(I was going to call this: It's the Roster, Stupid, but Bill Clinton was a long time ago.)

The new Leafs GM is going to be confronted with a big job as soon as they take over. The major remaking of the team was inked into the Leafs' calendar by Kyle Dubas, intentionally I think, to give him – or a new GM – the opportunity to really make the tired, old phrase "run it back" into a lie.

"Run it back" is the headline-friendly term that allows everyone to pretend that the Leafs that just got beat by Florida are the same team that got beat by Washington in 2017. That's absurd on its face, but even the claim that this year's roster is identical to the year before or to the pandemic North Division team is also absurd.

But the holes on the team – largely at forward – mean this coming season's team will be very different than the team that took to the ice at the start of 2022-2023. Players on the opening day roster in October, 2022 who are not currently under contract with the Leafs for the coming season are:

  • Zach Aston-Reese
  • Alex Kerfoot
  • Pierre Engvall
  • Michael Bunting
  • Dennis Malgin
  • David Kämpf
  • Nicolas Aubé-Kubel
  • Justin Holl
  • Rasmus Sandin

Add the now likely permanently injured Jake Muzzin to that list, and you have 10 of 19 players who took the ice that day.

The process to make a new team begins in earnest in mid-June, and is usually largely done by mid-July. There might be some late signings, the occasional trade, and some tweaking in training camp in September, but the big moves will be done in about six weeks.

CapFriendly has converted the Leafs page to offseason mode, so if you want to see who is currently on the team for next season, you can do that. But a little context helps out a lot. So let's pretend this is a game preview for opening day, and we want the lines and pairings:


Matthew Knies - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
??? - John Tavares - William Nylander
Calle Järnkrok - Sam Lafferty - ???
??? - ??? - ???

Morgan Rielly - TJ Brodie
Jake McCabe - Timothy Liljegren
Mark Giordano - Conor Timmins

Matt Murray
Joseph Woll

Total: $67,934,783

Filling the Holes

We also have to consider RFAs that need new contracts. The key name here is Ilya Samsonov. It's fair to assume that, if the Leafs want to, he will be re-signed because arbitration is a blade that cuts both ways. The Leafs can merely elect arbitration and have him on a one- or two-year deal, depending on what he chooses.

When doing an analysis like this, it's necessary to guess at contract numbers. I pay for Evolving Hockey, so I'm going to inform my guesses with their contract projection. If you want the full picture their model provides of all possible results by team and term, you should pay for it.

Before we start signing anyone, some of the ??? at forward could be filled in by:

  • Nick Robertson - who has played some RW in the AHL, but is primarily a LW
  • Pontus Holmberg (RFA with arbitration rights) - who should be seen as a fourth line winger only since no coach will be happy with his faceoff skill
  • Bobby McMann - who is a more energetic and less skilled version of Holmberg

There are no meaningful upgrades currently under contract on defence.

While it's fine to want one of the major forwards to be traded as an isolated concept about reallocating cap space or getting rid of someone you think is a bad player, there seems to be a fairly obvious bigger problem to solve first. I've shorthanded this before by saying Matt Knies should not be the best left wing on the team, and while I love his game, and think he's a lock to be in the NHL next season, I don't actually want him on the top line. Ideally, I'd like to see Järnkrok move to the right side on the third line and Knies move down.

For the last several years, however, there has been an offseason trend in Leafs fandom of naming a logical-sounding third line and being happy with it, willfully oblivious to the fact that most of those third liners will end up in the top six. I remember talking back to last season's preview on Back to Excited when they discussed this hot third line that had Järnkrok and Kerfoot both on it. And who, I said to my computer, is playing 2LW? We know how that got answered.

That problem still exists, and it's even bigger now, since there isn't even a really good third line to be made out of the leftover forwards.

Idealism in Action

Re-sign Alex Kerfoot or David Kämpf as the 3C, move Knies down and Järnkrok over, promote some Marlies and you now have this:

??? - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
??? - John Tavares - William Nylander
Matthew Knies - ? K? - Calle Järnkrok
Bobby McMann - Sam Lafferty - Pontus Holmberg

$48,993,116 with a total cap hit now of $72,247,283

I just spent between $2-3.5 million for whoever that 3C is (The total above is averaged to $2.75 million and I paid Holmberg $800,000 on his new deal.) , and I still need, not one, but two legitimate top-six left wings. This, my friends (and enemies) is why this constant talk about defencemen annoys me. There are much, much bigger fish to fry. And we have to buy them first with an empty coin purse.

Having said that, it's not like that defence corps inspires hope in my heart. Let's add the obvious player who would have a contract already if the GM who dug all these holes to be filled this offseason hadn't been fired.

Morgan Rielly - TJ Brodie
Jake McCabe - Luke Schenn
Mark Giordano - Timothy Liljegren
Conor Timmins

$19,800,000 with a total cap hit now of $74,247,283 (Schenn is at $2 million, and while it's possible he'll take less, he could easily get that elsewhere.)

There, that's better! It's not, it's not really all better, and there's so many problems with the fit and skill level of these defenders, that it's hard to imagine how to fit someone in that's a genuine value addition, not just by virtue of their own skillset, but by moving Luke Schenn down to the third pair. And if you want to – I know you do – flip Schenn and Liljegren, you've just swapped types of players, but you still have the same problem. It still pales in comparison to the problem at forward.

There's money to spend, for sure. The Leafs aren't running three goalies, so the goalie budget is going to be reduced in some way. Let's do the obvious and pay a draft pick to move Matt Murray. Muzzin's on LTIR, so we can keep ignoring him, and that adds room for $4.6 million more to be added to what I'm showing right now as over $9 million in space.

So that's about $13 million left. Maybe more if the cap goes up. And all I need to buy with that is two impact, hard checking, genuine top-six left wings. Easy!

Sure. Sure I can find that, it's simple. I'll just package up the nearly non-existent draft picks and the prospects that aren't quite as good as Holmberg yet, and I'll get someone super famous who scores 40 goals and gets 100 assists and hits hard, and oh, crap, they want to re-sign Acciari, though. I want that, too! Lop another $2-3 million off the excess. Two left wings for $10 million, no problem.

Wait! I'm being told I forgot to pay Ilya Samsonov and even with the use of arbitration, his comparables will haul his AAV up to at least $4 million. Let's just be optimistic and use that number as his new AAV. Do I even have enough left for two additions?

Okay if I compromise my ideals on the left wing situation and just give in entirely to the hopium that Matt Knies will grow into the role, I have this:

Matt Knies - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
Calle Järnkrok - John Tavares - William Nylander
Sam Lafferty - ? K? - Noel Acciari
??? - Bobby McMann - Pontus Holmberg

And all I need is some fourth liner! Hey, Kyle Clifford is still under contract... wait, no Nick Robertson will be ready. I'm confident! So that means that forward corps with Robertson on the fourth line costs $51,789,783 and the total cap his with seven defenders and two goalies is $76,356,450 with $7,143,500 in space.

What to spend the rest of that space on? A defenceman? A forward? Two mediocre Kerfoot-priced guys who have to play over their heads? That's a very good question. The same question Kyle Dubas has been answering in various ways for many years. Ways that usually cost $2 million or less because he's always had less wiggle room and nothing like $7 million to throw around.

The consolation here is that Dubas's plan to empty out the periphery of the forward corps in time for this offseason – just as the cap might go up by more than one million, and there's new contracts to be signed for big dollars that don't take effect yet – left the team able to make genuine choices.

The Leafs don't have to settle for that defence corps as is. They don't have to completely compromise on the top-six wingers. They can't do some of the usual fantasy trades you hear about that involve famous and expensive or famous and young players no other team is giving up for any price. They can't drop $10 million on a stud defender, even if there was another Pietrangelo out there, but the door is open a crack.

It's not a rebuild. It's not running it back, it's something in the middle. And what you spend those cap dollars on is largely going to depend on what you think the team lacks. Of course, you only get to do that on armchair GM. The real Leafs GM is going to make these decisions – in concert with Brendan Shanahan and the team ownership – based on their opinions about what the team lacks.

And then, of course, like any GM on any team, they end up making the best deals they can out of what is actually available. They compromise all their beliefs and ideals, and do the best they can to improve the team, knowing they can't satisfy anyone no matter what they do, not until the playoffs come around again. And even then – there's no such thing as an okay way to lose in Toronto.

That's the job description.