The NHL trade deadline is five days from today, and my bold prediction is that the Leafs will do nothing exciting.
The Leafs have made one NHL trade so far, and they netted Jake Muzzin for this year’s first-round pick and two prospects of note. The Leafs don’t feel like the sort of team that spends the first-rounder and then worries about how it will look that they don’t have one. I’m not sure Kyle Dubas worries about how anything looks to outsiders, so I don’t think they’ll make any effort to replace that pick.
Dubas is on record as being opposed to rentals this season, and I’m on board with that — which I assume he doesn’t care about — but I’ll take it a step farther and say I’m almost always opposed to rentals unless a team has a really gaping hole in an otherwise high-quality lineup. What you’re doing with a gaping hole at the end of February is a question for the GM unless you just lost someone to injury. No matter the reason, buying a rental violates rule one of asset value management: Don’t buy high.
Fans often want their team to make a splash, but teams need to balance their short-term and long-term goals in ways that differ dramatically from fan thinking. Most fans would take a cup now over better chances to win five cups over the next ten years. Dubas has to figure out for himself where he weights win now vs always keep winning, but if he wants to go down in history as a great GM, he has to always have an eye on the future.
One of the goals of any elite player is to outdo the stars of the past. Auston Matthews wants to be atop a lot of lists when he retires, so why should Kyle Dubas be any different? Hockey man that he is, he wants to not just better every Leafs GM since he was born (hell, since I was born), he wants to better the best GMs of all time. The goal is creating a dynasty that doesn’t dissolve into chaos at the end.
Things to Consider
With the bonus situation this year, the Leafs have to be wary of adding too much salary now. The total possible bonuses aren’t all that possible, so the real amount that might need to get paid out in total (some already has been) is $3.7 million, give or take a few parts of millions. The projected cap space for the end of the season is over $4 million, but bear in mind that contracts added late cost a prorated amount, so you can add more than a million at the deadline and keep that space free for the bonuses. There are other methods to maximize the space between now and the end of the regular season, too; things the Leafs haven’t bothered to do, like deciding to risk Justin Holl on waivers and empty out the press box a little. The Leafs have room this year, just not a lot of room.
With the cap situation next season, the Leafs have to very cautious about how much salary they add next year. Next season is the really tight season for the salary cap. It’s not like it’s a breeze in subsequent years, but it gets easier. The maximum salary the Leafs can pay their fourth liners, depth defencemen and press box extras is barely over the minimum. There will be no $2 million committed to a 4C for any sort of term because it just can’t be made to fit. If they’re going to add a player now with term into next year, that player has to be either cheaper than the current depth options or good enough to take a job higher in the lineup.
Can a Trade be Done?
The idea of a retained salary transaction is attractive when searching for a better mid-range player, but you have to pay for that over and above what you’re paying for the player. The name that leaps to mind is Vlad Namestnikov, who the Rangers overpaid judging by how they ended up using him. He’s paid $4 million this season and next, and he is exactly the sort of versatile forward the Leafs are reportedly searching for at a quality that’s worth paying for. The issue will be can they afford to pay the extra assets to get the Rangers to retain 50% of his salary and therefore cut his cap hit to $2 million. Charlie Coyle is the only other similar player likely to be moved, and his cap hit is $3.2 million this year and next, but the Wild are much less likely to be willing to retain. For me, the choice is one of these two on a retained deal or nothing, and the cost in picks and prospects would likely make me say no anyway.
The Leafs are getting weaker in prospect depth and do not have any extra picks of value. The loss of two players with decent chances to have some kind of NHL career in Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi has thinned out the ranks of potential future Leafs. The first-round pick this summer is gone, so there’s no chance now for another Rasmus Sandin — likely the Leafs’ highest quality prospect at the moment. Timothy Liljegren is right with him, either equal to or a little behind Sandin, but after those two are accounted for, the drop off is noticeable and steep. This is a concern when planning for the keep-winning future, but it also limits the amount of trading the Leafs can do.
Bob McKenzie has expressed the idea that the Leafs will only do “dollar out/dollar in” trades. Given the cap situation and the asset pool, I think this is plausible. To get Namestnikov or Coyle, the Leafs would need to convince the trading team to take back a contract of a similar amount. It would be almost impossible to get the cap-strapped Wild to do that unless he was an impact forward. And like most teams these days, the Rangers want a quick turnaround rebuild (everyone is now competing with the Leafs record here) and they don’t want some long-term deal like Nikita Zaitsev’s.
The fantasy trades for Nikita Zaitsev violate rule one of asset value management: Don’t sell low. Aside from finding a team that would take on a long term contract in a trade, the idea that you run a hockey team by constantly moving out the player who is playing the poorest means you’re always selling low. Given Zaitsev’s playoff performance last year (which no one likely remembers, but was very good) I’d hang on to him through this playoffs and see if he pulls the same trick. If he does, then I’d think long and hard about the cost of moving him out and the availability of replacements at a time when his value is up not down.
The Leafs have made one AHL trade so far, and it addressed the defence/forward imbalance in the AHL. That imbalance got worse recently because of injuries and the Canucks trade of Sam Gagner. If the call-ups from the ECHL are not enough, the Marlies boss, Laurence Gillman may decide to do some dealing to shore up the AHL, which will not be very thrilling, but might maximize the chances of the Marlies actually giving Sandin and Liljegren some more playoff experience.
The CHL regular season ends in one month, and the Marlies may choose to go with undrafted junior graduates on ATOs to shore up the roster. Unfortunately the Soo Greyhounds are in the playoffs, so those players won’t be available for a lot longer. But surely there are players on other teams who might be worth trying out on the Marlies.
There’s a chance the Leafs might find an AHL centre in a trade, and it’s not impossible they make a more interesting move than that. It will be tough to accomplish while keeping the total expenditure in assets and cap space worth the improvement to the team. I’m forecasting boredom next Monday, but Dubas is competing with every great GM in hockey history, so maybe he’s got a four-goal game in him for his first trade deadline.
I think he already did that on free agent day, though.
What do you expect by the deadline?
This poll is closed
A Mitch Marner extension
A 1RD of fantastic quality
A Kasperi Kapanen extension