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Miscellaneous Leafs Thoughts: But What Does Washington’s Win Mean For The Leafs?

The Vesey trade, extensions for the Big Three, Babs and Auston, and more.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the offseason, and it’s time for another string of random thoughts about the Leafs and NHL.

1. Washington did it! Hooray! I neither especially like nor dislike Washington—Ovechkin was once the most exciting player on Earth and still has great moments, Nick Backstrom is an underrated superstar, Tom Wilson is a trashcan—but it is nonetheless important to me that the Caps won.

After Washington got bounced last year, I wrote an article about how it’s possible to do nearly all the right things and just not win a Cup. Washington’s management over the last fifteen years wasn’t perfect (Forsberg for Erat lol) but they built a really excellent team that was, at the least, one of the best three or four teams on the planet for several seasons. They had the best goal-scorer of all time, a good supporting cast, and goaltending (usually), and they just kept getting owned in the second round. This was pretty dispiriting if you were a fan of a young run-and-gun team with hopes of a championship in the next decade.

But they did it! The Caps of this year, let’s be honest, were probably not the best team in the NHL, and I think they were definitely weaker than last year’s edition. But they got hot at the right time, and their win is a reminder that if you’re a good team that hangs around near the top, there is a chance that one year the stars will align for you even if there’s also a chance you’ll just be the San Jose Sharks. Good news for teams with franchise goal-scorers born on September 17th, I’m just saying.

2. That was kind of fun! I feel like many of us, or at least me, criticize the NHL all the time for its ineptitude, homogeneity, shortsightedness, playoff format, caveman attitude to player safety, failure to go to the Olympics, incomprehensible goalie interference calls, Wheel of Justice suspension standards, how-do-you-do-fellow-kids efforts to be cool that are just irritating, evil conduct in the concussion lawsuit, septennial lockouts, lionizing of on-ice stars who are off-ice violent, children’s-movie-villain calibre owners, retrograde management, sycophantic old boy’s club media, and Brad Marchand.

But! This year was actually...pretty good? I mean, the ideal result would have been a Leafs Cup, as in all years. But beyond that, there were some genuinely exciting playoff series, the Vegas Golden Knights were the best expansion story of all time, and the Caps triumph has a decent narrative arc to it. The Finals were a bit of an anticlimax given they ended in five, but that seems to be going around in a lot of major sports right now. I liked watching the hockey, is what I’m saying. Don’t tell anyone.

3. The franchise-defining Nolan Vesey trade. Now, back to the most important thing, the Leafs making extremely minor transactions. Toronto traded F Nolan Vesey, brother of the more famous Jimmy Vesey, to Edmonton for a conditional 7th in 2020. The condition on the pick isn’t clear at time of writing, but the likeliest thing is that the condition was for Vesey to sign an entry level contract with the Oilers, which he did on arrival. There is a zero percent chance the Leafs were going to sign Nolan Vesey, even granted his father Jim is a Leafs’ scout, so getting any kind of pick for him is completely fine.

The more fascinating question is, what were the Leafs and Oilers really talking about? I suppose it’s possible Peter Chiarelli had a burning desire to acquire a guy with middling AHL potential, but this is the kind of trade where if you do it in NHL18 the system says “whatever” and turns off out of boredom. Are the Leafs and Oilers in discussions for something a little more substantial? Is Oscar Klefbom on the trading block? Am I using rhetorical questions to engage in baseless speculation?

The safe bet, as usual, is that nothing big is going to happen. Klefbom is actually rumoured to be on the move for some bizarre reason, but one of Chiarelli’s best moves in Edmonton was extending Klefbom for long term at $4.167M per, so it’s not like he’s blind to the guy’s value. Still, one of the popular Hockey Twitter wisecracks—Travis Yost has made it a few times—is that the best thing a GM can do is have the worst of his colleagues on speed dial. Our boy wonder might be taking that sage advice.

4. Oilers media interlude.

5. Trade up, trade down, trade out. In the 2015 draft, which was run by some combination of Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter, and Brendan Shanahan, the Leafs traded down from 24th overall to 29th overall and then again. The net result of this was turning the pick Philadelphia used to draft Travis Konecny into Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco, and Martins Dzierkals. You can debate how well that one is working out, but trading down in this range is the conventionally “analytics” move. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see Dubas do it again.

That said: an awful lot of teams are talking about trading down in this draft, which is seen as flatter than usual after the top three or four picks and long on defencemen. At which point does the value calculation change enough to trade up? Especially if a high-end talent seems to be dropping (probably Ryan Merkley)?

Further to that, the Leafs should be hoping to contend for the Cup next year. Does trading the first help them do that? It would help if an opposing GM were more focused on the pick being Toronto’s first-rounder rather than the fact it’s 25th overall. But anyone the Leafs select this draft is unlikely to be joining the team for at least two years and probably more. If the pick is going to get them anything now, there’s a solid case to deal it.

I expect, more likely than not, that the Leafs are going to trade out from 25th one way or another. But if no one wants to play ball there, well, hey, maybe Merkley will fall all the way to our first.

6. Sign John Tavares. This one will be short. If you can sign John Tavares, sign John Tavares. Do not talk about how he will cost too much money (the Leafs can accommodate him without losing the Big Three, Kadri, or Rielly if they’re smart.) Sign superstar talent when you can. This is the most obvious way to bring this team to near-championship calibre and we should not pass on it in favour of some other opportunity that may never materialize.

“But he’s expensive and not 21 and—”

Shut up. Shut up and sign John Tavares.

7. Extensions for the Big Three. It’s been remarked on in other quarters, but it wouldn’t be surprising for the Leafs and William Nylander to grind out negotiations. The threat of offer sheets (despite my wishes) is imaginary at this point, so the Leafs have essentially all the leverage. It will be annoying if it takes until September or October for a deal to get signed, but it might save the franchise in the long term to do so.

Matthews and Marner are in a different situation because they have a year left on their ELCs. Conceivably a big third season could raise the price on both, though at this point Matthews would have to win the Rocket Richard and a Cup to get his value much higher to the team. If you can lock in either of the two at a somewhat more manageable rate now, you probably ought to do it. This would also have a bit of a nice ducks-in-a-row feeling for Dubas; if he wraps up the Big Three extensions this summer then he’s put his biggest blocks in place and can focus on complementary pieces without worrying over the core. Of course, the complementary pieces are going to be squeezed against the cap, but them’s the breaks.

8. Babs and Auston. There’s yet more chatter going around about how Mike Babcock flew to Arizona to meet with Auston Matthews, and whether their meeting was positive or not.

Leaf fans are used to the team being surrounded by so much speculative horseshit that most of us instantly dismiss this stuff. That’s mostly what I’m going to end up doing, but I also feel compelled to acknowledge: Mike Babcock is a phenomenally driven, uber-confident coach with a ton of job security. Auston Matthews is a young superstar whose ambitions are summed up in his tattoos. It is not at all implausible that they would butt heads, maybe quite forcefully, over issues like Matthews having lower ice time than most players of comparable calibre, or Auston’s linemates. I can and do doubt that the hyperreactive hockey media are going to get within a hundred miles of the truth of it. But I’ve seen a lot of people trying to insist that there’s no way the Toronto organization isn’t a daisy chain of love and cordiality.

The reality is that sometimes driven people on the same side argue, disagree, squabble, and roll their eyes at each other. There’s an extreme point at which this gets toxic and genuinely damages the potential of the team. There’s also a point at which this is a natural consequence of the big personalities that often accompany big talents. Mike Babcock needs to be flexible and willing to adapt; he also has to sometimes hold the line when he’s sure he knows what’s best for the team. If he can’t do that occasionally, we’re wasting a hell of a lot of money by not just hiring Auston Matthews as a player-coach.

So unless it gets to the point where Auston Matthews and Mike Babcock can’t talk to each other at all, then I’m not all that bothered. Talk, fight it out, figure out the best way forward, and win a damn Cup.