Five days into the 2019 NHL free agency period, one thing is abundantly clear if you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It is only July, but the 2019-20 version of the Leafs is looking like it will be better than the 2018-19 team that was bounced in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, at least on paper.
Gone are centre Nazem Kadri, the centerpiece of Monday’s big trade with the Colorado Avalanche, along with forwards Patrick Marleau, Connor Brown and Tyler Ennis, defencemen Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Calle Rosen.
As of Wednesday night, free agent blueliner Jake Gardiner was still looking for a place to play, but it’s safe to say that he, too, won’t be back in Toronto.
With GM Kyle Dubas attempting to fit top point producer Mitch Marner into a contract that jives with the Maple Leafs’ suddenly tight salary cap picture, there won’t be any room to wedge Gardiner onto the roster.
Dubas has added defencemen Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur, along with forwards Alex Kerfoot, Jason Spezza and Nick Shore.
There weren’t many holes in Toronto’s roster when they began their short-lived playoff run, and the same can be said for how this season’s lineup is shaping up.
Adding Barrie, an offensive talent on the blueline, not only gives Toronto another great puck-moving defenceman, it also creates another threat on the second power-play unit with Spezza and Kerfoot.
But the real answer as to why the newest version of the Leafs is better than the previous incarnation shouldn’t be centered on whether the new players in town are better than the ones that have been jettisoned elsewhere.
Even though salary cap considerations came in to play, parting ways with Kadri, Marleau, Brown and Hainsey, in particular, is Dubas’ way of telling the remaining players that last season wasn’t good enough and the goal is no longer to just make the playoffs.
The 2019-20 season will also give John Tavares a second season in Toronto, Auston Matthews should (I say should) get more ice time, Mitch Marner (if he indeed re-signs with the Leafs) is capable to cracking 100 points, and if forward Zach Hyman and defenceman Travis Dermott return from their injuries without any ill effects, they will be fresh for the second half of the season and post-season.
Don’t start planning the parade route just yet, though — although given the hours-long disaster that was the Raptors’ NBA championship parade, it might make sense to start planning it now.
Seriously, though, if the Leafs can stay healthy and the new guys can fit in right out of the gate, this season could be the best one in a long time for the blue and white.
WATCH: Toronto Maple Leafs trade Patrick Marleau to Carolina Hurricanes