These are exciting times for Toronto Maple Leafs fans. The team owns piles of draft picks for not only the 2016 draft, but also a couple extra ones in 2017 and 2018, and it's entirely possible that they're not finished adding more. They're set to draft Auston Matthews, who looks to be a generational talent. They have piles of prospects, many of whom look like they could make an impact in the NHL, some as soon as next season. They have a couple of veterans who could garner some interest on the trade market, should they choose to pull the trigger. Oh, and cap space? Yeah, they've even got some of that, too -- at least after the 2016-17 season.
Simply put, the team has all the tools it needs to pull off a big trade, to select another future star (aside from Matthews), or to land a free agent or two that could help the team for years to come. Best of all is that it's even possible that they do all three. The stars have finally aligned.
Being able to write a post acknowledging the plausibility of the Leafs making a huge move is interesting enough in and of itself, because for the last decade or so, there hasn't really been a good reason to do so. Moreover, making a big move right now is not only possible and plausible, it might actually be a good idea.
Sure, Brian Burke liked to surprise us every now and then with a massive trade or free agent acquisition, but the truth is, a lot of the time, they turned out to be bad ideas. Now? Hm.
As exciting and novel as it all is that the Leafs could actually pull something big off at the upcoming draft or during free agency season, fans should probably still temper their expectations.
Consider the following:
1) Leo Komarov should probably be traded. I made a case for this back before the trade deadline last season, and basically the argument stands, except that Komarov's production had time to slow just a little before the end of last season. Keeping him wouldn't be the worst idea ever since his cap hit isn't awful and he can indeed help out some of the younger players with language issues (Nikita Soshnikov jumps to mind), but it's a lot cheaper for the Leafs to just hire a translator or some sort of life coach, and Komarov's value will never be higher. I know, I know, I'd miss him too.
2) It's probably still too early to offer sheet a player. Yes, the Leafs have a number of great, up-and-coming players, but the team is still likely to finish on the outside of the playoffs, let alone seriously contend for the Cup, and so, for the foreseeable future, the Leafs' draft picks are not going to be the kind you want to give away. People that begin arguments with "But WITH that player, their pick won't be bad!" should remember how the Leafs acquired Phil Kessel.
3) On a related note, the Leafs should be very careful in free agency. There is a very strong case to be made for signing Steven Stamkos, but really, outside of him, the team still has no business signing players to 4-5 year deals, because this team straight up isn't ready to start adding talent the expensive way. Remember Burke's accelerated rebuild that included signing Mike Komisarek? The Leafs should probably look for another "pump'n dump" opportunity or two to continue adding picks for the 2017 draft.
4) Some of the Leafs' remaining vets will be difficult to jettison. Tyler Bozak's contract is going to be tough to move for sure, though after he proved that he can score while not attached to Phil Kessel, I suspect his value may have increased marginally. Oh, and Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, and Colin Greening? Even towards the trade deadline, those will probably be tough ones. Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas? We're dreaming.
5) The Leafs still have a lot of "dead" money. With retained salary owed to Kessel ($1.2M), a buyout for Tim Gleason ($1.3M), Nathan Horton's contract ($5.3M), and probably Stephane Robidas' deal ($3M), the Leafs already have $10.8M tied up in players who are realistically no longer a part of this team. This really dampens their ability to spend their way out of trouble. Sure, the buyout of Jared Cowen would help marginally in this season, but not the next.
6) Trading away a raft of secondary/tertiary prospects probably won't net the Leafs much of a return. With a bit of a logjam of prospects (and not a lot of SPCs left to give out), it might actually make sense for the Leafs to divest themselves of some of their lesser prospects in a Michael Grabner-style trade. But that's just the thing. Last time, the prospects garnered... well, Michael Grabner. The Leafs are going to be in tough to package their marginal prospects to get real value. Naturally, being able to package them in a larger deal that includes roster players is still possible, but again, they won't be the ones adding much.
7) This off-season isn't the last opportunity the Leafs will have to make a big acquisition. If nothing happens for the Leafs at the draft except that they get Auston Matthews and 11 other players from this draft, it should still be considered a win. The trade deadline should provide an interesting opportunity to unload veterans on expiring contracts, and next summer (when many of those veteran deals have expired) might present another good opportunity for the Leafs to improve via free agency.
So yes, the Leafs have some options, and it's exciting because it hasn't really happened in a while, and yes, they could add young talent that can contribute for years to come. But just because the Leafs have the possibility of making a splash this summer doesn't necessarily mean they should. Prices can easily get too steep for the Leafs, since, as I have pointed out above, they probably don't want to give away too many (of their own) picks, they don't have piles of cap space (yet), and they're still a few years from seriously contending (thus justifying spending more on UFAs).