Toronto’s exit from the National Hockey League‘s best-of-five playoff qualifier at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets was the latest in a long line of recent early post-season exits, even though the 3-2 series defeat wasn’t technically considered a playoff — it still felt like it.
Now, just like they have after each the team’s first round playoff eliminations over the last handful of years, many Maple Leafs fans are demanding change.
Some fans are calling for the club to dismiss general manager Kyle Dubas, the architect of the team, while others want Dubas to trade away some of the team’s young and handsomely paid star players.
Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has already given Dubas a vote of confidence so it appears the GM is safe for the time being, and that also means rookie head coach Sheldon Keefe isn’t going anywhere either.
The team’s top four paid players — Auston Matthews, captain John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander — earn a combined $40 million, or about half of the NHL’s $81.5 million salary cap.
Let’s be frank here, Toronto will not trade Matthews, 22, the team’s leading goal scorer and point getter who is on most nights the team’s most dangerous offensive weapon.
Tavares was heavily courted by the Maple Leafs two years ago and was made captain of the team before this past season and is a point-a-game player who is still in the prime of his career.
In his end-of-season news conference with the media, Dubas made it a point to lash out at those who criticized Marner’s performance in the series against Columbus, so don’t expect Mitch to be in another uniform anytime soon.
After a horrendous 2018-19 season, the first two months of which he spent on the sidelines waiting for a fat new contract, Nylander enjoyed a career year with 31 goals — one of only 17 players to hit that mark during this shortened season — and likely ensured an extended stay in Toronto.
In goal, Frederik Andersen is under contract for one more season at $5 million (the 13th highest cap hit among NHL netminders) and despite having a knack for allowing the odd bad goal at the absolute worst time, he has played well in a Leafs uniform (136 wins, 66 losses, 33 overtime/shootout losses).
Toronto has nearly $4.6 million in cap space heading into next season and eight impending free agents who banked a combined $11.9 million this year, which means not all of those players will be back in blue and white.
Maple Leafs’ free agents (position, 2019-20 cap hit courtesy of CapFriendly.com)
Cody Ceci, D, $4.5 million
Tyson Barrie, D, $2.75 million
Ilya Mikheyev, LW/RW, $925,000
Travis Dermott, D, $863,333
Kyle Clifford, LW, $800,000
Denis Malgin, RW/C, $750,000
Jason Spezza, C/RW, $700,000
Frederik Gauthier, C, $675,000
Odds are one of the players who has played his last game as a Leaf is defenceman Tyson Barrie, who arrived in Toronto with Alex Kerfoot in a trade that sent Nazem Kadri to Colorado, and failed to live up to expectations.
Fellow blueliner Cody Ceci is also likely on the way out unless he re-signs for a whole lot less money, or Dubas makes a trade to free up cap space and keep the 26-year-old Ottawa native in the fold.
Youngsters, like OHL goal scoring champion Nick Robertson, who suited up for Toronto’s first four games against Columbus, and blueline prospect Timothy Liljegren (who each earn less than $900,000 a season) will have a good shot at cracking the 25-man roster when the 2020-21 season begins.
Should changes be made to this roster? The short answer is yes.
A quote that is often attributed to the great Albert Einstein, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” fits well with what the Leafs have done over the last number of years.
Toronto has not won a playoff series since 2004, but I get the feeling that Maple Leafs’ brass will use the pandemic-shortened season as an excuse to stay the course and not make any drastic roster changes.
Rick Zamperin is the assistant program, news and senior sports director at Global News Radio 900 CHML.