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Buy or Sell: What should the Leafs do at the Trade Deadline?

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The answer might surprise you (but it probably won't).

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

As we enter the second half of the season, the NHL trade market, were it to be adapted to film, would best be titled "All Quiet on the Western Front."

As the calendar turned to 2017, only two transactions have been made. The Leafs traded Jhonas Enroth to Anaheim (or more accurately, San Diego) for a conditional 7th round pick in 2018, while Nashville acquired fourth-line enforcer Cody McLeod from Colorado for an AHL forward. These two milquetoast deals come over a month after the last major "blockbuster," which saw the Leafs move Peter Holland to the basement-dwelling Arizona Coyotes for a conditional 6th rounder. The NHL hot stove- usually setting off smoke alarms at this time of year- is barely above a simmer.

NHL general managers have been so conservative on the trade market this season, one would wonder if the NHL Trade Deadline is better programming for FOX News than TSN. That is, however, likely to change, as it always does. While this deadline (and the weeks leading up to it) may not be as exciting as previous deadlines, impactful moves will be made, some teams will be definite buyers, and others definite sellers.

While there's still a lot of uncertainty in the standings, the top and bottom tiers of the league have essentially crystallized. The certain buyers are teams that, barring an unforeseen collapse, are definitely postseason-bound (e.g. Washington, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minnesota, Montreal). The sellers will be the teams that realistically know there's no hope this season, meaning their goal is to acquire as many futures as possible (e.g. Arizona, Colorado, Buffalo, and perhaps some other teams in denial that need to confront reality). Beyond that, however, lies some two-thirds of the league that need to make a decision on what their plan will be.

For the first time in a few years, the Leafs are in that latter category. They woke up this morning in a playoff spot, in the thick of a competitive race for playoff berths in the Atlantic Division and wildcard that will involve several teams. On one hand, they're still a young, rebuilding team; on the other, they've exceeded expectations so far this year. Elliotte Friedman even made his case for Shattenkirk as a Leafs rental this week:

Shattenkirk made it known he would not consider Edmonton long-term, but would he do it for a few months as the Oilers chase the playoffs? Why not? Montreal and Toronto would also make sense as teams that need a short-term burst. Think about it: Those clubs (or anyone else who would be interested) get a good rental. Shattenkirk gets a situation where he’s going to play a big role and make himself look even better for his upcoming free agency. (Although, as I’ve said before, other teams are convinced he wants to play for the Rangers.) Shattenkirk breaking out with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner or Connor McDavid would be fun to see.

So, what should the Leafs do? Should they buy, and bolster what has a decent chance at being a playoff team? Or, should they sell to strengthen the pipeline of a continuing rebuild?

Here's what, in my humble opinion, would be in the Leafs' best interests.

(1) Sell High on Roman Polak

The rationale for this is quite simple from the Leafs' standpoint. The Leafs have carried eight defensemen all year, and Polak is a pending UFA on a reasonable deal. What's more, Leafs management knows it can get something of value for Polak because it has done so before; last February, they netted two 2nd round picks from the San Jose Sharks for he and Nick Spaling (now of the Swiss league).

There are reasons some teams may think highly of Polak. He is a physical presence and has been a workhorse in blocking a ton of shots for a penalty kill that ranks 5th in the NHL at 84.5% (as of January 19). Contenders that are thin on defense and need to stengthen their PK may see some value in acquiring Polak for a long playoff run, as San Jose did last year (this, by the way, describes the Blackhawks to a "T").

While Polak would have enough value to some front offices to net another draft pick, it also makes sense for the Leafs to trade him. He's a pending UFA and not a long-term piece of the team going forward.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: if you're an NHL GM interested in acquiring Polak, the piece ends here. Don't mind the words down there. Just go about your day; you're a busy man!)

More important is this fact: at even strength, Roman Polak is just not that good.

Polak's 46.2% CF ranks last among Leafs defensemen, and his CA60 is last on the entire team. He seems fundamentally incapable of making a clean possession through the neutral zone. His game is entirely based on blocking shots and clearing pucks which, while providing some value to the PK, is not much of an asset at 5v5. He doesn't even pass the eye test; he generally looks confused on the ice, and seems to have the decision-making speed of Homer Simpson trying to think of a comeback to being called "slow." While he made it to the Stanley Cup Final last June, his performance was so abysmal that he still calls Evgeni Malkin "dad."

The only other Leaf defenseman with 5v5 numbers as abysmal as Polak's is Matt Hunwick. The numbers, however, bear out that Hunwick is a capable third-pair defenseman that is being significantly dragged down by- wait for it- playing with Roman Polak.

By trading Polak, he gets to go to a contending team for the second straight year; meanwhile, the Leafs get better in the present (by playing a defenseman who could presumably play better at 5v5 and, in turn, elevate Hunwick's game) and future (by getting an asset in return), and open up a roster spot for potentially another forward, to boot. As the Michael Scott school of conflict resolution would say, that's a "win-win-win" scenario.

(2) That's It.

Do you work in the Leafs front office? Have you just traded Roman Polak for a high pick? Great work; you've earned the rest of the deadline period off! Put down the phone, go play some golf, kick your feet up in your favourite recliner and crack open a cold one while getting caught up on some Netflix. Maybe phone in a minor AHL swap early on deadline day so TSN has something to do. You've earned it, big guy!

In all seriousness, the Leafs really should do absolutely nothing else of significance on the trade market. No buying, no selling, no matter where they wind up in the standings. If I haven't convinced you yet, here are some reasons why.

(2a) The Case Against Selling

For the last couple of years, the Leafs have been very active in trading off roster players for picks, prospects, or any combination thereof. Should the Leafs fall out of a playoff spot between now and February 28, it may seem tempting to consider trading James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, both of whom reach UFA in 2018. After all, Bozak is unlikely to be part of the long-term plan beyond the expiry of his current contract, while van Riemsdyk's contract demands may be too much for the Leafs.

(SIDEBAR: It may seem tempting to some to trade William Nylander. My assumption if you feel this way is that you hate the Leafs, work for TSN, have suffered irreversible brain damage, or any combination thereof. In that case, might I suggest the Sun may be more on par with your reading level? Cheerio.)

If the Leafs were a year or two behind where they are now, selling would certainly be a logical plan, but the time for this type of thinking has certainly ended. This is a transition year in which the Leafs should be expected to flip a switch from stockpiling assets to being competitive. They are, in fact, just that, as evidenced by their current occupancy of a playoff spot.They should have the mindset of a team that is competing for the postseason because, well, they are.

The logic in trading roster players was once "can I make this team better next year and/or over the next five years?" We now have to consider the value of players in the context of "does this player help this team compete for a playoff spot?" As evidenced in my above argument for Polak, this is not always the case, so getting a tangible asset for an expiring contract makes sense.

The same, however, cannot be said for JVR and Bozak. Both players have found the offensive chemistry of the Kessel years playing on a line with Mitch Marner. The team would undoubtedly be worse off without either in the lineup, which is not the present goal.

While there is prevailing logic in asset management that it's best to get something for a player who can walk for nothing, it's a balancing act for a competitive team. If a player provides more value remaining with a team for the balance of his contract than any return in a trade, that player is worth keeping. Barring an absolutely incredible trade package, both players have value to the Leafs. The depth chart at LW beyond JVR is not exactly a thing of beauty. Where Bozak is concerned, he has value as a stop-gap 3C for the balance of his deal, by which time the Leafs should develop William Nylander into that role, or find a decent option via trade or on the UFA market (John Tavares, anyone?).

Further, the Leafs don't exactly need to continue stockpiling assets at this point. They have nine rookies in their lineup, a sizable number of decent prospects in the pipeline, and a surplus of draft picks in 2017 and 2018. They're fine for futures as it is.

(2b) The Case Against Buying

"So," you may be thinking to yourself after reading that previous segment, "if the Leafs are so competitive and stocked with futures, should they be buyers at the deadline?" After all, a team hunting for a playoff spot could use that extra push when the postseason begins.

You'll notice I've called the Leafs a competitive team throughout this piece; I'd like to make a distinction between competitive teams and contending teams. All contending teams are competitive, but not all competitive teams are contending. While sixteen teams qualify for the postseason every year, you can generally identify at least half of them as being quite improbable to win the Stanley Cup. A large number of teams will take their round or two of playoff revenue and increased fan morale and pat themselves on the back, knowing it was overall a good year. Those teams are competitive, but not contending.

For me, the litmus test is this: is making it to the third round (whether a team does so or not) expectation, or a best case scenario? If you reasonably expect yourself to get as far as having a one-in-four chance at winning the Cup, you are a contender; if not, you are merely competitive. Case in point: the Islanders and Capitals may have both been second round exits last season, but the former (a wildcard that won its first playoff series in 23 years) was likely much more content with that outcome than the latter (the President's Trophy winner). That, in a nutshell, is the distinction of a competitive vs. contending team.

It makes absolute sense for a contending team to buy at the deadline. No team is without its weaknesses, and it is easy for those to get exposed in a best-of-seven series against another good team. The goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and if you need the aid of some rented mercenaries to do so, it's well worth the price.

Being a buyer at the deadline, however, can backfire on a competitive team. Consider, as a cautionary tale, last year's Boston Bruins. At the deadline, the Bruins traded one prospect and four draft picks (two 2nd rounders, one 3rd rounder, and one 4th rounder) in return for pending UFAs in John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak. The problem was that they failed to realize they weren't a contender, and they ultimately missed the postseason. That they re-signed Liles hardly mitigates their loss; they could have signed him in any event without losing assets. The logic of being a buyer for a playoff push does not work if your team does not even make the postseason.

This year's Leafs team, as it stands, is competitive, but the postseason is still no guarantee. It would be a fool's errand to sacrifice assets when they still have to make the hurdle from competitive to contender.

Conclusion

The Leafs are a team in transition: too good to sell players for assets, yet not good enough to mortgage the future for a playoff run. Their trade deadline focus should be on trimming the fat and continuing down the path of competing for a postseason berth with what they have. While that may not make for the sexiest of trade deadlines, it's best for both the short-term gains and long-term growth of the club.