The Maple Leafs finished up their extensive roster work late Sunday and early Monday with a number of moves – some of which involved deals prior to the NHL trade deadline, while others came in the form of player movement between the Leafs and AHL Marlies. And although some familiar names moved out of Toronto, the franchise’s youth push is moving full-steam ahead, and that presents an exciting challenge for Buds head coach Mike Babcock & Co.
“Eight years of junior I coached, but I never had a team this young in the American League,” Babcock said prior to Toronto’s game against Tampa Bay Monday at Air Canada Centre. “Obviously, it’s exciting, you watch them they’re exciting. But they’re also kids.”
The Leafs made a deal late Sunday night with Washington that sent forward Daniel Winnik and Anaheim’s fifth-round draft pick in 2016 to the Capitals in exchange for forward Brooks Laich, minor-league prospect defenceman Connor Carrick and a second-round pick this summer. And while they didn’t make any further moves before the 3 p.m. trade deadline, their recent run of manoeuvres saw Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello also ship out goalie James Reimer, blueliners Dion Phaneuf and Roman Polak, and forwards Shawn Matthias and Nick Spaling in various transactions, and bring in four second-round draft picks, two fourth-rounders, veterans Milan Michalek and a number of experienced pros for the Marlies roster. In addition, the Leafs recalled five forwards from the Marlies Monday – William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov and Ben Smith – and loaned forwards Mark Arcobello, Josh Leivo and Brendan Leipsic to the Marlies.
All in all, the roster reshaping made clear what the plan is for Toronto in the months and years ahead: patience, development and a reliance on a deep pool of young talent that’s only getting deeper.
“This was our plan all along,” Lamoriello said in a post-trade-deadline press conference. “Once we got to the trade deadline, we felt it was the opportune time with 20 games left (in the NHL regular season) to try and get as many of these young guys that we can in here to get the experience, and yet keep them all eligible to go back for the (AHL) playoffs. It’s what’s best for their development.”
The Leafs will take on the Bolts with seven new faces (including Laich and Carrick) in the lineup, and Buds fans likely will be most interested to see the NHL debuts of youngsters Nylander, Kapanen, Soshnikov and Hyman, none of whom are older than 23. All four forwards have enjoyed stellar seasons with the Marlies, and with Leafs veterans Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul on the sidelines nursing injuries, the quartet will have every chance to make a positive impression on Babcock and team brass.
“I want to know who’s a real player,” Babcock said of the opportunity awaiting the newest Leafs. “Just because you did it in the American League doesn’t mean you’re going to do it here. I want to know who’s got upside, and who’s got hockey sense, and who’s got determination, who lives right, who’s going to be a Maple Leaf for a long period of time, and who’s not.”
Despite speculation, the Leafs did not find an appropriate trade for winger P-A Parenteau, who has repeatedly expressed his happiness playing in Toronto. He and fellow veterans Leo Komarov – whom Lamoriello said was “a core member” of the team he didn’t consider moving – and Matt Hunwick will be relied on the rest of the season to show the Buds’ fresh faces what it means to be a professional at the NHL level. And the organization will continue to work with their youth to create a competitive core it hopes eventually will rival any in the league.
“To say that we would not have given P-A an opportunity to go to a team if it was the right decision, we were, we were prepared to do that,” Lamoriello said of Parenteau. “(A trade) did not work out, he’s here, he’s had an excellent year, and he’ll help the young guys along throughout the process.”
Lamoriello – who also noted defenceman Jared Cowen would not play again this season and have the final year of his contract bought out this summer – believes the sum total of the deals that were made in the weeks and hours before the deadline gives the Leafs sufficient salary cap flexibility with which to navigate the NHL waters, continue to identify and acquire key components down the line, and strengthen the organization in the process.
“I think what we did was accomplish by cleaning the cap problem not only today…but for the future,” Lamoriello said. “And I think it does give us the flexibility to do what’s necessary. We certainly have players to sign, we have the ability to acquire players, we have the ability to sign players, we have that room that’s necessary to do what we need to do.”
“We’ve done a real nice job of acquiring prospects and picks,” Babcock said. “This was our plan, and we want to set ourselves up for a long run, so we’re not talking about trading guys at the deadline, we’re talking about who we acquired at the deadline. That’s our goal.”