By Cole Parkinson
And just like that, the Toronto Maple Leafs have come and gone in the 2017/18 NHL season.
Sure, they pushed their first round matchup with the Boston Bruins to the full seven games but it’s hard not to look at it and think they could have played better, from top to bottom.
The team was a force for most of the season, even with their spot in the playoffs all but guaranteed once the new year hit.
They lost tons of steam in the last few weeks of the season which is understandable as they knew they were in, but at the same time you could tell they weren’t ready for playoff hockey when the puck dropped in Boston for game one.
The Leafs were outplayed and out matched for the first two games of the series (and most of the series to be honest), so much so that a lot of people wrote them off and figured the series would be over in four or five games, which again was fair considering their efforts in those games.
Games three and four, they played a lot better but still managed to head back to Boston down 3-1 in the series.
Now Freddy Andersen deserves most of the credit for getting the Leafs back into the series.
He faced tons of rubber in every single game and was the biggest reason the Leafs pushed it to the full seven.
But in the final game he also ran out of steam and allowed a couple of soft goals that sank the Leafs, albeit Toronto’s defensive play in the final game was well below subpar, which didn’t help.
As a lifelong Maple Leafs fan I knew the game was far from over when they had a 4-3 lead going into the third.
If you’ve ever seen a Maple Leaf game you almost knew what was coming and the Leafs coughed up another lead (the third lead in the game, for those wondering).
It took the Bruins five minutes and 25 seconds to score two to take the lead and the rest is history.
Another failed attempt to beat Boston in Boston in a game seven.
I know Jake Gardiner is taking most of the heat for his performance in the game and while he undoubtedly deserves some criticism, to lay the blame all on him is absurd.
As good as Freddy had been in games five and six, he let in a couple weak ones in game seven especially the two goals in the third period.
The Torey Krug point shot to tie and the Jake DeBrusk five hole goal that gave Boston the lead were absolute back breakers.
Auston Matthews was once again held off the score sheet and while he is the Leafs best player, he sure didn’t look like it during the series.
I’m not worried about Auston though as last playoffs against Washington, Matthews was a monster and was the main force for the underdog Leafs squad.
This year it was a different story and the Leafs suffered from it.
In a role reversal, Mitch Marner was the man in 2018.
Last year he was invisible in the playoffs and this series he played the role of offensive catalyst.
Without Marner I doubt the Leafs would have been able to answer most of the Bruins offence but it still wasn’t enough.
Had Matthews hit the ground running like he did last playoffs, it would have been a different story.
The Bruins were just the better of the two teams throughout the entire series and that’s why Toronto lost, simple as that.
With the loss still stinging, it’s now time to sit back and watch the rest of the playoffs but at the same time looking forward to the offseason.
Calls for trading Gardiner have already started, which in Leaf Land is probably the least surprising thing after a demoralizing loss like that.
Now I understand the dislike for a player of his caliber — he plays high risk, high reward hockey where the mistakes always stick out more than the good plays.
Personally I’m not in the trade Gardiner camp, unless the return improves the team immensely.
That doesn’t mean the Leafs don’t need to add one or two defenseman though.
If the series shows us anything, it’s that they need serious help on the back end which quite truthfully was always well known but now has to be brought to the forefront.
Morgan Rielly will continue to be their number one option but they desperately need a right handed shot to be his partner.
I thought Ron Hainsey was a good fit for most of the season but he’ll be another year older and I don’t honestly think you can continue to run him out there as a top pairing d-man especially when he has the highest penalty kill minutes in the league.
The second pairing of Nikita Zaitsev and Gardiner, in my opinion, will operate mostly the same moving forward.
Both took step backs in their play but if you can slightly reduce their minutes next year, I think you will get a bump up in quality of play.
Ron Hainsey would then occupy a bottom pairing spot with Travis Dermott.
Once called up, Dermott looked very comfortable throughout the regular season with the Leafs and while he is a left handed sho.t I think a pairing of Hainsey and Dermott is realistically the best option especially since Dermott is still on a friendly deal.
I also wouldn’t be shocked if they brought back Roman Polak to challenge for a spot or to be the seventh defenseman.
Mike Babcock has shown he doesn’t have much faith in current seventh defenseman, Connor Carrick, so I don’t know if he will still be a Leaf come the start of next season.
Dream scenario for an added d-man would be 29 year old John Carlson, who is a right hand shot and can play on the top pair.
Is this going to happen?
Probably not considering the Washington Capitals, who currently employ Carlson, are unlikely to give him up but you never know as he his going to be commanding a good salary increase which may be too rich for the Caps.
Another option for the bottom pair is Erik Gudbranson, who has been continuously connected to the Leafs.
The problem with Gudbranson is he plays a very similar style to Polak and I don’t think it would be that big of an upgrade, especially because he will be asking for more money.
Up front I fully expect to see plenty of holes as James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and Tomás Plekanec are all free agents.
JVR is as good as gone considering he will be offered a much more rich contract than the Maple Leafs brass would be comfortable in offering, while the other three have shots at sticking around.
Leo is loved by Babcock so as long as he is willing to take a lower contract to play fourth line minutes, I can see him sticking.
Bozak or Plekanec may also stick around as the Leafs centre depth is pretty weak once you get past Matthews and Nazem Kadri.
William Nylander played quite a few games at centre so he may get a look come fall time but I still think you need to sign two centres at least to have options.
I like Willy on a line with Matthews so I would prefer to have another centre be on the third or fourth lines.
With the first two lines all but set with Matthews, Nylander and Zach Hyman on the first and Kadri, Marner and Patty Marleau on the second, the fittings of the bottom two lines is sure to be interesting.
Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen have proved they can play NHL minutes so I expect them to play on the team next year.
Connor Brown will of course occupy a spot, likely on the third line right wing.
Options in the minors may also prove to be beneficial as there are a couple of players who more than likely will be given the opportunity to crack the roster.
Prospect Carl Grundstrom has stated he will be playing in North America next season and is currently on the Toronto Marlies for their playoff run.
It wouldn’t be shocking at all to see him get a shot to play some fourth line minutes next year on the big squad as he operates much like Komarov but with more offensive upside.
If they are unwilling to sign a few centres, look to Miro Aaltonen to challenge for a spot as he came close to breaking as a Maple Leaf during camp.
Freddy Gauthier may also be given another shot to play on the team as the fourth line centre but I don’t think Babs likes what he has seen from the big centreman yet as he was given an opportunity this year and it only lasted a few games.
There are a number of other intriguing prospects in the Marlies that may one day suit up for the Leafs but I don’t think next year will be the year.
Namely Timothy Liljegren who was selected last year by the Leafs in the first round.
The right handed d-man has started to grow accustomed to North American hockey but it sounds like he’ll need another full season at the AHL level, unless he really shows the brass he’s ready, but don’t bank on it.
Another name for me is Jeremy Bracco who is similar to Marner, a small skilled player who can make plays a plenty.
Unlike Marner though, he has needed time in the minors to prove he can play at the highest level.
He accumulated 32 points in 50 AHL games, which was his first year of pro hockey, so expect him to be back down at the start of the 2018/19 campaign as they already have quite the collection of wingers.
The good news for the team moving forward is the forward pool and goaltender position are well stocked already.
Freddy Andersen will continue to be the guy with Curtis McElhinney backing up, though Garret Sparks may make a push for the backup position after having an absolute dominant year in the A.
Of course there will be plenty of questions regarding the D core but I expect the Leafs brass to address that with free agency or a trade or two.
While this season certainly ended on a negative note, it’s hard not to believe that this team has its best days ahead of it.