The Oilers and Maple Leafs were terrible for the better part of a decade before turning a corner last season and returning to the playoffs. Both teams spent years with average players playing way above their limits. Justin Schultz was playing the most minutes on defence in Edmonton; Tyler Bozak playing the most minutes at centre in Toronto. They shared a similar need for defence and goaltending, but the paths both teams took are remarkably different. And that’s reflecting in their results this season.
Edmonton and Toronto got their superstar centre at the top of the draft and were headed up the standings. They had veterans from the previous era to fill out a large chunk of the roster. Taylor Hall, Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and an upcoming Oscar Klefbom for Edmonton. Nazem Kadri, James Van-Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner for Toronto.
Toronto was able to compliment their new influx of talent (Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner) with their old, while Edmonton shipped theirs off in deals that returned a less valuable player.
The Leafs are top five in scoring with a forward group that can run four lines when they want. The Oilers are struggling to create more than one line that doesn’t have McDavid and Draisaitl playing together. Toronto can run Kadri, Marner, JVR, and Bozak behind the Matthews line to create one of the deepest group of forwards in the NHL.
The Leafs’ strength is speed and skill. They didn’t sacrifice it to get tougher and bigger, though they’re not without a few blemishes.
Matt Martin’s four-year $12.5 million contract was an overpay for a fourth-line winger who now finds himself out of the lineup. Roman Polak remains a favourite of Mike Babcock. Leo Komarov is a serviceable veteran who was playing way too much. Phil Kessel was traded away with salary retained for picks and prospects, although the Leafs were actively trying to tank and had wingers in the system that could eventually replace Kessel in theory.
It’s worth noting Travis Dermott, the Leafs’ 34th overall pick in 2015, was selected in the same draft Edmonton traded the 16th and 33rd picks for Griffin Reinhart. His arrival could prevent the Leafs’ from overspending on a rental.
Toronto’s defence is still a work in progress. They added a couple European free agents and a veteran stopgap that didn’t require a four-year $20-million deal with a no-move clause or trading one of their star wingers.
Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev are preferable options to losing a trade to fill a need. Their patience has paid off as Travis Dermott looks like a legitimate NHL option, and they can wait for the right deal for that illustrious right-handed defence who can move the puck should it come. The Oilers have traded Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and first and second-round draft picks and still lack a right-handed defenceman of that ilk.
Decisions have to be made on the Leafs’ pending free agents, JVR, Bozak, and Komarov, but they’re in control here. Toronto has a wealth of NHL-ready prospect in the American Hockey League waiting to step in.
There’s no one close to Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson waiting in Bakersfield. Ethan Bear or Caleb Jones are nice defence prospects but are still years away. Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard are easily NHL-caliber backups. There Oilers have almost no prospect depth in the AHL, and adding Tyler Benson and Kailer Yamamoto next season will help but isn’t enough.
The Oilers now lack the type of skilled wingers they sent out and little assets to improve a team that already has serious money committed to the next season. Many have noticed the Oilers’ lack of speed despite having Connor McDavid, meanwhile, the Leafs remain one of the fastest teams in the league. That’ll be difficult for Edmonton to change with $36.55 million already dedicated to seven forwards.
Edmonton’s biggest money is in it’s three centres. Darnell Nurse, Ryan Strome, who needs to be qualified at $3 milion, and Matt Benning are notable restricted free agents who might cost close to ten million combined. Benoit Pouliot’s buyout means $1.3 milliom remains on the cap for three more years.
The Oilers need two wingers who can play in the top six, or a top-six forward and a middle-six centre if Draisaitl plays right wing. Max Pacioretty and Mike Hoffman are available, have term left on their contracts, and on teams that would accept picks and prospects, but the Oilers would be dealing from an already thin prospect pool.
The Leafs will have almost $25 million in cap space to utilize. Nylander is Toronto’s lone restricted free agent of note and maybe one of JVR or Bozak returns, but that leaves plenty of space to add. Matthews and Marner have another year on their entry-level deals until they need to be paid.
They’re continuing to search Europe for useful players. Russian defenceman Igor Ozhiganov is reportedly signing with Toronto. These kinds of moves are great because when they pay off, you’ve only spent money and a contract spot to bring them over.
They’re in a good position.
The Leafs have learned from the sins of previous management. They’ve put an emphasis on speed and skill after previous management committed themselves to mediocre players. There are no contracts like the ones Dion Phaneuf and David Clarkson received on the books. They’ve wiggled their way out of those contracts and find themselves in a strong position cap-wise.
Patrick Marleau’s three-year $18.75-million contract is steep, but the term is short enough that it’s manageable. It’ll only overlap with one year of Matthews’ second contract.
The Leafs are well positioned to contend. They have the assets and cap space to improve upon a team that’s pretty good.
The Oilers are on track to miss the playoffs with McDavid on the last year of his entry-level contract. It’ll be more difficult finding him support when his cap hit jumps from $3.75 million to $12.5 million, especially when the general manager couldn’t do it this season.
Edmonton’s focus on heavy hockey and willingness to lose trades has them at the bottom of the standings once again. It’s odd that speed wasn’t a priority when you have a player with generational speed and skill. The Oilers have to add key pieces with few assets and limited cap space. That might be difficult to achieve in one summer, but the Oilers could learn from their neighbours in the East and how they’ve positioned themselves to contend.