The Toronto Maple Leafs, owner of the 1st overall pick, have a huge offseason coming up. Year 1 of the “Shanaplan” has been a great success, and the future is looking bright in Toronto for the first time in a long time. Yet, the Leafs need to capitalize on this optimism and hope, or Shanahan and Lou will be no better than their predecessors. That starts with having a good offseason, and carrying it into the year.
The largest cause for excitement surrounding the Maple Leafs has to be seeing Auston Matthews put on the Blue and White on June 24th – but should they actually pick Matthews? Finnish winger Patrick Laine has seized a lot of momentum after a ridiculous World Championship. Many scouts believe Laine has the potential to be a 50 goal scorer, and maybe even make a major impact as soon as his rookie season. Positional need always plays a factor, and the Leafs have not had a #1 centre since Mats Sundin. If you look at the teams contending for a the Stanley Cup in the recent past, all teams have been anchored by star centre-iceman. Auston Matthews can be a guy you put out there in game-deciding situations, much like Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar, his two most common comparisons. It is tough to say whether it will be Matthews or Laine who will have the better career, as a lot of things can happen. Right now, the Leafs should be taking the best player who fills an organizational need, and that is Matthews.
There are rumours the Leafs have major interest in free-agent-to-be Steven Stamkos. Although the draft comes first, they may have an idea of Stamkos’ intentions, which could sway who they pick at #1. If they know Stamkos is coming, and wants to play centre, then Patrick Laine is the better fit, as picking him would allow everyone to play their natural positions. Of course, that would probably mean the Leafs are tampering with Stamkos, so that is highly unlikely. The Leafs brass would have to believe that their team is close to becoming a playoff team in order to sign Stamkos, who will demand between $10-$12 million per year. Giving that kind of money to one player is a huge financial risk, especially considering his recent struggles with blood clots, which could develop into career-ending issue as it did for Pascal Dupuis. For these reasons, I think the Leafs would be better off drafting Auston Matthews, and continuing their slow rebuild, without Stamkos.
Not signing Stamkos doesn’t rule out signing other free agents to accelerate the process. Players like Kyle Okposo, Jimmy Vesey, Brian Campbell, and the players the Leafs traded away at the deadline, like Roman Polak and James Reimer. The options for the Maple Leafs are endless, as they will have a projected $10M in cap space, and even more after the buyout of Jared Cowen. This flexibility will allow them to do a few different things, depending on how progressed they think their prospects are. The Leafs could sign veterans to one-year deals, and do the same thing they did this year, building up their trade value and then dealing at the deadline. They could also choose to move their prospects up to the big leagues and go with a younger team. Flexibility is the reason the Leafs traded Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, and it is also the reason for optimism in Toronto.
Shanahan and Lou, along with their staff, have shaped this roster so that they can do everything and anything to improve it. At this point in time, nothing is off the table. What they do next will decide if the Leafs rise to prominence.
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