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Toronto Maple Leafs Trade Target: Sami Vatanen

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Is the mobile Ducks defender the missing piece for Toronto?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

According to TSN’s Pierre Lebrun, the Toronto Maple Leafs are interested in an Anaheim Ducks defenceman. That part is no surprise; Toronto has a hole at right defence, and the Ducks have one of the two deepest defence groups in the NHL.

Here’s the surprising part: the defenceman is Sami Vatanen. And if you scratch the surface, you might start to wonder if that’s such a good idea.

Who is Sami Vatanen?

Sami Vatanen is a somewhat undersized (5’10”), highly mobile, right-shooting, previously point-producing defender. He’s Finnish and he just turned 26. He can run a power-play. He is a Puck-Moving Defenceman (tm). Vatanen is so stylistically modern you’d think analytics types would swoon at the mention of his name, but, well...we’ll get to that. Oh, and he’s injured right now. We’ll come back to that too.

The Anaheim Ducks drafted Vatanen 106th overall in 2009. He had an impressive couple of years in Finland, came over to zoom through the AHL in 2012-13, and became a full-time Ducks defender in 2014. For his first couple of seasons, his most frequent partner was Clayton Stoner, and the two put up decent if unspectacular possession numbers (just above 50%.) Under the regime of new-old Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, Vatanen was paired most often with Cam Fowler, and it is to this pairing we will now turn our attention.

Vatanen and Fowler seem to have been a decent offensive pairing (behind the Ducks’ first line, mind you), but Vatanen wound up underwater in adjusted shot attempts (49.3% Corsi.) Vatanen’s relative shots against numbers were awful this season, ranking 157th of 197 eligible NHL defenders, (and much worse than Fowler’s; 115th). In Vatanen’s defence, some of that is likely because he’s on a team with maybe the best shot-suppressing pairing in the NHL in Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson. Some of it is also due to time spent playing with the increasingly unplayable Kevin Bieksa. Here, look at the heat map for Anaheim’s shots against when Vatanen is on:

Yeesh. You’ll notice the Ducks were getting killed on the left side and not so much on the right, which is at least a little encouraging (again, this is probably not Fowler’s fault, whose chart does not look this dire.) Vatanen played against tough competition, so there’s none of the usual tiresome “but was he sheltered?” debate. Still, it’s hard to come away from this feeling positive about Vatanen’s defensive abilities.

Offensively, Vatanen’s raw point totals took a dip this year (down from 38 points in 2015-16 to 24), but he was the victim of a pretty ghastly on-ice shooting percentage and an even more abysmal personal shooting percentage (he shot 2.6%, compared to 7% for his career.) Vatanen is a pretty good shooter, normally...or at least, he is, as long as his current shoulder injury hasn’t harmed him too much. But, uh, having said that:

His rate of generating shots has taken a dip, as Corey points out; he’s down about two attempts an hour at 5v5 since 2014-15. So...hopefully that’s temporary.

You may worry about Vatanen’s numbers, but it’s possible to feel good about Vatanen’s skills, as the scouts would describe them. He can push play. He can obviously skate and operate at a high pace. He has a surprisingly good shot. Here, let’s watch him in action and listen to The Offspring.

Neat, eh? But skills that don’t translate into results aren’t worth much, and Vatanen’s results have been trending the wrong way.

One other trait Vatanen has: he’s a little more physical than his size might suggest. That might be somewhat to his detriment. Vatanen has missed 11, 11, and 15 games over the past three seasons, and he’s poised to miss even more time next season. Vatanen just underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, and he’s expected to be out longer than five months, which means he won’t be playing on opening night next year. If the Leafs are pursuing Vatanen, they’ll have to be confident in a full recovery.

What makes this trade plausible?

Samvat (nickname is in a trial period right now; possibly to be revised) is signed for three more seasons at $4.875M per. The Ducks have nine defencemen under contract next season, and several of them are quite good; that list of nine also includes Kevin Bieksa, whose no-movement clause is going to cause them expansion draft headaches if he doesn’t waive it.

Further to that, the Ducks are near the salary cap, and some of their prized defenders will need raises in 2018 (including Cam Fowler, whom they apparently adore, and Josh Manson, whom I adore.) Trading Vatanen could help them address the expansion draft and their salary crunch, though it wouldn’t totally solve either problem. With one of the best pairings in the league in Lindholm-Manson and a power-play star in Cam Fowler, the Ducks may well decide Vatanen is the natural guy to get rid of.

So why would the Leafs do it? Well, because they called about Josh Manson and the Ducks said no.

I’m kidding (sort of.) When I analyzed Chris Tanev earlier this week, I put his HERO chart up against Morgan Rielly’s and talked about their apparently complementary effect. Let’s do that again, with Vatanen.

If the Leafs decide to trade for Vatanen, they are doubling down on a strength. This may not be as crazy as it first appears. The Leafs, so this argument would go, are always going to be a high-pace, run-and-gun, outscore-your-problems kind of team. If you’re heading that kind of outfit, you don’t necessarily want a net-clearing basher. You want a guy who can run with the wolfpack. This wolf can do that, and this wolf even shoots right (this analogy is getting away from me.) We’ve been looking at elite shot suppressors as Leaf trade candidates, but maybe we’ve been going at it all wrong.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are currently in the Stanley Cup Finals with a defence group that’s held together with spit and duct tape. But even when healthy, their only genuinely standout defender is Kris Letang, who has a distinctly offensive skew. While Letang is better at pretty much everything than Vatanen, the Pens have at least one ring and back-to-back finals based on an offence-first team. And their big trade before last year was for Phil Kessel—when most commentators would have said they had more than enough scoring forwards, the Penguins...doubled down on a strength.

So there’s the case for trading for a quality mobile RHD like Vatanen. The 2017-18 Leafs can be the 2016-17 Leafs, only more so. Generate all of the shots.

What would Vatanen cost?

Here is where I would note something. Pierre Lebrun is a well-established hockey reporter, and if he says the Leafs have an interest in Vatanen, I am sure a real person told him that. But given Lou Lamoriello’s Cone of Organizational Silence, I don’t think that person worked for Toronto. When gauging how much the Leafs would pay, we might keep that in mind. It’s obviously to Anaheim’s interest to make Vatanen sound like the guy everyone wants to trade huge assets for.

So: perennial goal-scoring LW James van Riemsdyk is such a natural trade piece that he’s been reputedly going to Anaheim at least once on EP Rumours, and many more times in the dreams of hockey fans. If Toronto retains salary, and they easily could, they could offer Anaheim a year of JVR’s services at $2.125M. JVR goes back to play for his old coach, the Ducks try to make a Cup run next year with some scoring punch, everyone is very happy. Anaheim would then have the decision of whether to extend JVR or let him walk, but that’s a problem for Future Bob Murray. A full year of a roughly 30-goal scorer is no mean thing even if there’s no extension.

Would a single year JVR be enough by himself? I don’t know, but...well, I might as well just come right out and say it at this point. I have serious concerns about trading for Sami Vatanen right now. He did not have a great season, and he’s recovering from major surgery. His contract doesn’t involve huge term risk and it’s not unbearably expensive, but he’s not underpaid. The Leafs would have a better top four with Vatanen in it than they do now, but not by enough that they should be paying a ransom for the privilege. There may be an additional minor asset in the deal with JVR, if that’s what it comes to, but the Leafs should not give up anything else substantial. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to even give up JVR, but if the Leafs are seriously pursuing Vatanen, he’s probably involved.

It’s possible the market for RHD is so heated that Vatanen’s price is skyrocketing. He does have a lot to like about him. But if so, the Leafs should remember the Winner’s Curse, and they should stay away.

Poll

What’s the most you think the Leafs should give up for Sami Vatanen?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    James van Riemsdyk plus additional assets
    (266 votes)
  • 22%
    James van Riemsdyk alone
    (501 votes)
  • 27%
    A pick and a prospect
    (618 votes)
  • 37%
    No deal
    (837 votes)
2222 votes total Vote Now