As has been noted, the Leafs have an awful lot of forwards competing for jobs at the moment. Of the forwards who aren't obvious locks for a spot, you can divide them into two simple categories: the young guns and the old dogs. (And Joffrey Lupul. We'll save him for another day.)
The young guns include Peter Holland, Josh Leivo, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, Byron Froese, Kerby Rychel and Mitch Marner, and could conceivably stretch to include guys like Tobias Lindberg, Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic, and Andreas Johnson. All of these players are 25 or younger; several of them have shown they're knocking on the door of the big leagues, or (in Holland's case) are already at that level.
Then there are the old dogs: Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, and Colin Greening. All of these guys are at least 30, and all of them came to the Leafs as salary dumps this past season: Laich in the Daniel Winnik trade, and Michalek and Greening in the Phaneuf deal. All of them have a higher cap hit than they're worth, and all of their deals expire after this season.
It's been mooted around that the Leafs might buy out one of Laich and Michalek in the second buyout period this week. Assuming they stick, though, the Leafs have to decide what to do with them—presumably, in order to fatten up their value for the trade deadline. Let's have a look at who these guys are, and what their use might be to the Leafs.
A preliminary note: while everyone sort of intuits this, it's worth saying that guys traded at the deadline have a much more limited cap impact than guys traded in the summer, because only about a quarter of their salary remains to be paid. That's why guys who currently look like cap albatrosses—and that's all three of the guys in this article—become much more plausible candidates for a deal as we approach the TDL.
33-year-old Brooks Laich was a Washington Capitals mainstay for a decade. He had several highly productive seasons in D.C., peaking with 25G-34A-59P in that bonkers 2009-10 season where the Caps scored eighteen goals per game. He was a core part of those Ovechkin-era teams who never quite got over the hump in the playoffs, a tough two-way centre.
Aside: Leafs fans may remember that Laich, as with all humans, was rumoured to be signing with the Leafs as his free agency approached back in 2011. He signed a six-year extension with the Capitals instead, and the Leafs signed Tim Connolly, who was better than you remember him being before he got super injured. Now the Leafs are the proud (?) owners of the last year of that Laich extension. The universe is a circle.
Unfortunately, after years of being an iron man (he missed a total of four games in five seasons between 2007 and 2012), injuries began to take a toll on Laich; he hurt his groin playing in the Swiss league during the 2012 lockout, and never really came back to his prior form. He was healthy this season, but not very productive, manging 2G-12A-14P in 81 games split between the Caps and the Leafs. The silver lining in his point production is that while he had exactly the same output for each of his teams (a goal and six assists), he did it in 39 fewer games with the Leafs, making for a mini-resurgence. Mike Babcock is our king.
There's no getting around it: the present Brooks Laich is a long ways from the past Brooks Laich. He's still big and he presumably has some veteran savvy, but he hasn't consistently either produced points or had EV possession numbers above a fourth-line level over the last three years. He's still reputed to be defensively sound, and as long as your standard is definitely bottom six, he is. There's a particular bright side: he was still one of the regular forwards for the high-quality Caps PK this past season. He did a bit of it with the Leafs in his games here; whether that continues as his niche this year remains to be seen, but I'd expect if he's playing, he's playing there.
While Brooks Laich has historically been a centre, he's spent a lot of time as a right wing in recent years. It's conceivably he could fill either role on the fourth line for the Leafs, or bump up in the event of injuries, but that's probably as high as it goes—unless the Leafs are making a point of showcasing him.
What Laich does bring is a reputation on and off the ice—maybe more so than any other Leafs' player. He's the classic good-in-the-room and good-in-the-community guy. On a team likely to have quite a few rookies, the Leafs might well value Laich's experience and professionalism to set an example. Laich had "sorry to see him go" articles written about him when he was traded, and Ken Campbell at THN (I know) wants him to be our captain. People really like Laich. Like, they like Laich like Laich.
In light of that, Brooks might have more trade value than you'd expect based on his raw numbers. Even in his offence-impaired state, he wasn't that much less productive than the man he was traded for, Daniel Winnik. Given his PK skills and veteran savvy, he seems like a classic deadline candidate; it's easy to see him becoming a team's OGWAC—the Old Guy Without A Cup the team rallies around. (Credit to DGB for the coinage.)
So what do you do with Brooks Laich? If he's got anything left, it's as a PK specialist. If he can pick up a few points, so much the better, but that's not where his use is at this stage of his career. If you really want to try buffing him up, let him be the guy who gives the post-game quotes and put his name out a little, for whatever that's worth. If Laich can play a regular shift, there's hope to trade him.
32 in December, Michalek has a long track record riding shotgun for quality centres, first Joe Thornton and second Jason Spezza. He's broken 20 goals five times and peaked with a whopping 35 in 2011-12. His injury history dropped from bad to worse this season as his production declined, and he ended this season with a grim 7G-9A-16P in only 45 GP. Michalek says his knee is now recovered after finishing the season on the IR, which we'd better hope is the case, because even when he was healthy this year, his underlying numbers were abysmal. The shot-generating—and finishing—Michalek of years past was gone.
Like every scorer ever, Michalek gets tagged as streaky, but he's been a bona fide offensive winger at his best, even given that he's been blessed in his linemates. Classic Michalek was big, fast and able to finish; his teams got shots when he was on, and quite a few of them went in. This year, well, Michalek was bad and hurt.
Assuming Michalek really is healthy now—and his track record makes that uncertain—he's not that far removed from offensive utility. He was better than a point every two games in 2014-15, and his career high in goals is actually the highest of any player on the Leafs right now. If he can be closer to that than to his 2016 self, there's hope.
If Michalek is going to play, he's an offensive player and will presumably be used like one, possibly as the Leafs' 2LW—depending on what happens with Joffrey Lupul. There's been the odd whisper that he's going to jump back to Europe, but I wouldn't count on that. He's about to make $4,000,000, probably his last chance to pull in that kind of money.
Michalek is a pretty simple one. You want him to score goals, and you put him somewhere he can do that. Give him powerplay time, give him a centre who can feed him, and sell him as offensive depth at the TDL. Guys who produce in the 15-20 goal range are always saleable at the deadline; look at Lee Stempniak.
If Michalek is simply done, and maybe he is, there's no helping it. Scoring wingers who can't score don't fetch much. Michalek did occasionally take a PK shift in the past, but unlike Laich, he wasn't really a first choice in that role.
Colin is both the cheapest and the youngest of the trio, having turned 30 this past March. Greening's career in Ottawa started with a bang, dazzling in a late-season audition with the Sens in 2010-11 and then putting up 17G-20A-37P in 2011-12. That was as good as it got, unfortunately. Over the next few years, Greening's production declined and then plummeted, culminating in a painful 2014-15 where he posted one goal and no assists in 26 games. In one of the saddest things I've ever heard, that goal wasn't even put in by Greening; he got tripped rushing at an empty net and was awarded the goal automatically.
That effectively ended his tenure with Ottawa; he spent the rest of his Sens career in Binghamton, excepting a random four minute appearance against Chicago last December 3rd. Sens fans were not happy with a player of his salary producing so little.
Because the universe is an extended practical joke on the Ottawa Senators, Greening came to the Leafs in the Phaneuf trade and promptly found a home with William Nylander. Between Nylander and a shooting percentage spike, Greening posted 7G-8A-15P in 31 games with the Leafs, his best points-per-game showing since his first late-season audition with an NHL team, back in 2011. No depth forward is guaranteed a spot with the Leafs this year, excepting Matt Martin, but Colin Greening seems to be giving it his best shot.
Greening is a big boy, at 6'2" and 212 lbs., and he throws his weight around. He was one of the more frequent hitters on the Sens, and in his time with the Leafs, he ranked fourth on the team in hits per game. Greening has always been a competent Corsi player, usually performing at a solidly middle-six level and helping his team outshoot the opposition, and he was above-average in this regard with the Leafs as well.
C.O. Green (sorry) impressed both his coach and his hotshot linemate. Babcock, as per the Sun: "He is just a simple player. We don't have a lot of big bodies and a lot of heavy guys. He has come in and been given an opportunity on the power play and a regular shift. He is also a guy who is trying to find his way back into the league. He is a proud guy who wants to play." When Babcock describes you as playing a "simple" game, that's a good thing. Greening himself attributed his mini-resurgence to the Leafs' style and emphasis on skating—a style he said suits him better.
Nylander was more effusive, as per our friend Mirtle: "Great, hard-working guy," Nylander said. "He gets the puck back. Great defensive guy. Big. Strong. Can shoot the puck, too. He's a great player to have on your line."
On a more personal note, Greening seems to emphasize learning and self-improvement. I wouldn't get carried away with his impressive education—hockey isn't played on a spreadsheet, as plenty of people like to remind us around here—but his determination to be the player the Leafs want him to be bodes well for him, here or elsewhere.
While breaking 40 points is probably out of Greening's range, he seems like the kind of depth player a team should be happy to have on their fourth line. More particularly, as Babcock hinted, he has some use as a complementary piece on a skilled third line, adding some physicality, defensive prudence, and puck retrieval. If he can do that and get his point totals up a little, there may yet be a taker for him next deadline—or even a cheap salary extension here.
The biggest obstacle for Greening may be the recent acquisition of Matt Martin, who seems primed to be the Leafs' premier basher for the next few years. Martin brings even more hitting and a knack for disruptive defence, but generates shots at a much lower rate than Greening. The Leafs' commitment to Martin may make a comparison between them moot.
Greening's chemistry with Nylander would seem to give him an inside track on a job this season, but the Leafs' crowded forward group—and Nylander's potential move from centre to wing—complicates that. Still, on a team filled with young, skilled guys, one of them will likely wind up in the bottom six, and Greening might work well with them if they do.