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Do the Leafs even do asset management anymore?

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It’s gone from “pump and dump” to “dump and forget” around here.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The basic concept of asset valuation in sports is that you exploit other teams’ ideas about player value that differ from your own. The assumption is, of course, that your ideas are better, more based in your extensive data science intelligence gathering, and you are beating the competition with your giant brain in every deal you make.

The basics are: you acquire players that the seller undervalues, but your analysis says are good, and you dispose of players in the opposite way. But there is more to it than just buying and selling.

The management part comes in making sure the players you have that you might want to sell will bring you the best return. Usually that means playing them in a favourable way, the ‘pump and dump’ manoeuvre. Sticking them in the pressbox, the minors, or on an island somewhere is a very different tactic.

Even if the player has real value that smart teams should be able to see, you can erode it with bad management. And if you’re not actually a very good team and you still refuse to dress that player and play them? Why would someone else trade anything of value for them?

The Leafs very successfully played the asset management game last season. Every time I see Connor Carrick, I want to laugh that he was what the Capitals gave up to solve a very foolish cap crunch problem they might have been wiser to have sorted out with a buyout of Brooks Laich. The Leafs sold off Daniel Winnik in that deal, again; they traded Nick Spaling and Roman Polak, and they traded Dion Phaneuf and the worst contract on their books, all for some usable players. All of that was good asset management.

The most surprising thing, in retrospect, is that the two players whom time has proven to have value, Michael Grabner and P.-A. Parenteau, couldn’t be traded for anything.

But those deals, smart as they were, loaded the Leafs up with a list of players they don’t really want. They already had some relics of the past regimes they also had little interest in. They have not done much about getting anything for any of these players, maximizing their current value, or even keeping it from falling.

  • Brooks Laich: sent to the Marlies, plays fourth line
  • Colin Greening: sent to the Marlies, scratched for two games, plays fourth line
  • Milan Michalek: sent to the Marlies, plays fourth line
  • Frank Corrado: has played one NHL game this season for less than 17 minutes
  • Josh Leivo: kept on season-opening injured reserve, has played five Marlies games
  • Peter Holland: played in seven NHL games, at less than 11 minutes per game

Prior to this season, both Stuart Percy and T.J. Brennan were let go without qualifying offers, so the team got nothing for them.

With rumours that Holland is on the trading block, the question asks itself: why not play him if you want to trade him?

The answer seems to be Mike Babcock. He doesn’t want to, so he doesn’t.

Prior to the start of this season, it was very unclear what the goal of this Leafs season would be. Last year was obviously about the asset management and the implementation of a viable hockey system from the top down. Player development was a distant tertiary consideration, largely shunted off-stage for the more immediate tertiary purpose of losing a lot of games.

This year there is a lot of the system work still going on, both on the ice and off, while there seems to be almost none of the asset management. But, boy, is there ever player development.

No one predicted the sheer number of rookies on this team. No one predicted that Mitch Marner would take a top roster spot. No one predicted that all of the excess veterans would be disposed of one way or another. Bob McKenzie, who said Zack Hyman and Connor Brown would start the season on the team, as would Soshnikov, still did not go as far in his predictions as the Leafs actually have in reality.

It is not a binary set of choices. You don’t pick emphasizing development and automatically have to throw out all the other concerns. It’s more like a set of sliders where you chose how much you emphasize each of these competing goals. Drag the Asset Management slider over and the others don’t automatically go down. You just have a new balance to achieve when you make decisions.

My own rather tame pre-season prediction was that Babcock was done fooling around and would focus more on game outcomes. But well, beyond that, the Leafs have shoved the asset management slider almost to zero while they balance player development with trying to win.

Asset Management

Player Development

Winning

Does it matter?

The moneypuck theory says both yes and no. The idea is that you trade all your unwanted players for the maximum amount in aggregate of draft picks and prospects, and in that mass of return is where you profit. It’s like buying a lot of lottery tickets, not paying big for one sure thing.

But that same theory also says that with draft picks, the real difference in value at the individual level is very small once you get away from the sort that get you William Nylander or even Carl Grundström.

So looking at that list again, what could the leafs get for those players? How much more would the return be if the fourth line on the Leafs was Greening, Laich and Michalek instead of on the Marlies? And does that hurt or harm the game outcomes? And what of the player development? Why aren’t you playing Nikita Soshnikov in the NHL, if he can hold down a job there?

There are only three names on that list that make me question the level of asset management: Leivo, Corrado and Holland. Leivo and Corrado are the only two still under contract after this year, and all three of them are young and capable players at some level.

Leaving aside arguments over their worth to the Leafs now as players vs some of the veterans, nothing the Leafs are doing is improving their trade value. But is there real pump and dump potential there? It seems like players at a similar or better level than Leivo or Corrado are showing up on waivers, sometimes more than once. The only trades involving their sort this year have been one for one deals, and the Leafs don’t want a different non-waiver-exempt, marginal player in exchange. What good is that?

If the current market has them worth very little, why should we think the future would be different? There are very few teams that will spend the sort of assets the Leafs want for a small chance at a low percentage improvement in their depth. Spaling, remember, had an overvalued skill as a centre good at faceoffs. Winnik had years of reputation. And the two genuinely good players the Leafs had couldn’t be traded. Perhaps looking at your assets requires you to see them like an outsider would to know if they’re worth putting on display or not.

Even if they are bundled up in an instant depth makeover deal, they would be hard to move for anything but more of the same coming back. The Rangers aren’t going to give the Leafs Michael Grabner back for that deal.

So maybe the Leafs don’t even do asset management because they just don’t have any assets worth moving the slider up for. The goal is player development and winning. Right now, nothing else seems to matter.