With the NHL Trade Deadline days away, the urge to start panic shopping grips the fandom, and every player mentioned from every team is one Leafs fans are sure they need. Aside from petty concerns like cap space, adding players has other costs like picks and prospects. When those additions are depth insurance players, it’s frustrating when you consider the potential lost for very little gain.
I’m still obsessed enough over the foolish trade for Brian Boyle that I can tell you exactly where they player taken with the pick that got him is — Anaheim, getting some NHL minutes now that he’s been traded away from the deep Lightning. The Lightning are lauded by everyone who loves old tyme hockey for spending big picks on third-liners last deadline. Nothing puts a halo over a decision like success appearing the next day, and at least they weren’t spending on someone to play 10 minutes a night. But it means that every game broadcast, radio show and television appearance by the big lovers of “sandpaper” players is all about how the Leafs should do this too. They want Kyle Dubas to spend a first to get a guy they’d like to have a beer with, and then maybe they won’t distrust Dubas so much.
To look again at what the Leafs have actually done, you can learn lessons. Dubas, and Laurence Gilman after him, have consistently put one or two classic tough guys on the Marlies. Rich Clune is now the captian, deservidly so. And they signed Scott Sabourin to an AHL deal this summer, seemingly to continue that trend. Instead, they upped his deal to an NHL contract, and they keep bringing him on road trips, and like Timothy Liljegren, he never plays.
At some level, or in some minds within the Leafs, they like the idea of Sabourin, or find him useful at practices to keep players honest, but Sheldon Keefe doesn’t seem to want to play him. Grit and sandpaper and finishing checks are delightful when they are embodied by Wayne Simmonds, who can still move his feet, has a brain for the game, and can tip the puck in when parked in the goal crease. Sabourin is not that.
So while the fans may also want a guy they’d like to have a beer with, the idea of spending for anyone less capable just because they’re big seems really foolish when the Leafs have a host of good depth options for free who can play actual hockey.
Barabanov is an addition for free because he’s already on the Taxi Squad. He’s played 12 NHL games, notching his first point in an emergency recall to replace William Nylander on Wednesday. Previously, he was sent down to play a little AHL, and would have been the best player on the ice in his two games with the Marlies, except Alex Galchenyuk was there at the same time.
Barabanov is a seasoned professional, a fast skating winger with experience at centre, and he can play some credible minutes higher than the fourth line. He’s averaged just over eight minutes per game in the NHL, which is an indication that Sheldon Keefe doesn’t want to play him, and yet when an opening arose last minute, he was the guy. He is fine as a depth add, and buying someone of a different type would still require he be at least as good as Barabanov overall.
Petan is essentially Barabanov, only cheaper, shorter, smaller and less of a hit with the coach. He has actually averaged just over 10 minutes per game in the seven NHL games he’s played, so when he’s there, he gets used, often higher up the lineup and on the power play. But he’s clearly not the player Keefe wants to use. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, and as an emergency fill-in player, he’s totally fine.
I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t he get claimed by Vancouver? He did, and yet, claimed is the key word. If Vancouver wasn’t in the hellish situation of trying to return to play after everyone has tested positive for coronavirus, they might decide they don’t need him and waive him, whereby the Leafs could claim him back. It’s more unlikely now that it was a few weeks ago, and if Vancouver think he’s interested in re-signing with them, they might just do that instead, but it’s a free possibility.
Anderson, who is waiver exempt still, has always felt like next year’s man to me. He is doing well in the AHL, seems to be the sort of player who wants to learn, and while he’s got a lot of NHL experience courtesy of the Devils, he’s not top of the list for the Leafs. He’s an option, however, if needed. A free one.
Adam Brooks and Scott Sabourin
Brooks is a strange case. He’s played very little anywhere this year and has been stuck in Taxi-Squad limbo for quite some time. He’s got a very limited and uninspiring set of NHL games played as an eight-minute a game player, most last season.
Sabourin seems an odd name to pair with Brooks, and yet he’s spent more time at Leafs practice than playing as well. But he’s there if sandpaper becomes desireable. He played 35 NHL games last year.
Kenny Agostino and Kalle Kossila
Both in their late 20s, and both with a smattering of NHL experience, they’re useful to have in the back of the cupboard.
Possibly the most controversial free addition, Robertson has a lot of cachet attached to his name from his four games in the playoffs last summer. He’s been good to excellent in an AHL season hampered by an injury, and yet, because he got that opportunity due to no OHL play this year, he’s actually more likely to be ready to play in the NHL.
Adding Robertson in the summer was a sign of the weakness of the Leafs, more than it was an endorsement of him, although his shot is NHL-ready even if the rest of him might not be. It was also the beginning of the recognition that Pierre Engvall was not a stealth second liner and only an occasional third-liner. Robertson could be that for real, but is he that now, though?
There is only one way to find out, but the best outcome would be if we never have to discover that until next training camp because the team is too healthy.
If Hållander had been on a bad team in Sweden, he’d be added to the Marlies roster and waiting out quarantine already. With a cap hit of only $764,167 and with full waiver exemption, he joins Robertson as the two big question marks in this freebie list. As a European already under contract to the Leafs, he can join the team at any time, even after the trade deadline with no waiver concerns.
Hållander is older than Robertson, with three full years of SHL experience behind him. The SHL is broadly analgous to the bottom end of the AHL in strength, and Hållander has been a top-line, big-minute player for two years now. He’s also got the big build that makes coaches more comfortable with young players.
His playing style is net-front agression, combined with some skill at tipping the puck in, and no matter if he plays or not, this man desperately needs to be in practices with Wayne Simmonds.
His availability is not likely to be soon, however. He starts the playoffs on April 11, and can play as late as May 15, which is just when the AHL ends, and about when the North Division of the NHL might start the playoffs.
Somewhat of a forgotten man, Malgin has been playing excellent hockey in Switzerland this season. On a $700,000 contract, he is inexpensive, can be added after the deadline like Hållander, but is not waivers exempt once he does join the team.
He played only eight games with the Leafs after a trade from the Florida Panthers last year, and like a lot of players on this list, Keefe just doesn’t seem to like him. But he’s capable, has some scoring ability and is free and also cheap.
His timeline is similar to Hållander’s in that his playoffs are about to begin, and will last potentially into May.
A dark horse candidate to be called up, Abramov only just turned 20, and is still playing in the QMJHL, but is under an NHL contract and could be added. His impressive goal scoring last season caught everyone’s attention, but a slow start to this disrupted year saw him quickly forgotten. His actual points pace is now almost the same as last year’s, however, and his goals per game is .48 vs .55 last year. It’s all about the buzz, though, and he’s lost it.
His playing status is very confused, however, because the QMJHL is on a pause while some teams are shut down, just as their playoffs were about to start. There is no decision yet on if or when they will resume.
He’s been up and down to the Leafs roster and never played. It all looks like advertising ahead of the deadline, and the chances of him playing in the playoffs if he’s still on the team seem vanishingly small.
Just returned to practice in the AHL after a long injury layoff, he’s likely to at least hit the NHL pressbox come playoff time, and he is a legitimate add if the Leafs need a power play pivot. But can he cope with regular defensive assignments?
Martin Marincin and Calle Rosen
The depth insurance is two familiar faces, who have played very little hockey this year. The Taxi-Squad has been unkind to a lot of players, as expected. Marincin has five AHL games, Rosen 17, and neither has any NHL time this year, but they have more experience than Sandin and Liljegren combined, and that matters to many coaches in the playoffs.
The goalie depth chart drops off after Micheal Hutchinson. Veini Vehvilainen has been useful in practices and as a backup never expected to play, as the Leafs deal with injuries, but neither he nor AHL goalies Ian Scott and Joe Woll are the answer.
It’s fairly likely the Leafs will add some kind of extra depth defender, but they are hard to find. Most are overpaid, overplayed and not very good. What the Leafs want is someone underplayed, underpaid and at least Bogosian level of ability. That’s essentially a replacment-level defender, and there has to be one or two out there.
It’s not clear that the Leafs need to do anything at all at forward below the level of legitimate middle-six players.
The real question mark is in net, where a body that fits between Hutchinson and Campbell would be a very welcome addition.