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The Leafs need to move out at least one player: who is it to be?

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It seems obvious, but there’s a lot of options to consider.

2017 Rogers NHL Centennial Classic Alumni Game - Detroit v Toronto Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Maple Leafs have too many players. Everyone knows this, even the generally reticent Mike Babcock came right out and said so. He may have been looking to motivate players to come into training camp gunning hard to keep their roster spots in some of the names he chose on his list:

Babcock brought up Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov.

“They’re real good players,” the coach said. “And two of them or . . . any way you look at it, we can’t all be on the team as we move ahead. It doesn’t work like that. We have to figure out a way when you have opportunities to do what you can.”

But three of the names he did choose are pending UFAs, at or roaring up on 30 years old. They are the obvious place to start with trade speculation.

It’s not like a team always gets to choose who to trade. You can put a player on the market, but if no one will pay your price, you either take less or stand pat. If you’re looking to acquire a certain player or type of player in return, it all becomes harder.

Back in the day (two years ago) when the Leafs were rebuilding, they’d take any decent asset of any type if they wanted to trade someone. They ended up with a cornucopia of draft picks, guys like Tobias Lindberg and Kasperi Kapanen and some salary dumps that are very nearly gone from the team.

Now the Leafs are buying with more discernment, and you don’t always get to choose who you sell to get exactly what you want. If they want a really high-end, young defender, they’d need to move out a player of a calibre they don’t want to trade. What they could get for the players they do want to trade is an open question, and adding some lesser prospects and picks to the deal is always an option.

But until they actually make a deal (or deals, that “two of them” line is interesting) what are the pros and cons of each choice?

James van Riemsdyk

Cap Hit: $4,250,000
Age: 28
Term: pending UFA

Give Leafs fans credit, they haven’t worked themselves up to hating the man just because it’s likely he will be traded at some point between now and the trade deadline. Now seems a lot more likely given the bloated roster and the SPC count (48 with Brown unsigned).

The size of the hole van Riemsdyk will leave is substantial, however. In the last two years his Primary Points per 60 minutes at five-on-five is 1.67 (the same as Taylor Hall), and good for 28th in the NHL amongst players who had at least 60 games in those two years. That doesn’t even consider his power play contributions.

And no, he’s not very good defensively. But a well constructed team doesn’t have to care about that. You can take Steven Stamkos, Matt Duchene or Phil Kessel, and slot them into a well-made lineup and mitigate their defensive shortcomings. For a winger, if you spend all your time moaning on about how he looked so bad in the d-zone in between goal celebrations, you have your priorities backwards or your lineups put together wrong.

Van Riemsdyk’s points production is elite top line stuff, and that is not going to be replaced by Josh Leivo. It’s not going to come from Patrick Marleau either. But Marleau would at least help a little.

The other side of the coin of elite level production is two things that work at cross purposes for trade value. His return should be excellent, because he’s a great player, but his UFA contract next summer is going to be gigantic. If you think Marleau, ten years older, was expensive, what will a goal hungry team pay van Riemsdyk? That fact will make teams who’d like him now ask if a trade for him is more than a one season rental. If a trade partner has no hope of signing him to term, the take goes way down.

We’ve been saying it since at least last summer, but a trade here seems inevitable. The timing will depend on what teams are willing to pay. Perhaps when Nashville finally gives up on Colorado ever moving Duchene? But don’t make Joe Sakic’s mistake and think you’re getting Mattias Ekholm in return. For that, the Leafs would need to trade them William Nylander, and that’s not going to happen.

Chance he’s moved: Very Likely
Likely return: Less than most imagine unless he’s part of a package deal
Cap Space freed up: Enough to sign Connor Brown now, and to help fit in at least one, maybe two good players during the season, or whoever comes back in the deal.

Leo Komarov

Cap Hit: $2,950,000
Age: 30
Term: pending UFA

Ah, Leo. He’s so much fun, isn’t he?

But his primary contribution to the team is defensive play. He’s very good at it, but you have to dig deep into his stats to find the evidence. He does not show up as a great Corsi Against player. Part of that is usage, but part of it is him. He plays very well in the defensive zone, but he spends a lot of time there. Granted, he’s doing that against very tough competition, legitimately overbalanced to other team’s top lines.

However, Zach Hyman is better. He drives play offensively much, much better; he has a higher personal shot rate (the only forward who shoots at a lower rate than Komarov the last two years is Ben Smith), and his CA60 is nearly identical. Over the last two years, Hyman’s PrP/60 is better too even with his shooting percentage you need a microscope to see.

With Hyman under contract for four years, there is no reason to keep Komarov on the team. He got away with a top nine role last year because of clever usage, but he is really an elite level fourth liner, not a top nine player at all. It is hard to find a statistical category in which he outdoes Matt Martin, other than points gained on his linemates’ goals.

The hole he would leave is already filled. With Marleau and Hyman locked up to mid-term deals, there is ample left-wing depth to let Komarov go without him being missed (statistically, not as a person).

The trouble is his cap hit might seem too high to other teams for what he delivers, and he might wait until the deadline to be moved. Usually teams that want elite-level depth players are contenders and they don’t have cap space for them.

Chance he’s moved: Likely
Likely return: A pick of some kind, perhaps a player of value only as part of a larger deal
Cap Space freed up: Just enough to sign Connor Brown now.

Tyler Bozak

Cap Hit: $4.200,000
Age: 31
Term: pending UFA

Sometimes I look at Tyler Bozak, and I think he will play out his whole career on the Leafs. Other times, I think he’ll be traded tomorrow.

Bozak is a modestly overpaid, decent middle-six centre who is really not so hot at defensive play. He’s great on the power play, a good man, a good pro, and he plays as a distributor centre with a level of skill a lot of fans simply cannot see. He needs to be played with wingers of a certain sort, and when those wingers are also bad defensively, it all starts to unravel.

All of that makes him hard to move.

Do the Leafs want to move him? I still fail to see a long list of centre depth, although Marleau’s ability to step in a play centre in an emergency certainly helps. But until there is a legitimate replacement, I think Bozak should stay on the team, weaknesses notwithstanding.

But the Leafs don’t actually have a middle six. That’s part of the trouble. If they continue to want to run a top nine/bottom three configuration, then having the Bozak line carefully used in order to mitigate their group weakness on defence is necessary, which makes Kadri’s use as a “shut down” centre who is also expected to score like a top C necessary.

But what happens if Bozak stays and his wingers change? Tune into training camp and find out, because I don’t think the Leafs are moving him right now unless they get Jonathan Marchessault back in the deal.

Chance he’s moved: Possible
Likely return: A younger version of himself at best.
Cap Space freed up: Enough to sign Connor Brown now, and to help fit in at least one, maybe two good players during the season, one of which would need to be a centre erasing most of the gain.

Nazem Kadri

Cap Hit: $4,550,000
Age: 26
Term: 5 more years

Let’s consider this non-UFA on Babcock’s little list. While I think it’s likely that he’s on that list for motivation purposes the idea that he would never be traded is absurd. He’s not one of the big three. He’s not even on par with Morgan Rielly as part of the core of the team. He’s one notch below that.

Trading a player like Kadri who is at peak playing age, signed to term, and on a good deal, should get you a very high return. That’s why you’d do it. If the Leafs had even one extra centre, this might be the most speculated deal of the summer.

It’s a little too soon, regardless of their centre depth, to be talking about this. Two years too soon by my calculation. But in two years, when he’s 28 with three years left, he should be very, very valuable to the right kind of trading partner. He’d be very valuable to keep too. That’s the beauty of a player like him.

But someday, the deal might come along that is too good to pass up, that fills the Leafs biggest need — whatever it is on that day — and that might be when Kadri goes.

Chance he’s moved: Lou is always listening.
Likely return: He’d get some kind of defenceman in a “hockey trade”, but not a younger one.
Cap Space freed up: Nothing likely, considering who he’d be traded for.

Connor Brown

Cap Hit: unknown
Age: 23
Term: unsigned RFA

Connor Brown is a surplus player. He’s a great guy, a Toronto boy, and he has already far outshone his draft pick number, but he is not a top tier winger.

Brown is unlikely to be paid like one, to be fair. Something around three million seems likely. But the Leafs have Kasperi Kapanen, who is younger, as good or better, and paid less than $900,000. That sounds like a trade off worth making when it’s time to go for it. The alternative is to play Kapanen on the fourth line or to trade him as part of some package deal.

Moving Brown out, Kapanen up, and Nikita Soshnikov back into his fourth line spot where he sure seemed to fit in, means the same sort of players in the same sort of positions for a lot less cap hit. If some economizing is going to happen to pay for the UFAs just signed, then the right wing, not the left, may well be where the depth really is.

On the other hand, signing Brown to term now gives the Leafs a solid, professional, reliable second tier winger for a decent price. It’s not like he must go. It’s not like he’s not replaceable either.

Chance he’s moved: Possible
Likely return: He’d likely only be moved as part of a package deal.
Cap Space freed up: About $3 million.

This sort of article used to be a lot more fun when the speculation was about depth players signed to be deadline trades or fringe tweeners who were disaffected or not adding much on the Marlies. It’s gotten real now. Useful, meaningful, well-known and well-liked players on the team are going to be moved. Top prospects are going to be traded, not someone like Scott Harrington.

The decisions are hard. To get real cap space to get younger, top-quality players where they’re needed, means moving out players of equal or similar value. It would be nice to just be able to shift out Eric Fehr and Alexey Marchenko and free up almost three and a half million in cap space. But who is taking those two at that cap hit?

Trade Komarov or Brown, and you fill the hole easy, but you don’t get back much. Trade van Riemsdyk and you make bigger waves, both good and bad. Trade Kadri, and the roof blows off unless the return is really tasty.

Someone’s going; it is nearly impossible not to have at least one deal before training camp. We’ll all find out together who the Leafs chose to let go and who to keep.