Cap Friendly has been overrun with Leafs fans this weekend as reports indicate contract negotiations between the Alex Pietrangelo and the St. Louis Blues have deteriorated. It’s becoming more and more likely Pietrangelo will enter free agency on October 9th, with the Toronto Maple Leafs deeply interested. If the improbable happens and he signs, I just want to say that Justin Faulk will never pay for a drink in the GTA ever again.
In the grand scheme of things, the odds Pietrangelo signs on the virtual dotted line in October are low. The Blues can cave in at any moment and give into his contract demands, another team could come in with a better offer, or a meteor could smash into the Earth (we’re on pace for one before the end of September at the rate 2020 is going).
But what if he does? What will the Leafs need to do in order to ice a salary cap compliant and competitive team for next season?
What doesn’t need to happen: Trading Frederik Andersen
The Leafs goalie situation is, for the most part, independent of finding the cap space for Pietrangelo. If the Leafs do make a trade for someone like Matt Murray, Darcy Kuemper, Alexander Georgiev, or sign Robin Lehner, the team’s cap space will go up or down, but it won’t be done because the Leafs need the space. It’ll be because Kyle Dubas pulled the trigger on a goalie for the medium term so he didn’t have to deal with it next season when Andersen is a free agent.
Trading for a cheaper goalie would make signing Pietrangelo easier, as they’ll be able to keep one of their middle-class contracts, but it’s not necessary. Plus, personally, spending more on a more proven starting goalie is more valuable than an average 3C, especially on this team.
What does need to happen: Trading Andreas Johnsson
This move is almost a given if the Leafs are interested in acquiring any defenseman of merit onto the team. Andreas Johnsson simply does not move the needle enough on a team needs as much bang for their buck when it comes to offense beyond the top-four. Ilya Mikheyev has seemingly passed him by on the left side, Nick Robertson is blazing towards doing the same. As a winger, he just doesn’t provide enough.
I don’t think there’s much debate on this topic from the community from what I’ve seen.
What doesn’t need to happen: Trading Morgan Rielly
The money doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t need to happen. The Leafs don’t have someone on the right side who can play the minutes Rielly does and provide the elite puck-moving offense from the defense. Offensively, he can’t realistically be replaced. Where Rielly has lacked statistically, it’s been defensively next to a crop of some of the worst defensive players in the league during Rielly’s time in it. Ron Hainsey was the best one, and replacing him with Alex Pietrangelo has a strong chance of creating an elite top pair this team needs.
Give this pair two seasons together and let’s see what they can do. And at the end of it all, the Leafs will be out of Phil Kessel’s retained salary and Jack Campbell’s contract, giving them adequate space to give Rielly a respectable couple million dollars raise. He won’t command more than Pietrangelo (reportedly in the $8-9 million range) and that’s something the Leafs can do, even under a flat cap. and if the Leafs need to choose between Rielly and an aged Jake Muzzin, they can spend the assets and move Muzzin out too.
There are options for the Leafs to have their Rielly cake (phrasing) and eat it too. It doesn’t need to be solved right now.
Breathe, Rielly is staying.
What does* need to happen: Trading Alex Kerfoot
I’ve laid out a scenario for the Leafs below to sign Pietrangelo and fill out their roster using internal RFAs and trading both Johnsson and Kerfoot for picks or prospects. I have no idea what the return for those players will be — especially if here are signed skaters coming back — but it’ll definitely look something like this.
And the cap hit proof. There's actually a fair amount left to wiggle on salary negotiations or even get a legit 3C in Johan Larsson for a couple mil. pic.twitter.com/KHrHQOHWQr— Hardev Lad (@HardevLad) September 19, 2020
With Kerfoot, there is a tiny bit of space that could be made to keep him on the team for a second season. It would require a major squeeze to the likes of RFAs Ilya Mikheyev, Evan Rodrigues. and Travis Dermott (who I will get to later) and likely the trading of Pierre Engvall. All of those things are difficult and cruel, but those players are replaceable for the most part. I think it’s worthwhile to try, but it would be very hard and callous. Brigstew has an article coming out on this that I won’t spoil, but replacing Kerfoot for cheap is a very reasonable proposition (spoiler above).
What Kerfoot doesn’t do is provide enough value on the third line to downgrade top of the lineup players like Andersen, Rielly, or even Zach Hyman. On the ladder of expendable players on the Leafs, Kerfoot and his contract is at the bottom of that group making $2-6 million. Maybe Justin Holl gets bumped for Dermott, that could be very possible.
There are a lot of different avenues the Leafs can take to ice a competitive lineup next season bolstered by one of the top defensemen in the world, however none of them require a major piece to be news. No offense to Andreas and Alexander.
If the improbable does happen and the above moves do need to happen, the Leafs will finally be what they’ve been accused of by so many people: top heavy. They’ll have two elite forward lines, one elite defense pair, and hopefully a top-10 goalie in Frederik Andersen (at least for this year). The defense will finally look respectable after decades of being bottom-10 in the league, I think I quite like all three pairings (plus whoever else they have as a scratch or on the Marlies. The bottom-six is where they’ll be weakest.
Unless the Leafs can get above-expected seasons from some of their players — Robertson gets old and better, Engvall gets out of his shooting bender, and Alexander Barabanov becomes a worthwhile middle-six player — the third and fourth lines will basically be two fourth lines. Similar to what the Marlies did, I wouldn’t mind an offensively focused and a defensively focused group to maximize both units.
I don’t know if I trust the Leafs top two lines to carry the team every night, but they’ll have to if this is the way the Leafs go in this direction. It’s risky and scary, but it also gets you Alex Pietrangelo. Is that worth it?
What would you do as GM?
This poll is closed
Bring me Pietro, we need to solve the 1RD problem
Cheap and cheerful, build on depth