The Leafs have a cap space problem. That's the widely held view, at any rate. But do they? Short of a spy cam in the GMs office, we can't know for sure what the thinking behind the offseason moves yet to come is, and we have to guess, but the instinct to assume an NHL GM is stupid, so very stupid that he just signed too many players to too much money and is flailing around without a clue is fairly implausible now that Jim Benning is gone from the league. This is my take on the state of the team right now.
They don't have a cap space problem they have a roster evaluation and reconstruction process that has stalled out. It can be described in cap terms as something like $1.5 to $2 million that remains to be cut even if the goalie situation works out in the best possible way. But that's not what the problem is. The problem is the defence.
It has always been a meme out in the punditocracy that the Leafs are bad at defending and need help. They've needed help on defence for years, and even last season when the Leafs had the best defensive results in years, all those blowhards were still talking about defence. Well, I mean, yes, they really have needed better defenders. For years.
- Ron Hainsey
- Nikita Zaitsev
- Cody Ceci
- Tyson Barrie
- Justin Holl
- Luke Schenn
- Jake McCabe
All of those defenders have played the wrong role for too many minutes at least some of the time as the Leafs looked to build a defence corps out of the ashes of decades of failure. Is John Klingberg about to join that list? Likely. He is the highest-risk signing of this offseason, the only one that gives me serious qualms about results that are going to really matter. And yet I do understand why he was signed – the gamble looked better than the known commodities.
So many people obsess about the cap hits of players – and blame the salary cap for all ills – that it becomes the paradigm that describes the team. Talk about player style, results contributions, ability, fit, what the hell ever, and someone will come along to complain that their contract isn't cheap enough. Sign a star player and tongues cluck about term. But ignore that Mitch Marner is overpaid and the Leafs aren't full of players loyally playing for 50% of their real value out of love for the fans. Forget the math entirely, and look at the team as players, at how it was built.
Fortune favoured the team with a period of being bad while the management seemed more than a little unaware of that fact. After Morgan Rielly was drafted with one good pick, they got lucky again by picking William Nylander at draft position well below where he should have been. Mitch Marner came next.
Fortune then favoured the Leafs with a tank year at a time when the undisputed number one player was a centre, and they won the lottery. That filled the forward ranks. Or nearly. One of Steven Stamkos or John Tavares is a Maple Leaf in most alternate realities to this one, so the choice was made to add at forward. It's not like that wasn't an area of need, but it is true that that was a choice that set the course of the team. It's not John Tavares as a person, a cap hit or a player, it's that the Leafs still needed more quality forwards at the same time they really, really needed quality defenders.
Since then, they've added one single solitary legitimate defender capable of playing on the top pair in big minutes and making an impact. And fortune favoured the Leafs by striking Jake Muzzin down way too early.
But yes, their defence might function tolerably on average, but expectation of performance at the average without considering how wide the swings are between good days and bad is exactly how you end up overpaying a goalie – something widely understood about goalies, but not a thing that gets applied to teams as a whole too often. This gets expressed about the Leafs in a feels and eye-test way as "they're only good in the regular season" because the playoffs are different. And they are – they're not very many games against good opponents, and there isn't room for wild swings in results. You can't hide your weaknesses in the spotlight.
I don't think the Leafs have a cap problem, because I think they might be very willing to trade TJ Brodie. He's not going to be re-signed at the end of this year, but this isn't asset management, that woefully misunderstood term, this is longer term team management. The Leafs brass aren't looking at a chart of last year's results and deciding the roster from that. If Brodie is too old to re-sign because he won't live up to his next contract, which I think is true, then fix the problem this year.
Easy to say.
Making this messier is that Jake McCabe might be a fully able replacement for Justin Holl, but why was that the aim? If Justin Holl was not going to be re-signed, and the problem was being fixed before it was urgent, the opportunity was there to improve, and maybe Kyle Dubas thought he had. Maybe he did, but not by enough to matter.
The rest of the defence are a rotating cast of third-pairing guys, and no one who honestly looks at that part of the roster can think that's a good list of players no matter how much good you can say about each one in isolation.
This is what happens when fortune hands you forwards. You have to work to get defenders. And the Leafs have... failed pretty hard. I think some of this is explained, not excused, by the period of flux in defender skills we've just witnessed. Skating, puck control, play making – they all became so important on defence that, as might have been inevitable, the pendulum got wrenched too far away from actual defending skills to the point people will still try to tell me Timothy Liljegren is a top defender because this chart, you see look at the purple here...
Nope. Sorry, and now, as is also inevitable, there is a move to wrench the pendulum back to ideas that are simple and safe and say the right things about masculinity. Defenders need to be big, tall, square-jawed Hollywood heroes, like the leading men in a 1950s war film who all looked alike. That overcorrection is to be resisted, but you really can't have a team of seven guys with transition skills that show up with nice xGA numbers but who can be victimized by that trick the Panthers used on the Leafs. Do you remember?
Two guys target Liljegren, one bounces him into the boards in the corner, and the other gets the puck, whips it through the stationary and slack-jawed Leafs watching the play in the defensive zone, as they do, and in it goes, easy goal no goalie can save, and someone in the Game Day Thread is screaming about how the goalie had to have that and trade for Hellebuyck.
It's not even particularly talented forechecking you need to run that play on the Leafs. And it's not all on the defender who is victimized either. It's the puck-watching forwards handing the other team the cards they need to fill in their straight and win the hand. Win the game. Win the round.
The Leafs need defence in the zone and at the blue lines. They need defenders with skating skill, puck skills, and defending skill. They need all of these things, and it hasn't been cap space holding them back. It's been bad fortune, bad choices, and too strong a belief that some guy like Mac Hollowell or Filip Král can totally play at the NHL level. It isn't inches, it's skills that count. And Liljegren, Conor Timmins, Mark Giordano and Jake McCabe are not Jake Muzzin, even if you combine them into one guy. John Klingberg sure as hell isn't.
If Brad Treliving wants to fill the inevitable Brodie hole in the lineup – not to mention the Muzzin hole that's still there – he is wise to want to do it now. But can he? Cap space aside, who is available? Because it's a lot easier to decide you need points and then find a guy to give you some like Klingberg than it is to find a good defender who isn't jealously guarded by his team.
Brandon Pridham isn't locked in a cupboard calculating his way out of a cap space problem. The AGM just hired to oversee player personnel is a much more interesting and timely move. Is it his job to solve this defence conundrum and find someone now? Or is July 20 too late for all that.
Let's ask Kyle Dubas. Because if he or Carolina really manage to pull off an Erik Karlsson trade, there might be other dominoes to fall and waiting might turn out to have been the right answer. The wrong answer was and is Matt Dumba. Status quo is better than that.
This stalled team might stay stalled though. At the end of the summer, the Leafs might just have to jettison some of their lowest-quality defenders and find guys like Jordie Benn to fill the open depth roles. There might not be available choices. But if they now know the Auston Matthews contract number, and they have the shape of next season's roster somewhat sketched in, they can at least start looking with an eye to the trade deadline.
The alternate universe where the wooing of Alex Pietrangelo succeeded is a very different one to this, though.