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Mailbag: One Hundred Miniature Auston Matthews

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All that and more in this edition of the mailbag.

Vancouver Canucks v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s mailbag time, y’all.

Well, first up: readers in general might be wondering what is Tanner MacMaster and I can at least help with that. MacMaster is a 24-year-old forward on an AHL contract currently playing for the Marlies. He has, at times this year, had to be the first-line centre, a role that he does not seem especially qualified for. Turnip knows all that, hence his anguished question.

The Marlies, who were so recently an AHL powerhouse, have been decimated by departures, promotions, injuries, and the unexplained absence of Jeremy Bracco. This is especially pronounced at centre and defence. At centre, Frederik Gauthier and Pierre Engvall are with the Leafs, Colin Greening is retired, and Adam Brooks is injured. On defence, almost the whole Marlies defence core from the past few seasons is now the Leafs’ defence core. That is a major ouflow of talent. It’s not easy being a farm team.

That is why the Marlies are struggling so much, and is partly why MacMaster wound up at 1C. Is it enough that he’s the best remaining option there? I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like it.

With the usual warning that I am not a prospect person: the only one of them with a prayer of making the Leafs next season is Nick Robertson. It’s genuinely impressive the chance is more than non-zero for a forward of his size and age. Our own Brigstew wrote about this and made a neat comparison between him and another second-round draft steal, Alex Debrincat, and Debrincat made the NHL in his D+2. I don’t expect Robertson to make the team full-time in 2020-21, but I won’t rule it out. I would have him as one year away (2021-22).

Semyon Der-Arguchintsev and Mikhail Abramov, as fun as they are, are longer-term bets. Let’s remember, they’re 19 and 18, respectively, and you’ve really gotta be crushing the field in junior to a huge extent for it to imply imminent NHL chances (again, it says a hell of a lot about Robertson’s goal-scoring that we’re even having the conversation about him.) Adam Brooks, for example, had 120 points in 72 games in the WHL as a 19-year-old. Granted that he had some rough and ill-timed injuries, Brooks played his first NHL game a few months ago, at age 23. You might reasonably have a higher opinion of SDA and Abramov than Brooks, but I think we’ll see each of them in the AHL for at least a year before the NHL conversation really starts and I’m not guaranteeing it starts after that. Wake me up in two or three seasons with these two.

It’s a hell of a lot of money and effort for a fairly limited benefit. I know we all grind our teeth about junior stars like Robertson, who ought to be in the AHL next year if he’s not in the NHL, but there really aren’t that many Nick Robertsons, and the Leafs have had pretty fair success integrating European players into their development system at the Marlies level. Even if you’re as rich as the Leafs, I don’t think you strain yourself to the point of buying a whole team on another continent to get a kid out of junior a year early.

There are also a lot of fascinating questions about how European leagues would feel about a franchise being turned into a farm team—keep in mind the AHL is explicitly a development league in its mandate, whereas the SHL, NLA and DEL are the top pro leagues in their respective countries. I can’t say I’m competent to analyze that, and maybe it wouldn’t matter if you ponied up the money. But it brings us back to the original cost/benefit analysis and the benefit is rather small.

Badly, but not the most badly.

I would direct you to the Twitter account/blog NHL Injury Viz on this topic, which slices up injury impact a couple of ways. It’s always hard to evaluate injury impact, and I think you could make an argument that the Leafs are somewhat more impacted than it would appear given that they’ve missed their top two defencemen for an extended stretch. Play around with the different filters (cap hit, xG etc.) and you’ll see the Leafs are in a second tier with teams like Boston, Colorado and Philadelphia in injury suffering...

...but they’re well behind the two lords of misfortune: Pittsburgh and Columbus. Pittsburgh missed Sidney Crosby for eighteen games, but nearly every one of their key skaters (Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist) has missed at least ten GP, leading to the slightly hilarious circumstance that the healthiest core player for the Pens this season has been Kris Letang. Columbus has had injuries to key contributors including star defender Seth Jones, second defender Ryan Murray, starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo, and second-line winger Cam Atkinson. They’re struggling of late, but the fact they’re still hanging around a playoff spot is genuinely impressive—especially given they lost a ton of talent to free agency in the summer before the injuries struck. (Though I’m not sure Jarmo Kekkalainen is very sad about losing Sergei Bobrovsky right now, come to think of it.)

Another entity, Man Games Lost NHL, has the Leafs about where you’d expect on this basis:

Allowing a little subjectivity in here, that sounds about right. I think the Leafs have suffered around the third-most, but not first or second.

Can suggests the best-case scenario and that’s a dangerous game with prospects and young players. A lot of them might reach it, and in the end most of them don’t. But I could see Sandin becoming a high-end #2/lower-end #1 defenceman in a rosy but not totally insane future. I don’t think he has the physical gifts to match guys like Cale Makar or Quinn Hughes, who will be dueling for Norrises for the next decade. The tier below that—i.e. when you list the best defencemen in the NHL, Sandin is quietly but solidly in the 15-45 range—is optimistic but not out of the question.

All kidding aside: I’ve actually reached the point of feeling bad for Senators fans. I mean it. If Eugene Melnyk turned around and sold the team to a mediocre but not abysmal owner, this team would be in the best rebuild position in the league. They have several enviable young players, strong prospects, and two picks in this draft that could well be in the top five or better.

And yet...Melnyk hangs over the whole thing like a thundercloud. You never know when he’s going to demand payroll be cut, or botch some development plan, or whatever else. I know we mock the CTC for being empty, but I think my enthusiasm for the franchise would be a bit dimmed these days too.

I wait and see on this decision. If Andersen doesn’t recover to a level of steady play in the next twelve months—or he doesn’t agree to take a much cheaper deal than I expect—the decision is practically made for you.

If Andersen returns to form? I’m still not signing him to an enormous contract, but you have to think very hard before letting him go. Joseph Woll and Ian Scott shouldn’t even come into the conversation for a team that is trying to contend in the present tense. Jack Campbell has been a good backup and a pathologically nice man for most of his career, but if he doesn’t pick up the starting job and run away with it, you don’t have much track record of him being a starter.

So this is a bit of a dodge. It’s the best I can do because I would absolutely not be making this decision right now. I can only say I think the chances of keeping Freddie Andersen on a big deal are a lot better than it feels like lately, but they’re also a long way from certain.

A lot of fun with the word “can” in today’s mail, eh?

I think, if they’re healthy and if they’re getting NHL-starter-quality goaltending, the Leafs are flirting with being a top-five team in the NHL and that means they have at least a respectable chance against anybody. Unfortunately I would have Tampa Bay and Boston as #1 and #2 in the league, so I still wouldn’t bet on Toronto to win rounds, but they’d at least have a shot. They would still be a team of the outscore-your-problems variety, and at this point the only real defensive strengths this team has are a) they can play in the offensive zone enough to avoid having to defend much and b) they seem to me to have gotten better at clearing rebounds. It ain’t perfect, but it might be enough.

Playoff hockey doesn’t scare me that much beyond the obvious fact the competition gets better. It’s not like the Leafs have been getting an especially beneficial power play whistle during the regular season anyway, and they played Boston damn near even last year. They’re at least competitive if they get those two conditionals I mentioned above.

The thing is, if they were healthier with better goaltending, a lot of teams would be much improved. The Leafs can expect to get healthier by April and Frederik Andersen has been a good starter in the past, so maybe Toronto’s hopes in this regard are more realistic. That’s the best I can do for you.

Well, all sports fandom is at least partly irrational. The Leafs’ fanbase, myself included, is probably prone to more overreaction than most because our media is vast enough to encourage hyper-reactive chatter. I don’t believe much good comes from effort analysis, though.

I have a hell of a time judging effort from where I’m sitting and generally speaking I don’t trust anyone who says they can do it. It seems to correlate awful closely with whoever won last night. I think effort is it some ways a convenient answer because it gives you moral justification to get mad at the players, because if they could play better but choose not to they’re at fault. If they can’t do any better than this because they’re just not good at certain things, we can’t ask more of them and the whole exercise feels kind of pointless.

Are there players who take shifts off? Yeah, maybe. I’m only rarely sure I know it when i see it.

Take a run at Alex Pietrangelo (see a later question on this in more detail.) There’s really not that much else I’m excited about. I don’t like shopping in unrestricted free agency in the mid-range or for well-known goalies because that seems like a great way to waste money. Conceivably we could try to offer sheet somebody, but if the cap is going up $6.5M across the board there won’t be many teams too squeezed to match. It’d be super funny if we somehow stole Mikhail Sergachev, though.

I strongly suspect this is a trick question. Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota.

I am assuming that the mini-Austons are the same relative size to the full Auston Matthews as Verne Troyer’s Mini-Me was to the full size Dr. Evil in the award-winning film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Verne Troyer was about 47% of the height of Mike Myers, so the mini-Austons are roughly 2’11” in height.

I think the mini-Austons take it. There are simply too many of them and they can basically submarine him as soon as he gets the puck. Many of them may fall in honourable combat but you probably only need like 15 of them to cluster around throwing themselves into his knees while the remaining 85 form a relay chain to the net. I don’t know if the goals are being tended by regular NHL goalies or not, but if they aren’t the mini-Austons can also apportion some of their number to shield the goal while normal Auston has no similar reallocative capacity. So yeah. Mini-Austons.

I am right on the fence with this one, which is why I’ve been so not-definitive; at the time I was reluctant and since it’s been signed I’ve come around a bit. So from where I’m sitting now, yes, I’d sign it.

I asked Arvind, and his response was: “I change depending on the day. So the answer is, ‘I wouldn’t be a very good GM.’”

Mustaches are funnier. I want a whole team looking like French artists and 1890s sheriffs as they lift the Cup.

Maybe. No one looks comfortable getting scored on, though, so if his problems were not him being hurt and more him being bad lately I think it would look about the same. It’s possible the small neck injury he suffered a few weeks back is less than 100%.

For a while yet, at least! Marincin is in many respects the ideal 7D. He can PK, he can play right side, his numbers are okay, he doesn’t complain about being in the press box or cost much money, and everyone on the team seems to like him. I know he makes some people insane with his bumbling puck-handling, but he’s a 7D. They’re generally not good at some things. Marincin nets out to good enough for his job.

The wisely-named Zach Scale has three components. How important is this player to the team, how much do I enjoy watching the player play, and how much do I like this player personally.

Zach Hyman is a key LW for this team and he makes our superstar lines better. That’s pretty important! But Sandin is the best hope this team has for developing a top-pair defenceman internally in the next three or four years. That’s probably more important. Sandin scores 1.5 Zachs on this segment.

Watching Zach Hyman play is a delight due to his robust effort and frequent scoring chances. Watching Rasmus Sandin is a delight because he often looks wise beyond his years and gives us glimpses of a better future. I rate Sandin as equivalent here, or one Zach.

I like Rasmus Sandin a normal amount as a person. He seems like a nice kid and he is a Leaf. However, I like Zach Hyman disproportionately for multiple reasons: he seems like a really great guy, he’s actually pretty smart in interviews, and he proved me right in a T25 article I wrote four years ago. Sandin therefore rates half of one Zach, but Zach actually rates three Zachs on this portion. You may say this is mathematically impossible, but I say it isn’t, and I’m writing the mailbag, so I can do pretty much whatever I want.

So, to calculate the final Zach Score, we add up the scores on each segment and divide by three. Sandin scores an extremely respectable 1.0 Zachs, but Hyman himself actually scores 2.0 Zachs. Always giving more than expected, that guy.

I am going to pair the next two tweets together, because there was a lot of overlap and this is going to be an extremely long mailbag even as it is.

Yes, he deserves Top Six minutes when he gets back. This is easier because Andreas Johnsson is out, and at his best Andreas Johnsson might give him a fight for the job. As it is, unless he has serious lingering injury issues, I think Mikheyev is clearly the second-best LW on the team. When he played with John Tavares and William Nylander he was extremely effective.

I really don’t know what his next contract will look like! The injury, the short NHL sample, and the potential for Mikheyev to return to the KHL really cloud the issue, and if he returns and has a great playoff showing that will also push the number. On a one-year “show me” deal I would hope the Leafs could keep the deal in the mid-$1Ms. If Mickey wants to buy some more security that’s fine, but he shouldn’t be making an equivalent number to Kapanen, for example. I’d expect him to stay under $3M AAV on a three-year. Guessing contracts is damned hard though, and this one probably harder than most.

They’ll be notably better and not so much better that I would favour them in the first round against Tampa if it comes to that. Put another way: better enough that they will have stretches where they look like the best team in the world, not so much better that they eliminate those stretches where they look like they couldn’t find their way out of their own zone with a GPS.

This is a dunk on a Jack Todd tweet. Jack Todd is one of the silliest NHL reporters ever to live. Even for him this was a very special tweet:

The problem isn’t talent, you see, it’s just that they lost games to bad teams. Talent is probably unrelated to that.

Johnsson, although Kapanen gets you a better return. Pietrangelo is the obvious FA target on defence and then there are a number of less-than-spectacular fits for cost (Torey Krug is a PP1 guy who shoots left, Justin Schultz is pretty meh at EV, Sami Vatanen is not very good.) Hell, maybe if the cap really goes up, they circle back on Tyson Barrie. I wouldn’t do it, but I’m not Kyle Dubas.

I want the Leafs to be such perfect heels they match a cocktail dress. Seriously, everyone hates Toronto anyway, lean in. I want Auston Matthews to talk about how every other team he’s playing sucks because their fans are losers. Sure, it’ll get thrown back at them when the Leafs lose, but who gives a shit?

There are a lot of little things I’d do, but specifically to being WWE-ish, we’d basically have to mandate the players develop and be permitted to publicly show personalities. That might be hard to do from the marketing end.

Yep. Fuck everybody else! I can’t hear your complaining over the sound of We Are The Champions playing on loop from my balcony.

This, by the way, is why MLB really ought to vacate the Astros’ title. No consequence they can inflict now is sufficient otherwise. Vacating the title probably isn’t either, but it at least damages the prize for cheating somewhat. Otherwise the cost/benefit still skews very heavily in favour of benefit.

I’m no urban planner so I’ll defer to those who are (I think Steve, who sent in the prior question, is.) I think the city would have been best off building trains and transit into the city every way they could. Our current network is pretty meager compared to other cities of our size around the world, and to be honest driving in this city anywhere south of Bloor street is a fuckin’ nightmare anyway. With apologies to those on the Gardiner Expressway during rush hour, the goal ought to be to get people out of cars altogether.

Nothing. If Campbell keeps outperforming Andersen to a meaningful degree it’s probably going to happen. Andersen’s status will be enough to give him the job if it’s ambiguous or if Campbell is slightly ahead, and I still expect Freddie’s more likely to be the G1 starter should we get there than not. But I think you’re right that teams have been willing to ride the up and comer lately over the established starter.

The only other point I’d make: Campbell is 28 and has mostly been a good backup for his career. He isn’t quite the young guy on the make compared to (at the times you mention) Halak, Grubauer or Binnington. But it’s not impossible.

Someone suggested “Soup Is Good Food” by the Dead Kennedys, which is a good song but is also phenomenally dark, so not exactly the celebratory mood we’re going for.

So let’s have some fun with the nickname Mickey and go off book with it. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, specifically the part that starts at 2:16 here. You can’t tell me this wouldn’t be instantly more memorable than hearing some middling classic rock song for the thousandth time.

I’ve been a Leafs fan pretty much since birth and I am now in my early 30s, so take from that what you will.

My low point as a Leaf fan is a very specific one: January 30, 2010. The Leafs, in a year where they did not have their first-round pick due to the Phil Kessel trade; it was clear the Leafs were going to be ruined by bad goaltending and their general ineptitude as they had been for several years prior, The Leafs jumped out to a 3-0 lead against the Vancouver Canucks, against prime Roberto Luongo no less. Then Andrew Raycroft, who was the return for arguably the worst trade in Leaf history, came in as the Canucks’ backup. Vesa Toskala, one of his miserable successors in the Leaf net, imploded and Toronto lost 5-3. Raycroft shut the door for Vancouver the rest of the way, which is significantly more competent than I ever remember him being for us, and then he gave an interview afterwards where he chuckled about the Leafs still paying him because he was bought out.

I’ve talked about this before, but: bad games ruin your night and maybe the next morning. Bad management ruins years. Losses like the It Was 4-1 Game and the Zamboni Driver Game are dumb and frustrating, but in the end they’re just bad games and it’s not like either of them was in the Stanley Cup Finals (lol.) I’ll take the Dubas Leafs and the Zamboni Driver a thousand times over a team that lost normally en route to 25th place every year. The magic of the Raycroft Relief game was that it was a bad defeat that pointed to how badly we’d been mismanaged and how the consequences for that mismanagement were continuing to ruin us.

We traded for Dion Phaneuf the next morning, by the way.

Like that the Leafs could put together now? Or that I can imagine? I wouldn’t trust Ceci-Barrie to defend a theatre seat while I went to buy popcorn and the worst forwards would probably be the fourth line since they’re not that good at defence and they don’t score. The worst I can imagine is whatever we actually did in 2013.

I kind of addressed this above: I’m really not sure they’d make a big ticket signing. I don’t think there’s a real fit. Maybe a trade gets more viable in that circumstance, but I hear RD are expensive.

Having seen none of these films, they all sound genuinely awful. I’m voting for Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College because I feel that it’s important to support higher learning and let’s be honest, the world has enough frat boys. If a few of them get wiped by weird mini-demons, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

Not right now, I don’t. Zach Hyman is shooting at the highest percentage in the league for a regular forward. I love him, but that isn’t going to continue. I think his realistic level is a 20-goal, 45-point kind of guy who does a lot of little things well, and he’ll probably settle back there next year. I’d give him something like $4.2M x 4 to do it (after the Seattle draft so I don’t have to shield him.) He can probably beat that on the open market and that means he might leave and I’m sad now.

A little.

One of my big Hockey Opinions: every other team is more inconsistent than people realize. It seems like your team is more inconsistent than most because you feel the disappointment more keenly when they lose a game they ought to win. But hockey has a lot of game-to-game variance. Boston, who are in first place, have lost twice this year to Detroit, who are in last. The Leafs have a better winning percentage when they have a lead after two periods than Boston or Tampa Bay do. Toronto is probably a little more prone to emotional swings because they both score and allow more goals than most teams, and you might hope they get a bit better defensively with age, but I actually think Auston Matthews has finally been improving defensively this season. Being 22 and rich leaves you prone to distractions, but I’m not sure that’s the culprit here. Short version: maybe!

Keefe currently looks to be giving him a bit more rest than he previously did now that Campbell is in place. You’ll notice Campbell got the start against San Jose, which was not a back-to-back. That will probably continue unless we fall back down again and get to must-win-every-game territory (and Freddie is still our clear starter, which he might not be if that happens.) I think the Leafs will keep Freddie to about 60 starts.

You know, I wonder if the Leafs can truly have a Mark Donk player because the media attention is so constant that any call-up who can tie his own skates gets 1500 words at The Athletic and a week on Leafs Lunch. Insofar as we can, Ilya Mikheyev fits the bill. I think he’s lesser known, but when healthy he plays with a star centre and produces. Further to that: at the time he went down with injury, Mikheyev was on a 48-point pace, which is classic Donk-level production.

I don’t move one of the Big 4 to do it. If I can make it work under those parameters, I do so.

The cap for next year is being estimated in the $84M to $88M range. Needless to say, the viability of this idea depends enormously on where it falls in that range (or whether it winds up under it, which is by no means impossible.) Andreas Johnsson has to be dealt for no more than a six-figure salary back, we have to squeeze Travis Dermott or deal him, and we have to fill out our forward group with the cheapest possible players. That might include Frederik Gauthier, Jason Spezza, and possibly Joe Thornton if those rumours are true. Even then, the money is very tight just to give Pietrangelo a $9M AAV deal. I’d really, really like to keep Kerfoot and Kapanen because getting nothing from your third line is a good way to be a middling team, but it’s possible that wouldn’t be doable. The only upside is that the 10% offseason limit would allow the Leafs to wait on making some of these decisions until after they’d signed Pietrangelo—who may or may not have any interest in coming here.

To answer it as written, and assuming the goalies are healthy, Pittsburgh, Colorado and Vancouver. Honourable mention to Columbus, whose goalies are still in small sample territory but have done very well for cheap. I want no part of the Vasilievskiy extension, although he qualifies on merit for this year.

I have to say, though, the tailoring on this question seems a bit tight. It excludes from consideration all of Boston, Florida, Montreal, Washington, New Jersey, both New York teams, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, Winnipeg, Anaheim, Arizona, Edmonton, Los Angeles (by about $8,000), San Jose, and Vegas. This is not to say I would prefer the goaltending situation of every team on that list, but I’d take some of them, and the construction here rewards us for having our backup signed next season and our starter being cheap by contender standards. The problem is that if Andersen doesn’t play like a bona fide starting goalie it doesn’t do us much good, and then we have one hell of a tough decision on an extension.

It depends how he shows the rest of the year and in camp. They probably send him to the OHL because that’s the likeliest outcome for a 19-year-old player. But as I said it’s not impossible.

Healthy Defence Pairings
Rielly - Dermott
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Barrie

The top two pairs are closer to a platoon than a clear first and second pairing, though. Also, I totally forgot about Barrie the first time I did this because I’m still psychologically trying to trade him.

Oh, I can’t pick a favourite there, it wouldn’t be fair. It’s like picking a favourite child: obviously you have one but you can’t say it.

The kind where I don’t suffer excruciating brainfreeze every single time. I can’t eat ice cream because of it. Pity my plight.

Thank you to everyone who contributed!