By Cole Parkinson
I get teased all the time about how the Maple Leafs won’t win a cup in my lifetime but I’m here to say it’s going to happen. For my last sports column, I figured I’d go out with a bang and predict that the Toronto Maple Leafs will win a Stanley Cup in the next five years. It’s been since 1967 and even the Chicago Cubs were able to break their 108 drought, so it’s only a matter of time for the Leafs.
First round exit after first round exit is a tough thing for Leafs Nation, no doubt, but this is the best core they’ve had since the early 2000s and probably the best overall team since 1993. A team built around Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly has to be able to break through. I know plenty of fans complain about the current NHL playoff format, but there’s zero excuses left for this team. They’ve flamed out in the first round against Boston twice, Columbus, Montreal, and Tampa Bay — all in Game 7 (or Game 5 in the bubble round against Columbus), so sooner or later you’d think they’d figured it out.
With a pretty good tandem in Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, I think they can compete with anyone. Murray’s health is obviously a concern, but at least we’ve seen what he can do in the playoffs. And while neither are in that upper echelon of goaltending royalty, they aren’t bums either. Samsonov has been stellar for the most part and Murray has been really good when healthy. If they both can continue to play well in front of this strong Leafs team, I like their chances.
Their defence has also been incredibly strong in the regular season. Sure, the playoffs are a totally different animal, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen. The growth from Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin is great news for the Leafs and while they lost Jake Muzzin early in the season, they’ve weathered the storm. TJ Brodie, Mark Giordano, Justin Holl, and Rielly have all been pretty solid this year. There’s ups and downs with any season, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say there has been a ton more ups than downs.
Even their depth D has been great. Adding Conor Timmins was a great move and Jordie Benn provides some thump lower in the lineup. I wouldn’t hate them adding another defenceman at the deadline, but if they didn’t I’d understand why. It’d be hard to replace any of the top six at this point but you can never have too few blue liners.
If there’s a big splash to be made it sure sounds like adding a top six forward is GM Kyle Dubas’ goal heading into the deadline. Matthews, Nylander, Michael Bunting, Tavares, and Marner are easily the top five forwards on this team, and while Calle Jarnkrok has fit in really well, adding here is a no brainer. Pushing everyone below that top five down would better serve this Leafs team and having a defence-first line of David Kampf, Pierre Engvall, and Jarnkrok would be a big bonus for Toronto.
It’s going to be an interesting trade deadline for the Leafs. They don’t have a ton of top prospects and the ones they do would have to be included in obtaining any big names. The biggest obstacle for the Leafs — and any playoff team — is the salary cap. The Leafs have $2.725 million in salary cap space right now, and if Muzzin is out for the season, they have another $5.3 million in LTIR. That’s plenty to work with but it’s still going to be a tight fit.
Looking at forwards, I wouldn’t mind Conor Garland, Travis Konecny, Vladimir Tarasenko, or maybe even Max Domi. Patrick Kane would be a sweet add, but who knows if he even wants to leave Chicago and his $10.5 million cap hit would create some issues. Adam Henrique and Kevin Labanc are out on the west coast and I wouldn’t mind the Leafs checking in on them. Ryan O’Reilly has been rumoured as well, but he’s not having a great season and it certainly looks like he’s in decline at age 31.
With the deadline only a few weeks away, I really hope we get some movement. The NHL’s hard salary cap is not something I agree with and I think there are plenty of creative ways to implement measures that would promote more player movement, but Gary Bettman is obviously never going to do that. Still, with teams jockeying for position heading into the spring, I bet we see a few notable names traded — it will just take some cap mastery to pull them off.