The Maple Leafs’ offseason roster movement officially got underway on Sunday with the re-signing of Mark Giordano to a two-year extension. The veteran defenceman’s team-friendly $800,000 AAV puts the Leafs in a decent place when imagining what the rest of their blue line will look like, but there are still plenty of decisions to be made this offseason.
Who else is on the books for the 2022-23 season? Where do things stand with the Leafs roster as the summer approaches?
Let’s break down who is under contract for the 2022-23 season, who is a restricted free agent and how these pieces could fall into place.
As it stands, the Leafs top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting could very well be the top line to start the 2022-23 season. That they developed the kind of chemistry they did throughout the season and all remain under contract for next season is encouraging for a team that will look to build on the regular season success of 2021-22.
What could change things on the top line is, ironically, a change on the second line. There have been more and more calls to try John Tavares on the wing. Would that be a way to get the $11-million centre away from heavy traffic in the middle of the ice, make him more effective with the puck and therefore, hopefully, more productive offensively?
The trickle-down effect from that move wouldn’t be small: would head coach Sheldon Keefe try Mitch Marner at the centre alongside Tavares? He has experience playing centre, but it came long before his time in the NHL. What about moving William Nylander to the middle, which could allow the on-again, off-again pair of Nylander and Tavares to stay together? Does Keefe believe in Nylander’s defensive abilities enough to make that move?
Regardless, Keefe has to figure out a way to optimize Nylander this season. That he spent the late season and the playoffs on the third line seems sub-optimal for a player in his prime and with the clear ability to score 30 goals.
Alex Kerfoot is fresh off the best season of his NHL career. Could he be moved to the second-line centre role? He has the two-way game, but doing so would also box him into a specific role. Keefe has shown that he values the versatility Kerfoot brings and that he can drop him into different spots on short notice.
Or, finally, would moving Tavares to the wing mean the Leafs would prioritize signing, or trading for, a second-line centre in the offseason? A top-six forward would be high on their shopping list either way. Perhaps it’s a centre, which could ultimately cost the Leafs that much more than a winger.
David Kampf came as advertised and there’s little reason to suggest he won’t follow up his stellar 2021-22 campaign with at least a similar season: logging heavy defensively-minded minutes. Putting likely returning RFA’s Pierre Engvall and Ondrej Kase alongside Kampf makes sense for an energetic third line that can chip in a goal here and there.
Now, those goals didn’t come in the postseason, which was crucial considering the margin for error against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Leafs’ first-round playoff loss was so slim. Even though Kampf and Engvall hit career highs in goals, the expectation will likely be that they have to contribute even more offensively.
After the top nine, there’s plenty of room for movement and space for younger players to secure jobs. Kyle Clifford is under contract, but a move to the Marlies and possibly taking over for Rich Clune as captain (Should Clune not want to play next season, which isn’t set in stone) seems likely.
The end of the road may be near for Wayne Simmonds. Does Sheldon Keefe still have faith in him to produce at five-on-five, even in limited minutes? With one of his lowest goals per 60 five-on-five minutes of his career in 2021-22, is that even possible? Would Simmonds even play for the Marlies?
On the fringes
As previously noted, forwards that seem likely to at least contend for a fourth-line role in training camp include Nick Robertson, Alex Steeves and Joey Anderson. Both players were standouts with the Marlies this season. At 20, Robertson is still young but brings tools the Leafs could use up front, including a stellar shot, a nose for the net and continued effort. Anderson and Steeves’ ceiling might each be as a fourth-line energy-type, but their consistency with the Marlies this season warrants each a long look through training camp.
Rodion Amirov ($925,000)
Pontus Holmberg ($827,500)
Max Ellis ($838,750)
Dmitri Ovchinnikov ($835,000)
Mikhail Abramov ($809,444)
Pavel Gogolev ($834,167)
Ty Voit ($835,000)
Semyon Der-Arguchintsev ($766,667)
Bobby McMann ($762,500)
Curtis Douglas ($837,500)
Roni Hirvonen ($856,667)
In the system
Locking up the creative but tough-nosed Roni Hirvonen on a three-year entry-level deal this month bolsters the Leafs’ prospect pool, though he’ll very likely spend next season in Finland’s Liiga. Pontus Holmberg was touted by Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as someone they expect to challenge for a roster spot, but a full season in the AHL wouldn’t be the worst thing for his development to allow him to understand how to best utilize his playmaking on North American rinks. Ty Voit and Braeden Kressler should both take on leadership roles with their respective OHL teams and dominate in most facets of the game.
On paper at least, the puzzle that is the Leafs’ blue line looks to be put together. There should be little concern about rolling out a top pair of Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie, given how well the former played this season and how safe and dependable the latter continues to be.
Again, on paper, the second pair looks in decent shape, too: Jake Muzzin played well in the playoffs, generally moving the puck cleanly and making the kind of smart decisions he didn’t always make in the regular season. Do the Leafs feel inspired enough by his seven games against the Lightning to have him continue logging big minutes for them, even with his recent string of injuries and his up-and-down play in the regular season? Muzzin is a beloved member of the dressing room, a Stanley Cup winner who can serve as that steadying hand when the sense of drama around this team is inflated.
But if a move to shed salary cap space is needed, could the Leafs approach Muzzin about waiving his no-trade clause? How the Leafs proceed with Muzzin will undoubtedly be one of their more interesting decisions this summer.
You could argue that Muzzin’s value to the team will increase this season should he be paired with a returning RFA on the second pair. After a solid season logging bottom-pair minutes, Rasmus Sandin feels ready for a lengthy look in the top four. The Leafs could use some more offensive pop in that role, so balancing Muzzin and Sandin’s abilities on a pair seems like an intriguing enough option at the very least.
Re-signing Mark Giordano currently gives the Leafs options for their third pair. Going back to the pair of Giordano and Timothy Liljegren who logged an impressive 63 percent five-on-five expected goals in the regular season has to at least be a little tempting for Keefe, even if Liljegren looked a little out of his depth in his two playoff games this season. It feels like the 23-year-old showed impressive enough improvement in his game last season to warrant another long look in the top six next season.
That leaves Justin Holl. It was a tough early season stretch for Holl, in which his confidence looked shaken and his decision-making and physicality suffered. He seemed to turn a corner late in the season and looked in control of his game on the bottom pair through his five playoff games, but there must be lingering questions about his game: was his stellar 2020-21 season a flash in the pan? Or with a little time in the offseason to get away from the game and then renewed focus in training camp, does Holl reclaim his spot in the top six?
Giving Holl a fresh start elsewhere, perhaps before the draft to pump up their collection of just three draft picks this year, also feels like an option, especially if management believes they can find a serviceable defenceman during their annual tour of the bargain bins.
On the fringes
Right now, Kristians Rubins might be the only Marlie who should challenge for a spot in the lineup later in the season. Sheldon Keefe is a fan of his game and given his 6-foot-5, 227-pound frame and his continued maturity, it’s easy to see why. His skating needs work, but a few more NHL games should keep him plenty motivated to improve.
In the system
Chad Krys (RFA)
Topi Niemela ($856,667)
Carl Dahlstrom ($750,000)
Joseph Duszak (RFA)
Filip Kral ($810,000)
Mac Hollowell ($750,000)
Mikko Kokkonen ($846,667)
William Villeneuve ($$835,000)
Axel Rindell ($838,750)
Mac Hollowell’s game didn’t improve nearly enough in 2021-22, but he also missed a long stretch for a personal issue. He’ll have to prove to the organization that he can round out other elements of his game beyond his smooth skating and puck movement. As a confident and talented offensive right-shot blueliner, Topi Niemela remains the team’s most intriguing prospect. If he doesn’t make the Leafs out of camp, he’ll return to Liiga. William Villeneuve offers a lot of promise as a possible game-breaking offensive defenceman and the 20-year-old should see power play time with the Marlies as he graduates from the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs.
When Petr Mrazek skated off the ice on March 29 after being forced to leave a game against the Boston Bruins after allowing one goal on four shots, it encompassed a lot of his disappointing season: he left with another injury in a season full of ailments, and without a continued inability to stop the puck. Though he is under contract for two more seasons, bringing him back has some serious “Fool me twice, shame on me” vibes to it. Attaching an asset to trade Mrazek, retaining salary in a deal, or buying him out all feel like more viable options.
Erik Kallgren’s game didn’t stay at the heights of his first two starts as a Leaf when he allowed just two goals over those games. After those two starts, his save percentage for the season was .868, perhaps more reflective of where he’s at in his professional hockey journey. There are certainly some skills and a hardened mentality to build on, but another stint with the Marlies to develop his game seems likely.
It adds up to at least one addition to the Leafs’ goaltending as of the utmost priority for Dubas this summer.
On the fringes
The Leafs clearly believe in Joseph Woll, re-upping him to a three-year contract extension in February. Whether he can make the jump from the AHL to the NHL remains to be seen, but he should share the Marlies net all season with Kallgren.
(Salary info via Cap Friendly)
(Top photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)