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Maple Leafs Re-Sign Korbinian Holzer, Is There Any Downside?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have signed defenceman Korbinian Holzer to a two year deal. In a vacuum is the deal good? Yes. But what does it say about how the Leafs' handle their re-signings, their defence, and the effect of both on the salary cap? More than you'd think.

Das Holzer Re-Signs
Das Holzer Re-Signs
Christof Koepsel

The Toronto Maple Leafs have re-signed defenceman Korbinian Holzer to a two-year deal worth a cap hit of $787K which is about a quarter of a million dollar raise over his last deal. When the news came through on Twitter there were some questions: Why was he signed now? Where do the Leafs think that he's going to play? How long is the deal? and other things that passionate and curious fans will wonder about. Apparently, trying to answer those as best as possible with the information available is not something that fans should be doing:

Re-signing a defenceman is a big deal! Just ask Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles both of whom will likely be resigned this summer. Re-signing a player that will actually see the ice is an even bigger deal because some fans will want to try to understand how the club views him and what his impact will be on the cap both in the short-term as well as the long-term. You're more than welcome to say "Huh, Holzer signed. Ok." and then go on with the rest of your life happy as a clam. But, in case some people haven't noticed, there are fans that want to understand every aspect of every thing the Maple Leafs do. Is it healthy? Debatable. Is it different? Yes. Do we need to hear about how you think we care too much? No, feel free to sit on those thoughts.

As for evaluating the deal, Jeffler covered one angle well:

All of these combine to a basic point - Holzer hasn't been good with the Leafs as he begins his NHL career, making signing him now ridiculous and bad. I won't disagree with his lack of success thus far. As someone I had a lot of excitement for, he's been very visible on the ice for the Leafs this year, and for a player like him, that's not a good thing. But with that said, it's tough to be against this move.

The funny part on Twitter was people trying to suggest that Holzer hadn't been bad in the NHL. The real argument is that the deal is short-term, it is relatively cheap (although not as cheap as it could be), it makes it easy to move him when the Leafs get more NHL-quality defenders, and if he goes to the AHL then he won't count against the cap because the AAV of his contract is less than $900K. So the argument can be made that he's a disposable player that has done well in the AHL but if you're saying he's been good in the NHL then you may not be watching the same games as us.

Can he get better? JP will have a post about this topic later on this morning but in general defencemen have found their level at 25. Where Holzer's outcomes may improve is when he finds himself taken off of the top pairing. Currently his performance has been abysmal and that can be attributed to a large degree to Randy Carlyle's usage. Like Mike Kostka before him, he's not up to the task. However, when he's slipped down the depth chart then there may be improvement just from playing in more favourable conditions.

But the larger issue isn't this deal. As I went over on twitter, in isolation this move is fine. Holzer is a 6/7/8 defenceman, being paid as such, he likely won't improve at this point, but the Leafs won't have to use a compliance buyout on him. While I have to laugh at any Leafs fans essentially taking the "trust the Maple Leafs' management man" approach (maybe they're new?), I'll concede that on its own this is a fine deal. The issue lies mainly as the macro level. The timing of the extension seems a little off in the middle of the season:

As is the case with those examples, the deals were done at odd times. Brown didn't need to receive the kind of deal that he did as a 4th liner, JML was signed after a short period of relative success and while still recovering from a concussion, Lupul was signed at what was the peak of his negotiating power, and now Holzer. Lupul at least it could be said was done because there was a real risk that his negotiating position would improve with another 48 games of success alongside Phil Kessel. However, there was also a gamble that he wouldn't lose negotiating power which he ultimately would have with his arm injury. Holzer is in the same boat in that, while Elliotte Friedman reported that a few teams had kicked the tires on him, the Leafs weren't really risking much in waiting to re-sign him.

Bob MacKenzie and Capgeek confirmed that Holzer would have been a Group VI UFA at the end of this deal which basically means that he would have had three professional seasons under his belt before 25 years and would have had less than 80 games played. So in terms of the dolllars, it's explains some of the premium paid over the presumed qualifying offer of $632K that they would have had to tender if Holzer had qualified to remain an RFA. So it's a marginal overpayment but as has been often pointed out: marginal overpayments add up until they have become significant.

This year the Leafs have almost $7.2M being paid to Tim Connolly (Marlies), Matthew Lombardi (Phoenix), Darcy Tucker (his couch), and Colby Armstrong (undercover agent work). You can then add Mike Komisarek ($4.5M) and John-Michael Liles ($3.875M) keeping Nonis company in the press box. That's $15.725M in salary cap space that is not on the ice for the Maple Leafs. Try to wrap your head around that figure. The Leafs could afford to pay Sidney Crosby ($8.7M) and John Tavares ($5.5M) on the roster with that money. So consider that when someone says "Oh well, it's just a small over payment" or "well, it's not that bad of a contract, at least it can be moved!"

The other angle, which Cam Charron discusses, has to do with what this signing means for the larger issue of how the Leafs' approach their defencemen:

There is a flaw with how the Maple Leafs deploy their defencemen. There is a flaw with how the Maple Leafs select their defencemen.

Cam goes into detail for why he feels that way but it dovetails well with the idea that if you are focused narrowly on the Holzer signing and trust that the Leafs are going to eventually play him in the 3rd pairing/press box then you'll probably be really happy. But if you step back and look at how the signing fits at the macro level then you start to understand some of the issues around the signing. It's similar to the way that if you look at one particular period of a game, let's say the win over the Devils, you might see a lot of good and ignore the 40 minutes of awful hockey. Or you might focus on enjoying the win and ignore the presence of larger underlying trends that should cause some concern.