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Should the Maple Leafs trade for Mikael Granlund?

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Here we are again with another rumoured trade prospect.

Nashville Predators v Detroit Red Wings”n Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

Today Maple Leafs first-round pick Rodion Amirov plays in his first KHL playoff game. He’s an exciting prospect who did very well in his first full year in pro hockey at the age of 19. His playoff experience is likely going to involve playing a depth role — third-line wing is where he’s been lately — along with appearances on the un-coveted second power-play unit. He’s going to play so little because his team has a hot-like-burning top line that is so good, so dominating, that the coach understandably plays them around 20 minutes every game.

Amirov may chafe at the bit to get more minutes, to show how good he is with better linemates, but for the good of the team, the coach is making the right choice. That top line is three Finns: Teemu Hartikainen, Sakari Manninen and Markus Granlund.

Markus, the younger brother of Mikael Granlund, always scored a little less, was a little less useful in a shorter NHL career, and is over a point per game in the KHL. He decided eastern Russia was better than a demotion by the Edmonton Oilers to the AHL last year. What he needed was to find the right team, the right linemates, the right situation, and he has it.

What about Mikael, though? Is he the answer for the Leafs while they wait for teenagers like Nick Robertson and Amirov to age into the top nine? Or has he aged out of his prime, and it’s too late for him?

History

Mikael Granlund turned 29 last month, and that means his best years of hockey are almost certainly behind him. His points stats say that, but there’s more to life than points. Drafted by the Wild in 2010, ninth overall, he played two more point-soaked seasons in Finland as a player of Amirov’s age leading his team in scoring in the Liiga.

The Wild brought him over in the lockout-shortened season so he could play half of it in the AHL in Houston where he kept up the point per game pace his Liiga career had averaged out to. The jump to the NHL was not seamless and it took him a couple of years to really settle in. He’s not a goal-scorer, really, but he does get assists when playing with good players.

In 2019, with two years where he flirted with 70 points in the past, the Wild traded a player who seemed custom-built just for them to the Nashville Predators. These two teams keep trading executives and this keeps happening. The Wild got Kevin Fiala in return, and I don’t think they’re sorry.

The Predators got a good, versatile player embarking on the gentle downslope of his career, just as the franchise itself hit the skids. At a points percentage this season of .476 in 21 games played, they are out of the playoffs, and they know it. So they’re selling.

The Leafs are Interested

The latest person to report that the Maple Leafs are interested in Granlund was Darren Dreger on Insider Trading on Tuesday night, but he’s hardly the first. The interest seems real, and it seems on the surface to make sense.

The Leafs just came off two shutout wins where they played Alexander Kerfoot on the second line as a winger, and used a third line with a cute name and a lot of ardent fans to match up against the Oilers’ top lines. The score sheet says they were a rousing success, but digging deeper shows loose threads in the HEM line. It works fine now, but will it hold up under tougher conditions? I think there’s a genuine fear that the weakest link, Pierre Engvall as a centre facing top competition, might unravel. The best scoring player is Zach Hyman, which is usually not what you want to hear. Ilya Mikheyev, the third, has been more interesting defensively than offensively so far.

Enter Granlund. He’s the sort of versatile player that Kyle Dubas has been searching for. In the same way that Kerfoot plays a variety of roles as a winger, a centre, on the power play on the penalty kill, Granlund has done it all at some point.

Nashville has been leaning on him hard this year, with a lot more PK work than he used to see, and his all-situations TOI/GP is the highest it’s been in his career. They’ve played him as 1C as recently as last week, and if that were his natural fit, he’d be overqualified and overpaid for what the Leafs want.

He’s not really anyone’s 1C, not anymore, and so he is also in need of the right fit, the right team, the one that maybe wants him as a Kerfoot player. Kerfoot-plus or Kerfoot-lite, though. Which is it?

The Bar Charts and the Heatmaps

This season, he’s being overplayed, I think that’s fair to say. He plays a slightly skewed competition, but not to an extent it is the story. He’s had a rotating cast of linemates that are mostly Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg. I have feelings about Duchene, and I don’t think he’s as good as you do, but that’s not the story either.

The story is that the power play and the penalty kill are worse when he’s on them, but his five-on-five offensive experience is much better than this terrible team the rest of the time. Defensively, not so much. This is a surprise for a player with the reputation of defensive value. But how much of that is him and how much is Du- er his linemates?

HockeyViz

He’s always been a bit of a tepid player, very suited to the Wild. He’s not great offensively, but he is good and has an okay, but not stunning shot. He is normally good enough defensively that it all balances out to positive. He is tepidly good against top lines, as well, he’s not a depth player facing only weak competition.

I am very uneasy about the on-ice results of a 29-year old forward being thrust into the “save us, won’t someone save us!” role on a team with terrible goalies and what looks like a messed up roster.

The Evolving Hockey Player Card for the most recent three years before this one, sure looks good:

Evolving Hockey

And it’s tempting to just believe that over the above. HockeyViz’s isolated plot for this season (still influenced by last season) is not very encouraging if you want to believe that the trouble is the team or his linemates. He looks very league-average by that measure. But his impacts are mostly on control of the puck, defensive ability and some good personal offence.

He’s better at shooting, both in quantity and location, than Ilya Mikheyev, but not as good as Kerfoot was last year. Kerfoot has not replicated last year this year, however, and improvement from him is as important as filling the hole in the top six — or nine depending on where Kerfoot is used.

If price was no object, this article would be one sentence: Yeah, sure, why not get him, don’t expect too much, and he might surprise you. But there is a price.

The Cost

I refuse to guess the trade cost, although Dreger suggested Kyle Dubas is willing to give up some of his better draft picks. The Leafs are going for it, so some collection of bad firsts or worse seconds isn’t worth concerning ourselves over. The real trouble is cap space.

Granlund is an expiring UFA (not Dubas’s usual brew) and he’s got a cap hit of $3.75 million. That’s a lot. That can be made to fit on the Leafs roster in full only with some kind of trade that would involve players not on the list most of us want to see gone. And even then it would be tricky.

At full retention, and allowing for the proration effect (which applies only if the contract is counted against the regular cap, not LTIR room) then it becomes a less than $1.875 million problem, and that’s easier to solve. The cost goes up to get that retention.

Does that fit under the cap? That’s the wrong question. The right on is: How much cutting of players numbers can the team live with to make it fit? The short roster we all hoped for (because then no one is injured) is a doable thing, and this problem vanishes in the playoffs when roster limits and the salary cap disappear. So, it’s not impossible to add a player of some amount less than Granlund’s full salary. That brings me to the things we don’t know.

When is Wayne Simmonds likely to return to the lineup? If it’s before the playoffs, this is a harder problem. If it’s not, this all just got much simpler. His $1.5 million contract will need to be wedged back in when he returns.

Cutting could involve more than just playing 21 men all the time. It could mean trading or burying Engvall or another contract like Mikheyev. It might make Alex Galchenyuk’s attempt to crack the roster harder.

With Simmonds healthy, you can make a somewhat comically tight roster chosen by salary and then Granlund fits in without cutting anyone loose, but it’s not plausible for more than a week or so, and there is almost a month from the trade deadline on April 12 to the end of the regular season.

On the other hand, how confident is Sheldon Keefe or Dubas about this HEM line against a top team in a seven-game series?

Barring some unknown player coming out of the woodwork, this trade seems inevitable, and about as exciting as a Wild-Predators game on a Saturday night.