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Did the Leafs fold a bad hand on Travis Hamonic?

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The Leafs came out of the two drafts without any trades made, but is walking away from a bad deal a win in its own right?

NHL: New York Islanders at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

It was rumoured for days, and on draft day two, it was said on air during the draft that the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames were the last two teams in the running for Travis Hamonic of the New York Islanders.

In the end, Calgary got their man, and Hamonic got a team close to where he’s from, which is what he wanted. It’s the right movie ending, but if this were a film, the Leafs would be going away disappointed. Should they be?

[Insert lyrics here from a Kenny Rogers song about knowing when to walk away.]

Hamonic has a reputation as a good defender, but he’s been failing to put up his usual level of results lately. He demanded a trade, which the Islanders couldn’t make work last season, and he said that was fine, he was dealing with it, but perhaps the family reasons that made him want to be out west really were weighing him down.

Instead of comparing him to a man the Leafs already have like Nikita Zaitsev (although just based on last season, that comparison raises some questions about how much of an upgrade he’d be), I chose to use the Hero Chart archetype comparison. This is Hamonic versus a second ranked defender with more than just last year in the picture.

This shows that Hamonic over his recent years is a legitimate top four defender, just not an elite one, and he has one glaring weakness. Which is fine, most non-elite players do have weaknesses. If they don’t, those bars showing their strengths are often lower, and you have a guy who is consistently closer to his average.

Hamonic, however, is weak in exactly the area where the Leafs as a whole are dangerously bad.

Does that mean they shouldn’t want him?

No, not exactly. It means that as a team, you have to find your shot suppression somewhere other than your top pairing defence, though, because Morgan Rielly is only a hair away from being a number one defender because of that same area of weakness.

Jake Gardiner is obviously a top pairing man based on the numbers, and Nikita Zaitsev’s first season is largely second pairing territory. All of them except Gardiner are weak at shot suppression.

But you know what? Most people are. It’s not a skill that sorts into the NHL well because it is independent of scoring ability, and scoring is how you win games. Scoring gets you drafted high; it gets you into the NHL, and it gets you a lineup spot that you don’t lose.

The league as a whole is short on the defensive specialist defender. If you draft one, fans are displeased because the man never seems to score as a junior. Maybe your GM is too, and you never do it again.

Is it terrible to double down on the strengths of the Leafs and go for scoring over shots against? Maybe not. If the price is right.

This was the final price:

Hamonic turns 27 in a few weeks and is under contract with an AAV of $3,857,143 for three seasons. Which is not a bad time to be hoping you’ve replaced him from within. So that’s one point in his favour.

That’s a lot of picks, though, and all of them are decently high ones.

It’s not known what the Leafs were offering, and we’ll never know, but the rumour is it involved players. Players are what the Leafs have in excess — prospects, young guys ready to make the jump to the NHL, young NHL seasoned players. It doesn’t seem like any of that is of interest to the Islanders. They wanted picks. They found someone to give them picks.

The Leafs could have done this deal. Their picks would have been depleted for next year to nothing much worth talking about, and that makes it seem like the deal was for a team that thinks it just needed one piece to slot into the puzzle and away they go.

Do you think that’s true of the Leafs? Many people do. But you don’t hear talk like that from Lou Lamoriello.

That’s Lamoriello and Mark Hunter after the draft, and Lamoriello touches on the Hamonic deal obliquely.

At the 4:55 mark, the questions turn to the “five-year plan that always changes” and the question is how do you weigh the price versus the need of the team. Lamoriello says:

Every transaction you make is for today with tomorrow in sight. ... We’re in a process; we’re not going to try to jumpstart anything; we’re going to allow it to take its course. But if along the way, we can get better, without hurting the future, we’re going to do that.

Same old line, same exact words in places. It’s a public organizational position, and it’s echoed by Mike Babcock with the same amount of fervour and occasionally the exact words.

Why doubt they mean it?

Lamoriello then moved off into discussing that they drafted more defenders than forwards this year because they thought well of who was available, but also because they believe that drafting and developing defence is the way to get the modern style of defender at a price you can afford.

That mostly refers to Timothy Liljegren, of course. Although Eemeli Räsänen is also a puck mover and a shooter, as well as a physical player with dramatic reach.

So they might not have run away, but they folded the cards and let the Flames have Hamonic.

I said this in “Waiting for the great leap forward”:

A hockey team has a big turning radius. Eventually, the Leafs took a long, slow sweeping turn in a new direction, and just barely avoided having Bolland on board.

Now that they are turned, what’s the cruising speed? Perhaps the Leafs can move at the pace of a brisk walk on a November day in Toronto, but not just leap over all the intervening steps to greatness. Maybe the revolution has already happened inside each player, and it’s what made all those career years show up all at once.

A leap of any kind might be exactly the wrong tactic.

It takes a very strong will to sit and wait, do nothing, and watch everyone else fall into a frenzy of overpayment for defencemen and panic buying and selling with Las Vegas. Maybe the revolution happens for the Leafs by some well-timed sitting still and finding the change within.

It’s impossible to look at things that haven’t happened and guess at the reasons for them. More foolish than claiming you know why exactly someone did the things they actually did. That sort of certainty is for the wrap-up scene of bad cop shows. But was this a deal to walk away from or a lost opportunity?

Poll

Was this the time to go big, or was going home the right move?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    They need an elite defender, they should have spent for him.
    (130 votes)
  • 66%
    No way, that price is not worth it.
    (1989 votes)
  • 17%
    Maybe if it had been Josh Manson.
    (529 votes)
  • 11%
    Just. Sign. Shattenkirk.
    (360 votes)
3008 votes total Vote Now