What We Learned: Is anybody better than the Maple Leafs?

The Maple Leafs look awfully dangerous right now. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

After literal years of speculation and expectation, John Tavares is a Toronto Maple Leaf.

This is a seismic shift in a division that already had two of the best teams in the league, and a conference that’s home to the winners of the last three Stanley Cups. Make no mistake, there hasn’t been a bigger free agent signing in the NHL since Zdeno Chara left Ottawa for Boston, and the impact Tavares will have in more or less immediately making the Leafs a contender is probably even greater.

Let’s even forget that Tavares left money on the table and took a true-hometown discount to sign with the Leafs, because that’s not material this season. And frankly, it probably isn’t material beyond that because if you look at that CapFriendly page, they dont have a huge amount of commitments beyond 2018-19. Yeah, their RFAs are gonna be expensive to re-sign, but they’ll have plenty of cap space to deal with most of those concerns, especially if you can get everyone to do the buy-in on the hometown discounts a la Golden State, as Steph Curry and Kevin Durant both took significantly less money to keep that super-team together.

Anyway, I’m just gonna say it: The Leafs might be the Cup favorites right now.

I know I know: “But what about that defense!” I get it, but look, the Leafs’ D situation probably took a pretty big step forward just with the loss of Roman Polak, let alone the continued maturation of, say, 23-year-olds Connor Carrick and Morgan Rielly. You can’t always trust Mike Babcock to do the best possible deployments of talent but if Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey get a decent reduction in their run-out and the actual most talented defenders on the team are all playing 20ish minutes, I can see this team taking a step toward being Cup-competitive in a way that it perhaps was not last season.

More to the point, though, the extent to which running Tavares-Matthews-Kadri-whoever down the middle is going to help this team make that step even bigger is significant. There’s an argument to be made that the Leafs shouldn’t even run out a fourth center at all, because those three guys combined deserve to be playing a combined 60 minutes a night. You wanna say it’s like 21 or 22 for Tavares versus top talent with plenty of time on the first unit, and some PK duties. About the same or a little less for Matthews against second lines, plus first-unit power play. Then the rest for Kadri on the second PP unit plus the kill.

Put another way, Matthews and Kadri combined to play only about 35 minutes a night last season and the Leafs got some pretty good mileage out of it, so add Tavares’s 21 or so to that and you only need a fourth-line center for about four minutes a night. What’s the point.

That gives you flexibility to either dress seven defensemen (which I think is smart for any team) or a kind of “flex” forward if necessary, at whatever position you need him.

The other issue for the Leafs, as mentioned above, is that the Atlantic might now have three of the five best teams in the league (the other two being Nashville and Winnipeg in the Central).

It’s reasonable to argue that because of the divisional playoff format, the Leafs’ path to the Cup is probably the most difficult in the league, and the same is true of both Boston and Tampa. To even get to the Eastern Conference Final, they will have to play two top-five teams. Not easy. And it’s not hard to love what both Boston and Tampa will ice this year. But can either of those teams even come close to matching up against that 1-2-3 down the middle? Nope.

Now, obviously both the Bolts and Bruins have better defenses, but the Penguins and Capitals both had kinda middling defenses and won the Cup. More to the point, the Leafs will probably be spending like 55 percent of the game in the attacking end so to the extent that defense matters in the playoffs, they’re going to use their guys to retrieve the puck and stretch the ice rather than actually do as much stay-at-home stuff except situationally.

It’s fair to say that neither Nikita Zaitsev (and yikes that’s not a good contract) or Ron Hainsey (also not a good contract but a less-bad one certainly) won’t be the guys who can do that but you gotta play to your strengths and Babcock probably won’t be allowed to play 22 minutes a night anymore. Or at least, you’d hope so.

Even if you don’t think the Leafs should be considered a prohibitive favorite to win the Cup — I’d argue they’re at least third as of this writing — you have to understand the extent to which they gain even more flexibility going forward. There are a lot of old guys whose contracts come off the books next summer and after 2019-20, and Kyle Dubas can probably find someone to take Matt Martin at $2.5 million given what Ryan Reaves is getting these days. That is, if you really need to free up that little money.

So what the Leafs have done here, is given themselves two No. 1 centers, and you really can’t overstate how valuable having two guys this good is in the NHL. Especially as Matthews and the various other very young wingers continue to mature. Even if you think Tavares starts declining hard in the back half of this contract, they’ve effectively purchased four or five years of extreme Cup-competitiveness.

The pressure’s on, sure, but it’s Toronto and the pressure’s always on, even when you suck. Tavares knew what he was signing up for, obviously, but he also knew what it takes to win from having suffered with the lack of it for so long.

There’s no better way to win the Cup than by getting a ton of talent and now, especially up front, pretty much no one in the league has as much as Toronto.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: When you have a roster this good, you gotta stand pat!

Arizona Coyotes: Adding a guy like Grabner, who’s gonna be 31 on Oct. 5, is something to watch because he’s a speed guy and it’s hard to maintain speed when you’re old and stuff like that. Three years is a lot even if you think his poor career underlyings are overshadowed by his ability to create chances on the rush.

Boston Bruins: I like Jaro Halak as a backup to Tuukka Rask a lot, in theory, but the Bruins’ first few moves of the free agency period were… adding Islanders and Hurricanes. Maybe not the best strategy.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres added Carter Hutton as their backup, giving them three Lowell guys for next season. Please note the 2017 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins also had three Lowell guys. Might not be a coincidence.

Calgary Flames: The Flames really seem to have improved their forward depth, which was always their big problem, but that goaltending situation ain’t getting better. Not sure what’s gonna happen here but I’m not optimistic either.

Carolina Hurricanes: Petr Mrazek getting another chance as a potential 1b with the Hurricanes is a relatively safe bet. And if it doesn’t work out, well, it’s not like this club isn’t familiar with bad goaltending.

Chicago: Giving Cam Ward a full no-trade is redundant. Cam Ward’s save percentage is a no-trade. But hey, if you get a chance to add a guy who is a 20-year-old plus a 19-year-old in 39-year-old Chris Kunitz, that’s the kind of youth movement this team needs.

Colorado Avalanche: Looks like the Avs were all about adding okayish depth guys like Ian Cole and Matt Calvert and that’s fine, if you ask me! Not sure they can count on another playoff appearance with this roster as-is but I guess MacKinnon could have another titanic year.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Little happening for Columbus at the start of July here. Wonder if they’re waiting for some movement with Panarin or something.

Dallas Stars: Intriguing add in Val Nichushkin. Be interested to see what he brings to the table. But here’s something that’s more interesting: How did Roman Polak get a raise?

Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings adding all these veterans on short-term deals is like, “Well, who cares because it’s one year and they can probably trade them”

Edmonton Oilers: Tobias Rieder is an interesting player. I’m saying “interesting” a lot today but it’s this wasn’t a great UFA class and guys who Have Upside or are otherwise in the Cody Franson All-Stars group of guys whose underlyings make them seem better than the eye test or their scoring numbers do. The deal here is a pretty good gamble, though.

Florida Panthers: I think Michael Hutchinson probably has something to add for this team. I don’t know how much that actually helps in terms of making them any good, but I’m still a bit of a believer.

Los Angeles Kings: I’m gonna have a Kings take in the next day or two on here but this Drew Doughty contract, hoo boy. He’ll be 30-plus for all but like 2 of its 96 months. Way too much money.

Minnesota Wild: Adding a bunch of Leadership guys is gonna be what gets this team over the top –  just kidding.

Montreal Canadiens: That’s a really nice gamble on Xavier Ouellet. I like that deal a ton as a bet on a guy who posted good underlyings with a crap team. He might be able to do that again this season!

Nashville Predators: Yeah they just didn’t need to do anything, so not doing anything of note in the past week is totally reasonable.

New Jersey Devils: An Eddie Lack bounce-back season would be nice but I’m not holding my breath.

New York Islanders: The speed with which Islanders fans went from Needing Tavares to saying, “Actually he’s not even as good as Mat Barzal and the kids will add more than enough goals to make up for his absence.” Deluded.

New York Rangers: Nothing worth doing for a team in their position, so have fun out there.

Ottawa Senators: The revelation in the Ottawa media that the Senators are almost a quarter of a billion dollars in debt is… something else. I guess I’m not surprised but how is it that much? That seems impossible.

Philadelphia Flyers: That James van Riemsdyk contract is defensible but I’m not sure where this team thinks it’s headed. They’re trading Wayne Simmonds real soon here. Maybe it already happened by the time you read this.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Jack Johnson contract is instantly one of the absolute worst in the league. It’s indescribably bad. Five years for a healthy-scratched a guy who will be three months from his 32nd birthday at the start of the season is, like, what the hell man.

San Jose Sharks: Now it seems like freeing up all that cap space was maybe not advisable. Missed out on Kovalchuk and missed out on Tavares, the latter despite reportedly bidding an extra $2 million AAV per year. Anyway, that’s too much money for Logan Couture.

St. Louis Blues: I pretty much like both David Perron and Tyler Bozak as middle-six guys and I think the money is one of those things that isn’t avoidable. However, I’m not sure where these adds get a team like this, that’s firmly third-best in its own division on a real good day.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Good price for Ryan McDonagh even if he’ll be 30 when the deal starts. Hard to be cynical about this deal for now though, but they might have some more irons in the fire for a brand-name talent (via trade, obviously), and that’s scary.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Underrated aspect of this is Dubas stealing a franchise player from Lamoriello. Very funny, to me.

Vancouver Canucks: I mean if the price of adding Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle (a combined 12 goals and 32 assists last year) is four years and $6 million, well, you gotta do it.

Vegas Golden Knights: I have to say I literally laughed out loud at the Ryan Reaves contract. I can’t wrap my head around that one. He’s terrible. Like the Stastny deal though.

Washington Capitals: I love that Michal Kempny deal. He was a top-pairing guy for the Cup run and got just $2.5 million for five years. Not bad at all.

Winnipeg Jets: Sucks to clear a bunch of cap space to sign someone and then have him go to the team that beat you in the Conference Final. But hey, that’s hockey baby!!!!

Gold Star Award

Tavares is getting so much of his $77 million in bonuses. Hilarious.

Minus of the Weekend

Just because the cap went up a lot doesn’t mean you have to give fourth-line guys $2 million. Just saying.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “HailMcJesus” is trying to get out of a jam.

To Edmonton:

Christian Fischer

To Arizona:
Milan Lucic, 2019 1st

Signoff

Seymour, the house is on fire!

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)