With all the moves complicating Kyle Dubas’ roster, the Toronto Maple Leafs depth is going to need to perform at a very high level this upcoming season. The high AAVs on the contracts of Auston Matthews and John Tavares have forced the Leafs to become very nifty with the cap space they have left. Now, with Mitch Marner set to break the bank as well, Toronto has to ask a lot of their cheaper players.
Depth has come in the cheap signings of players like Jason Spezza, Pontus Aberg, as well as trading for low cap-hit players like Jordan Schmaltz and Kenny Agostino. The majority of these players are inexperienced and unproven but are needed if the Leafs hope to build on back-to-back 100 point seasons again in 2019.
With so many new faces due to jump in and out of the Leafs lineup this season, head coach Mike Babcock and the rest of Toronto’s staff needs to find a way to integrate all the new parts on the lower end of the Leafs roster.
Toronto Maple Leafs Depth Needs A Big 2019-20 Season
How The Bottom-end Worked In 2018-19
The Leafs were carried by their top-six last season. Marner, Matthews, and Tavares all set new career-highs in points. Defenceman Morgan Rielly also set a new career-high in points with 72, putting up the most by a Leafs defender since Borje Salming during the 1978-79 season. Even with all this offence, the rest of the Leafs players were well behind their teammates’ pace. The closest player to these four was Nazem Kadri who scored 44 points and is no longer with the team. This doesn’t mean that the rest of their players were useless, it just means the Leafs scoring prowess is dictated by their top players.
The Leafs finished the year with the fourth-most goals in the NHL. Both Kasperi Kapanen (44 pts) and Andreas Johnsson (43 pts) had successful seasons moving up and down the lineup, but are likely going to have to contribute more to the top-six than the bottom in 2019-20.
The fourth line was pretty successful in 2018-10 considering it was just as makeshift as it will be this year. Tyler Ennis totalled 18 points in 51 games averaging 9:56 minutes of ice time while Frederik Gauthier finally established himself as a regular in the Leafs lineup. Gauthier played 70 games last season and will likely be leaned on as a penalty killer this upcoming season. Trevor Moore is one of the 4th-liners returning from last year’s team after recording eight points in 25 games. He could be another player poised to be put in a penalty-killing role to start the season.
Leafs Looking For Regulars
A lot of the Leafs fourth-liners came in and out of the lineup leaving little imprint last season. This included trade deadline acquisition Nic Petan, international signee Par Lindholm and 2011 draftee Josh Leivo. Lindholm and Leivo didn’t even finish the season with the Leafs. These were players with cheap contracts and low-risk factors that could’ve paid off had one or two broken out. This will once again be the case next year. However, this time they’re looking for a lot more to stick.
Amongst some of the bottom-six in-and-outs in 2018-19, five players played 60 or fewer games. The only two who played more than 27 games, Lindholm and Ennis, are no longer with the team.
Through trade and free agency, the Leafs have acquired a slew of players that could all become regulars in the Leafs lineup next year. When Zach Hyman inevitably rejoins the club, there are three spots in the Leafs bottom-six up for grabs. One spot on the wing of the third line and both wing spots on the fourth line. The most obvious option to fill one of these spots is former-KHLer Ilya Mikheyev. Coming over in the same way as Lindholm and defenceman Igor Ozhiganov, Mikeyev will almost certainly crack the opening night lineup and should be expected to be a big role player after an All-Star season in the KHL last season.
The Leafs then have to pick and choose between players to fill out the lineup. There’s a good chance Babcock will favour players that can contribute on the penalty kill as well. Finding players that can provide valuable minutes every night and are not scratched and reinserted very often is a huge need.
Players Making A Minimum
Toronto has clearly put a premium on squeezing value out of players moving into 2019-20. Looking ahead to opening night, the Leafs will likely have five – assuming Marner signs at some point – forwards and two defenders making under $1 million over the upcoming season. Backup goalie Michael Hutchinson also falls into this group.
Of this miscellaneous group, only three players have contracts that extend past this upcoming season. Therefore, if one or two of these players end up contributing in a large way to Toronto’s success, there’s a low chance that the Leafs will be able to retain them after the conclusion of the season. It’s an incredibly unlucky situation but one that Leafs management has been bracing for while signing top-end players to such lucrative contracts.
There is also a lack of experience amongst a lot of the sub-one million dollar players. Only Spezza and Martin Marincin have played 60 or more games in a single NHL season. The Leafs are already a fairly young group and finding consistent contributions from the bottom of the lineup is a must. This may place some pressure on Babcock to get the lineup right with a lot of unknown parts, but it gives opportunities to a lot of players wanting to make a big splash for their new club.
Expectations For The Depth in 2019-20
The most important thing for the Leafs depth going into next season is finding players who play their game with consistency on a night-to-night basis. Like all bottom-six units, the Leafs will see some rotation amongst players. The important part is having a solid group that doesn’t act as an overlying weakness for the team.
Expectations for the depth group in Toronto should be tempered, but there is a lot of room for new players to establish themselves as everyday NHLers. Whether it be from the trades and free-agent signings, or the minors, the Leafs are not short on candidates to do what Ennis and Gauthier were able to do last season.
Main Photo: OTTAWA, ON – SEPTEMBER 19: Toronto Maple Leafs center Frederik Gauthier (33) keeps an eye on the play during first period National Hockey League preseason action between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators on September 19, 2018, at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, ON, Canada. (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)