The Toronto Maple Leafs may have waited a day after Free Agency began to make a big splash, but fans would say it was worth it. After the Leafs inked veterans Ron Hainsey and Dominic Moore on day one, they signed veteran forward Patrick Marleau to a 3 year contract worth an AAV of $6.25 million the following day. One of the most coveted free agents on the market, the move to bring in veterans signals that the rebuild is officially over, and the Leafs are in "win-now" mode.
Marleau is no spring chicken. The 37 year-old played his first preseason game September 14th, 1997. On September 17th, 1997, three days later, the Leafs lord and savior Auston Matthews was born. Let that sink in... Marleau has been playing professional hockey longer than Matthews has been alive.
About to enter into his 20th NHL season, Marleau proves that age is just a number. In his past two seasons, Marleau has scored 27 and 25 goals respectfully. That's incredible firepower for someone on the wrong side of 30, and should be a welcome addition to an offence that has no problem finding the open man and creating scoring chances.
Marleau is a player that is expected to slide into that top line left wing spot that was occupied by Hyman, and help to create even more offence alongside Matthews and Nylander. I'm sure that won't be an issue for anybody.
As it stands currently, here's how I would project the starting forward lineups:
Marleau - Matthews - Nylander
Van Riemsdyk - Bozak - Marner
Komarov - Kadri - Brown
Martin - Moore - Kapanen
My gosh, don't the Leafs look like they boast the best offence in the league? All those names top to bottom look like they belong. However, this would leave Hyman and Leivo as the odd men out, and I honestly believe that the Leafs don't want two productive forwards like them being healthy scratches or extra bodies.
So what does this mean? This means that trades are coming.
The name that I keep circling back to is the man in the picture above: James Van Riemsdyk. The 28 year-old forward was second on a dynamic Leafs squad with 62 points, only behind Matthews. He's an incredibly talented skater who is a force around the net, has great vision and has incredibly skilled hands. He has been an integral part of the Leafs recent success.
So why trade somebody who is so valuable to their team? It's pretty simple; the salary cap. The reality of the situation is that the Leafs have three budding superstars in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander that they have to pay in a year or two. Nylander will probably command around $8 million AAV and Matthews and Marner will most likely look for around $10 million AAV. With close to $30 million locked up between three players (or roughly 35-40% of the cap), it becomes difficult to have players like JVR on the books as well.
A trade of JVR would create space and flexibility for players like Hyman and Leivo to slide in and contribute. Any trade involving Van Riemsdyk would almost certainly center around a defenceman. According to Sportsnet, the Leafs offered the Islanders a 2018 first-round pick and James Van Riemsdyk for Travis Hamonic, but ultimately the Islanders shipped Hamonic off to Calgary. A player like Hamonic would have fit in perfectly with the Leafs top 4 D, and would have helped solidify the lack of defence the team has been plagued with for years.
Saying this, there are other options that the Leafs can explore if they are looking for young controllable defencemen. The name Noah Hanifin out of Carolina keeps getting floated around as a potential piece the Leafs could trade for. With Trevor Van Riemsdyk in Carolina, the Hurricanes could look to reunite the brothers at the cost of Hanifin. The Hurricanes do love having brothers on the team (Staal brothers). Jacob Trouba is another intriguing name out of Winnipeg, as well as Drew Doughty in LA.
It's entirely possible that JVR plays out the season as a Leaf and then leaves as a free agent. A player of his calibre is a great addition to any team, so it wouldn't hinder the Leafs if they couldn't find the perfect trade to include him in. It would just be nice to cash in on an expiring asset that you know has no possibility of returning to the team next season.
If JVR isn't moved, look for another expiring contract like Leo Komarov to be shopped. The Leafs will look to capitalize on expiring contracts and bolster their blue line. Part-time Mafia boss and full-time GM Lou Lamoriello stated that he felt that the defence would have to be improved. The addition of Ron Hainsey helps, but that can't be all that's done.
Either way, it's finally an exciting time to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Fans can now wear their jersey and colours with pride, knowing that they will once again be the center of the hockey universe. The "Shanaplan" has worked so far; let's see how Shanahan and Co. can close this out and claim Lord Stanley as their own once again.