This season, the Leafs boast unparalleled offensive depth. Coming into the year, their ‘third’ line consists of a 50 point centre, a 30 goal / 60 point winger, and a 60 point winger. It’s completely ridiculous, and something that I periodically reflect on the absurdity of.
Sadly, this is almost certainly the last year where the Leafs have this luxury. With James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak becoming unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, two-thirds of that line has an uncertain future in Toronto. At the same time, the entry level deal of William Nylander is expiring, and he needs to make some actual money. A year later, so do Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. As does Jake Gardiner. Money is about to get tight. So what are the Leafs’ options?
Run it back
Pierre LeBrun has reported that JVR may be willing to take a lower cap hit in return for additional term. Bozak has a wife and young child, and may not want to move. You could talk yourself into them being enamoured with the Leafs culture, with the chance to win a Cup in Toronto, and so on. It is theoretically possible to keep both players and remain cap compliant. But in nearly all reasonable permutations of the deals they get, it will essentially cap out the Leafs to do so, force them to trade contracts like Matt Martin, and find cheap replacements for the non-core players who have their contracts expire (Komarov, Moore, Fehr). Toronto would be locking into their team for the foreseeable future, and presumably will be paying for the declining years of both JVR and Bozak. Not ideal, but flags fly forever. However, it seems unlikely the Leafs will go down this road. It’s simply too limiting, and with the plethora of wingers in the Leafs system, it would be a poor allocation of resources.
Promote from within
If you hear Leafs fans refer to any set of moves as ‘the plan’ this is probably it. This plan of action would involve no acquisitions for the Leafs, just promoting players they already have.
Connor Brown is overqualified for the fourth line winger role he started the year playing (he’s already earned a promotion). Move him up, and get any one of many Leafs prospects to fill his spot (Nikita Soshnikov, Carl Grundstrom, and Andreas Johnsson are easy examples). The Leafs are short on centre prospects, unless you’re REALLY high on Adam Brooks, but they do have one William Nylander. If Nylander shifts to centre, you could again use a winger prospect to take his spot (say, Kasperi Kapanen) and you’re sorted. The Leafs also have Miro Aaltonen, who is a RFA after this year, and presumably quite cheap. Toronto has the ability to replace these very good NHLers with legitimate, internal NHL prospects, which also helps the team’s cap situation.
The caveat here is that the team is weaker if they do this. As much shit as they get for their defensive issues, Bozak and JVR are inarguably excellent players, notwithstanding the slow start from Bozak in particular. They will be hard to replace (moreso for JVR than Bozak, but it applies to both).
Guys who score at top-line rates at even strength and are key contributors on one of the best power play units in the league are not terribly common. By definition, there are less than 90 of them, leaguewide. This offense more than makes up for the lack of defense. By Goals Above Replacement, JVR is 78th in the league. Bozak is 151st. They are very, very good, defensive faults and all.
Don’t trust GAR? Fine. Let’s look at something we all agree provides value - points. Tyler Bozak was 35th in the league in 5v5 P/60 last year. JVR was 10th(!!!). The Leafs aren’t replacing that internally.
“But Arvind, what about their defense? Yeah, they score, but they give it all back!”
Except they don’t. Under Babcock, Bozak’s shot share relative to his team has been positive every year (except this year, in a tiny seven game sample). So has JVR’s. The degree to which they’re sheltered is also overstated. Here are the competition that Matthews and JVR faced last year (Bozak’s is basically identical). The difference is marginal.
They’re good players. We criticize them often for what they aren’t, but we should never forget that both are high end NHLers that would make the top 6 of just about any NHL team. It is unlikely any of the Leafs’ internal options can do that next year.
Even if you shift Nylander to centre and assume he is exactly the same player as he is with Auston Matthews, you now have to fill two winger spots, both previously populated by elite offensive players. I like Kasperi Kapanen. But the odds he replicates the success of either JVR or Nylander is somewhere between slim and none. And Kappy is the best of the internal options.
The Leafs are in about as good a position as possible to handle the departure of two high-level players internally. And there is evidence that they are going about this route. Over the last few games, the Leafs have stopped running an egalitarian top nine, they way they did last season, and have started relying on the Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri lines more. It could just be a short-term reaction to a poor start by Bozak’s group, but it could also be a sign that they’re getting ready for life without them.
That aside, I’m confident saying that whenever you replace players as good as Bozak and JVR, there’s essentially no way to do so without taking a short-term step back. I want to emphasize this. The easy answer for the Leafs is to do nothing, and trust their depth. It’s also a viable choice. But it’s a choice that will certainly lead to a short-term decline.
So that leads to looking at external options. We’ll impose a few guidelines to help our search. We’re looking for winger and centre options. They have to be cheaper than what we’d have to pay for Bozak/JVR, and also better than we can reasonably expect any non-Nylander internal option to be. So who do we come up with?
The idea here is to look at players who represent a middle ground between cost (in years and dollars committed) and level of play.
Age: 28 (29 in May 2018)
Contract: $3.5M AAV, expiring this year
The Player: Eller is a prototypical third liner. His scoring is below average, but he has solid impacts on shot generation and suppression, especially in his last two seasons with Washington. It should be noted that in this time, he was on a dominant Washington squad and was able to benefit from the two lines above him soaking up a sizeable portion of the tough competition, both with respect to forwards and defense.
Similarly, he’s had relatively decent linemates - he spent much of last year in Washington with Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly, and his last year in Montreal saw him play heavily with Alex Galchenyuk. He doesn’t get particularly defensive usage, but he’s also not someone you need to take great pains to hide from defensive zone draws. And for what it’s worth, he’s been above 50% in the faceoff circle in three of the last four years. He draws a bunch of penalties, but takes a fair few himself.
All in all, he’s solid, if a little boring. He’s not as good as Bozak historically - he brings far less individual offense at even strength, and isn’t nearly as productive on the power play. Despite his advantage over Bozak defensively, the offensive gap means there’s a difference in their value. However, acquiring Eller means a third line that can be used more defensively, and doesn’t involve breaking up the Matthews/Nylander pairing. Perhaps this also lets Nazem Kadri be used a little more offensively as well.
Eller isn’t old, and he doesn’t put up a lot in terms of counting stats. He doesn’t have a reputation as an elite defensive player, or the grit factor that would lead to GMs overvaluing him (queue the clip of Glenn Healy yelling “HE’S DANISH”). So he could come relatively cheap - around his current salary for three years. At that price, he’s a cost-effective option to fill the hole left by Bozak. Washington needs to sign John Carlson, and has to deal with a few RFAs (Phillip Grubauer, whom they seem likely to try and trade, and Tom Wilson, whom they will hopefully fire into the sun). Eller is likely not a massive priority for them.
Age: 30 (31 in January 2018)
Contract: $4.25M AAV, expiring this year
The Player: Patric Hornqvist might be the most underrated player in the league. This guy is a wonderfully complete player. He’s coming off his fourth straight year of scoring at a 50-point pace. He’s never had a full season with a negative relative Corsi, and this is with him playing on some stacked teams. His shot impacts are very strong, both offensively and defensively. He makes his teams better when he plays.
Hornqvist also knows how to get to the net. Look at his shot chart.
He is the 200th percentile version of Zach Hyman. Like Hyman, he has also spent time with some excellent players. He spent much of the 2015/2016 season riding shotgun to Sidney Crosby, and much of the 2016/2017 season doing the same with Evgeni Malkin. Undoubtedly, this has juiced his numbers to a degree. However, Crosby and Malkin both see their possession stats get worse without him - he’s not solely a passenger with either of them.
So, in many ways, Hornqvist is a perfect fit for the Leafs as a player. We know he can keep up with super skilled players. He can get to the front of the net. He can tilt the ice in his team’s favour, both with respect to shot generation and suppression. He’s 85% of JVR offensively, but 185% of him defensively.
Now... the caveats. He will be 31 by the time next season starts, and has never been an amazingly durable player. He plays a rough, physical game, that may not age well. He will be in demand, as a two (maybe three) time Cup winner who plays a 200 foot game. The team that wins the bidding war for his services will get a good player, but not necessarily at a great cost, or for a palatable term. With the Leafs a year or two away from cap hell, a long-term commitment to a complementary player may not be wise.
Age: 30 (31 in October 2018)
Contract: $1.65M, expiring this year
The Player: Remember this guy? Most known among Leafs fans as a guy with great wheels and no hands, Michael Grabner has rehabilitated his career in New York with a 27 goal campaign in 2016/2017. Relatedly, he shot about 17%. Any team that pays for him can’t expect him to do that again, but he’s also better offensively than what he showed in Toronto, where he only shot 8% or so.
As an aside, Grabner has a ridiculous amount of year-to-year volatility in his shooting percentage, moreso than most players. Justin Bourne of The Athletic has speculated that speedsters like him and Carl Hagelin are more prone to this than most players, which is an interesting thought. Anyways, I digress.
The Leafs reportedly wanted to keep Grabner after his season with the team, but feared he would block the development path of other prospects. Nonetheless, he is an option as a budget winger to put on the top nine. His possession game isn’t particularly strong, but he has the blazing speed to keep up with the Leafs, can play on the PK, and is, in Babcock terms, a real good pro.
He’s off to a slow start this year, like the rest of the Rangers, which may deflate his price in the offseason. So it’s possible he comes cheap - unfortunately, it’s near impossible that the flaws in his game are rectified, and that makes me want to stay away. I’m not convinced he represents a significant enough upgrade (or an upgrade at all) over the internal options the Leafs have to justify spending money on him.
Age: 29 (30 in May 2018)
Contract: $3.75M, expiring this year
The Player: David Perron is probably better than you think. He’s one of those guys that has bounced around from team to team, always with solid but unspectacular production. Over the last few years, he’s good for around half a point per game, solid relative possession figures, and too many PIMs.
His usage is unremarkable in terms of zone starts, and he’s certainly not sheltered by competition either. Perron has a reputation of being well-rounded, and this is borne out in the stats, his point totals are impressive, but just as meaningfully (especially for the Leafs) he has a positive defensive impact.
He can play all three phases of the game, including being a net-front presence on the power play, where he could theoretically replace JVR (though not with the same level of effectiveness). One concern may be that he’s always had a reputation as a guy who does better in the Western conference. That is to say, he’s more of a grinder than a burner. Personally, I think that’s overblown. If you look up and down the Leafs, there are quite a few players who are not the most fleet of foot. I wouldn’t say Connor Brown of Nazem Kadri have elite speed, but they’re more than able to keep up. I think Perron would fall into a similar category.
There’s a lot to like about Perron as a player - he’s a cheaper version of Hornqvist in many ways. He’s off to a hot start with Vegas, but he’s always been relatively cheap for his production, and especially as he hits his 30s, I wouldn’t expect his AAV to go any higher than where it is right now.
To Sum Up
This isn’t an exhaustive list of free agents that the Leafs can/should target to potentially offset the expected loss of JVR and Bozak. However, the players to do so are available on the open market, both in low-end (Grabner), medium-end (Eller, Perron), and high-end (Hornqvist) versions.
Ultimately, it will come down to the confidence the Leafs have in their minor league system, and how adequately they feel those players can replace the outgoing Leafs. If the front office feels that they can do it well, then there’s no real need to spend money on external replacements. I’m less bullish, and think that an entirely internal approach will result in a notable step back for the team.
Realistically, what I expect to see the Leafs do is something in the middle. By all accounts, the Leafs do believe in their youth, and trust them to take the next steps. And the way you build consistent contenders is by always having an influx of young, cheap NHL talent to replace your older, more expensive, outgoing players. They’ve said all the right things about not blocking the development path of players like Kapanen, Grundstrom, and so on.
Of course, they did just that by signing Marleau. Which is to say, if they see an opportunity to make the team better, they’ll take it. My guess at what we see happen is that the Leafs acquire one player externally (either via free agency or trade), promote Brown and Kapanen to the top 9, and choose any one of a half-dozen prospects to fill out the fourth.
It should be noted that I have but one centre in my list of targets here - decent centres are not often available in free agency, especially when you’re looking for a very specific role. Who knows, maybe Lou can convince Tavares to take a sweetheart deal to play on the third line.
It’s all speculation right now. With how tight-lipped the Leafs front office is, we’ll likely only know what their plan is when they make it happen.