled into a basement-dwelling 27th overall. Their fate was sealed long ago, when the Leafs began to falter in January:
#Leafs playoff chances really played with fan's heads this year…an early season roller coaster. Thx SportClubStats. pic.twitter.com/MyS0MM0gI2
— Platinum Seat Ghosts (@3rdPeriodSuits) March 16, 2015
And now, even the ever-faithful fans have finally given up on attending games en masse, routinely choosing to do other, less depressing things with their time:
ICYMI: On the empty seats that are becoming the norm at Leafs games these days http://t.co/ck0kIOhAvh pic.twitter.com/l7iEKSaSdr
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) March 24, 2015
With the Leafs dragging their posteriors to the NHL draft lottery, it’s time to turn attention to how the Leafs roster is likely to shape up next season.
First, we’ll start with a quick look at the moves the Leafs have already made this year. Then, we’ll explore some of the Leafs’ likely/rumoured off-season moves. Last, we’ll look at a likely Opening Night roster for the 2015-16 Toronto Maple Leafs.
*spoiler alert: things could get worse. Plenty worse. And they probably will.
Part I – The Purge Begins
Prior to the trade deadline, the Leafs set to work on purging their lineup as much as possible. GM Dave Nonis expressed frustration that he was unable to create more change:
Nonis: "We did as much as we could… we'd hoped there was a couple other things that could have gotten done."
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) March 2, 2015
Although Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, and Joffrey Lupul weren’t dealt, Toronto managed to clear the roster well. All told, the Leafs turned the roster over by dealing away Daniel Winnik, Mike Santorelli, Cody Franson, David Clarkson, Spencer Abbott, David Broll, Carter Ashton, Olli Jokinen, and Korbinian Holzer.
With six NHL regulars gone, and injuries (Peter Holland, Trevor Smith, Zach Sill, Stephane Robidas, Roman Polak) and suspensions (Nazem Kadri) plaguing the roster, the Leafs have iced a fairly uncompetitive lineup during their recent stretch of games:
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
With six skaters who have logged significant time in the AHL, a college signee, two waiver claims, and an ancient dead-money blue liner, the Leafs are now regularly icing a lineup half-filled with borderline NHL talent.
Perhaps this explains the decision by CBC to ignore the latest installment of the Battle of Ontario with its Hockey Night in Canada broadcast:
#Leafs vs #Sens Battle of Ontario on a Saturday night and it's not broadcast on CBC. This has to be a 1st. #TMLtalk
— We Are Tank Nation (@LeafsNation1967) March 21, 2015
Part II – Clearing the Deck
While Nonis was frustrated by his inability to move big-money contracts during the season, the offseason offers the financial flexibility needed for trade partners to take on some of the Leafs’ larger contracts.
And, looking to affect a culture change, Brendan Shanahan and the Leafs management team are likely to continue purging undesirable players and contracts from the roster in full force.
Though it’s uncertain how far the Leafs will go in restructuring, the will to go big is there.
As per reports by Hope Smoke, Darren Dreger has said:
Dreger "Sounds crazy when you say even the training & medical staff on the Leafs is in jeopardy, but that's a fact"
— Hope_Smoke (@Hope_Smoke) March 23, 2015
Now that’s a rebuild.
Aside from swapping out the entire training staff, who are the Leafs likely to secure deals for?
Phaneuf is rumoured to be a fit in Detroit. Dreger has said that Kessel will be dealt. Tyler Bozak’s cap-friendly contract should be easily moved. Lupul isn’t as easy to trade due to his contract but is definitely a candidate to go.
Beyond trades, a number of players are on expiring deals and are unlikely to return, including Trevor Smith, Zach Sill, Joakim Lindstrom, Eric Brewer, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren.
In the (unrealistic?) interest of being thorough, let’s assume that President Shanahan and his team are able to accomplish all of their goals. Phaneuf, Kessel, Lupul, and Bozak will be traded, while Smith, Sill, Lindstrom, Brewer, Orr, and McLaren will be allowed to leave as free agents.
James Mirtle muses that David Booth and his expiring contract may be kept around for trading at next season’s deadline. We’ll leave him in Toronto along with all of the team’s restricted free agents – Nazem Kadri, Richard Panik, Sam Carrick, Brandon Kozun, TJ Brennan, Tim Erixon, and Jonathan Bernier.
Who does that leave to fill out the 2015-16 opening night roster?
Part III – 2015-16 Opening Night Roster
For better or for worse (much more likely), here is the squad left to start next season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
|Line 1||van Riemsdyk||Kadri||Nylander|
|1st Defense Pair||Rielly||Gardiner|
|2nd Defense Pair||Polak||Brennan|
|3rd Defense Pair||Robidas||Percy|
Clearly, this lineup is very worrisome as an NHL group.
The biggest problem is the notion that budding prospect William Nylander will be ready for full-time duty in the NHL next season. At only 19-years-old, Nylander’s conditioning and strength aren’t likely to be NHL-calibre. However, with plays like these for the Marlies this season, the Leafs may be tempted to try Nylander out with the NHL team anyway:
William Nylander's Goal vs Lehigh Valley – March 11, 2015 #Leafs http://t.co/HUYG9G1Bjt
— Brendan Ross (@RossyYoungblood) March 12, 2015
Meanwhile, AHLers Carrick, Kozun, Leivo, McKegg, Frattin, Brennan, and Percy all are set to join the Leafs full time.
It would be a major problem.
However, this lineup assumes that no NHL roster fillers are acquired in trades for Toronto’s stars. Also, this lineup does not factor in future free agent signings for the Leafs.
If the team is strategic enough to identify Winnik and Santorelli types for deadline deals again, the Leafs may look to sign 2015 pending free agents such as Tomas Fleischmann, Martin Erat, Curtis Glencross, Matt Cullen, Shawn Horcoff, Paul Martin or Jordan Leopold. Each could plug a lineup hole and earn a decent rental haul for the Leafs next March.
Regardless of trade or free agent help, this Maple Leafs squad will struggle to match even their win total from this season.
Perhaps that’s for the best – another high draft pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft may be another necessary piece of the rebuild in T.O. The mood in Toronto has turned remarkably sour. Even the mild-mannered Booth and Kessel saw tempers run hot during Friday’s practice.
#Leafs' Phil Kessel, David Booth fight during practice http://t.co/3ecHdooMGp via @npsport pic.twitter.com/NdgF5MUSWm
— National Post (@nationalpost) March 27, 2015
With such tension and disappointment this season, it’s time for Leafs fans to turn away and focus on next season. With a number of big name players set to move along, and with a host of Marlies and prospects ready to take their places, the Leafs promise to feature a fully re-worked lineup for next season.
Just don’t expect that team to be any better than this year’s team.
What do you think, Leafs fans? Are the Toronto Maple Leafs likely to get major deals done for core players this offseason? Or, are the Leafs stuck with Phaneuf, Kessel, Lupul, et al.?