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Maple Leafs Trade Target: David Krejci

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Is the player good enough to make us overlook the contract?

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Six

Recently, Darren Dreger of TSN has reported that the Boston Bruins are listening to offers on David Krejci, as part of a possible way to make room for Ilya Kovalchuk. In the interest of being complete and fair, here were Dreger’s exact words:

“I know that there are teams calling on David Krejci as well. The Bruins would like to move [David] Backes. I think they’re again a little reluctant to consider trading David Krejci, but every player has a price tag. I think we need to look at Don Sweeney, the GM of the Bruins, as being perhaps a team and a GM that could be very active in the days ahead.”

So immediately, there are a few things that take this from being likely to being mere summer speculation. Dreger states that Boston is merely listening on Krejci, and isn’t actively shopping him, instead preferring to rid themselves of David Backes (no shit). To add onto this, Krejci has a no movement clause (NMC), so he’s only leaving if he wants to leave. There is no indication he does, and there’s no indication he would want to come to Toronto even if he is amenable to a move.

However, we’re a Leafs blog, and the Leafs are short of centres, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least lay out the situation to see if it’s one the Leafs should inquire about. So, should the Leafs be calling Boston about Krejci?

The Player

The first thing to assess is whether the Leafs should be interested in him as a player. To me, the answer is an obvious yes. Krejci is not a perfect player by any means, but he would slot in beautifully to give the Leafs an incredibly impressive centre trio of Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, and Krejci.

When he plays, Krejci is a skilled forward who stands out with his poise and passing in the offensive zone. In that area of the ice, he’s somewhat similar to Tyler Bozak. He’s not much of a shooter — when he does shoot, it’s because shooting is by far the best option, and just like Bozak, he has sustained a high career shooting percentage as a result. Playing him with shooters tends to lead to strong results — the partnership between he and Jake DeBrusk was an excellent one in Boston.

Krejci also possesses the puck skills and skating to pose a threat on zone entries. He tends to carry the puck in a fair bit, and he tends to be fairly successful in doing so in the small sample of tracked data that we have.

As you’d expect this combination of skills leads to a player who has sustained strong scoring, even as he has entered his 30s. Over the past three seasons, he’s averaged 1.7 primary points per 60 minutes at even strength, which is actually slightly more than what Kadri has recorded in the same time frame. That scoring rate is commensurate with a first line / second line tweener. Krejci’s power play scoring isn’t as impressive, but with his zone entry prowess and passing, he can play a useful role on a successful unit.

He’s also been a part of some dominant shot share teams; his relative Corsi is nothing special, but a part of that is a function of playing on the same team as Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, while not ever playing with them for an appreciable period of time. On a team without the Corsi God, I’d be willing to bet that his relative numbers would look a lot better.

All in all, Krejci is an excellent player, and of that there can be little doubt. Chace McCallum has a Wins Above Replacement model that I like, and his model rates Krejci as somewhere around the ~120th best forward in the league on a per-game basis. On an average team, this means he’s their 4th/5th forward, which is basically exactly where he would rate as a Leaf.

So all of this sounds good so far, but there are some caveats. Krejci is primarily an offensive centre. He won’t greatly ease the burden on Kadri and his line by taking on a defensive role the way someone like Ryan O’Reilly would. Boston quite understandably had Patrice Bergeron on those duties, so Krejci was able to take advantage of some very light zone usage last year. In years prior, his zone usage was in line with the rest of his teammates’, with his shot results being slightly worse as a result.

The other, bigger caveat is health. In recent years (with the exception of 2016/2017), Krejci seemingly always misses a dozen games or more. He’s a great player when he plays, but the ability to stay healthy is an incredibly useful skill, and it’s not one that Krejci seems to have. This wouldn’t be as huge of an issue, but for the ugliest part of acquiring Krejci, his contract.

The Contract

Krejci has 3 more years remaining on a $7.25M AAV, which will see him through to his age 32, 33, and 34 seasons. He has a NMC this year, which turns into a modified no-trade clause in the final two years of his deal, where he must specify a list of 15 teams he would be willing to accept a trade to.

No matter how you slice it, this is a tough deal to trade, and a tough deal to absorb. Krejci is a good player, but his deal is definitely an overpayment, especially when his health issues are factored in. Since he’s advancing through his 30s, those are unlikely to get any better, and his skills will also most likely decline with respect to the rest of the league.

As good as Krejci is, this is a contract I certainly won’t want to pay assets to take — rather, I’d need to be enticed with salary retention or a draft pick. It’s unclear what the Bruins would want out of a team acquiring Krejci, but given that they are trying to contend, they won’t want to give up any current assets (beyond the player himself). It’s possible they want to actually acquire assets in a Krejci deal, at which point I would wish them good luck and hang up on the call. Essentially, this means that it is unlikely the Leafs would send back salary ballast in a deal. Which means they would absorb Krejci’s full salary (net of retention) without significant offsetting salary going the other way. Consequently, acquiring Krejci would essentially preclude the Leafs from retaining Jake Gardiner past this season.

To add on to the unlikeliness of this occurring, the Bruins might be unwilling to trade a key player to the Leafs. I’m normally not one to care about trading in-division, but my guess is that it’s rare for two teams who see themselves as contenders in the same division to make a trade for a key player. So ultimately, this is very likely an exercise in fruitless pontification.

All things considered, it’s hard to see this as a viable option for the Leafs. Krejci is an excellent player, and I’d take him for what I consider to be the ‘right price’. He makes the Leafs better on the ice, that is certain. However, the contract is so onerous and potentially damaging that for me, the right price is the Bruins retaining $1.25M and us throwing in top-9 forward fodder. That’s not a deal the Bruins would accept. Even looking at the wording Dreger used (“every player has a price”), it makes it seem as though teams are willing to give assets to Boston for him. If that’s the case, then all power to them. They’re getting a great player, but not at a cost I’d deem worth it.