TORONTO — With their playoff and Stanley Cup dreams dashed for another spring, here are five burning questions facing the Toronto Maple Leafs heading into the off-season:
WHAT WILL MITCH MARNER’S CONTRACT LOOK LIKE?
General manager Kyle Dubas said in his press conference that getting a new contract done with the star restricted free agent winger is the organization’s No. 1 priority. But what does that look like and how will it impact the rest of the roster? The Leafs have already committed nearly US$30 million to Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander, meaning Marner’s contract will likely push the combined pay stubs of those four forwards north of $40 million next season and beyond. With the salary cap expected to be around $83 million in 2019-2020, Toronto will be close to the line when Marner signs for eight years or takes a deal similar to the five-season term of Matthews. Expect his number to come in around $11 million annually. Dubas wants to get Marner’s contract done before July 1 — when other teams could potentially throw an offer sheet his way.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR NAZEM KADRI?
The centre was suspended for an ill-advised and retaliatory cross-check in Toronto’s first-round loss to Boston. The Leafs could have used Kadri in their tight, seven-game defeat. Banned five games for the most recent incident, Kadri was also suspended in last season’s seven-game setback to the Bruins, and there are questions about whether he might have suited up in blue and white for the last time. Coming off the lowest goal total of his career, and with an attractive salary cap hit of just $4.5 million over the next three seasons, the Leafs might decide to move on and address other areas of need.
WHO’S GOING TO FEEL THE SALARY CAP SQUEEZE?
There’s only so much money to go around in the cap world, meaning there will be changes on every team. A member of the Leafs organization since 2011, defenceman Jake Gardiner looks sure to moving on in free agency. Marner is the priority, but with roughly $68.5 million committed to 16 players next season, there will be some tough decisions. Leafs wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson are both RFAs and in need of new contracts, but it could be difficult to keep both as things stand. Do the Leafs see if they can somehow trade Patrick Marleau and his $6.25 million cap hit? The 39-year-old forward has a full no-movement clause and even if he did waive, Toronto would likely have to retain salary and include other assets, possibly Kapanen or Johnsson.
WHAT’S THE STATUS OF MIKE BABCOCK?
Dubas declined to give his head coach a vote of confidence on Thursday, pointing out that everyone in the organization is under the microscope. The highest-paid bench boss in NHL history, Babcock has got the Leafs to the playoffs three consecutive seasons and cracked the 100-point mark in each of the last two. But there are questions about his stubbornness and whether his view of the game meshes with Dubas. The young GM didn’t hire Babcock, and halfway through his eight-year term as coach, the Leafs could be approaching a crossroads. It’s also no secret Sheldon Keefe, who has a long history with Dubas and could be a hot commodity for potential NHL vacancies elsewhere, is in the minors with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies and waiting for his shot.
BE BOLD OR STAY THE COURSE?
Hockey is a conservative sport on the whole, but remember that the Toronto Raptors — Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s other prized commodity — made bold moves by firing head coach Dwane Casey after a 59-win season and trading four-time all-star DeMar DeRozan following another playoff failure last season. Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has been ruthless in his tenure, most recently shuffling Lou Lamoriello, the man who drafted him as a player in New Jersey in 1987, out of the GM job in order to promote Dubas. Shanahan and Raptors counterpart Masai Ujiri answer to the same bosses, who have shown money isn’t an issue if bold steps need to be taken. That said, the Leafs have made progress, and an earth-shattering move would be even more stunning than the culling of Casey and DeRozan.