There’s nothing quite like a spicy Friday newscast.
Earlier today, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced they were leaving Kyle Dubas, who held the most since May 11, 2018. He helped lead the Leafs to five playoff appearances and was the first general manager since John Ferguson Jr. in 2004 to be credited with winning a Stanley Cup playoff.
It was quite a journey for a man who succeeded a legendary GM in Lou Lamoriello. But in the end, the Leafs decided it was time for a change, with the team moving forward (for now) with assistant general managers Brandon Pridham, Ryan Hardy, Darryl Metcalf and Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser. So if the Leafs are looking to promote from within, there are more than a few options available.
At this time, we don’t know which route the Leafs will decide to take. But with the NHL Draft just over a month away, with the start of free agency days later, that decision will come soon. Heck, maybe Brendan Shanahan will take a more practical approach.
We don’t know who will be next in charge, but they will have a big task ahead of them in a short period of time. There are mixed feelings in the fan base on how to approach the future: will they blow things up and try new things, or just reorganize once again? There is no easy answer.
While we wait to see who takes control, here’s a look at some of the most important tasks facing the next Toronto Maple Leafs general manager:
The future of the Core Four
This is by far one of the hottest topics of the summer. Toronto’s top four forwards – Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander – were unable to escape the headlines after another disappointing playoff run. They were great in the first round against Tampa Bay, but fell apart when it mattered against the Florida Panthers, with the group combining for just two goals along the way.
Both Tavares and Marner are signed north of $10 million through 2025, with Tavares enjoying a no-move clause, while Marner is kicked out next season. Both Matthews and Nylander have a year longer on their deals, with Nylander ($6.962 million) likely getting the biggest raise. The four players combine for around 42% of the team’s salary, making it tough with 10 UFAs and one RFA this summer.
The top priority this summer must be signing Matthews to a long-term contract. He’s already earning $11.64 million, so a new contract won’t be a huge raise. So really, it’s more about getting Nylander into the equation if they end up keeping him next season, which might be tough before giving Marner a raise the following season.
But does moving one of them really make sense? Can you get enough good value for one of these? We’ve seen that the era of the salary cap makes big moves in hockey a huge challenge. Unless they get a deal like Florida did on the Tkachuk/Huberdeau trade, you probably won’t get enough value for a player of their quality.
It’s easy to point fingers at their salaries and start screaming bloody murder. By the way, Tkachuk also failed to score in this second-round series. The reality is, look at the teams that have won the Cup in recent years – namely Tampa Bay and Colorado. Both were very heavy, in terms of salary. You need a good core to build around. You also need depth to help them out, because while opponents can stop your best players, you need someone else to step in. Reality? That didn’t happen against Florida and, if we give the Panthers extra credit, Sergei Bobrovsky was the better goaltender in the second round. Sometimes you’re just stopped by a good trick master.
As Matt Larkin pointed out earlier this week, the Core Four have made it clear they want to stay. They want to win. There’s no pressure like Toronto, and it doesn’t help when you never seem to be able to progress. The Washington Capitals are a good example of a team that took nearly a decade with its core to pull through. Maybe you just need to keep pushing at this point.
But, you know what they say about madness. So if the Leafs think it’s best to keep those four for another year, the leash will have to be extremely short. Make sure they are healthy, try again. If it doesn’t work out next year, then the next GM can clean up if necessary.
No pressure, new GM. But deciding what to do with these four could make or break your career right off the bat.
Consolidate the situation of the folds
The Maple Leafs have six goaltenders under contract for next season, including Joseph Woll and Matt Murray. Ilya Samsonov, a pending RFA, looks most likely to return to his No.1 role after an excellent first season with the club. He was great after being a Washington Capitals rehab draft after an inexpensive, one-year contract that really seemed to be paying off for all parties involved.
And then there’s Woll, who was excellent in the AHL and terrific when called upon by the big club. Woll has two more years signed at $766,667, giving the team some nice relief as a backup goaltender. There is no doubt about it: he is ready for full-time service.
So the big question: what’s next for Murray? The oft-injured goaltender has had his fair share of ups and downs this season and holds the biggest cap ever at $4.687 million. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the acquisition of Murray was going to come with major difficulties, and it popped up this year. It’s hard to trust a goalie who’s missed nearly 70 games since March 2022, and with Woll ready to go, the Leafs need to find something here.
Whether it’s trading him outright — which will either require eating a big salary or trading their 2023 first-round pick — buying him back or burying him in injured reserve in the long term, there is no easy option. Ideally, they’ll get his full one-season cap, but there’s just too much responsibility there — just like Petr Mrazek a year ago, which also caused Toronto to move their first-round pick.
Either way, it will be a key position to watch this summer.
Make way for UFAs
Let’s set the scene here: According to CapFriendly, the Leafs have $8,895,217 in projected cap space for 2023-24. That’s with 10 current UFAs and one potential starting goalkeeper to manage. There will be full-time graduates within the system, including Matthew Knies and potentially Pontus Holmberg and Bobby McMann. But if not, the Leafs will still have to figure out how to free up some cap space to make it all work.
Toronto easily has one of the most interesting UFAs this summer with forward Michael Bunting. At his best, the Scarborough native is a valuable contributor who has proven he can break the 50 point barrier while playing with the members of the Core Four. At worst, he can go through long, difficult stretches of nothing or get on the wrong side of the NHL’s player safety department. His value has definitely plummeted after an upside-down season, and keeping him could mean taking a bit of a discount in his hometown.
Then there’s Ryan O’Reilly, the team’s big addition at the trade deadline. There’s no doubt the 32-year-old provided value, but his best days are behind him. It might be easier to move on at this point, especially with tight ceiling constraints. Noel Acciari, who also intervened in the deal, will be much cheaper, but at a lower overall value to the team. So that could make it difficult for him to sign too.
Then there’s Alexander Kerfoot, David Kampf, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Aston-Reese up front. Kampf was a bright spot in the last six and should be a target to bring back. ZAR had his moments, but he’s replaceable by someone from the Marlies. Kerfoot will likely be on his way out, while Simmonds looks destined to retire at this point.
On the blue line, Justin Holl’s struggles have been well documented, so he seems like another who could be moved. Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson were decent depth additions at Deadline. Schenn could return if he’s willing to play for less than $900,000, while Gustafsson was rarely used and likely gone.
So it’s going to be a tough time to manage the ceiling. They’ve got some depth guys who could earn a promotion, and they’ll definitely be interesting to watch on July 1. But those cap constraints are a good reason why the future of the Core Four is even in question, at this point.
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