It has been 25 long years since any Canadian team has hoisted the Stanley Cup, with the Montreal Canadiens winning it all in 1993. It has been even longer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, seeing Lord Stanley pass them by for 51 years since they won in 1967. But, the decades of disappointment could soon be rectified by an upstart team of incredibly talented young players who are currently taking the NHL by storm.
It’s a small sample size, and anything can happen during an NHL season, but the Toronto Maple Leafs came out of their corner swinging, heading to a 6-1-0 start to top the overall standings after the first seven games. With 33 goals, they shredded almost all teams which they’ve faced through the first section of the season, leading many to believe that this may just be the year of the Buds. But, there is certainly some room for improvement.
Defensive struggles early on
Adding John Tavares as a free agent enhanced a potent attack into one of the most feared in the NHL. Their 33 goals through seven games have rolled their superb start, with Auston Matthews setting a record as the first to score 16 points in the first seven games since the NHL salary cap was introduced in 2005. But, their offensive might has masked their issues in the defensive end.
The Maple Leafs have been blowing their opponents away left, right, and center, but their weak showing of 23 goals against in seven games – an average of 3.3 per game – is worrying. Coming into the season, the one element of the Leafs that led pundits and experts to believe that they couldn’t go all the way in 2019 was their lackluster defensive corps and lacking a true star defenseman.
Just looking at the last decade of Stanley Cup winners, each of them has had an elite-level defenseman who can control games from the blueline. The Toronto Maple Leafs lack this key element. Despite this, experts and fans think that their offensive qualities will be enough to see them through, with the Buds favored at +475 in the NHL betting odds to hoist the Cup, while the former co-favorites Tampa Bay Lightning sit back at +850 now. But, there’s still a lot of time for Toronto to improve their defenseman situation.
Toronto’s cap space mirage
Source: Jordie, via Twitter
As it stands, the Toronto Maple Leafs are projected to have $12.2 million in cap space, which would allude to them having plenty of room to sign a top-class defenseman. As their biggest acquisition, Tavares, came from the free agency, the Leafs also hold all nine of their first, second, and third round picks for the next three years as well as a healthy prospect pool – so they have a lot to value to trade is needed.
But, with William Nylander still on hiatus as a restricted free agent and expected to take a $5 million chunk out of the cap space, as well as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner becoming RFAs at the end of the season, Toronto can’t afford to bring in the grade of defenseman that they need for a term that stretches beyond the end of this season.
Unfortunately, the top defenseman likely available as a rental option is the Vancouver Canucks’ Alexander Edler, with Jay Bouwmeester and Tyler Myers almost certainly going to be held by their playoff-pushing teams. But, Toronto could make some space by trading the huge injured-reserve salary of Nathan Horton, which sets them back $5.3 million per year until the conclusion of next season.
Given the price that the San Jose Sharks paid for Erik Karlsson and the assets that the Maple Leafs have, if Toronto can make some wiggle room in their cap, they could target a top-class defenseman that can change them into great contenders for the Stanley Cup. For now, while they’re certainly leading the race, there are frailties that teams will exploit.