On free agent day a person on TSN said the following, roughly paraphrased: We've been sitting here for six years watching the Leafs fill in around the edges of the same team, so how is this any different? They will never succeed until those few guys who have always been there find a way to succeed.

I'm not telling you who that was because he's the wrong sort of person, like Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the wrong sort of defender for many people, so he gets exaggeratedly trashed. Mike Johnson (the right sort of person) spoke up and said that what is different is the addition of Chris Tanev.

The entire panel agreed, very enthusiastically, that playing Tanev with Morgan Rielly was going to create a "better than the sum of the parts" situation. All types of people agreed with this. That Rielly should be better just for standing next to Tanev.

This is not the first time the TSN panel on free agent day has been more interesting on the Leafs than every game broadcast discussion combined. I'll rehash the last cogent discussion now because while everyone dropped these concepts from their consciousness in a quest for the shiny new talking points about defencemen, the issue still exists.

The question, before Kyle Dubas left and before Treliving took over, was this: is the problem in the playoffs failure to get goals from people outside that top-six core or was it a failure to get the top-six stars into scoring position. This has now morphed in the retelling as a Treliving vs Keefe ideological divide, but that is false. No one knows what Keefe thought other than by inference.

A sober and unemotional read of the most recent playoffs would tell you that the problem of scoring position for some players seems to have been solved. If they'd been healthy, there would have been markedly different results. A look back at last summer would sure seem to indicate that Treliving was looking for offence from the defence and the bottom six. The plan largely failed because of the quality of the players he added.

He's changed his tune.

Last Year's Team

Before looking at the roster as it is, a short review of last year's team is in order. But first a disclaimer: I believe that looking just at playoff results is a waste of time. I don't do it. It's a short run of games against a single opponent per round, and is so swamped in random forces affecting outcomes, you cannot make a meaningful story out of it. You can't add those minutes up over several years and think you've discovered something either. If you genuinely think the playoffs are the only thing that matters, don't read this post. You and I are not on the same planet. The only meaningful way to evaluate teams and players is with regular season results.

Watching the playoffs can give you clues about what a team needs because it is a run of games against an above-average opponent, but goal scoring rates over four, six, seven, eleven, fourteen games are random numbers to make narratives out of. Judging players by points is a method that works some of the time while having no mechanism to tell you which times.

Now having said all that, I'm going to talk about goals a bit.

In 2022-2023, the Leafs were a very good team. They had an excellent power play overall, and their goaltending was all over the map from the worst in the NHL to nearly the best. The power-play slightly underscored their Expected Goals, but had the sixth highest scoring rate in the NHL.

Their PK results were awful, 10th worst by goal rate allowed, possibly because of goaltending, and mitigated a bit by their place in the bottom third of the NHL in TOI shorthanded.

At five-on-five their goal-scoring rate was 0.01 goals per 60 minutes behind the Avalanche for second place.

Overall they scored the second-most goals in the NHL to the Colorado Avalanche, but only had the 11th highest goal differential.

The power play began to fail to produce goals late in the season– which is normal fluctuation – then lost Mitch Marner to injury. The resulting slow spiral down was a problem of poor response to crisis. The Leafs tinkered with the people on the top unit, ending up using very weak performers for big minutes, and had a hopeless second unit with no qualified defenceman. When the tinkering didn't get results immediately, more changes followed until into the playoffs, the shot rate began to decline, and when faced with the second best goalie in the playoffs, declined some more.

At five-on-five, the Leafs' Corsi % was poor, and if you prefer the NHL's zone time measure, it matches. They averaged 51.5% which is just barely enough to make you rise to the top of the big pile of mediocre teams all at about 50/50. Expected Goals is the Leafs' strength, and it comes primarily from the offence, but it was only good enough overall to get the Leafs in ninth place.

This shouldn't be news, but so much anguish gets broadcast about how bad the Leafs are, that it's necessary to start out with the truth – they aren't bad, but this season was by no means a great one. They were good, but flawed.


They were obvious:

  1. Goaltending
  2. Defence, specifically at the net front and in defensive breakdowns that allowed high-percentage shots from anywhere because someone was wide open.
  3. Improved Corsi, specifically by achieving zone exits and maintaining the puck in the neutral zone.
  4. Personnel to achieve two viable power play units and to replace top unit players when needed.

Things that were not needed:

  1. More goal scoring.
  2. Zone entries – they just annoy you more when they fail, but the exits were the issue.
  3. More dump and chase – although ability to do it when necessary is a required skill.

So how did the Leafs do at addressing all of these problems while only able to fill in around the edges?

This Year's Team

Goaltending: Considering their budget, they did fabulously. There have been goalie signings since Anthony Stolarz was added that make his contract seem like a serious bargain. But it all really rests on the Joe Woll of last season having not being a chimera.

In-zone defence: Tanev is a huge plus here, and Ekman-Larsson is not a negative in that area. I know there has been exaggerated complaining about him, that he can barely play and is terrible, but there's no real evidence for that. His role is primarily offensive, though. The rest of the defenders lean towards limiting either volume or quality of shots against. There is no meaningful change in the ability of the forwards to defend effectively. Any improvement there has to come from coaching.

Zone Exits: The biggest issue with the deadline additions of Joel Edmundson and Ilya Lyubushkin last season was that they were not puck handlers of any ability. What the Leafs need from Tanev and Ekman-Larsson is that first pass out of the zone that will set up the play to move up the ice, or for fun a controlled carry-out. I'm pretty optimistic this area will improve from the defence, but any improvement from the forwards is going to have to come from coaching systems or the synergy with better defenders.

Maintaining possession in the neutral zone: This is going to have to come from the system of transition as well. If Timothy Liljegren is traded, the Leafs will lose one good puck handler. Ekman-Larson could show value here, as he is decent at producing offence when healthy. Offence in this context means volume of shots for, possession of the puck, etc.

Power play: Ekman-Larsson is a major improvement on the power play, and is capable of taking the first unit job if needed, or if the new coach has to go through a "Rielly needs to be replaced" phase of "thinking". I've been told several times that the second unit defender doesn't matter. Well, it does, and the Leafs have to consider their offensive capabilities from defenders even if the current obsession in the fandom is for defensive players. The Leafs main weakness has always been that key player injuries hobble the team dramatically. Why would you not mitigate that with regard to Morgan Rielly if you can while also making the power play better overall?

Otherwise, the re-signing of Max Domi, a uniquely bad forward on the power play, keeps the second unit from improving, and the likelihood that he gets moved up to unit one if necessary is a problem.

I believe a great deal of the issue with the Leafs underscoring on the power play was poor quality personnel outside the top four forwards and Rielly. This has barely changed and the system has to be gold-standard and the shot rate very high just to be effective enough. If you want a sparkly success percentage or see a team that routine scores well over expected, you should likely watch the Oilers.

Assembling the Roster

My first assumption on the roster alignment is that Max Domi will play as a top-six winger unless he proves to be completely unusable there. Any statement that he replaces Mitch Marner is absurd on its face, however. He is a very pale shadow of Marner in one area of Marner's skill and one area only, and no one not trying to take a position in the great it-boy controversy would ever make this claim.

I expect Rielly and Tanev to play with the Matthews line – with whatever wingers that turns out to be – and they will play heavily skewed minutes against top lines to whatever extent is possible. Matthews already does skew towards tougher than average competition. In effect, the fix on defence has made the Leafs even more top heavy but that's unlikely to be mentioned at large.

In the past Rielly played nearly as much with the Tavares line, and the question now is will that continue or will the addition of Ekman-Larsson change the picture. I expect Ekman-Larsson to play with Jake McCabe and I think they will be the primary defensive pair behind the defensively weak John Tavares line. Any improvement there is going to come because the top unit is a wreaking ball and we have seen very good things from Tavares and William Nylander when they face the second or third line of their competition.

What I'm imagining here is a redistribution of minutes, not a wholesale change. Rielly and Tanev will get a higher percentage of time with Matthews and Ekman-Larsson and McCabe will play fewer minutes overall than that top pair.

There is very little offensive power in the bottom six, and the Leafs look like they will have a top-six/bottom-six split this season. The defensive and physical third pair defenders and the depth forwards can all get the puck in the offensive zone and keep it there fairly well as long as they aren't trying to shut down powerful opposition. That's all you can reasonably ask for. Many, many people will expect goals or excellent xG%s depending on their leanings.

Of course a certain amount of bottom six time will feature the other defensive pairs, but if the minutes on the second pair are to be kept a bit low at five-on-five, the third pair can't be play Roman Polak minutes. The Leafs have, by quality, a top-two/bottom-four split, but few NHL teams that have that fairly common skill structure actually play them that way. The top-four/third-pair dynamic seems to be hard-wired into NHL coaching. The major weakness of Ekman-Larsson is that he can't be the 24 minute guy anymore, so the Leafs have to shave off his minutes. Look for McCabe to play with someone else some of the time.

I've imagined all of this without Timothy Liljegren. With him taking regular shifts, he's more likely to split the job of playing with McCabe. The only trouble with that is that McCabe would have to switch sides shift-by-shift. I simply cannot imagine an Ekman-Larsson - Liljegren pairing – who defends? So no matter how I arrange this in my mind, Liljegren simply seems to not fit. Training camp might be where this all gets decided.

What's Missing?

The holes are pretty obvious. The centre depth is more tragic than it's been since Ben Smith played 36 games. I see people deciding based on player evaluation in isolation that David Kämpf is bad and should be traded. This is unsupportable as a team building strategy no matter your opinion of his contract. The evaluation isn't one I share, either. His role on the Leafs last year was PK, faceoffs, and limiting shots-against while helping the depth lines stay in the offensive zone to pass the puck over to a top line. He did well enough with . So too did Pontus Holmberg.

It is so hard to find viable forwards in the NHL to play centre on third or fourth lines that the list of truly terrible players making more than Kämpf just because they are centres is pretty impressive. This is the pool the Leafs are fishing in to make an upgrade there.

If the Leafs had succeeded in signing Adam Henrique, this would be a different story, but right now, there are not many opportunities to improve that centre depth, so it might have to be just left as it is until later in the year. The Oilers had a redundant Ryan McLeod because they did sign Henrique. And they traded him to the Sabres for Matt Savoie, taken ninth overall and star centre at the junior level. The Leafs don't have that kind of trade capital. The Sabres have enough young players that they will willing give up someone likely to be better than Fraser Minten for a guy likely to be about as good as Fraser Minten. The Leafs do not have extra prospects. Or anyone taken ninth overall.

It's not clear to me what form the third line will take for the Leafs, but there is an opportunity with Bobby McMann, Nick Robertson and Conor Dewar to add some speed. Speed looks exciting but it needs to accomplish something that isn't defensive zone tragicomedy to be worth it. Once there's some clarity on who does what in the bottom six, which defenders play with whom will be more clear as well.

At this point, there is no real ability to add forwards – not that there is a lot left in free agency. If the Leafs are confident that Jani Hakanpää can play at the NHL level, then they might feel they can trade Liljegren, but that's the only real way to open up some cap space. If they feel they need to keep their options open on defence, that idea might fade away unless some impossible to resist deal comes along.

The team boxed themselves into this corner with Liljegren. By overplaying him, they gave him an excellent arbitration case and that case likely scared off any possible pre-draft trade deals. By signing him to a decent deal, they've made him a little more tradeable, but how does a team desperate for defence trade a right-shooting defender and not have to take virtually nothing back? Aren't you essentially stamping the guy as valueless by doing that? Imagining the Leafs can get a better player than Liljegren back by trading Liljegren is a classic offseason fantasy. Ditto David Kämpf. The Leafs have to operate outside the fantasy realm, so this is the main reason why they are likely going to just play these players.

It's possible to just dump off inefficient contracts to make cap space, but then you have to replace that player and also get better somewhere otherwise, why'd you bother? The Leafs trade capital in terms of picks and prospects is minimal and undervalued compared to the competition. Their first-round picks are bad, their prospects are either never going to be moved or they're second-round projects. The no-name down-roster players you're tired of are more likely to disappear on waivers than generate a return. There are multiple teams looking to add useful players who can overpay without blinking. That's just how it is when a team has been in the playoffs for years at a time.

Which is exactly the same situation as last year. And the year before.

A Conclusion of a Sort

Training camp is going to reveal a lot of things this year:

  • Can Matt Murray play at all, and is he NHL-level
  • Hakanpää yes or no
  • Who is injured and needs to be replaced right away
  • Who is recall material
  • And the usual exercise of discovering if new players fit where you think they do

The talk will be all about Mitch Marner, and a lot of Leafs players will owe him some thanks for getting to work their way into the new system with new linemates and new coach in blissful anonymity.

Until October anything is possible, but I guarantee the lineups you list off today won't be the playoffs day-one crew. It's still three months until the Sharks start gobbling up players on waivers.

Are the Leafs better? The most pressing needs were addressed at the required low cost. And those core players have to play at their best. Then we'll see how much better they are and how much the holes in the roster really hurt them.