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Can the Leafs afford Pietrangelo by replacing their depth with cheaper alternatives?

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Let’s see if we can make a roster that’s cheaper, not much worse, and leaves enough room for Pietrangelo

Vancouver Canucks v St Louis Blues - Game Five Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Ever since the Leafs were eliminated from being allowed to participate in the playoffs, there’s been a lot of talk about players on the Leafs that the they would entertain trading. We’ve already seen Kasperi Kapanen traded to the Penguins, but there are others left on the list.

The common belief is that the Leafs will be trading away other players (listed below) to make cap space so they can go out and acquire a defenseman... or three. But if they don’t get players who can replace them, they’re going to need to find replacements elsewhere.

Addendum: I actually started working on this a couple of days before the news broke about Pietrangelo going to free agency. So... maybe the Leafs are a bit more motivated to try and work out how they can clear cap space with cheaper alternatives? I asked around the PPP Masthead for any players they’ve always liked who may be underrated, unheralded, and cheapish. I combined their answers with guys I’ve always liked to put this list together.

Candidates to Replace Andreas Johnsson

Johnsson is the guy who, along with Kapanen, most people thought were most likely to be traded. I was one of such person. Of course, Kapanen had more trade value around the league, which helped Dubas made out like a bandit. Assuming the Leafs do pull the trigger on that deal, who can the Leafs find to replace him as a third line left winger who can maybe play up in the lineup with the big boys?

Conor Garland

Garland was someone Fulemin said he liked, and after looking into him, I have to agree that he’d be a great fit. He’s still only 24 years old but is showing signs of being quite effective as a middle-6 winger. He has a positive Corsi and expected goals percentage, and positive relative rates as well. His isolated threat was better than both Johnsson’s and Kapanen’s were last year. He had 22 goals in 68 games this year, and is the same age as Kappy.

In the QMJHL, Garland was an assist machine with 104 goals and 224 assists in 206 total games. That ratio of goals to assists roughly held in the AHL, but in the NHL he’s had 35 goals and only 22 assists. I think there’s a chance he has more point production to to give if he plays on a better offensive team. The fact that he’s young, has good underlying numbers, and is on a cheaper ELC makes him basically a dream choice to replace Johnsson in terms of quality play for more than $2.5 million in cap savings.

The issue will be if the Coyotes are willing to part with him. Since he’s still on his ELC for another year and is therefore very cheap, the cash-strapped Coyotes will probably hold onto him for one more season unless we overpay to get him. But would they throw Garland into a deal if the Leafs take a bigger contract off their hands...? [ominous foreshadowing]

Frank Vatrano

Frank Vatrano is a guy I’ve always liked. He is just under $1 million cheaper than Johnsson at $2,533,333 million for another two years. He is like Johnsson in that he is smaller (5’11”) but plays fiesty. He’s had a 24 goal season, and was on pace for a 40+ point year this season. He’s also the same age as Johnsson with the same birth year.

His fancy stats aren’t as good as Garland’s, and haven’t been at any point in his career. He basically comes across as a replacement level guy with some ability to produce points with good linemates. That’s kind of what we’ve seen from Johnsson and Kapanen anyways, mind you.

Would Florida trade him? He isn’t making a TON of money, but he’s not cheap either. Florida may find him expendable in their quest to save money without dramatically making the team worse. Would he be worth trading for? Well... depends on what they ask for in return, as it always does. Potentially worth exploring, however. Maybe in a larger deal to acquire one of their defenseman wink wink nudge nudge say no more?

Jesse Puljujärvi

Jesse Puljujarvi was someone Kevin mentioned, and he might be another pipe dream. But the Leafs are now short on Finnish right wingers and that cannot stand! We all know his story in Edmonton, where after falling out with the Oilers management at the time Puljujärvi left for the Liiga in Finland and hasn’t returned.

But he has excelled there. Still just 22, Puljujärvi went back to playing a game that worked for him and... it worked. He led his team in points, and finished 4th in the league with 53 points in 56 games. He may not be the star winger people thought he’d be when he was drafted 4th overall, but as a third line winger with the Leafs’ vast team of skills coaches working with him? I think he could be a capable replacement for Johnsson and Kappy as a third line winger.

Would the Leafs be able to get him? Well, I’m not sure. He’s technically still an RFA, having not signed any new contract with Edmonton when he left for Europe, but they still control his rights. I do think that the Leafs could explore it though. The only other question is how much cheaper, if at all, he’d be in terms of cap hit? With a poor NHL track record, I think he’d be cheaper than $3.4 million.

Vinnie Hinostroza

My cousin Vinnie was Katya’s choice. And after a while I realized she didn’t mean the movie. Vincent Hinostroza is a 26 year old who is also also pretty underrated winger with good defensive impacts. Not as good as Larsson’s mind you, but still good. He might also offer some extra offensive upside to balance that out, having put up a 40+ point pace in the two seasons before having a down year this season thanks to a very low shooting percentage.

Hinostroza was a positive (relative and overall) shot attempt and expected goals guy, playing with a mix of linemates all year (Stepan, Richardson, Keller, Grabner, Crouse mostly). He got some PP time and did a tick above average in terms of impact.

With a pretty good mix of offense and defense, but coming off a down year as far as points go, would Arizona sell low on him? He is an RFA with arbitration rights. If the qualifying offer is too rich for a team that is currently having trouble paying their players and employees, they might be willing to move him for pretty cheap. As it is, Evolving Wild’s estimates his contract to be $2,588,000 for 3 years if he signs with a new team. That’s just under a full $1 million less than Kerfoot. He may not be as good as Larsson, but that’s a big chunk cheaper while still being very serviceable.

Candidates to Replace Alex Kerfoot

Alexander Kerfoot wound up being a useful and cheap-ish third line center (when he was actually used as a 3C anyways). He was versatile, playing some on the PP and even the PK during their sort-of-playoffs, and playing up and down the lineup. He had a decent defensive impact (especially for the Leafs), but did struggle to produce points... especially in the sort-of-playoffs.

At $3.5 million, his cap hit is in the territory of not being overpaid but one of the bigger non-core player contracts that can be traded. The issue will be finding a replacement that is both cheaper and as good as Kerfoot can be.

Johan Larsson

I didn’t even have to ask anyone to mention Larsson. We all like him as a UFA signings for the Leafs, and have even before the Pietrangelo situation developed. That’s because Larsson is a pretty underrated player in the league. He’s not going to blow you away, and has never really put up a lot of points, but he is a very good play driver and potential set up man. He’s basically a similar kind of center as Kerfoot, as far as good play driving without many points.

The thing is, he spent a lot of time playing on Buffalo’s third line. I don’t know if you know this, but Buffalo’s depth has been pretty trash for a long time, so Larsson didn’t really have a lot to work with (coughs in Girgensons). But he also has better play driving numbers than Kerfoot does. He was in the positive in possession and expected goals on Buffalo, and his defensive impact has been quite good for two straight years.

And because he’s so underrated he might also be cheaper to acquire. Best of all, he’s a UFA so it won’t take assets to trade for him. I think the Leafs have been exposed to him in their division for long enough to likely appreciate him, and they might be able to acquire him for relatively cheap — as in cheaper than what Kerfoot makes now. To me, that’s a potential upgrade on Kerfoot in terms of value, and potentially on a cheaper deal.

But how much cheaper? Evolving Wild’s projection for Larsson’s contract is $3,074,000 AAV for 4 years which is a hair cheaper than Kerfoot to replace him at 3C. Could he be had for less than that? Depends on what the market for him is, but I’m guessing if he does come any cheaper than that it won’t be by much.

Lias Andersson

Andersson is another Kevin choice. He is the Swedish/center version of Puljujärvi. He had a bit of a falling out with the Rangers, although some of his issues sound like they were internal, and left partway through the season to play in Sweden in the SHL. There he had 12 points in 15 games, and led his team in the SHL pre-season (so take that for what it’s worth) this month with 12 points in 8 games.

So the the thing about Andersson, is that so far in his three (partial) NHL seasons he’s been following the Sam Bennett track but with even fewer NHL points. It doesn’t help that the Rangers have been bad while the Flames have had good teams in recent years. Andersson’s underlying numbers have not been good in any of his NHL seasons, so if the Leafs trade for him you are going on his potential and maybe a change of scenery helping him out.

That makes it a gamble to grab him and run him out there as 3C, especially with no one really to fall back on. So the Leafs would have to believe in his potential based on their scouting, how they can help him develop more, and how he can fit in their system. But he’s also still 21, and sounds to have figured himself out a bit back home. The Rangers are rebuilding, and likely won’t give him up for cheap since he’s on his ELC for one more season. But he WOULD be have cap savings of around $2.5 million compared to Kerfoot.

Candidates to Replace Frederik Andersen

Frederik Andersen is a consistently good goalie, season to season. He’ll have his ups and downs (like most goalies), but his numbers at the end of the season are about as consistent for several seasons as you’ll find in an NHL goalie. He has a $5 million cap hit, with a $4 million signing bonus. Having a decent cap hit with low salary after his bonus is paid could make him very attractive on the trade market.

Whatever the Leafs decide to do in net this coming off-season will be risky. If they keep Andersen, will he decline again? If they trade him, will they get someone back who’s worse? Are goalies even real? Or are they made up like Finland?

Darcy Kuemper / Antti Raanta

Over the past three seasons, the top 5 goalies in GSAA (goals saved above average) according to Natural Stat Trick are:

  1. Andrei Vasilevskiy
  2. Connor Hellebuyck
  3. Ben Bishop
  4. Darcy Kuemper
  5. Antti Raanta

Andersen, to compare, is 11th for that timespan. But he was 40th this past season. Kuemper is one year younger than Andersen and has a cap hit of $4.5 million for two more seasons. Raanta is a year older, has only one year left before he is a UFA, and his cap hit is $4.25 million with a $2 million signing bonus. If it seems like $500k or $750k isn’t a lot of cap savings, you’re right it isn’t. Although if the Leafs swung a bigger deal that also brought Garland or Hinostroza to the Leafs, you’re talking combined cap savings of around two to three million.

Why would the Coyotes trade from their one positions of strength that keeps them competitive? Because they’re having all kinds of trouble with money (read point #18 in Friedman’s recent 31 thoughts). There are pretty strong rumours that Kuemper is being shopped, and if they’re shopping one they may be listening on both guys to see what gets them the best return and/or the most money off their books.

Would the Leafs have what the Coyotes would want back? They’re not going to want any big contracts back, unless they have salaries less than their cap hits and no signing bonuses. Andersen going back could be interesting, because he has a $4 million signing bonus the Leafs could pay first, and then he only has $1 million left to actually be paid. Andreas Johnsson has less total salary to be paid than cap hits because he had a bigger salary this season, but he also has signing bonuses each of his remaining three seasons. Otherwise, Arizona could take back picks and prospects since they don’t have to be paid much.

Linus Ullmark

The advantage of Ullmark is that he might strike the right balance of good enough and cheaper enough compared to Andersen that he makes sense compared to Raanta and Kuemper. By GSAA and save percentage he was middle of the pack. By goals saved above expected (GSAx), he’s a bit below average. Does any of that mean much? Not in terms of predicting how well he may do in the future, such is the nature of goalie stats. The advantage is that he’s only 27, which is relatively young, and might not that be that expensive.

Will Buffalo trade him? That depends. As of now, he’s an RFA and eligible for arbitration. The Buffalo Sabres are one of the teams thought to have financial difficulties and may have an internal cap until the pandemic is resolved. They’ve been trading away more expensive players for cheaper alternatives (Johansson makes $1 million more in actual salary than Staal), and still have only four forwards under contract.

His last contract he made $1,325,000, so the question is how much more expensive would he get? For a trade to make sense, he’d have to make too much for Buffalo to want to keep him but not so much that he has too much of a cap hit for us to want to get him. Tricky, innit?

Corey Crawford

Crawford is someone that Katya likes. He has a long history of being a good goalie, maybe even a top-tier goalie. Even though he’s now 35, he was one of the top goalies in the NHL by both GSAA and expected saves above average. He comes with some injury baggage though, and he’ll be 36 on December 31st.

The health and age puts him in a precarious position as a UFA. He’s near the end of his career, so he’s not likely going to get a long term deal. In an off-season where there are reportedly a lot of good goalies on the market as free agents or via trade, he might not get a lot of money either. So if Chicago wants to move in another direction, and they might since they already signed Robin Lehner this past year (before trading him at the deadline because they thought they were out of the playoffs), and they now have Colin Delia and traded for Malcolm Subban in the Lehner deal.

So then the question is, would he want to come to Toronto and for how much? Well, if the Leafs trade Andersen there will be a clear #1 goalie spot for him, which he’ll likely want. The Leafs could be a contender, which he also might want. He’ll be in Canada, where he’s from (Montreal) where it might be easier for him to see his family if the NHL actually does have the rumoured all Canadian division to get around the border issue. But could he be had for a good bargain? In the Pietrangelo news piece I linked at the start, Katya included him in a quick mock-roster at $2 million. At that low a price that would be a $3 million cap savings over Andersen, and might have the potential for at least this year to be a good replacement.

James Reimer

So I wasn’t originally going to include Reimer, even though I know we all love him (unless you are a neurologist for a former NHL player, apparently). But when researching the underlying numbers for the above goalies I couldn’t help but notice that James Reimer had the third best goals saved above expected (GSAx) in the league last year.

He makes $3.4 million for one more season, and comes with a $2.25 million signing bonus and $3.1 million total salary. Compare that to Andersen’s $4 million signing bonus and $5 million total salary, that’s a difference of $1.75 million in bonuses, $1.9 million in total salary, and $1.6 million in cap hit. Carolina has typically been a more financially strapped team, but also very smart. They could save some money and get a better (in theory) goalie for next year in Andersen if they do a straight-swap.

But could the Leafs get a bit more out of Carolina in that deal? Considering Andersen is two years younger, cheaper, and potentially better if he bounces back to his play before this past season? Would they give us one of their two second round picks, or a pick in next year’s draft? Would they throw in one of their cheaper/younger defensemen that I wrote about recently to just complete this pipe dream while I’m at it? Maybe a pony too?

Candidates to Replace Pierre Engvall

At $1.25 million, Engvall isn’t someone who really breaks the bank. But for his role, he might also be a surplus making just a bit too much money when the Leafs might be clawing to dollars and cents. In his brief NHL stint, he was below average in terms of offensive impact but quite good in his defensive impact between the third and fourth lines. In fact, the fourth line with him, Clifford and Spezza was one of the bright spots in their sort-of-playoffs.

The question is, can the Leafs find someone who can replace him for cheaper and be as good or close enough to it? Probably, yes. The fourth line in particular is VERY likely something that the Leafs go hyper-cheap on, even if they don’t sign Pietrangelo. Although you could play Engvall on the third line with someone like Larsson and have a pretty strong shut-down third line that drives play in the right direction.

Of course the question will be... who exactly are you replacing: Engvall the center, or Engvall the winger? He played both roles at time last year, and that flexibility does have value. Well, let’s see what we can find.

Joe Thornton and/or Jason Spezza

Jumbo Joe is a guy who has been connected to the Leafs in rumours for a few years. He will be a sure-fire hall of famer, but is now near the end of his career at age 41. Even at 41, he put up 31 points on an awful Sharks team plagued by injuries, and his underlying numbers shows a league average offensive forward with a bit of defensive value and power play specialization still.

The Leafs could use him as a 2nd PP unit specialist, 4C at even strength, playing less than 10 minutes a game. Basically, what Spezza did last year. He could help out the beleaguered 2nd PP unit, maybe setting up some alternative snipers... like Nick Robertson!

So what will he cost to get one of them, or hell even both of them? Well, Thornton had a 1 year $2 million deal last year. He had a pretty down year by points though, and is a year older. If he wants to chase a championship one last time, will he be willing to take a cheap deal like Spezza did to chase a Cup with his home town team? If he goes for league minimum (which is $700k next year), that’s $550k in cap savings from Engvall, assuming Engvall is relegated to the fourth line again.

As for Spezza, he had a league minimum contract last year and has said he’d like to come back. He’d likely take a very similar deal to do it.

Jayce Hawryluk

Hawryluk was another Kevin choice, in fact he has expressed in the recent past that he liked him. Looking at his profile, he had average offensive impacts but pretty stellar defensive impacts between his time on Florida and Ottawa — neither known for their defense.

He’s also only 24, and only has 68 games in the NHL across two seasons under his belt. He has largely played third and fourth line minutes, but has a decent rate of production in that limited role. He is an RFA with arbitration rights, and is finished the year in Ottawa. They, like Buffalo, are a bad team with only four forwards under contract right now. They have two UFAs and 6 RFAs to sign — four of them with arbitration rights.

Will Ottawa walk away from him depending on how the qualifying offer/arbitration goes (with him and the others)? The Sens aren’t anywhere near reaching the cap ceiling, and had to have the NHL intervene to pay their coaching staff the money they were owed. If they let Hawryluk go because he could make more than league minimum without being a young rising star on an ELC, the Leafs could snap him up for cheap. If they want to keep or trade him, he’s not such a good player that he would likely cost more than a lower round pick. That would help the Sens avoid paying money, and the Leafs get a decent but cheap player.

Concluding Thoughts

Take any mix of the players I mentioned above, and swap them in for any of the non-core Leafs players that are making a more than league minimum: Johnsson, Kerfoot, Engvall, and Andersen. When you add up the cap savings, you can afford to fit Pietrangelo under the cap up to $9 million. The more expensive it gets, the more likely the Leafs will be in a situation like this past year where they don’t have any extras on the roster with the team.

So it’s possible, but is it ideal? I played around with some lineups that look interesting, but the concern will always be depth. They’ll be relying on guys like Brooks, Korshkov, Marincin and Rosen to fill in adequately when (not if) injuries happen. But at least if one of their big defensemen get hurt (Rielly, Muzzin, Pietro) they’ll still have two more instead of one. They’re not going to be as exciting offensively (well... potentially exciting) but will they be a better team overall that can win a fricking playoff round? If they’re healthy, one can hope.

The one thing that this exercise taught me is that it’s going to be difficult to fit Pietro under the cap without trading someone like Andersen or Rielly. If they do, they’re going to have to get rid of all their other guys making any kind of money with league minimum guys and it will be... interesting. Hopefully the Leafs can pull the same trick they did with Tavares and get him for cheaper than the biggest ask because of clever use of signing bonuses and contract structure. It will also help if he decides he really wants to come to Toronto anyways.

Post your rosters that work under the cap in the comments! It can be fun to play around with different rosters and lineups to see what can be done (realistically) to build a good roster.