Rick Zamperin: Maple Leafs post-mortem looks bleak now but future remains bright

The Toronto Maple Leafs enter the offseason with some questions marks, but a lot of promise.
The Toronto Maple Leafs enter the offseason with some questions marks, but a lot of promise. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Now that we’ve all had a little more time to digest the elimination of the Toronto Maple Leafs from the NHL playoffs, I think it allows us to better assess the state of the franchise.

Don’t get me wrong, the disappointment of blowing a 4-3 lead in the third period and losing 7-4 to Boston in Game 7 of their series Wednesday night is still there, but in time it will diminish.

Let’s not forget the Bruins held a commanding 3-1 series advantage at one point and Toronto pushed it to the limit and were 20 minutes away from booking their trip to Round 2 against Tampa Bay.

But it just seems like it wasn’t their time.

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Many fans are targeting goalie Frederik Anderson for his lacklustre performance in Game 7. But without him, Toronto never makes it to Game 7.

Others are pointing to a lack of scoring from star sophomore Auston Matthews, who had just a goal and an assist and was a -4 in the series. The 20-year-old had a superb playoff against Washington last year, and always seemed to be on the cusp of finding the scoresheet vs. Boston but it just didn’t materialize.

Jake Gardiner had a horrid Game 7 in which he was a -5. He might be wearing the goat horns, but Gardiner wasn’t the only Leaf on the ice who had that deer-in-the-headlights look when Boston retook the lead for good.

Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau were the two best Maple Leafs in the series. Marner had a team-leading seven points and was a +9 while Marleau was tops with four goals.

Going forward, I think it’s safe to say soon-to-be free agents James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komorov, Tomas Plekanec and Dominic Moore won’t be on next year’s team.

That means increased roles for players like Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.

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Anderson has proved that he’s a No. 1 goalie.

Toronto’s core group of forwards — Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, Zach Hyman and Connor Brown — will remain the nucleus of the team.

But there has to be some heavy lifting when it comes to the defence corps. Morgan Reilly and Nikita Zaitsev are signed long term and I don’t expect them to be moved anytime soon, even though I can do without the latter. Young Travis Dermott looks comfortable at the NHL level, veteran Ron Hainsey is good for another year, and Gardiner is under contract for one more season too. Roman Polak is a free agent and while he held his own in the playoffs, the Leafs should be looking for a massive upgrade.

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The problem is, stud blueliners don’t grow on trees and unless the Leafs are willing to trade some of their assets to get a player like L.A.’s Drew Doughty or Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson (both are under contract for one more season), Toronto’s defence could look very similar to this year’s group.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Maple Leafs are still trending upwards and signing Nylander to a new contract this offseason and getting Matthews and Marner under contract long term before the summer of 2019 are vital.

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With a few tweaks here and there, Toronto has the potential to go from a team that’s trending upwards to soon being at the top of the heap.

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