As a Maple Leafs fan, it was impossible to watch the IIHF World Championships and not get incredibly excited. William Nylander silenced any critics that were left – inexplicably, there were actually still some – by winning the tournament MVP award. Though, the star Swede wasn’t the only young Maple Leaf that put on a show at over the past two weeks. Mitch Marner was arguably Team Canada’s best player. He was dominant offensively and seems to have proven to his peers just how good he can be.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s going to be one of the best passers in the game for a long time. I didn’t know how good he was until playing with him here. He’s going to be a great, great playmaker for a long time.”
Those are the words of Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon this past weekend. We knew Mitch Marner was good – his record-breaking performance in London proved that – but not many believed he would be this good this fast. Apparently, that includes fellow NHLers.
Playing mostly with Tyler Bozak and James vanRiemsdyk, Marner had a very productive season from an offensive perspective. Sixty-one points in 77 games is a great rookie season – and one that would make you a Calder favourite most seasons. His rookie leading 42 assists were the most on the Leafs since Phil Kessel had 43 in the 2013-14 season.
So the question becomes, how do the Leafs best utilize the elite weapon they have in their possession?
Many are operating under the assumption that JVR will not be a Maple Leaf long term – whether it’s this summer or next, it’s expected that Shanahan & co will move on instead of signing the veteran forward long-term. The same is likely true for Tyler Bozak who has one more year on his contract. The Marner/JVR/Bozak line worked well offensively this year, but they were a disaster defensively and almost certainly will not be together much more – if at all.
So who ends up being the trigger man fo one of the best passers in the league? There are some internal options, but despite the team’s abundance of young talent, I’m not sure the answer is currently present in the organization.
William Nylander – it’s still believed by many that William Nylander will eventually end up at center for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That had been the plan of the organization for a while – at least until they saw how well he and Auston Matthews work together. The pair was outstanding this season and have the potential to make potential to make up on of the most lethal lines in the NHL. So why break them up…ever?
The issue becomes depth down the middle. The Leafs greatest strength is at wing and if Nylander can prove he can handle the center-ice position in the NHL, he, Matthews and Kadri would make up a 1-2-3 that is second to none. The issue then is chemistry. Both Marner and Nylander are guys that work very well with the puck on their stick. They’re both elite talents so there’s no doubt they could adapt to each other, I’m just not certain it’s the most compatible pairing.
Auston Matthews – Matthews will be the answer to just about every hockey question in the city of Toronto for the next two decades. If Nylander does eventually move to center, Mitch Marner as the right-winger on the top line with Matthews makes all the sense in the world. Marner and Matthews would make beautiful music together, but like above, this scenario is predicated on Nylander moving to center – something I’m not convinced will happen.
Kerby Rychel – for the many issues Kerby Rychel has had since turning pro, the one thing that has to be remembered is that the kid can score. Hitting 40 goals twice in junior, he is the kind of player that does his best work when he doesn’t have to do too much. Letting Marner do all the work and being there to finish is probably the perfect role for Rychel.
Andreas Johnsson – Another left-wing option, Johnsson finished second on the Marlies with 20 goals in his first season of North American professional hockey. The former 7th round pick is one that Leafs management seems high on and putting a rookie like him with a possession monster like Marner might work out very nicely. We know Johnsson can skate and finish. He might be a guy that launches over a couple of the other wingers on the depth chart.
Kasperi Kapanen – Though he’s a right-handed shot, we know Kapanen can play on the left side of the ice. He proved in this year’s playoffs that he’s ready for the NHL and that he should certainly be playing in the team’s top-9 next season. He has a ton of skill and finishing ability. With that said, I don’t want Kapanen to be the answer on Marner’s wing – that’s because, in my armchair GM world, he’s playing on the top line with Matthews and Nylander.
Jonathan Drouin – I’m shooting for the stars with this one. The Tampa Bay left-winger is an RFA and will be looking for a big raise from a team that might not be able to give it to him. The former third overall pick has elite skill and would put up incredible numbers working in tandem with Marner. A top-2 lines of Matthews/Nylander and Marner/Drouin is something that is hard to fathom – the skill level is off the chart. The problem becomes the price. Yzerman is almost certainly open to moving Drouin for the right price given that his team needs to allocate more resources to the blue line. The asking price would likely start with a young roster defender, something that would instantly cut off any trade talks with the Leafs.
Tyler Toffoli – Another RFA, Toffoli is coming off a bit of a down year, but he is still the same guy that scored 31 goals as a 23-year-old two seasons ago. The Kings could be in a bit of a transition period. With Rob Blake now in charge, the team could be in for a complete re-set and moving Toffoli might be something they’d explore. Unlike with Tampa, LA wouldn’t necessarily be looking for defensemen. In an attempt to get younger and cheaper, near-ready prospects – something the Leafs have an abundance of – could get the trade done. The issue here is that Marner and Toffoli play the same position. If the Leafs thought Toffoli could be an effective sniper on his off-wing.
Sam Gagner – A cheaper alternative, Gagner is a UFA that could likely be brought in on a very manageable contract. After resurrecting his career this season in Columbus, Gagner has proven that he can still be a very effective center in the NHL. Mark Hunter is very familiar with Gagner from their time in London, so you’d expect the Leafs front office would have a decent grasp on how his personality would fit in with this young team. He’s the kind of young veteran that could be signed as a nice compliment to the young core. Signing Gagner would give the added bonus of being able to move Bozak for picks before his contract expires next summer.
Anders Lee – Coming off a career high 34 goals, you’d think the Islanders would be crazy to move the 26-year old center. The problem is, thanks to terrible contracts for Ladd, Kulemin, Clutterbuck and Cizikas, the Islanders have next to no cap room for next season. A bad team that is limited financially is going to have to get creative this offseason – and Lee is likely one of the few guys that they can move in order to get both a good return and create cap space. A deal involving some of the Leafs cheap, potentially ready prospects – Bracco, Leipsic, Soshnikov come to mind – might be appealing to the Islanders. Whether it was at Notre Dame, in Bridgeport, or with the Islanders, the one thing Lee has always done is score goals. Put him with the elite passing ability of Mitch Marner and reaching 40 goals might not be out of the question.
Alexander Ovechkin – I mean, he’s the reason Washington never goes anywhere and the Caps are looking to dump him right?
A guy can dream….