The Tampa Bay Lightning are enjoying a second series win today after beating the Carolina Hurricanes in five games. The Lightning, with their top four forwards Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Anthony Cirelli, are the most realistic proxy for a team that’s built on the same strengths as the Leafs. They also just won a Cup and seem poised to do it again. So if they are so good, what do the Leafs need to do to get there?
Here’s a quick look at what the Lightning have that asks if what the Leafs have is good enough.
I feel pretty confident in saying the Leafs have a competent goaltender in Jack Campbell. Not to say he is an equal player to Andrei Vasilevskiy, but they are within a reasonable enough range of each other to be confident that Campbell can be in net behind a winning hockey team. Looking at the Leafs series this year, he went toe-to-toe with Carey Price and beat him in save percentage. He’s been a very good goalie and one the Leafs can trust.
In terms of realistic upgrade options, there doesn’t need to be one here. All the Leafs really need is a back/1B for next season to tandem Campbell, hopefully someone on the younger side.
Morgan Rielly has been very good for the last two playoff rounds. He was one of maybe three players driving play for the Leafs against the Blue Jackets, seemingly having to do everything with the puck himself. In this year’s series, Rielly was equally on top of his game and put up a 59% shot differential, as well as goals and expected goals numbers north of 65%. Plus a goal! I’m not sure what more we could’ve asked from him.
I will note one difference between the Leafs and Lightning defenses: one of them has become very practiced at shoving players out of the crease, shutting down rebounds with spatial awareness and quick reflexes, and those talents leading to blocked first chances or unavailable second opportunities. The Leafs have been good at this in recent times, but they have been made to look silly at times and have a tendency to make the goalie work more than he needs to. And without someone like Vasilevskiy, it should be the other way around.
Holl is a defenseman with his merits and flaws, but he can be clumsy at times. If he goes in the Expansion Draft, it would be a good opportunity to fill that hole with someone else. The Lightning have Erik Cernak, and while he takes his share of penalties, he does a good job of keeping Vasilevskiy out of trouble. Finding someone like that, who’s a bit more prepared on the defensive end might do the Leafs good.
I don’t think there’s a big gap between the Leafs defense and the Lightning’s, especially when you take into account the Lightning getting by with all the injuries they’ve had to suffer through. Ryan McDonagh was able to make Luke Schenn look decent at times. Muzzin has that ability as well, which is why it really sucked when he got injured in Game 6. Without scoring, the Leafs weren’t going to win either of the last two games, but having Muzzin there would’ve helped.
Overall, with Rielly at the top, I think the Leafs defense has been improved enough that they can do the right things in the playoffs. I worry about Holl, as I mentioned above, but I don’t think the meaningful money spent on the position has been a waste. If it becomes necessary to find Rielly’s replacement before his contract expires next summer, that’s understandable, I daydream about Dougie Hamilton, too. But this isn’t a major problem area that needs to get fixed.
This is where it gets interesting because it can’t go unsaid that the Lightning have spent literally way too much money on their forwards. With Nikita Kucherov out for the season, they were significantly over the cap. Once the playoffs started, this naturally gave them an advantage over other teams (as long as Kucherov was good to go). But before getting into the stars, let’s look at “the rest.”
The Lightning have Tyler Johnson making $5 million on the fourth line, but considering where his play has fallen to, he’s not providing $5 million of value down there. Yanni Gourde is making $5.2 million on the third line, and is a good energy centre coming off a hot shooting year (after a cold year). Ondrej Palat ($5.3 million) is a good wingman for the top line, as is Alex Killorn. The Lightning are stuck with these four contracts at a point in their careers where they are not providing value equal to the sticker price. Finding cheaper options like Alex Kerfoot, Alex Galchenyuk, Jason Spezza, and even Ilya Mikheyev are possible. It’s all about throwing a bunch of guys at the wall and seeing who sticks.
A deficit the Leafs do have is the constant emergence of great players from the AHL that help the Lightning. Ross Colton is the most recent example, shooting the lights out from the fourth line after being drafted in the fourth round in 2016. Can anyone ask Adam Brooks if he’s hiding any fantastic abilities? Players like Colton (as well as Gourde, Mitchell Stephens, and the like) really comes down to finding players in the draft who work their asses off and have some tools, and then upgrading and refining them in the NHL.
I think if the Leafs can move away from status players at the bottom, they’ll be able to try players like Brooks, Joey Anderson, Kenny Agostino (alas), and maybe some more players from the Marlies. Unfortunately, poor drafting between 2015 and 2017 has hurt them, although young prospects like Filip Hallander, Roni Hirvonen, and Pontus Holmberg could become those types of players in the near future. Because of those drafts, the Leafs don’t have a cupboard of 21-23 year olds to plug and play, they pretty much just had Engvall and Brooks (both of whom were 2014 first time draft eligible). The only action the Leafs have here is wait for the new crop, or find players through free agency, trade, or waivers.
Finally arriving at the top line, the Lightning have essentially three big stars: Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos. Anthony Cirelli joins them to create two pairs of centres and wingers. On the Leafs side, there is Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. Purely based on production, Nylander is better than Cirelli, and Tavares is in the same “aging, but still really good” phase Stamkos is in.
As we’ve talked about numerous times this summer, it’s really obvious that the first line pair of Matthews and Marner really doesn’t meet what Point and Kucherov have been able to do year in year out in the playoffs. Matthews won the Rocket Richard, and with a better power play around him, can likely out-pace Kucherov or Point in terms of value both offensively and defensively.
This kind of leads me to my final thought, that the Leafs probably thought they were getting a Brayden Point when they got Mitch Marner, but instead they got Mitch Marner. A dynamic, blisteringly quick play driver with talent for days, a fearless instinct to go to the net and score goals. All I know is that Matthews is probably giving you value like that of Point or Kucherov, but that Marner isn’t picking up enough of the slack for the other guy. He’s a really good player, I won’t discount anything he’s done in the regular season, but I just can’t convince myself that he’s great.
I’m sorry that this turned into yet another article about trading Mitch Marner. I genuinely went into this article with an open mind, looking at the team on the whole and wondering where the actionable fixes can be made. I found a little bit on goaltending and maybe someone new on defense. The deficit in forwards comes down to draft, developing, and unfortunately Marner’s behemoth contract. It’s just suffocating the team, and while the Leafs are better off in some ways than the Lightning, this is an area that puts them behind significantly.
I don’t know if the Leafs can ever find their Brayden Point, but maybe they can work around it with a top-six forward who is a lot better than, say Ondrej Palat. That’s kind of how I’ve been thinking about it and from my perspective the simplest (and therefore most likely) course of action to improve the team moving forward.