By Cole Parkinson
After a month to regroup and think about another first-round exit to the Boston Bruins, it’s hard not to view the 2018-2019 Toronto Maple Leaf season as a failed one.
Sure there were plenty of positives to come out of the year, namely John Tavares’ great first year in the blue and white, Freddie Andersen’s incredibly convincing performance for a large portion of the year and Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews continuing to grow as players.
That said, another first-round exit to their division rivals, in a series that was winnable no doubt, is hard to take.
The team went into the series after a rough few months where they looked disinterested but Game 1 showed the Toronto Maple Leafs were a team that could contend.
From there they played good games and bad games, which happens all the time in the Stanley Cup playoffs but Game 6 was a backbreaker.
Game 5, where the team was incredibly solid from top to bottom and got goals from Kasperi Kapanen and Auston Matthews on route to a 2-1 win, was a reason to believe they may finally get over the Bruin roadblock.
In Game 6 the Leafs looked like they were content and were down early but they finally showed life in the third but it was too late.
And then queue another Game 7 in Boston.
There was no heartbreaking meltdown in the third this time though because this time they just decided to not show up for the entire game which led to a 5-1 loss.
Now Boston is headed to another Stanley Cup Final where they stand a good chance to win.
Sure, it’s hard to guarantee the Leafs would have been in the same position had they won the seventh game but it’s hard not to look at it as a great opportunity.
Now, I actively root for the Western Conference to snatch the Stanley Cup from Bruin grasp.
Also, it’s that time to look toward the offseason where the Leafs have some heavy lifting to do.
Matthews, Tavares, Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri and Andersen are major pieces that are locked up for the foreseeable future so that’s a good place to start for next season.
The biggest name going forward will, of course, be Marner who will no doubt see a large pay raise after a great year next to Tavares.
While numbers are being thrown out saying he should get this or he should get that, the notion he will make Matthews money is far fetched.
I expect him to slot in between $8 and $9.5 million and if he wants more, it may be time to explore a trade because the cap space is already tight as it is.
The next focus will be Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, with Leafs management probably looking for bridge deals in order to fit them into the cap.
Next year will be a tough cap situation for the team especially with Patrick Marleau’s $6.25 million contract still in place for the last year.
And even with the aforementioned troublesome cap space, the team will need some replacements on the back end.
Rielly, Travis Dermott, Calle Rosen and Jake Muzzin will all be back but Ron Hainsey and Jake Gardiner are all but gone barring both taking pay cuts.
Nikita Zaitsev may be shipped out in a trade to clear cap space but if not, it’s a good bet that he occupies a top-four spot.
So, that either means the Leafs call up some younger talent (Timothy Liljgren, Rasmus Sandin, Mac Hollowell or insert name here), find something in free agency or they make a trade.
Either way, I think it is safe to say the back end is going to look way different and in all honesty, it should after the way things have played out.
I don’t expect them to go out and acquire a top name guy or anything but they need help back there and I think Leafs management have known that for some time.
So while Erik Karlsson would solve plenty of problems on the right side, it’s not going to happen.
Tyler Myers is someone I think the Leafs will target as he would be a Mike Babcock type of player — a big right-handed shot defenceman.
Juggling the cap though will be an issue but who knows what the Leafs are going to look at to improve their defensive situation.
While I think they have plenty of good options for the bottom six forward group, I think it makes sense to explore trading Connor Brown.
At $2.1 million and playing mostly fourth line minutes, that’s too much for the Leafs at this point.
I really like Brown and everything he brings to the table but the cap hit is way too much unless they see him playing in the top nine next year which would all but mean a trade of another player, most likely Kapanen or Johnsson.
The good news though is they have options down with the Marlies that could fill some fourth and potentially third line minutes barring injuries.
Jeremy Bracco, Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks and the almost certain Trevor Moore will all be vying for a spot on the Leafs roster amongst a plethora of other players.
While the cupboard isn’t nearly as stocked as it once was, there are still some good options to explore.
The one area I expect to see a change in is the backup-goalie department.
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean Garret Sparks is gone, but I do think the Leafs make some kind of move to take that position to start camp.
Sparks had a pretty disastrous year last year and in having to give up Curtis McElhinney in order to keep him didn’t look very good with the year Curtis had.
So though Michael Hutchinson will be an option, I expect a pretty thorough search to happen when free agency opens on July 1.
So while I think the season will no doubt be looked back at as a failed season, there’s always next season and I’ve said that for 20 years now, and it never gets easier.
The good news is this Leafs team is probably the best assembled since the early 2000s and will have another chance to get over the hump next year.
The hardest part is waiting and unfortunately, Leafs fans have another 11 months until the real action begins again.
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