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The Leafs Have Two Tasks and Few Options

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How do they get sign Mitch Marner and upgrade their defense

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

With the Patrick Marleau trade made, and the reported signings of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, the Leafs have ticked a couple of items off their to-do list this offseason. As a result, this is currently where they stand with respect to the cap (thanks to CapFriendly’s Armchair GM feature for this).

Here, I’ve added the contracts for Kapanen and Johnsson and placed Nathan Horton on offseason LTIR, while also adding a couple forwards (Marchment and Mikheyev) to make up the numbers. This is with a roster of 21 - you can add a 7th defenseman or 14th forward if you want. It doesn’t change the story dramatically. Please don’t fight me about the order in which players show up in in this lineup - it is not meant to correspond to any actual in-game use. The only importance is the cap number, and the number of roster players. Based on this, the Leafs have about $9.8M in salary cap room to do two things.

  1. Sign Mitch Marner
  2. Upgrade their defense corps

Without other moves, $9.8M isn’t enough to do both of those things. However, there is low-hanging fruit in terms of cost-efficiency with this roster. Specifically, Connor Brown is overpaid relative to his slot on the Leafs. His contract is not bad in a vacuum, but the Leafs simply can’t afford to pay a 4th liner $2.1M. He’s an obvious trade candidate (frankly, it’s a surprise he hasn’t been traded already), and will likely obtain a draft asset or a depth RD (Matt Benning was rumoured around the trade deadline, as I discussed here). If Brown is traded for the former, the Leafs get more salary cap room to play with — nearly $12M in total, with which they will try to tick off both items on the list above. If he is traded for a depth defenseman instead (we’ll use Benning as a placeholder for this), the Leafs gain negligible cap room, but have also improved their defense group somewhat (we’ll assume that Justin Holl becomes the 7th defenseman in this scenario).

Lets tackle these items on the to-do list one at a time.

Signing Marner

Signing Marner is the most obvious and pressing concern. The asks that have been floated in the media (presumably) from Marner’s camp have been ridiculous compared to his value as a player. However, this is a negotiation, not an arbitration hearing. There is no third party to make sure the contract is ‘fair’ and in line with what similar players to Marner have obtained. Marner is within his rights to ask for Auston Matthews money because he wants it. It doesn’t mean he deserves it based on his play. But deserve has got nothing to do with this negotiation.

That doesn’t mean the Leafs should fold and give Marner whatever he wants. Marner may want to ask for the moon... the Leafs are very justified in not giving it to him. In my opinion, the Leafs should play hardball. Marner’s leverage primarily exists in the form of an offer sheet, and in particular, an antagonistic offer sheet. An example of this would be a contract that pays him $10.5M for 5 years. This would fall into the compensation range of two 1st round picks, one 2nd round pick, and one 3rd round pick. The AAV and term associated with this contract is such that (should the Leafs match), Marner would become a UFA in the same year as Auston Matthews and William Nylander, giving the three of them an insane amount of combined leverage (there is a good chance they are the three best players on the team when this happens). Meanwhile, the AAV is higher than the Leafs would like to pay, and is likely an overpay relative to what similar players like Mikko Rantanen and Brayden Point would receive at this term. The compensation for such an offer sheet is high, but not so high that the Leafs would automatically match. It becomes an actual choice.

From the Leafs perspective, this is the worst case scenario, and Marner’s camp is likely going to try and create the fear in the Leafs front office that this could happen. Personally, I’m skeptical that it will, but as outsiders, we don’t really know. The point is, the Leafs have to measure the likelihood of this worst case scenario with the expected payoff should it get there, and decide how hard they want to lean on Marner to come down to a figure that is more in line with his peers. This topic has been done to death, so lets move on to the second item on the list.

Upgrading the Defense

This has been on the Leafs to-do list for years. They haven’t exactly ignored it; the Nikita Zaitsev courting and extension was because the Leafs front office (erroneously) felt he could be a mainstay on the second pairing of the Leafs, and the Jake Muzzin acquisition was a smart trade that gave the Leafs an additional year of a high level LD behind Morgan Rielly, bridging the gap between Jake Gardiner and potential options in the future, such as Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin.

However, the Leafs have mostly held onto their bullets when it comes to making big moves for defensemen. They signed Ron Hainsey as a stopgap two years ago, and rode him like a rented mule. They mined Sweden and Russia for cheap depth options to give them a myriad of guys to cycle through on the third pair. But after two consecutive Game 7 losses to Boston in the first round of the playoffs, and another season where the Leafs were among the worst defensive teams in the league, there is a sense that they need to upgrade their defensive play to become a ‘true contender’ and the most obvious way to do that is to add some defensemen who can .... defend.

So, lets be pessimistic and say that Marner takes all of the Leafs’ current cap space ($9.8M) on a 6 year deal. Any money that the Leafs save on this, either by negotiation or by reducing term will give them more leniency in the next steps. The Leafs then have to upgrade their defence corps without taking back any net salary. Is this possible?

The Trade Route

Well, it depends how creative you’re willing to be and the steps you take to facilitate having more cap room.

Trading Brown

We haven’t yet traded Connor Brown in this scenario. If you trade him for a pick of some kind, the Leafs now can upgrade their defense while absorbing $2.1M in net salary. If you trade him for the defense equivalent version of Connor Brown (a 3rd pairing defenseman making roughly the same money), you have a decent third pairing guy, and now have to upgrade higher up in the defence group with no net inflows.

Obviously, if you can trade Connor Brown for a very cheap and competent 3rd pair defenseman, or a guy who can play above the 3rd pair, you can get a mix of the situations above. However, at this point, you’re just planning on trading an asset and getting a better asset back, which relies on the other team misevaluating the players involved. It’s hard to rely on this, even in a world where Paul Fenton and Jim Benning exist.

Trading Zaitsev

No matter what happens with Brown, you need to make an additional acquisition in order to significantly upgrade the defence group. You can play a similar game with Nikita Zaitsev. If you believe the Leafs can trade him while taking back negligible salary, then they have more room to play with in terms of absorbing salary in a trade for a defenseman. So salary becomes less of an issue, but Toronto still needs to include assets in the trade in order to acquire said defensive upgrade. The question becomes, what forward assets can you part with in order to do so?

Who can be traded?

When you start evaluating the Leafs roster, the answer becomes ‘not that many’. The Leafs have a ‘stars and scrubs’ roster, with very few mid-level assets, and accordingly, very few players making mid-level salaries. Players like Matthews, Nylander, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner are untouchable (pending the contract negotiation for the latter). The low-end players like Nic Petan, Frederik Gauthier, Trevor Moore, and others have no real trade value around the league. Zach Hyman is more valuable to the Leafs than any other team, and I’m not sure Kyle Dubas would leave the Scotiabank Arena in one piece after breaking the news to Mike Babcock if Hyman were to be traded.

This essentially leaves three players: Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson. The last two were just signed; there is no rule preventing them from being traded, but it’s not something we typically see in the NHL. However, it is more common in the NBA.

Trading Johnsson or Kapanen

Putting NHL norms aside, the Leafs don’t have great replacements behind either Johnsson or Kapanen. They’re famously weak on left wing, and while Jeremy Bracco is the Leafs best forward prospect right now, he is a very different player than Kapanen. Bracco doesn’t provide Kapanen’s defensive and penalty killing utility, and has to be used very differently in order to succeed.

In ‘hockey’ deals, the way both teams gain is by getting a player that the other team couldn’t utilize to the same degree, or by addressing specific areas of weakness while dealing from areas of strength, where the drop off from the traded player to his replacement is small. Given that the Leafs would replace either Kapanen / Johnsson with a near replacement-level player, I wouldn’t say that really applies here. Nonetheless, you could potentially make a deal for a solid top four defencemen with one of these two at the heart of it, and essentially re-allocate resources from forward to defense. It’s unclear whether this would make the Leafs much better, short of robbing a team. As mentioned before, winning a trade isn’t an actionable plan, and since the Leafs don’t have great replacements for either of these players, it would likely be a reshuffling of talent, rather than an inherent upgrade.

Trading Kadri

Trading Kadri is a totally separate matter that would require a pretty extreme restructuring of the team as a whole. The Leafs’ current value proposition as a team is their ability to put out three strong C/RW combinations, supplemented by complementary forwards and active defencemen. Trading Kadri changes that structure dramatically. The Leafs have no centres behind him, and you simply won’t be able to find someone who can do what Kadri does for his cap hit. The Leafs would have to replace him with a UFA centre (there aren’t many good ones on the market) or acquire a lower-end centre to play those minutes, at a presumably budget cost. The idea here is that you downgrade at 3C in order to get a better player at a higher leverage role, like 1RD. As good as Kadri is, the Leafs don’t get as much out of him as another team could, because he’s stuck behind two better players. This could conceivably be the basis of a win/win deal between two teams, if a team has the same problem with a strong defenseman — before PK Subban was recently traded, Nashville would have been an example of such a team.

This starts to involve a lot of moving parts, so it’s hard to forecast precisely, but the Cliff’s Notes is that Kadri would be traded for a defence upgrade (or assets that can be turned into a defence upgrade), the Leafs find some player who can give 65% of Kadri’s value at 45% of his cap hit, and start riding their top two lines a lot more. They lose out in the minutes that Kadri plays, but get a guy who upgrades the team at a more important position.

Again, this is possible, but hard to pull off. Kadri is at a relative low point in his value, coming off a shooting percentage trough and an ugly suspension in the playoffs. The Leafs have nothing to replace him with, and it’s all well and good to say that they could acquire a UFA centre or low-cost trade option to play 3C minutes, and much harder to find a reasonable option for doing so around the league. This would also make the Leafs far more susceptible to a Matthews or Tavares injury. I think there’s room to get creative here, but there is not much margin for error, and you really need to get a stud RD if you trade Kadri.

Trading Futures

So if you can’t trade roster players, what can you trade? Well, picks and prospects. Unfortunately, the Leafs are light on both. After the Marleau deal, they are out a 1st round pick. Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are the Leafs’ two best prospects. They could part with one, but it would have to be part of a package for a great player with team control, because the reality is that the Leafs need young players on ELCs to play important roles on the team going forward, and are hoping Sandin and Liljegren can do just that.

The Leafs only other prospect with non-negligible value is Bracco, and I’m skeptical of how much value he actually has league-wide. This has little to do with Bracco himself, and more to do with the fact that teams tend not to value 22-year-olds who haven’t yet made the NHL, regardless of AHL track record.

The Leafs could pick from this pool of assets to get a player like Colin Miller, who Vegas would dearly like to be rid of for futures. The Leafs could oblige, likely for Bracco and picks (certainly not for Liljegren or Sandin). Miller can potentially play top 4 minutes, and has a reasonable deal paying him less than $4M for three more years. He would be out of his depth as a 1RD, but we’re dealing with imperfect solutions here. Assuming the Leafs get off Zaitsev’s contract, this is very viable, though it leaves Toronto incredibly light in the picks/prospects department.

It also doesn’t have to be Miller, specifically. If there’s a young defenceman on an ELC who is blocked by existing roster players (Calgary or Carolina’s defence prospects come to mind), they may be options here. These players are less likely to improve the Leafs markedly next season, but may have more team control and could represent medium or long-term solutions. Trading futures is the easiest thing for the Leafs to do, as it doesn’t disrupt their current team in any way.

The Free Agent Route

Trades are hard. The Leafs either have to trade players they don’t have a great way of replacing (Johnsson/Kapanen/Kadri), or futures from an already barren farm system. What about acquiring a player without giving up assets, through free agency? If the Leafs get off Zaitsev’s deal, they have some room to play with, right?

Well, that would be a good plan, except there are no good free agents on defense. Jake Gardiner is the best defenseman on the market. I’d like to have him back, but even getting rid of Zaitsev for nothing, it would be tough. His back issues are also worrisome, and there’s a good chance he signs a deal that looks terrible in two years. And he’s going to get paid. Because after him, it’s Tyler Myers (who isn’t very good and will be overpaid by Vancouver) and basically no one else. Free agency might be a way to get a low-end depth guy, but not much beyond that this season.

Summary

The Leafs don’t have a ton of options to upgrade their defense. Any trade short of highway robbery has real drawbacks, whether it’s replacing a player with few resources to do so, or paying future assets as a team with few to offer. The latter is more reasonable than the former, and if we do see an upgrade designed at addressing the Leafs defense it will likely be through that.

Beyond trades, free agency is a method to acquire some low-end depth, but nothing else.

Tough decisions lie ahead. Welcome to being a good team.