The Toronto Maple Leafs have to break through at some point, right?
We’re not talking about winning a Stanley Cup, because it’s not like the world should expect 51-year droughts to end at the snap of a finger.
The Maple Leafs are going all in … to at least get to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a feat not achieved since 2004. Here is Toronto, signing superstars and its own players for the mere hope that it finds a way past the Boston Bruins.
The signing of John Tavares last year was supposed to get Toronto over the hump. Securing the futures of Auston Matthews and William Nylander, supposedly, was to aid in that trek. Instead, the Leafs lost to the eventual Eastern Conference champions, in the first round, in Game 7, for the second consecutive year and third overall.
Now, the daunting task for coach Mike Babcock and the Leafs is to win this year. It’s Stanley Cup or bust not because of the talent, but because of how much the Leafs have invested in this core after signing Mitchell Marner to a six-year extension toppling at $65.3 million.
Toronto is paying $11.634 million per year to Matthews, $11 million to Tavares, and $10.893 million to Marner. Nylander, whose contract dilemma last season was something straight out of “Days of our Lives,” is making more than $6.9 million for the next five seasons.
That’s $40,489,366 the Maple Leafs are committing to four players through 2023-24. A reminder that the salary cap was set at $81.5 million this season.
Meanwhile, Toronto needs to come up with money to pay Morgan Rielly by 2023, and — quite literally — every other defenseman under contract is a free agent at the end of this season. That includes Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie.
Goaltender Frederik Andersen turns 30 on Oct. 2 and he has two years left on his deal. Are the Leafs prepared to turn to Ian Scott or Joseph Woll if Andersen doesn’t re-sign, or they can’t afford him?
These are the dilemmas facing the Leafs. There is a bit of good news; there will be no lockout next year with the NHL Players Association deciding not to re-open the collective bargaining agreement on Monday. That means Toronto gets three years to get something done.
Yet despite all of that, despite the playoff shortcomings and despite breaking the bank for four players, Toronto is a 10-1 favorite to hoist Lord Stanley. It’s been 19,132 days since Toronto won the Cup. Fortunately, the people of Toronto have been too busy celebrating the Raptors winning the NBA title to really care what the Leafs have, or have not done, in more than five decades.
But this is definitely a vital time in Toronto. If they don’t win the Cup this year, trying to assess the potential implosion from the organization causes headaches. Firing Babcock might not be enough for general manager Kyle Dubas to get the message across.
It might even cost Dubas his job.
The room for error is not there. The Eastern Conference is going to be a war zone once again. Forget the Bruins; there’s still the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Florida Panthers should be a playoff contender in Year 1 of the Joel Quenneville Era. Montreal and Buffalo should also be better.
That’s just within the Atlantic Division. Both wild card spots could come from the Metropolitan Division should the New Jersey Devils improve as expected.
The winning needs to start this year, and it won’t come easy. For the sake of every Toronto native, the Leafs need to hope these signings result in some success sooner rather than later. If not the Stanley Cup, at least a playoff series victory. Baby steps.