With the impending free agency of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and Leo Komarov, the Toronto Maple Leafs will have to look towards the call-ups they have made throughout this season to fill the spots of the old players. It is, of course, possible for any of these pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs) to be re-signed, but very unlikely. The Maple Leafs UFAs will demand a raise, and with many players coming off entry-level contracts in the next two years it is expected that each will move on to a new team.
Toronto Maple Leafs UFAs and Their Replacements
With Andreas Johnsson called up, that seems to mark the end of the next big generation of the Leafs forward prospects. The organization still has players like Jeremy Bracco and Carl Grundstrom that could have an impact at the NHL level, but none of which are likely going to be up anytime soon.
With all this said, the Leafs have 16 forwards in the NHL right now. 12 forwards on the roster, two scratches (typically Josh Leivo and Matt Martin), and two players injured in Auston Matthews and Leo Komarov. Assuming every free agent walks (including Dominic Moore and Tomas Plekanec) the Leafs are left with two holes on the wing and two at centre.
Filling in van Riemsdyk’s Slot
Just a few games ago, the obvious choice would have been Josh Leivo, but with the call-up of Andreas Johnsson, it becomes a harder thing to predict what will become of it. Leivo has the benefit of the pure offence that van Riemsdyk had and perhaps makes him the better player to just slot right in and take on the role of van Riemsdyk, but that perhaps is not the best option.
Since his call-up, Johnsson has started over half his zone starts in the defensive zone with a 61.4% Corsi. These numbers cannot represent what Johnsson will be but are promising. Despite Leivo being more similar to van Riemsdyk, Johnsson would be the better fit as he has both offensive skill and is competent in his own zone, having killed penalties on the Marlies. The Leafs may have to change their line because they have a player that plays a different role, but it would benefit the team greatly to have the better player there.
Taking Over For Komarov
Leo Komarov is an interesting case because of how often he kills penalties. Fans have said for a couple of years now that Grundstrom was the ‘Komarov of tomorrow’ because of a scouting report that came out saying he was like Komarov but with better hands. Alright, sounds like a good fit, right? Like the same player but with more offensive upside, right?
The problem is Grundstrom hasn’t played on North American ice other than the 2016 WJC. The transition will take longer than to just call him up to the NHL next year. Kasperi Kapanen, who was called earlier in the year, has been exactly who the Leafs will slot in on the penalty kill time and become the player that Babcock trusts in the dying minutes with a one-goal lead like he does with Komarov. With his speed, Kapanen also becomes a threat to score a handful of breakaway goals, something they didn’t have the threat of with Komarov.
Keeping Adequate Centre Depth
The Leafs don’t have the centre depth in the minors like they did with wingers. This off-season, they are set to have three UFA centres with Plekanec, Moore and Bozak. The key piece being Tyler Bozak playing the third line centre which keeps the Leafs offence so deep. The best centre they potentially have in their system is Miro Aaltonen, and he is a fringe NHLer at best right now. Definitely not the player to drive the Leafs dynamic third line.
The answer may not be in the minors. The answer could be playing on Matthews’ wing. William Nylander has taken 554 faceoffs this year and is currently playing centre between Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman. He has looked good in the offensive zone at centre and has struggled at points in the defensive zone when playing in the middle, but that is to be expected with a new centre. The only other clear option would be to move Patrick Marleau to centre, and coach Mike Babcock has made it clear that is not the reason they signed him. So right now, while Matthews is out, Leafs nation could be getting a taste of what next years centres could be like.
They might as well audition Nylander and see potentially if he can be 3C next year. If they can't add another centre in off-season. https://t.co/pMq0Gopx4y
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) February 23, 2018
With Nylander off the wing, that then opens up another spot on the wing and in slide Josh Leivo, the player who has just been dying to play. The player who requested to play first and foremost, and if he wasn’t able to do that then to be traded from his childhood team. This not only pleases a player on your roster but injects more speed and skill into the lineup each night.
The Troublesome Fourth Line Centre
The fourth line centre has given Mike Babcock some trouble over the last two years. Last year he went through six different centres at that position, and this year has tried four centres as well as moving Marleau to the middle and shifting Bozak down a line. If the Leafs want to stay within the organization, they could look to Miro Aaltonen to come up and step in or could look to the free agent market that boasts names like Mark Letestu or Derek Ryan, but all of that is up to the management.
Life after the UFA’s has daunted Leafs fans for quite a while, seeing how van Riemsdyk has 31 goals and that he’s going to walk for nothing scares them, but it looks promising with the plethora of depth they have on the wing and how much youth they have on the team, as well as Nylander looking good in his centre audition.
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