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So you want to trade Nylander for a defenseman...

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People who want to trade Nylander say it will help the Leafs get a top defenseman back. Will it?

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

These days, talk of Nylander being traded for a defenceman comes up a lot on the radio, MSM sporting news outlets, social media, and on TV during one of the many intermission. The reasoning seems to use two reasons as justification.

It’s mentioned a lot, but no one ever really throws out a name for a guy the Leafs should target. People like to mention the Jones for Johansen trade as an example to prove that it can happen, but there are a few things I find wrong with that:

1) The reason that deal is so memorable is precisely because it was such a rarity as a relatively even trade for both sides, and a straight up one for one deal.

2) It happened due to a perfect storm of circumstances: Nashville was already loaded on defense with a young core, and they desperately wanted a top line centre. Columbus didn’t like Johansen’s attitude and wanted more help on defense. Most importantly, both of these things happened at the same time in a situation where neither player made a lot of money (at the time) AND both teams were ready to fit their next big contracts under their cap.

But just because such a perfect storm doesn’t happen often doesn’t mean it’s impossible, so let’s entertain this idea a bit and see if we can find a match. I looked at Capfriendly’s active player list and filtered it to defenceman, then sorted it to show everyone aged 25 and under. I then specifically looked for any defenceman who already has NHL experience or is right on the cusp of it, and who I thought had any sort of hype or potential to turn into a top defender that could help the Leafs.

The idea was that the Leafs would either do a straight up Nylander for [hypothetical defenceman] trade, or at least they formed the main basis of the deal with only smaller pieces around them to help make the trade work.

I included in my list every single defenceman that met this criteria. I did not omit anyone (except Dahlin because... just no). Let’s use this list to see if we can find anything even remotely realistic for the Leafs AND the other team.

But first, let’s talk a bit more about William Nylander himself.

What is William Nylander worth?

Let’s get this out of the way: William Nylander is really good. He was already a bona fide first line winger as a 20 and 21 year old: over the past two years, he’s scored at a top-line rate at both even strength and the power play. He’s had an above average impact on shot share whether you look at simple stats (Corsi Rel) or complicated ones (Corsi RAPM, Isolated Threat). One of the other top line wingers that people love to compare Nylander to, both for quality and for contract, is David Pastrnak.

The difference between Willy and Pastrnak is that Pastrnak has converted a high % of his shots, and Nylander hasn’t — it’s striking how similar they are aside from that.

That matters, of course, but we know shooting percentage can vary, and there’s some evidence that Nylander has been unlucky on that front in the first two years of his career, where he’s undershot his expected goals in both seasons. Last year, Nylander was on the cusp of the top 30 5v5 scorers in the league (by P/60) even with that potentially poor fortune. Going forward, he projects as an average first line scorer, with the upside to go even higher.

Beyond his scoring, Nylander’s microstats profile is astounding.

In particular, notice his individual expected goal rate (bottom bar), expected primary point rate (third bar) and his shot contributions (first bar under ‘Shot Creation’)... he’s not just a good player, he’s one of the most productive offensive players in the league. You have to mind the sample size when it comes to these stats, but it backs up what the eye test tells us.

When you have a player who is already this good and still only 22, with a team that has as much offensive firepower as the Leafs, you aren’t trading him for just any defenceman —you want a legit top pair defender or someone who you think WILL be that good in the future. Any less than that will make the Leafs a worse team than just keeping him. Trading him away at his age with his potential only makes sense if you have evidence to think he’ll never realize that potential. Otherwise, you’re just gambling that what you get back in a trade will be worth as much as who you know Nylander will be in the future.

That’s also why you can’t really be trading him for a defenceman, even a great defenceman, who is already older than 25(ish). They might be very good right now, they might even be on a sweetheart contract. However, that contract will also likely be ending in a few years and they’ll be getting paid a lot of money as a UFA, which will cover their late 20s and early 30s when they’re likely post-prime. It’s hard to see how over the lifetime of the deal a 25 year old blueliner is worth a top line 22 year old winger straight up. Most of the very best young D are not worth Nylander.

So let’s look at potential defencemen who MIGHT be worth it.

Miro Heiskanen

Age: 19

Shoots: Left

Contract: ELC until after 2020/21

Why the Leafs would want him: one of the top defensive prospects in the game, already breaking into the NHL at age 19, on an ELC for the next three seasons makes him affordable for a long time.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: He’s a left shot, but that’s about it.

Why Dallas would trade him: They need offensive depth pretty badly to pose any threat beyond their top line, but that’s about it.

Why Dallas wouldn’t trade him: Dallas reportedly refused to trade him to get Erik Karlsson. They’re even more thin on defense than at forward and aren’t likely to want to trade their top defensive prospect for another forward. Plus, with around only $1.4 million in cap space left, they’re not really able to trade a cheap ELC for whatever Nylander’s contract winds up being.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Heiskanen happen? If Erik Karlsson couldn’t do it, how would Nylander?

Mikhail Sergachev

Age: 20

Shoots: Left

Contract: ELC until after 2019/20

Why the Leafs would want him: scored 40 points as a 19 year old, one of the best young defenceman in the game. Had 54% CF last season including +5.52% compared to the rest of Tampa, so it’s not just him being on a good team. He played mostly with Anton Stralman and had 53% CF with him, but improved to 55.5% CF without him while Stralman dropped to 50.5% CF. He’s on an ELC until after the end of the next season, so he’ll be affordable for a good long while while already looking playing at a high level.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: He’s a left shot, but that’s about it.

Why Tampa would trade him: They wouldn’t.

Why Tampa wouldn’t trade him: They don’t have a lot of cap space to make room for Nylander unless they send the Leafs back one of their bad contracts.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Sergachev happen? No. Tampa proved they’re willing to trade within the division, and I don’t think Dubas would shy away from it either. But the situation doesn’t make sense for either team.

Charlie McAvoy

Age: 20

Shoots: Right

Contract: ELC until after 2018/19

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s a top young defender in the NHL that shoots right, has a reputation of being defensively sound and already has a season as a top pairing defender on his belt. Also pitched in with 32 points. Even being on a great possession team, he had a positive relative CF%. Had a better CF% away from Chara, where Chara’s CF% plummeted away from McAvoy and kept respectable but slightly worse possession away from Bergeron.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: The Boston taint.

Why Boston would trade him: They wouldn’t.

Why Boston wouldn’t trade him: They’re in a Cup window and he’s arguably their best defenceman. They’re not hurting for forwards either.

Could a trade based around Nylander for McAvoy happen? No. This trade would probably help Toronto a lot more than it would Boston.

Thomas Chabot

Age: 20

Shoots: Left

Contract: ELC until after 2019/20

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s young and affordable and seems like a potential star.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: He’s not a right shot.

Why Ottawa would trade him: To get a potential top-level center or at least a top-line winger that can put up points and drive possession.

Why Ottawa wouldn’t trade him: Nylander will be making more money than Chabot’s ELC.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Chabot happen? Only if San Jose trades for Chabot first.

Zach Werenski

Age: 21

Shoots: Left

Contract: ELC until after 2018/19

Why the Leafs would want him: Because they want their defense to be the platonic ideal of an ADHD cheetah that ingested its own body weight in cocaine. Also he’s pretty good, I guess.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: He’s not a right shot. He’s going to be negotiating a new, and probably expensive, contract at the same time as Marner and Matthews. All it does is delay having to pay a top-tier young player by one year.

Why Columbus would trade him: They really suck this year for some reason, Panarin and Bobrovsky both get traded at the deadline to help do a quick rebuild/retool around everyone else, and they also want someone to replace Panarin, I guess?

Why Columbus wouldn’t trade him: He’s a young star, a top line defenceman already, and forms arguably the best defensive pair with Seth Jones while still being on an ELC and cost controlled for many years yet.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Werenski happen? The situation doesn’t make a lot of sense for either team, barring a catastrophic season for Columbus and even then…

Noah Hanifin

Age: 21

Shoots: Left

Contract: $4.95M AAV until after 2023/24

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s a solid defenceman already, he’s proven in the NHL and has improved both his point totals and possession numbers every year of his career. Last year he had 55%+ possession and a positive relative CF% even on a good possession team with a strong defense.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: He’s not a right shot, and while he’s shown to be a good defenceman with progress towards his promise as a top 5 pick, he might not ever turn into the legit top pairing, all star defenceman the Leafs would want if they have to trade Nylander. Honestly those might be the only reasons.

Why Calgary would trade him: They are one of those teams that have an embarrassment of riches on defense. They have established veterans in Giordano, Brodie, and Hamonic. They have a number of highly thought of defensive prospects who are either already on the team or on the cup in Andersson, Kylington and Valimaki. Let’s say Calgary once again struggles to make the playoffs but get good NHL seasons from some of those rookies. They could add Nylander to a forward core of Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk, Backlund, Lindholm, and Neal while going for a younger, faster defense next year.

Why Calgary wouldn’t trade him: He’s a young star, potentially a top line defenceman already, and they JUST traded for him and signed him to a long term deal. They’re trying to compete and probably want a defenceman who is already proven in the NHL than their three young lottery tickets who haven’t shown anything yet.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Hanifin happen? Out of all the guys I’ve mentioned already this one seems the most likely as far as why the Flames might be willing to give up a good defenceman. The problem is that Hanifin by himself isn’t really good enough for Nylander.

Ivan Provorov

Age: 21

Shoots: Left, also me if Annie reads this

Contract: ELC until after 2018/19

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s young, he’s already established himself as a top pairing defender, and he’s still on his ELC. He scored 40+ points with 15+ goals, he’s an absolute horse and while he can put up points he seems to offer a lot of promise as a defensive stalwart.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: Because Annie will nuke Ontario from orbit and they know it.

Why Philadelphia would trade him: They wouldn’t. He’s a 21 year old, top pairing defenceman and they want to win now.

Why Philadelphia wouldn’t trade him: He’s a 21 year old, top pairing defenceman and they want to win now.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Provorov happen? While I’m sure the Leafs would be open to it, I don’t think the Flyers would be. They’re not really hurting for forwards or offense, they need NHL defense.

Aaron Ekblad

Age: 22

Shoots: Right

Contract: $7.5M AAV until after 2024/25

Why the Leafs would want him: He shoots right. Had decent points and possession and relative possession in his career.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: He’s already too expensive, he has had several concussions in his career already and perhaps related to that his underlying numbers have been slipping. Hard pass.

Shea Theodore

Age: 23

Shoots: Left

Contract: $5.2M AAV until after 2024/25

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s young and seems like an emerging star defenceman who can put up points and drive possession. He’s on a good looking contract for a while now.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: Not a right shot, not good enough for the Leafs to give up Nylander for him.

Darnell Nurse

Age: 23

Shoots: Left

Contract: $3.2M AAV until after 2019/20

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s young, he’s big, he can sprinkle in some offense (26 points with only 40 minutes on the PP last year), has decent possession numbers at even strength and very good relative possession, because Oilers.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: Not a right shot, not likely to be the top pairing defenceman the Leafs would want for Nylander.

Why Edmonton would trade him: Because Nylander would be their best player to be on McDavid’s wing.

Why Edmonton wouldn’t trade him: They have ZERO cap space (HOW?!?!?!) and Nylander will likely make at least double the cap hit as Nurse.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Nurse happen? Only if it’s for Kia Nurse.

Brett Pesce

Age: 23

Shoots: Right

Contract: $4.025M AAV until after 2023/24

Why the Leafs would want him: He shoots right, he’s still young, he’s big, he’s on a nice looking contract long term, and has great possession numbers.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: Not as much offense as you might like, not the real top-line defenceman the Leafs should want.

Why Carolina would trade him: They’re dealing from a position of strength (defense) to get more dynamic skill at forward, which they could use. Imagine playing Nylander on Aho’s wing!

Why Carolina wouldn’t trade him: They want to keep that strength a strength.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Pesce happen? This one’s like Hanifin, it’s one of the few that I could MAYBE see happening but still not likely.

Jaccob Slavin

Age: 24

Shoots: Left

Contract: $5.3M AAV until after 2024/25

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s a legit top line defender with good offense and possession numbers.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: He shoots left.

Why Carolina would trade him: They’re dealing from a position of strength (defense) to get more dynamic skill at forward, which they could use. Imagine playing Nylander on Aho’s wing!

Why Carolina wouldn’t trade him: They want to keep that strength as an actual strength.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Slavin happen? Maybe. The Hurricanes do have other decent prospects to use. This is maybe the most realistic option, since it does kind of fit both teams’ needs. However, Carolina has a bunch of young exciting prospects who might take away their urgency to add scoring talent.

Seth Jones

Age: 24

Shoots: Right

Contract: $5.4M AAV until after 2021/22

Lol can you imagine? But no this isn’t happening.

Jacob Trouba

Age: 24

Shoots: Right

Contract: $5.5M AAV until after 2018/19

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s been a pretty hyped young defenceman for a while now, has a mix of offense and defensive acumen. He’s had decent possession and better xGF%, and is already playing on the Jets’ most used defensive pair at 5 on 5.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: The main reason is probably financial. He’ll need a new contract after this season where he was already making $5.5M AAV on a bridge deal, and he’ll have a lot more leverage to get a bigger, longer contract. Maybe he’s more willing to sign for cheaper with Toronto, but I don’t see any blue and white pajamas in his childhood photos.

Why Winnipeg would trade him: They’re resigned to the fact that Trouba wants out and want to get something for him before that happens and while he still has value and they have some leverage.

Why Winnipeg wouldn’t trade him: They want to win a Cup. He’s one of their best defenceman if not their de facto best defenceman. Not gonna happen.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Trouba happen? No. I doubt Winnipeg would do it, and the Leafs would have a lot of trouble affording him very soon.

Matt Dumba

Age: 24

Shoots: Right

Contract: $6M AAV until after 2022/23

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s an offensive star defenceman that shoots right. He put up 50 points last year, and as a Saskatchewan kid the Leafs would finally have someone to translate for Babcock.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: His possession is nothing to write home about, though some of that might be due to the team he plays for. But his relative numbers are below even, including a big hit to his relative xGF%. Would help their offense, maybe not their defense if that’s what the Leafs want. Maybe they also think $6M AAV for a cap hit is too much for him, or for fitting him under their cap.

Why Minnesota would trade him: Honestly the only reason I can think of is that they just replaced a GM, they have a team that’s never made it out of the first round in forever, and maybe they take a big step back with an aging (but by no means super old) core. Maybe they want to get more dynamic on offense and think they’ll survive on defense led by Suter and Spurgeon? I’m reaching here.

Why Minnesota wouldn’t trade him: They’re still trying to compete and they’re not all that deep on defense if they trade him.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Dumba happen? Doubtful. He might not be the kind of defenceman the Leafs would want, he might be a bit too expensive, and Minnesota might not want to create a hole on their defense.

Hampus Lindholm

Age: 24

Shoots: Left

Contract: $5.205M AAV until after 2021/22

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s really fucking good.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Why Anaheim would trade him: They’re on drugs

Why Anaheim wouldn’t trade him: They’re NOT on drugs.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Lindholm happen? Lolno.

Colton Parayko

Age: 25

Shoots: Right

Contract: $5.5M AAV until after 2021/22

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s really fucking good and he’s a right shot.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Why St Louis would trade him: Honestly, I have no idea. The Blues don’t have the same defensive quality or depth like they used to. Shattenkirk is gone, Bouwmeester is 35 and isn’t what he used to be. It’s pretty much Pietrangelo and Parayko and the band of merry men. Plus, Parayko is on a sweetheart deal for how good he is.

Why St Louis wouldn’t trade him: Uh, I guess what I just said.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Parayko happen? Lolno.

Dougie Hamilton

Age: 25

Shoots: Right

Contract: $5.75M AAV until after 2020/21

Why the Leafs would want him: He’s really fucking good and he’s a right shot.

Why the Leafs wouldn’t want him: He has two seasons left on his affordable contract and he will then become very unaffordable, but that’s literally it.

Why Carolina would trade him: Refer to the Slavin section. They have one of the best NHL bluelines, and have a few good looking prospects and maybe want to make their offense more dynamic around the likes of Aho and Svechnikov.

Why Carolina wouldn’t trade him: They literally just traded for him and none of their prospects will be as good as Hamilton is.

Could a trade based around Nylander for Hamilton happen? In my dreams, maybe.

Conclusions

There really are not many good young defenceman in the NHL, and there are maybe a couple that are on a team in a situation where it may make even a remote amount of sense for the Leafs AND the other team to want to make that trade. That’s probably why the Jones for Johansen deal still seems so remarkable.

1) The other defenceman is or would be too expensive for the Leafs to fit under their cap, or at least as difficult to manage it as Nylander will be. If that’s the case, why trade Nylander for that at all? Just keep him to have an otherworldly offense and let your crop of young defensive prospects (Dermott, Liljegren, Sandin, Durzi) hopefully create affordable but effective defense in a year or two.

2) The other defenceman wouldn’t be good enough to make it worth giving up Nylander, or else the other team would need to add some extras to make it worth the Leafs’ while (other players, prospects, picks). But adding more like that would make an already difficult to make deal MORE complicated, and therefore less likely to happen. We also know that it’s not a good idea to trade quality for quantity... just ask the Ottawa Senators and Erik Karlsson.

3) The situations of the other team. If it’s a contending team, why the hell would they be trading a top young defensive prospect who is ready to make an NHL impact or already is? And who is on a great contract that makes managing their salary cap easier? They’d have to be in a situation like Nashville was in the Jones trade, where they already have a lot of good defenceman and can afford to trade one to help get more offense. There are a small handful of teams that are in that kind of situation now. MAYBE you can find a situation where a team has a 24-25ish year old defenceman on a really old team and they want to rebuild (looking at you, Anaheim). But then... if they’re rebuilding why are they taking a forward only a few years younger or even the same age, who is about to be very expensive too?

To me, the problem is that in this scenario — where you think the Leafs should or HAVE to trade Nylander because the Leafs can’t afford him under the cap — you aren’t just trading him to make the team better, you’re trading him for financial reasons. The history of trades made for financial reasons is not a pretty one for the team that is ‘forced’ in those trade situations, and that’s for a good reason — you never get good value back because any player you can take back that’s as good as Nylander likely makes, or will soon make, as much or more than he will.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Either you’re trading Nylander to get the best possible return, which is how you get Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. Or you’re trading Nylander to save money by not getting as good a player in return, which is how you get Hall for Larsson. Or Eberle for Strome. Or... you know what just look at Peter Chiarelli’s recent trade history.

It’s better to slash and burn the rest of the roster around the Leafs’ stars to make that work than to trade Nylander. Trade Zaitsev, trade (or just don’t re-sign) Gardiner, find a way to get out of Marleau’s contract, trade Brown, and so on.

Would you REALLY do any of those deals?

Look at the best of the best of those defensemen: Heiskanen, Werenski, Provorov, Trouba, Lindholm, Parayko, Slavin and Hamilton. Look at the money they make, or will make very soon. Look at their handedness, look at the impact they’d have on the Leafs compared to what Nylander would be projected to make while remembering how good he already is and how much better he can become.

In today’s cap era, players who have team control have much more value than players who are closer to being a UFA — and therefore more expensive. That’s why even Parayko or Hamilton making less than $6 million AAV are still not as valuable as Nylander is likely to be over the lifetime of his career leading into his UFA status. That’s why teams are always desperate to either sign young talent to 7 or 8 years and buy out some of their UFA years, or sign a bridge deal where they still have 2-3 RFA years left to keep their next contract cost down.

That might make you think that it’s better to get someone who is as young or younger than Nylander, even a prospect not even in the NHL yet, but that has its own problems: first, there’s a lot more risk that they do not reach their ceiling. What if you traded for Hanifin after his rookie year, thinking that a former top 5 pick would turn into a Norris-calibre defenseman like Jones did? You’d be a bit disappointed to get a guy that right now just looks like a good second pairing guy wouldn’t you?

Second, the Leafs would like to compete for a Cup sooner rather than later to take advantage of the bigger window, with Matthews and Marner getting close to their prime, and Tavares currently in his.

Third, what team who has a stud prospect (like Dahlin or Hughes) that they just picked high in the draft, meaning they’re bad and likely rebuilding, would want to trade a top prospect for a guy who is older, even as good as Nylander is?

In the end, this is why you seldom see star players or prospects traded. The cap makes it very difficult, even more difficult than trying to fit Nylander’s salary into the Leafs’ salary cap work.

For the record, I would be open (albeit a bit reluctantly) to trade Nylander for Parayko or Hamilton. I also think that neither of them are at all likely to be traded any time soon.