Time remains for Treliving to make proper additions to Leafs blue line

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Summer, as usual, went by quickly.

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And, in his first few months as general manager of the Maple Leafs, Brad Treliving didn’t fulfill all of his off-season plans.

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There were, of course, several items of importance that Treliving crossed off his list, none bigger than the signing of Auston Matthews to a four-year contract that begins in 2024 and will keep the superstar centre in Toronto, at least, until he is 30.

Before coach Sheldon Keefe was signed to a two-year contract extension last week, Treliving went about adding a raft of players in free agency.

Forwards Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, Ryan Reaves and Dylan Gambrell, defencemen John Klingberg and Simon Benoit, and goaltender Martin Jones will make varying impacts. Count on Bertuzzi and Domi to lead the group of newcomers.  

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Regarding Keefe’s staff, assistant coaches Guy Boucher and Mike Van Ryn were hired. Shane Doan and Derek Clancey were added to the front office.

On the other side, Treliving and William Nylander couldn’t agree on a contract that would keep the nifty winger with Toronto beyond the 2023-24 season, though neither the Leafs nor Nylander seem particularly worried about the situation with training camp looming. 

And while Klingberg should be a good complement to the blue line on offence, the fact remains that Treliving has some work to get done in order to shape the defence corps into a group that can help the Leafs contend for a Stanley Cup.

As it stands now, the Leafs’ defencemen won’t throw a scare — certainly not a physical one — into opponents. The memories of what Jake Muzzin, even in just four games, and Luke Schenn provided last season linger.

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Though there has been no official word from the team on the status of Muzzin, who has not played since October, the expectation is the 34-year-old will be placed on long-term injured reserve.  

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Schenn shone for the Leafs after he was acquired from Vancouver, providing more than the team was expecting and turned that late-season performance into a three-year contract in free agency with the Nashville Predators. The Leafs would have been lauded for re-signing Schenn, but certainly not for anything more than one season.

On the whole, the biggest question marks involving the Leafs with camp two weeks away involve the defencemen. 

Morgan Rielly will start the second year of his eight-year contract with the goal of using his play in last spring’s 11 playoff games as a springboard to consistency in the regular season. 

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Neither TJ Brodie nor Jake McCabe spent the summer bragging about their performances in the playoffs. Mark Giordano, who will turn 40 before the regular season gets underway, was exposed in the series against Tampa Bay and Florida, leaving some to wonder whether he would retire. That hasn’t happened and Giordano, with one year remaining on his contract, will try to prove in camp he remains capable. 

At 31, Klingberg will have to add a defensive degree to his game to further justify the Leafs’ commitment of $4.15 million US to him for one season. 

The 2023-24 season represents another potential step for 2017 first-rounder Timothy Liljegren, who has become a regular. Can Liljegren legitimately play top-four minutes or will he continue to settle into a role on the third pairing?

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And what to make of Conor Timmins, who is fine on the offensive side of the puck, but not so much when he doesn’t have it on his stick?

Simon Benoit will make a run at a job after playing in 131 games in the past two seasons for the Anaheim Ducks. 

There won’t be much help coming from the Toronto Marlies, though we suppose that William Lagesson and Maxime Lajoie, both signed on July 1, could be used in a pinch in the short term. Lajoie has played in 70 games in the NHL while Lagesson has skated in 60 games.

None of the defencemen the Leafs have on their roster make life overly difficult, physically, for the opposition. We’ve seen that the Leafs largely can get by in the regular season without the in-your-face approach from the blue line. We’ve seen, too, that teams that win the Stanley Cup have a blend of that style among their defencemen.

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Challenges remain for Treliving. Even with Muzzin and goalie Matt Murray going on LTIR, the Leafs still will be approximately $2.9 million over the salary cap.

What’s positive for Treliving is that once the season starts, he will have plenty of time to make adjustments to the blue line before the NHL trade deadline comes early in March. 

Treliving couldn’t accomplish everything he wanted to during the summer. Where it pertains to beefing up the defence corps, he has work to do.

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