It wasn’t long ago that the Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the worst franchises in the NHL, making the playoffs once in just eleven seasons and suffering an epic collapse in that one postseason appearance. Therefore, it was fittingly a surprising and exciting story line when the young 2016-17 Maple Leafs made the playoffs and even gave the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals a run for their money in the conference quarterfinals. Toronto had finally turned it around.
This season however, expectations have changed. In an especially weak Atlantic Division, the Leafs have, for all intents and purposes, already locked up the third Atlantic playoff spot and are simply looking to strengthen their roster for what seems to be a collision course with the Boston Bruins in the first round, a rematch of their 2013 blunder. While much of that preparation will simply be maintaining a healthy roster and polishing their play through the rest of the regular season, there is also much anticipation that further additions to the team are in order to give the team a shot at the Stanley Cup this spring.
Trade speculation is natural for contenders, but it isn’t always rational. There has already been a notion among many sources that impending unrestricted free agents James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and Leo Komarov will be used as the team’s own “rentals” and that the Leafs could be unlikely to add a forward. There’s also the fact that Toronto has next to no cap space to make a typical picks/prospects-for-player rental deal. Yet, fans are still eager to grasp at any rumors of the Leafs adding a big-time defenseman or another depth piece up front.
Case in point: Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported earlier today that rookie defenseman Travis Dermott’s number was suddenly changed from #3 to #23 without his approval. The reaction from Toronto fans was overwhelmingly that the team was set to acquire a veteran player with the #3. Even SB Nation’s Maple Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets was quick to post a somewhat laughable list of potential former Leafs whose #3 could be saved for retirement alongside a more serious list of current #3’s throughout the league who could be future Leafs. The vast majority of that list are defenseman, which lends some credence to the theory, but many – Seth Jones, John Klingberg, Brayden McNabb, Tucker Poolman – are likely untouchable and others – Kevin Bieksa, Chris Bigras, Nick Jensen – are likely of no interest to Toronto. Could the Pittsburgh Penguins really be ready to move on from Olli Maatta? Would the Leafs really be willing to take on the Keith Yandle contract or the risk of uber-physical Radko Gudas? Or was the number change simply due to some other decision that carries far less weight than Toronto fans would like it to?
Only time will tell what moves the Maple Leafs make prior to the Trade Deadline, but the expectations are not going away any time soon. Toronto’s Stanley Cup window has only just opened, but the hockey-crazed city is ready for their first title since 1967 and fans will be eager to see the club add additional pieces to strengthen the roster. The Leafs will continue to be a team to watch through the next month and a half, but that doesn’t mean every little piece of information on the rumor mill is worth taking seriously.