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Should Josh Ho-Sang get a contract?

That answer seems obvious. There is less clarity on what kind, and what reasonable expectations of his future are.

NHL: SEP 29 Preseason - Maple Leafs at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Josh Ho-Sang’s fame is not doing him any favours. When he was signed by the Maple Leafs to a PTO, the expectations ramped up to a level that Ho-Sang could never be reasonably expected to reach, as Leafs fans wanted to see an epic redemptions story.

Everyone wants him to make the team and score a goal and two assists in a playoff game against the Islanders. On Tavares’s line, of course, while the orchestra provides a soundtrack to make your heart soar. The sun will bust out from behind a cloud, while the sky is a deep and luminous blue, ushering in a new age. I’d watch that show on Netflix.

Redemption songs are all you ever hear about the Leafs now. Kyle Dubas took up thrifting and antiquing and now he never stops going on about his latest finds. Alex Galchenyuk was the biggest success so far, although Cody Ceci managed to take his season on the Leafs and turn it into a continuation of his career in a way that is still surprising people. Ron Hainsey added years of valuable contributions on cheap deals, and nothing says “started with nothing in the AHL, and look at me now” like Justin Holl’s iron grip on his top four job.

But on the other side of the ledger is a long list of European signings who fizzled. A contract doesn’t come with a guarantee. The Marlies signed Frank Corrado when he’d had a bad injury, helping him out, and he’s gone to Europe. They also signed Jordan Subban when he seemed to have worn out his welcome in the Vancouver organization, and he’s gone from Europe to a season off and now to the AHL again. Redemption sometimes is just about accepting who you really are. Sometimes the accepting gets done by the Leafs, like with Jimmy Vesey.

Preseason Positivity and Historical Negativity

Josh Ho-Sang has looked very good on the Leafs in some of the preseason games. I refuse to look at preseason stats, but he’s played with John Tavares, which is like riding a tandem bike with this year’s Tour de France winner. But he’s there, pedalling away effectively. He then played against Ottawa with a much lesser set of linemates, and impressed on the power play, but wasn’t showing up as a defensive force.

He’s looked good, but he’s not taking an NHL job out of camp. It doesn’t matter how many fans pencil the guy in on the top line, he’s not playing there, and it’s hardly news that right-wing jobs on the Maple Leafs are not plentiful. It’s absolutely inevitable that he will start on the Marlies and no higher, and once there, he’s got to compete against Joey Anderson and a few players who are nominally centres but regularly play on the wing. In that context, he should be able to take a top-six job and get on with saving his hockey career.

That career is on life support, however. Ho-Sang spent four years on two teams in the OHL, and finished with 1.14 points per game. The trouble is 72% of his OHL points were assists, and that’s more than Mitch Marner at that age. Ho-Sang was and is a playmaker, not a driver of his own offence, and it’s a fair question to ask if he’s Jeremy Bracco the second. He has moves, but is he worth parachuting into the offensive zone where he can make them, and is there more to his game?

Post-OHL, Ho-Sang has played 53 NHL games and 178 in the AHL. His NHL games were nowhere near good enough to warrant him getting a job fulltime, and while the story you hear is that the Islanders didn’t put him in a position to succeed, his most frequent linemates were Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier and Anders Lee. It wasn’t until his third try at the NHL with the Islanders that he ended up with Valtteri Filppula for a lot of minutes. Filppula is one of the few NHL players who shoots the puck as little as Joe Thornton, so no, Ho-Sang didn’t belong with him.

In the AHL, Ho-Sang did well until 2019-2020, when the relationship with the Islanders was over, and he began a period of itinerant travels mid-season where teams tried him because of his talent, and then tired of him for reasons no one can or will articulate. He played 22 games in 2019-2020 on two AHL teams, nine in 2020-2021 on two different SHL teams and now he’s at the make or break point of his life as a hockey player.

Ho-Sang turns 26 in January. That’s the age where most NHL players are at the highest point they will ever reach. The NHL records are littered with players whose career high was one season at age 25 where they were good enough to look like they belonged there, and then they were never heard from by anyone but AHL fans again.

This could be Ho-Sang’s best-case future, because he’s left his redemption tour a little late, and he’s not coming off a glorious year in Europe like Brennan Menell. Ho-Sang was terrible there. And while he says one of the coaches there reached him like no one had before, he barely played.

But he has looked like he’s earned a job in this preseason, easily outplaying Nikita Gusev, and most of the Leafs’ own younger, AHL-level free-agent signings. So, yes, it is obvious he should get the year in Toronto under contract to see if he can play pro hockey for real day-in and day-out.

Contracts

The short answer to what sort of deal should he get is: It doesn’t really matter. While the type of contract a player gets can convey a certain level of status, that’s not what’s important in these decisions.

The Leafs have 47 SPCs right now, and 48 is a totally fine number. The Alex Galchenyuk deal showed how easy it is to painlessly add contract space. Waivers aren’t likely much of a concern, because Ho-Sang is very obviously a Leafs-style project, and other teams have their own problems to solve. He’d clear.

The choices are as follows: He can sign an AHL deal, get paid a decent amount and not have any escrow to think about. If the Leafs decide they need him on the team, an NHL contract can be signed quickly and he’s good to go.

He could sign an NHL two-way deal with a generous AHL salary, and again, there’s no worry about escrow at first, he just gets waived, goes to the Marlies, plays until he earns a callup and joins the Leafs. He’d be smart to sign for an AAV that is nice and small and fits into the roster emergency amount.

He could sign an NHL one-way deal, and nothing would be appreciably different, other than he’d be paid more in the AHL.

An AHL or NHL two-way deal is most likely. It doesn’t matter which. It just matters how he plays. But that nagging issue about how his points are all assists isn’t going to go away. In the AHL, his percentage was 75% assists. In the NHL it was 71%. And out of a sample of 328 career NHL forwards with at least 2,000 minutes played over five years that I do just happen to have lying around, there are only 19 players with assists at 70% or greater of total points. Mitch Marner is 69%. The number of those 19 who are wingers is very small, with Ondrej Palat and Jake Voracek as the stars.

Ho-Sang’s playing style is a hard way to make the NHL. And most players who do it as wingers are guys like Leo Komarov or Justin Abdelkader — guys who carve out a role as a grinder or a defensive specialist to pay the bills while they pass the puck and never shoot.

I don’t think Ho-Sang can cut it unless he actually changes his game in the AHL. Fulemin talked on the Back to Excited podcast about Ho-Sang’s tendency to hang onto the puck too long, and that’s got to be job one for Marlies coach Greg Moore. Ho-Sang has to feed that puck quickly and cleanly and take the shot when the shot should be taken. He needs to participate in bringing the puck into the zone too. I don’t ask for defence from every winger, but without something other than an ability to play on the second power play unit, how is an NHL team using him?

Ho-Sang is not an NHL-ready player. He could conceivably get there, but it’s not a guarantee. Watching someone like him try to honestly and truly find his level and come to acceptance and get fulfilment in the game is one of the best things about hockey. It’s the way the game can give us insights into ourselves far greater than anything about heart or grit or any other cliché you hear on the radio.

I can’t wait to watch him. Hand him a pen, Kyle.