What the Leafs should do to improve this offseason
The additions of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Frederik Andersen among others have given fans of the franchise some exciting and talented players to watch and has fast-tracked the team's rebuild by at least a year. While there is no doubt a lot of good things currently going the Leafs' way, there are a few areas the team can improve upon that can turn them into a Stanley Cup contender over the next season and beyond.
While the following potential upgrades are small, improving in all of them can go a long way towards making the Leafs a legitimate threat in the NHL for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, here are three areas the Leafs should look to improve for next season.
Fourth-liner and Depth Forward
Let's get one thing out of the way. Yes, the Leafs' fourth line has been significantly better with the addition of Brian Boyle at the trade deadline. Playing him alongside Matt Martin and Nikita Soshnikov/Eric Fehr/Josh Leivo has done wonders in making the fourth line defensively sound while also an offensive threat.
The problem is, however, is that the line will very likely be completely altered with the upcoming expansion draft looming over the NHL. No doubt, the Leafs have very little to worry about in regards to protecting their core players from being chosen by the Vegas Golden Knights, but their fourth line and depth forwards will possibly be affected.
Fortunately for Toronto, this is an area that can easily be fixed both through free agency and within the organization. With the team likely retaining Boyle, Leivo, and Soshnikov, it appears that Fehr and Martin may be potentially exposed and taken by Vegas. This means players such Brendan Leipsic, Frederik Gauthier, Kasperi Kapanen, and Kerby Rychel could be brought up to the big club for next season as possible replacements.
The free agency pool, while not ripe with stars, have more than enough options for potential replacements on the fourth-line if the Leafs feel the aforementioned players are not ready to make the permanent leap. All things considered, while the forward depth may take a hit after the expansion draft, Toronto has a number of ways to fix it.
Improve the D
|PHOTO CREDIT: JOHN E. SOKOLOWSKI / USA TODAY SPORTS|
If you have been following the Leafs all season, you would likely know that the defensive unit, while talented, is still a work in progress. The core of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, and Connor Carrick have taken big strides in their development at being reliable defenders while being a threat on the attack.
After these four players, just who will fill out the final two spots on defense is not perfectly clear at this point. For a majority of this season, the Leafs have used Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak as their third-pairing defensemen, which has been a mixed bag at best. Martin Marincin has been in and out of the lineup for most of the season as either a healthy scratch or injured. The newest addition to the defensive corps, Alexey Marchenko, was claimed off waivers from the Detroit Red Wings a few weeks ago so his long-term status with the team is uncertain.
Marincin and Marchenko will be under contract for one more year and both are at a fairly reasonable cap hit, while Polak and Hunwick will be UFA's at seasons end. While it appears that the latter two players won't be returning for 2017-18, Leafs management does not appear completely sold on Marincin and Marchenko as long-term options.
There are a number of players currently on the Marlies, including Travis Dermott, Rinat Valiev, and Andrew Nielsen that appear ready to get an extended look next season. Should the Leafs feel these players aren't ready to make the jump, however, there are some options in free agency this offseason. Some notable players the Leafs could target as free agents are Dmitri Kulikov, Brendan Smith, and Karl Alzner.
At the end of the day, the Leafs have a number of routes they can take in terms to upgrade their third-pairing defense. Doing so will go a long way towards making the team more solid in the defensive end.
New backup goalie
|Photo credit: Marc DesRosiers / Reuters|
Throughout the 2016-17 campaign, the Leafs have struggled to find a permanent backup goalie to ease Andersen's work load. After Jhonas Enroth struggled and Antoine Bibeau showed some promise, the team found a temporary solution by claiming Curtis McElhinney off waivers from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The key word here is temporary because it does not appear that McElhinney will remain with the Leafs beyond this season. With a combined record of 12-6-1 with the Leafs and Blue Jackets, along with 2.61 goals against average and a .921 save percentage, he has no doubt put together a solid campaign. What isn't certain, however, is if he will keep up this pace for next year and beyond because he will soon be 34.
With Bibeau and Garret Sparks both younger and potentially ready to make the jump to the big leagues, McElhinney will likely be changing teams this offseason. If Leafs management feels they need to look beyond McElhinney and these two young goalies aren't ready to become full-time NHLers, then they could select a more suitable replacement from a number of free agent backups this summer, including Chad Johnson, Reto Berra, and Keith Kinkaid.
While McElhinney has done a capable job easing Andersen's minutes this year, the Leafs may need to look to find a more permanent solution that will help the team for many seasons down the road.
You can follow Michael Mazzei on Twitter @MichaelMazzei3.