Can you believe it's been almost a month since the Leafs lost in the most thrilling first round of the playoffs to the Washington Capitals? The Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday April 23. I had to triple check my calendar just to make sure.
Regardless, we are approaching the Stanley Cup Final matchup and at this point it's anyone's Cup to win. The injury to Ryan Johansen really puts a dent into the Predators hopes, and if Pittsburgh can't get healthy in time we could end up seeing a 2007 Stanley Cup Final rematch between the Ducks and Senators. Can someone say #boring? Snooze fest. (Sorry Sens fans, your team really is boring).
Something to notice during these playoffs is the commonality that all four remaining teams possess...defence. They are built from the blue line out, and Pittsburgh is suffering because of their depleted blue line. Players like Karlsson, Josi, Subban, Ellis, Schultz, Fowler and many more are catalysts for these teams and their success. The balance of offensive productivity and defensive presence is something to marvel at.
The Leafs have the necessary offensive weapons. They have the goalie that can steal some games for them and has plenty of playoff experience for a player of his age. The one glaring need for this team is defence, but this doesn't come as a surprise to anyone following this team. With that in mind, let's take a look at some free agents and potential trade targets that the Leafs front office should have some serious conversations about (in no particular order):
1) Karl Alzner
No, it's not just because I happen to share the same birthday as Karl Alzner (it's September 24th in case anybody wants to plan ahead for gifts). The Leafs have young defense core that is comprised of Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev for the foreseeable future. Alzner would be the perfect fit to slide into that top four. A big, physical body who brings grit and is a great stay at home defenseman who is in his prime is the exact type of player that the Leafs are looking for right now, as is just about every other team in the league. He was sorely missed by the Capitals when he went down with injury during the playoffs, and the Leafs were able to penetrate the zone a lot better without him looming. He will be overpaid, but what decent free agent isn't these days? It would be a smart pursuit for the Leafs.
2) Sami Vatanen
It's no secret that Leafs bench boss Mike Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello were spotted together in Nashville catching some of the Nashville vs Anaheim series. While it is entirely possible that they happened to be in the same vacation spot together, one would reason that they are scouting the blue lines of either Nashville, Anaheim, or both. While I'm intrigued by the possibility of a trade with someone like Ellis, I believe the more likely scenario would come from Anaheim in the form of Vatanen. Coming off the worst of his three years, and signed to a contract of three more years with an AAV of $4.875 million, he is an attractive piece for many teams coveting a right hand shot defenseman. Anaheim could use more young offensive talent, and Toronto definitely has a massive surplus of that commodity. Look for Toronto to pounce on the opportunity to get great value for a young defenseman on a great contract.
3) Justin Williams
Yep, Mr. Game 7 himself. "But you said the Leafs have a surplus of offence why would you recom-" Stop. If a guy of this experience and caliber becomes available on the market for a reasonable term and dollar value, all 31 teams will jump on it. Father Time may not be on his side (will be 36 by the 2017 season), but he has played arguably his best hockey since joining the Capitals, posting an average of 50 points over 81 games per year. Not to mention he becomes a beast in the playoffs, especially clutch situations. In 15 game 7's, Williams has 7 goals and 7 assists. That's incredible. Who better to teach the meaning of clutch to this young group of Leafs forwards than Mr. Game 7?
4) Brian Boyle
Not all targets have to be new faces. Boyle was acquired at the trade deadline and did a fine job slotting into that fourth line with Martin and the rookie carousel as the other winger. When Kapanen was slotted into the final wing position come playoff time, that fourth line did some damage, and even came up clutch in double OT. That was arguably the greatest moment in the Leafs season, and was set up with a filthy assist from Boyle. (Side note: #BringBowenBack, that guy has the best Leafs broadcasting voice). He brings a physicality and leadership that shouldn't be overlooked. Boyle said he was willing to resign in Toronto, so make it happen Lamoriello and Co.
5) Michael Del Zotto
If the Leafs find themselves penny pinching and want to invest in a player who might have a bounce-back campaign, it's Del Zotto. I'll be the first to admit that this isn't a "sexy" option, but it could be worth exploring if the price is right. Del Zotto will only be 27 years of age come the 2017-18 season, and we have seen defensemen take a long time to mature and develop into the top four guys they were projected to be. Would only sign on a one or two year contract, and go from there.
There are some big names I left off my list. I initially wanted the Leafs to pursue Shattenkirk, but when I saw he couldn't hit the net if his life depended on it in the playoffs, it turned me off. Radulov will go back to the Canadiens. Oshie will command too much money for the Leafs to fit in their cap with the contracts of the big three due for renewal soon (Matthews, Marner, Nylander). Thorton is too slow and old to keep up with the speedy Leafs. So on and so forth.
Lou said changes are coming. This management group has proven over the past few years how brilliant and creative they are. Let's hope they can pull out another bunny from the magic hat this offseason.