The Leafs blueline, to put it lightly, has been their Achilles' heel all season. The team boasts a high-event style that is both exciting and terrifying. The Leafs are a fairly middling possession team (50.3% score-adjusted CF), but it's the wild extremes by which they've attained that which are most telling. When it comes to generating shot attempts, the Leafs are among the best in the league; 2nd in CF60 (60.0), behind only the Bruins. At allowing shot attempts? 28th in CA60 (59.4), ahead of only the Islanders and the lowly Arizona Coyotes.
I'm telling you nothing you don't already know, and the primary culprit should be no surprise: the Leafs blueline simply isn't good enough. Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev are fine defensemen and may make a great second pair, but they're getting submarined in tough minutes. Jake Gardiner might be able to answer the call of facing tougher competition, but with whom? The third pair is, in fact, a third pair that plays third pair minutes and (in spite of being the main target of ire of some Leaf fans) does okay, though surely you can find a better 6D next season than Roman Polak.
The free agent market for defensemen is underwhelming: it's basically Kevin Shattenkirk or bust. With a number of teams expected to be in the running (including his hometown New York Rangers, though where they'll get the cap space remains a mystery), it's foolish for Leaf fans to pin their hopes on a single player. There is likely a depth fit among some of the remaining options- Karl Alzner, or, should a reunion interest you, Cody Franson- but depth is hardly the issue. Perhaps you could wait for Marc-Edouard Vlasic in 2018, but he'll be 31 by then and I see no reason why he wouldn't stay in San Jose.
The dearth of options on the market (not to mention internally) leave Leaf fans circling back to the same idea: trade a forward for a defenseman. Naturally, the same candidate emerges: James van Riemsdyk.
On its face, it makes some sense. JVR is an extremely solid offensive forward from whom you could reasonably expect 25-30 goals a season. Despite an injury last year, he put up a 28-goal pace over a half season. He has 21 goals in 68 games this season.
Because of the foregoing, however, JVR is expected to be a fairly pricey UFA when his contract expires in 2018. For his entire tenure with the Leafs, he's been on a very team-friendly deal of 5 years at $4.25MM AAV. Paying that amount for a 23-27 year old for that level of production made a lot of sense. Paying much more to a 29-year old for a good chunk of his thirties? Not as much.
This has made JVR an extremely trendy trade candidate for a top blueliner. But, in all reality, is there a trade to be had? For those of you with things to do, the short answer is no; you may have gathered that from the title. For those of you who want a longer answer, here's the reasoning:
(1) Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson
Conventional logic dictates that the Hall-for-Larsson swap set the "forward-for-defenseman" market, if any such thing exists. Conventional logic is wrong, because the Oilers are stupid and let their best winger go for basically a second-pairing defenseman. If you do buy into that logic, however, Adam Larsson being the best case scenario should not leave you with much optimism that a JVR trade will magically cure the Leafs blueline ailments.
What should concern you, however, is that a Taylor Hall trade really isn't representative of the market for JVR. At the time Hall was traded, he was 24 years old and under contract for four more seasons. JVR will be 28 by season's end, and have only one season before requiring a raise likely to exceed Hall's current AAV of $6MM. Hall's boxcars are generally better than JVR's, and the former's 2015-16 numbers (26 G, 39 A, 65 P) currently outperform the latter's prorated 2016-17 pace (25 G, 37 A, 62 P). In effect, the market demand for Taylor Hall will not be the market demand for JVR.
Yes, Taylor Hall's trade does not set the market for defenseman trades. Yes, it was a bad trade and the Oilers absolutely could've received more value. Given the comparison between the two players and factoring in all context, however, what was an absolutely terrible trade for Edmonton might actually be the best the Leafs could hope for in a 1-for-1 JVR swap.
(2) There is little net benefit to another team in trading for JVR
In dreaming up trade proposals, we often forget that it takes two to tango.
Trading JVR for a top pairing blueliner sounds great, because we are Leaf fans and would love to receive a player of that calibre. The one caveat is that the other team has to go for it, and realistically, there's not much of a chance that they would.
JVR does have some value; however, his age and pending UFA status will make him a harder sell. Teams won't exactly be lining up around the block to take him for a younger blueliner under more years of team control. Even if they could execute an extension with JVR subsequent to the trade, it would be a sizable raise in comparison to what they're currently paying the defenseman with which they'd be expected to part ways.
Consider Vancouver, which have a need offensively and have expressed interest in adding a goal-scoring winger; to that end, JVR seems like a perfect fit. But, for a top pairing defenseman? Regardless of your opinion of Jim Benning's intelligence, we can't realistically expect the Canucks to swap JVR for Chris Tanev, who is the same age but on a team-friendly contract until 2020. Dougie Hamilton's been a source of speculation in Calgary, but: (a) the Flames aren't going to trade a 23-year old under contract until 2021 for a 28-year old who needs a new contract; (b) they have Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk at LW, so they don't really need JVR; and, (c) trade talk has all but disintegrated with Hamilton playing well during Calgary's hot streak.
This leaves us with the team that consistently fuels JVR trade discussion: the Anaheim Ducks. While JVR fits the Ducks big, bruising style, and he was well-regarded by Randy Carlyle, no one should expect Anaheim to trade a top defenseman for him. Consider the following:
- Hampus Lindholm (the great white whale of trade fantasies) is 23 years old and under contract until 2022, when he will be 28 (i.e. basically the entirety of his prime).
- Sami Vatanen is 25 and under contract until 2020.
- Their most highly-regarded prospects in the NHL are Brandon Montour and Josh Manson, who are 22 and 25, respectively, and hit RFA in 2018.
- None of these players will have, or can be expected to have, an AAV much larger than $5.2MM over the next five years or so.
With the foregoing in mind, why would any team in Anaheim's position trade away a top-tier defenseman (or player with that potential) for an older pending UFA winger that will cost them more in cap money past 2018 than the defenseman they'd give away?
The answer, in everyone's mind, is Vegas. The Ducks have a large number of NMCs. Even if they opted to protect more than three defensemen, Kevin Bieksa's NMC means that one of the players I listed above would still be exposed, and one of their young forwards (likely Jakob Silfverberg) would be as well. It certainly isn't an enviable position, and thus, some theorize, the Ducks would be so amenable to not losing a blueliner that they'd accept something- anything- of value in return for one of them. The theory is, in effect, that JVR-for-Anaheim defenseman makes sense to the Ducks for their expansion needs.
The problem with this theory is twofold: the first, and most important, is that the Ducks wouldn't actually fix their expansion issues. Were Anaheim to make this trade, they wouldn't trade for JVR just to lose him to Vegas, so he would be protected. The Ducks would then need to protect three remaining defensemen to avoid losing one, and would still risk losing another forward. It solves absolutely nothing for them at all.
The second is that the Ducks can (and likely will) make a side deal with Vegas to ensure certain players are protected. For the price of a high pick, prospect, or decent player, they could keep Vegas from taking whatever player they want to protect. That's a much simpler- and more cost-effective- solution.
(3) Who replaces JVR?
Imagine you have a gaping hole in your backyard. It's both aesthetically unpleasing and a safety hazard. The solution is obvious: fill that hole.
Imagine that in a haste to get it filled, however, you decide that the simplest way to do so is to dig in your backyard to get some dirt to fill that hole. The end result is that the hole is filled, but you've dug a second hole to fill it. You're left with the exact same problem as before- a hole in your yard- but in a different location.
Therein lies the issue with swapping JVR with a defenseman. Consider the Leafs' current depth chart at LW; beyond JVR, it consists of Leo Komarov, Zach Hyman, and Matt Martin. That's far from ideal. You may gain a much-needed defenseman, but you lose a big presence up front capable of producing solid offense without a real plan to replace it. Even the Oilers tried to replace Hall by signing Milan Lucic! It was a terrible plan, but at least they had a plan. Here, there's no plan.
So far, proponents of a JVR deal offer one plan, and it's Kasperi Kapanen. The Leafs prospect has been a point per game with the Marlies this season, and seems ready to take the next step. Many believe JVR's production could easily be replaced by Kapanen next season.
Would it, though? How do we know?
This is not a knock on Kapanen, who I think is a great prospect and believe will have a decent NHL career. But, how do we know, based on 38 AHL games this season and a 9-game NHL sample from 2015-16 (in which he had no points), that he will be a definitive guarantee to make a seamless transition to the NHL next season and put up offensive numbers close to that of JVR? That's a lot to ask of even the best rookie.
If Kapanen is ready next season, he should have a place on this roster. But what would the harm be on easing him in, and waiting until we are confident he is ready before trading JVR? With the depth chart being what it is, there would be an inordinate amount of pressure on Kapanen to produce, which can only be a bad thing. One need only read the Edmonton Oilers Book of Bad Asset Management to see the pitfalls of rushing prospects into situations for which they're not ready. The Leafs, too, have been historically guilty of this, and one only need look at Nazem Kadri as an example of what can be accomplished if you develop prospects patiently. So, why rush?
There really is no easy answer to fixing the Leafs' defensive woes. Were there one, it probably would have been employed by now.
What I can assure you of is that trading JVR for a unicorn blueliner is not the solution, because it simply is not likely to happen. His value is hampered by his age and contract status, making it improbable that a team will pay the price of a young, good defenseman under multiple years of team control. In addition, even if the Leafs did add a blueliner, they would be left with a hole up front with no one to fill it.
A one-for-one swap doesn't make sense for any other team, and it doesn't make sense for the Leafs either. It's time to let that dream die.