Just a few days into the NHL’s free agency period it’s clear what the plan is for the Toronto Maple Leafs next season. First came the signing of 36-year old defenseman Ron Hainsey. Then came Dominic Moore, a familiar face to most Leafs fans, who will be 37 at the start of the 2017-18 season. When the dust settled after a busy July 1st, it wasn’t until the following night that Toronto announced the signing of veteran, and likely Hockey Hall of Fame-destined, Patrick Marleau to a three-year deal. Looking past the added production, the acquisition of Marleau adds flexibility for the Leafs next season.
Many fingers point to the obvious: Lou Lamoriello is adding depth and experience to his roster chalked full of young talent. Hainsey is a safe bet to be used on the right side of Toronto’s bottom-pairing defense, and Moore fills Toronto’s hole at centre on the fourth line. While it’s too soon to tell where exactly Marleau will be slotted in the Leafs deep forward group, it is telling how the addition of the 38-year old left wing creates flexibility for Toronto down the road.
Following a small handful of signings, the Leafs lack of defensive of depth is still the biggest need they have yet to address. Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, and Nikita Zaitsev remain as Toronto’s only legitimate top four quality defensemen, leaving one spot vacant to fill before the season begins. However, with Toronto finding success last year without much defensive depth, don’t be surprised to see them play most of next season the same way.
Should the Leafs remain quiet for the rest of the free agency period, you’re looking at a very similar roster to last season. Their free agency signings will add a decent amount of contribution and experience to a young roster. It’s hard to argue against the current Leafs line up being an improvement from last year knowing the team didn’t lose any key pieces. As well as when you factor in what might be seen from Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman this season, Leafs brass might remain patient before targeting any key defensive pieces.
Acquisition of Patrick Marleau Adds Flexibility for the Leafs
It’s quite possible that the acquisition of Patrick Marleau was not only intended to help bolster Toronto’s line up, but to use as a replacement for James van Riemsdyk. The 28-year old winger’s name is often brought up in trade talks given his consistent production and affordable contract at $4.25M. With that contract expiring at the end of next season, look for him to be shopped if Toronto needs help on the back end.
Marleau’s role, however, doesn’t necessarily make up for a potential loss of van Riemsdyk. Since the 2014-15 season, van Riemsdyk’s 0.72 points-per-game edges Marleau’s respectable 0.61. That’s the difference between a 60-point season versus a 50-point campaign. While it may not come off as a big drop off in production, keep in mind that Marleau, who turns 38 in September, is at the point of decline in his career and will likely continue that trend. If Toronto uses Marleau to replace van Riemsdyk in the long run, the drop off between the two players would have to be seen as a price to pay for a better defensive group.
By acquiring Marleau, the Leafs are in a position to compete for the playoffs in back-to-back years. With that being said, a question mark remains next to Toronto’s defense. The Leafs have set the bar high by adding more to their group. Thanks to the cap space they have, that is a realistic possibility. If the Leafs aren’t satisfied with where they are come trade deadline, expect them to use van Riemsdyk as a piece to fulfill a need on defense.