Maple Leafs' Treliving's opening stanza a strong first impression

After a summer to forget last year in Calgary, Brad Treliving caps off a strong first summer in Toronto with a pivotal Auston Matthews extension.

Brad Treliving accepted his new position as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs knowing the entire hockey world would be watching his every move with eager anticipation.

After all, the veteran general manager was inheriting one of the NHL’s most talented rosters, albeit one that perpetually underperformed relative to expectations and regular season output during the playoffs.

Treliving’s first summer with the Maple Leafs drew polarizing responses from both the fan base and analysts alike. If you were ready to toss the Boston Pizza heir into Lake Ontario, you may be rethinking your plans after Auston Matthews signed a four-year extension worth $53 million, with one year remaining on his existing deal.

Now, with training camp on the horizon, it’s time to review Treliving’s first offseason with the Maple Leafs, exploring the areas that he’s been successful in, where he may have some regrets, and what remains to be seen as the summer reaches its dawn.

All stats from Natural Stat Trick or unless noted otherwise

Matthews extension, a top priority, signals huge win for both sides

Auston Matthews is one of the NHL’s best players and signing him to a four-year deal that will appreciate over his prime is a resounding victory for Treliving and his staff.

Two seasons removed from a Hart Trophy, Matthews added to his game, emerging as one of the league’s premier defensive forwards last season, routinely using his massive frame to disrupt opponents. He’s on pace to become the best player in the Maple Leafs’ venerated history and he’s never shown any inclination that he wants to play elsewhere.

“My intention is to be here,” Matthews said during the team’s end-of-year media availability on May 15. “I think I've reciprocated that before, how much I enjoy playing here and what it means to me, the organization, my teammates and how much I just enjoy being here."

Treliving stated repeatedly during his introductory press conference that signing Matthews was his top priority. While the Maple Leafs desperately need a prolonged playoff run with this core to justify the repeated agony of past exits, for the time being, mission accomplished.

“Auston is one of the elite players in the world,” Treliving said on June 1. “We’re not talking about a good player in the league, we’re talking about an elite player in the world. Getting to Auston is a priority but outside of the contract stuff, number one is just getting to build that relationship. It’s not walking down and trying to arm-wrestle about contracts. It’s getting down and me getting a chance to meet with him, but more importantly, having Auston getting a chance to meet me and know what we’re about. That’s priority No. 1.”

We don’t necessarily need to break down Matthews’ game — he’s a known quantity at this point — but it’s worth restating that he’s entering his age-26 season and has been the most prolific goal-scorer in the NHL since entering the league, as well as a tremendous all-around player with continued defensive growth. When his contract expires, he’ll be 30 years old with 12 years of goodwill banked with the Maple Leafs organization and the option to leave, should the notion appeal to him with the salary cap expected to rise significantly by 2028 or sooner.

Matthews trails Mats Sundin by 121 goals on the franchise’s all-time list and could very well be the best player in franchise history when his contract expires. If the Maple Leafs ever win an elusive Stanley Cup, Matthews has ensured that there will be a bronze-plated statue on Legends Row waiting for him, at minimum.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Treliving, but he’s earned some good faith from a tenacious, hyper-focused fan base.

Bertuzzi adds different element to top-six mix

The initial free agent returns for the Maple Leafs were shaping up to be miserable until Treliving signed Tyler Bertuzzi to a one-year pact worth $5.5 million. Bertuzzi provides the Maple Leafs with genuine top-six scoring punch and some toughness, although he’s more disciplined than his reputation suggests.

Although the Bruins collapsed during the first round of the playoffs, ruining their chance of becoming the greatest team of all time, Bertuzzi was one of the team's lone bright spots, notching five goals and 10 points in seven games. He’s also two seasons removed from a career-best performance with the Red Wings where he notched 30 goals and 62 points.

If you want to look into the charts, however, last season, split between the Red Wings and Bruins, was the first of his career in which Bertuzzi’s team has controlled greater than 50 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5.

Was it a handsome overpay for a player with a rising but inconsistent record? If it was, it’s a one-year rental for a 28-year-old who can provide scoring touch and puck retrieval abilities. In other words, is Bertuzzi going to merely fulfill Michael Bunting's role, or should he be viewed as an ascending star, a potential fifth member to join Toronto’s star-studded Core Four?

This is the calculated bet by Treliving, unlikely to hurt too badly if he misses, but considering the urgency the Maple Leafs need during one of their prime chances at Cup contention, a disappointing year will have compounding effects.

Klingberg's poor defense looms over risky signing

In this space, we don’t enjoy denigrating players, but the results are what they are. John Klingberg was the NHL’s worst defensive defenseman last year for a Ducks team that may have been the worst defensive team of the new millennium.

He didn’t fare much better upon getting traded to the Wild mid-season. Klingberg was on the ice for 63 goals against, posted the 11th-worst expected goals against count and his 3.76 goals against per 60 was the worst rate of any defenseman that logged over 200 minutes. Yikes.

Klingberg fills a need for the Maple Leafs as another defenseman capable of generating offense independently, but as the oft-circulated Wario meme reads: I’ve won, but at what cost?

In this case, a one-year, $4.15 million deal for a mobile, right-shot, power play quarterback capable of logging 20 minutes per game, who hemorrhages scoring chances virtually any time he’s on the ice. Will the Maple Leafs need to shield Klingberg from tougher matchups or will they roll the dice, banking on his ability to contribute offensively in conjunction with a scorching top-six forward core?

Treliving bet on Klingberg’s outdated reputation as one of the NHL’s premier offensive defensemen and either ignored his defensive data or, perhaps more pointedly, believes that the 31-year-old can be a reclamation project with the Maple Leafs in another pivotal season.

Max Domi nostalgia tour will be a rollercoaster ride

Everybody went down memory lane when Max Domi posted a photo from his childhood, sitting on his father’s lap adorned in Leafs gear. It’s a full-circle moment for the 28-year-old who was quite literally born into Maple Leafs fandom.

Now that the ink has dried on a one-year contract worth $3 million, however, we have to avoid going down a nostalgia tour.

Domi can flat-out score and can be deployed across Toronto’s top three lines — if he’s on the top line, he can be used as a winger, even though he’s nominally listed as a center. The problem is that Domi is a defensive liability, particularly when he plays up the middle, and though he’s scrappy and tenacious, he’s prone to losing puck battles while growing disinterested in tracking his man in transition.

Split between the Blackhawks and Stars, Domi registered 20 goals and 56 points in 80 games. He’s an exciting player and provides secondary scoring to a Maple Leafs team that was over-reliant on its Core Four — and occasionally, Calle Jarnkrok — to generate offense last year. Will a return home inspire Domi to take on greater defensive responsibility? It’s a one-year deal that could look like clever business if the hometown kid actualizes his full potential.

Samsonov may be fuming over arbitration hearing

Ilya Samsonov joined the Maple Leafs on a prove-it deal last year and put together the best season of his career, finishing 10th in goals saved above expected while snatching the No. 1 role away from Matt Murray.

He is the entrenched starter this season but he also may be disgruntled on how his negotiations played out. Under Treliving’s watch, Toronto elected to go to arbitration with Samsonov, resulting in a one-year, $3.55 million extension. It’s certainly not close to what Samsonov was asking for, and though he’s shown no outward indication yet, there’s a good chance the Maple Leafs’ starter has an eye toward the exit.

SUNRISE, FL - MAY 07: Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov (35) makes a save in the first period during game three of the Eastern Conference Second Round Playoff game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Florida Panthers on Sunday, May 7, 2023 at FLA Live Area, Sunrise, Fla. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Brad Treliving's decision to take netminder Ilya Samsonov to arbitration could prove costly should it sour the Maple Leafs relationship with the young goalie. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Joseph Woll and Martin Jones are Toronto’s backups. Woll ended the season as the Maple Leafs’ starter when Samsonov and Murray were both injured, while excelling in the AHL and is expected to grow during a prolonged look at the NHL this year.

Jones, meanwhile, has been one of the NHL’s worst active goaltenders and signals somewhat of a puzzling depth move. If Samsonov leaves next summer and Woll doesn’t continue at the same rate of development, Treliving will need to find an NHL-caliber goalie quickly.

Nylander negotiations set to define Treliving's opening act

William Nylander has constantly stated his desire to remain a Maple Leaf, reiterating the sentiment once again during the NHL's European Media Tour on Wednesday. Nylander previously told reporters on May 15 that he still has a year left on his contract and didn’t appear concerned about his ongoing negotiations with the club. Now that Matthews is under team control through 2028, this ought to be Treliving’s top priority.

Nylander is coming off a career year where he recorded 40 goals and 87 points in 82 regular season games, while vacillating between center and wing in Sheldon Keefe’s oft-used 11-forward, 7-defense format. He drove the offense at a superstar level during the regular season and was constantly generating chances during the playoffs. Nylander deserves to get paid handsomely.

Considering that Treliving’s predecessor, Kyle Dubas, was crucified for allotting gargantuan shares of the salary cap to his top players, it’ll be compelling to see what both parties agree to. Treliving’s negotiation skills were desired by Brendan Shanahan — who is now the new emperor of Leafs Nation, eliminating all dissenters. The ongoing discussions with Nylander and, potentially, the eventual contract will likely dictate how Treliving’s first summer is viewed in the long run.

The verdict

Treliving appeared to be going backwards, signing Klingberg, Domi and Ryan Reaves to contracts that 31 teams balked at. He also nailed his top priority by signing the franchise’s best player to a four-year extension, added a Michael Bunting upgrade in Bertuzzi, and some secondary scoring that was sorely lacking last year in Domi.

It’s been a mixed bag for Treliving so far but if the Maple Leafs respond with an extended run through the playoffs, we’ll look at his first summer a lot more favorably.