Another trade deadline has come and gone, and I suppose you could forgive some people for being underwhelmed. In past seasons, the Leafs did some intense wheeling and dealing for futures that brightened up a February where the actual games sure weren't all that eventful. The Leafs may have won, like, three games after January last year (citation needed), but Dion Phaneuf's entire contract got moved a pick, prospect, and short-term cap, and so we rejoiced.
This season is a bit different, in that the Leafs are (perhaps unexpectedly) in the thick of a playoff race, making every game from now until April so exciting and meaningful that you probably want to die. The flip side, of course, is that the Leafs can't really be sellers in that climate (more on this later); but with such a young and still flawed roster, they shouldn't really be buyers, either. You may recall my piece in January making the case for, but for selling non-essential pending UFAs, otherwise standing pat.
The Leafs more or less did that, even if it wasn't to the blueprint specified above. They were, at most, extremely modest buyers, and at least, shuffling around some deck chairs at the margins of their lineup. Not counting an AHL swap meet with the Albany Devils, the Leafs made two trades this month, so let's recap.
Trade #1: February 27, 2017
TRADING PARTNER: Tampa Bay Lightning
LEAFS GET: Brian Boyle
TAMPA BAY GETS: Byron Froese, 2017 2nd round pick (conditional: TBL gets the higher of the two Leafs 2nd round picks)
The Leafs apparently saw what we all saw from their fourth line down the middle- namely, that the 4C platoon of Ben Smith and Frederik Gauthier being used just wasn't cutting it- and decided to make a change. In comes Brian Boyle, a behemoth of a man who can play decent fourth line minutes and do the PK and faceoff duties Mike Babcock expects of his 4C. It also doesn't hurt he has 13 goals and 22 points this season; his SH% is a tad high, but that's still one fewer goal than Tyler Bozak and three more than Leo Komarov. He's the great white unicorn down the middle with which the Leafs sought to build a pretty capable fourth line.
While Boyle was near the top of my "offseason needs" list for the Leafs, I was bearish on bringing him in at the deadline. After all, why give up assets for something you can have for free in four months? Having said that, the price to pay is fairly insignificant. Froese is 26, so we know what he is: a AAAA player that can fill in and play an okay fourth line shift when needed at the NHL level. The second round pick is likely to be somewhere in the 45-50 range, which yields a one-in-three chance of being even an okay NHLer; the Leafs also still have one second-round pick. It's a small gamble as trades go. Maybe spending 21 games (or more?) as a Leaf will motivate him to stay long-term. Who knows?
There really is only one doomsday scenario with this trade: the Leafs miss the playoffs, Boyle bolts (pun sorta intended) for greener pastures, and the second round pick yields the next PK Subban. Because this is the Leafs we're talking about, that absolutely could happen. The probability, however, favours an okay-to-great outcome. If the Leafs either make the postseason or Boyle re-signs (or both), this trade was a worthwhile investment.
Ah, I'm sure glad we got through this one trade uneventfully and without much acrimony. At the time I'm writing this before deadline day, everyone seems to be on the same page. Now time to take a sip of scalding hot coffee and check the deadline transactions....
Trade #2: March 1, 2017
TRADING PARTNER: Pittsburgh Penguins
LEAFS GET: Eric Fehr, Steven Oleksy, 2017 4th round pick
PENGUINS GET: Frank Corrado
[wipes hot coffee from computer monitor]
Let's buckle in here, because there seems to be a lot of confusion and anger over this trade, so let me clarify my position: this was a completely inconsequential trade that wasn't bad at all.
[sound of pitchforks sharpening in the distance]
Let me explain.
Let's start with Corrado. You can litigate and relitigate it until the cows come home, but Mike Babcock had no place for him. That is not my opinion; it is fact. You can argue the merits of it, but Babcock has a clear "top 4/bottom 2" vision whereupon he has a specific type of blueliner (read: low-event penalty killer) he wants in his third pair. Corrado didn't fit that mold, and he just isn't good enough to be a top 4 defenseman, even on this team. Once Toronto got Andrey Marchenko, who is more of a Babcockian mold of third pair defenseman, it became abundantly clear there was no room for Corrado. It is also fairly odd that, after months of people angrily demanding the Leafs trade Corrado if they had no plan on using him, many of those same people are angry for the team doing just that.
Similarly to what the Leafs did with Peter Holland, they got a pick for a player they didn't intend to use. In Holland's case, it was a conditional 6th; here, it's a 4th. Neither is much of anything, but it's an asset, and a better one that the Leafs received in return for a guy who played 2 NHL games this year.
They also received some marginal players in the deal, which if anything, probably sweetened the draft pick. Oleksy is a replacement for Corrado on the Marlies; nothing more, nothing less. It appears the plan for Fehr, at least initially, is to be used as press box depth. At 6 goals, 11 points, and a 42.2% CF, Fehr appears to be a slight upgrade offensively and a lateral move-to-slight upgrade possession-wise from Ben Smith. What this tells me, if anything, is that the Leafs view Smith as an "in case of emergency: break glass" option down the stretch.
Finally, we come to the biggest point of contention in Eric Fehr's cap hit. There is a fair (Fehr?) amount of hand-wringing surrounding his $2MM in 2017-18, though my instinct is to wait and see what happens. The Leafs have $18.225MM coming off the cap as of July 1, including the CEO/Founder of Robidas Island and a trio of contracts buried in the AHL. They need to give raises to Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, and Nikita Zaitsev, sign a backup goaltender, and should be active in acquiring a top four defenseman and some depth forwards. Even before Vegas poaching a player and the $11.55MM of Robidas Island money that they could (and quite possibly will) stash on LTIR next October, there's still a lot of money left in the banana stand.
The short answer to what I think is that I don't know. There are still too many unknowns and variables at this point (least of all, what the plan for Fehr is beyond the next two months) to properly evaluate. I'm perfectly content with admitting that I don't know what the Leafs plan to do or understand it. That doesn't make it a bad deal to me; it simply means that I lack the ability to judge it based on the limited information at my disposal. It is not, as some may suggest, an appeal to authority for me to say there may be information or strategy to which we as fans are not privy that could clarify the rationale of this deal, or that we may know more in time.
In summary: the Leafs got something for a player they don't use. It was more of something than the last trade they made for a player they don't use. They also got an AHL player and a guy who will make a wee bit too much money while sitting in the press box. In 29 markets, this is nothing of consequence, and yet I've gone and written 700 words about it because people are angry.
Leafs Deadline Overall
In a word: meh. The Leafs made a decent depth buy for low cost, and the hockey equivalent of a flea market swap. That sounds boring, but boring should have been the goal.
A note on selling: I know once the Martin Hanzal trade went down, some got cartoonish $ signs in their eyes and clamored for the Leafs to be sellers, but it was never going to happen, nor should it happen. I laid out the case in my January post, and my opinion is largely the same. Trading away players for prospects and/or draft picks that you hope could be as good as them 5 years from now makes sense for second-last Arizona, but not the Leafs. While some may diminish a playoff berth this year, is there any harm to arriving there a year ahead of schedule?
Further, for all the complaints about how the treatment of marginal veterans may affect the perception of the Leafs within the NHL, where is the concern about what message it would send to players to abandon a playoff race you're in the thick of with 20 games left? There could be a good time to deal the van Riemsdyks and Bozaks and Komarovs of the roster, but it's best to do that for the best package and from a position of strength, when you have the resources to replace them, rather than because you liked that return another team got for another player.
The Leafs did next to nothing at the deadline, but there isn't anything wrong with that when you consider that's what they were supposed to do.