Back on June 2nd, or Zoom locker cleanout day, Kyle Dubas briefly addressed the upcoming Seattle Expansion Draft:
Kyle Dubas: "I don't think our expansion equation is overly perilous."— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) June 2, 2021
As with most GM speak, we can read as much (or as little) into Dubas's comments here as we want. There are uncomplicated decisions to be made about protecting the Big Four forwards (Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander), the top three defencemen (Rielly, Muzzin, Brodie), and the goalie projected to bear the brunt of the workload in net next season (Campbell). A few potential bottom-of-the-lineup contributors like Ilya Mikheyev, Rasmus Sandin, and, if we're being generous, Timothy Liljegren, are exempt. Because of the Leafs' "stars and scrubs" structure, which commits them to turning over a number of players at the bottom of the roster each season, they aren't at risk of losing a significant contributor.
In this sense, Dubas's assessment seems fair. Indeed, when you take a peek through the potential Protected Lists for every team around the league, it becomes immediately clear there are a number of teams at risk of losing significant pieces for nothing. This seems like an opportunity a savvy front office could exploit. I think there is a straightforward path to addressing the team's off-season needs while taking advantage of their relatively secure Expansion Draft set-up. The gist of the proposition is this: acquire a useful middle-six forward at a depressed cost from a team that will need to expose that player and plug him into Toronto's 7-3-1 protection scheme.
Expansion Draft Schemes and Exposure Requirements
Before we get to targets, we should a) reacquaint ourselves with the Expansion Draft exposure requirements, and b) figure out which of the two expansion draft formats makes sense for the Leafs to pursue. Every team (but Vegas, which is exempt from the Seattle Expansion Draft) has the choice to protect players in one of two formats: 7 forwards, 3 defencemen, and 1 goalie, or 8 skaters of any position and 1 goalie. This second option is usually referred to as 4-4-1 because it is mostly used by teams that have an extra defenceman they would like to protect.
Beyond these protection schemes, and as explained by the wonderful Capfriendly Seattle Expansion Draft FAQ, every team also has to leave exposed a certain number of players: at least 2 forwards and 1 defenceman that are under contract for 21-22 AND played in 27+ NHL games last season OR played in 54+ NHL games over the last two seasons; and at least 1 goalie who is under contract for 21-22 OR whose contract is expiring and is an RFA at the end of the 20-21 season.
As of this moment, the Leafs only have four defencemen who hit this threshold: Rielly, Muzzin, Brodie, and Holl. I haven't seen mention of this in discussion of the Leafs' Expansion Draft strategies, including the most recent Athletic mock draft, which has the Leafs going 4-4-1 while protecting all four of those D, thereby submitting an ineligible protection list. Others hand-wave this issue away by saying the Leafs will re-sign Bogosian or Dermott before the Expansion Draft. That's definitely possible, but it's also a moot point until it happens. As of right now, the Leafs have to leave Holl exposed. Furthermore, I'm of the opinion that it is in the Leafs' best interest to go 7-3-1 regardless of whether or not they re-sign either Bogosian/Dermott, which would allow them to protect Holl.
The Case for Exposing Justin Holl
So, why is it in the Leafs' best interest to go the 7-3-1 protection route and leave Holl unprotected?
This seems like a good place to flag that yes, I am aware that Justin Holl is a Kyle Dubas pet project. Dubas identified Holl as a player of interest when he watched a 2014 Rookie Tournament featuring the Blackhawks; he watched him in the ECHL that year and made Holl a priority on July 1st, 2015, signing him to an AHL deal; he stuck by him as Mike Babcock scratched him 71 or however many times. One of the complaints that has been levelled against Dubas over the years is that he has his guys and keeps coming back to them. Perhaps it's silly to write a bunch of words on the premise that Dubas leaves "one of his guys" unprotected. But here I am, writing the words; it's a lazy Saturday afternoon, allow me this folly.
Any discussion about the Leafs' strategy for the Expansion Draft has generally come down to Holl vs. Kerfoot. If you go 4-4-1 and protect Holl, Kerfoot is invariably exposed as the 5th forward on the Leafs' depth chart. If you go 7-3-1 and expose Holl, you are able to protect Kerfoot, along with two of Simmonds, Engvall, Spezza, Petan, Anderson, Brooks, and Malgin.
Kerfoot didn't have a great regular season, but I am hesitant to subtract versatile players from this team's forward corps. I like that he kills penalties; I like that he's shown an ability to play on the wing in the top-six; I don't think 3.5M is overly expensive for the value he brings or the position(s) he can play. Keeping Kerfoot also allows you to go into free agency with options. Acquiring a 3C allows Kerfoot to fill the 2LW spot; acquiring a 2LW allows you to keep Kerfoot down the middle. He's a player that can plug a few different holes in your line-up and can move around in response to injuries.
The more I think about the Leafs' strategy for the Expansion Draft, the more I think the best option is to ensure Kerfoot stays and to leave both Holl and Dermott exposed on the back end. Those two will be the major choice Seattle will have to make, over and above the dregs of the forward corps that remain exposed in a 7-3-1 scenario. I'm honestly not sure which way Seattle would pick given a choice between Holl and Dermott. Holl has the track record of playing in the top-4. His remaining contract, two years with a 2M AAV is cheap for that role. It seems to me that, if Seattle wants to try to emulate the Vegas model and be competitive from the beginning, they might opt for Holl. On the other hand, Dermott is younger and could be kept under team control for longer than Holl, who might bolt after two years. Dermott is turning 25 in December so it's probably prudent to think of him as a finished product rather than still developing. Nonetheless, there remains a sense that there may be more that Dermott has to give or show if and when he's played up the line-up; Holl, turning 30 in January, is already likely past the peak of his career.
If I were Kyle, my plan would be: let Seattle make the pick and play the other guy with Jake Muzzin. It's very possible Seattle takes Dermott anyways, and you've retained the same top-4 group you had last season. If Seattle selects Holl, it would finally give Dermott a chance to play top-4 minutes with a good partner. This has been the issue every time Dermott has been promoted into the top-4. Two years ago, Dermott played up the lineup replacing an injured Muzzin and was paired with Holl. The struggles of that pairing were then laid at Dermott's feet.
As something of an aside, I'd also add that, in my opinion at least, Dermott's struggles higher up the lineup have been somewhat overstated. He's a twitchy player, which perhaps doesn't inspire much confidence in those of us who are already nervous wrecks watching the Leafs. But when you dig into the numbers of his stints playing up the line-up, there have been flashes of Dermott playing rather well. Here, for example, are some numbers from the 2019-20 season:
On Travis Dermott's performance in a top-4 role:— big time fan of hockey, the least stupid of sports (@mostlyleafies) October 24, 2020
Via PuckIQ, last season in his TOI vs. Elites (220 mins) he had a CF% of 52 and a DFF% (their xG model) of 55. These are the best results of the 6 Leafs D who had the highest TOI vs. Elites (Holl, Muzz, Ceci, Mo, Barrie, Dermott). pic.twitter.com/POEOC5UoUr
On the other hand, when it comes to Holl's track record in a top-4 role, I'm not convinced he isn't a product of his partner. Models like Evolving-Hockey's RAPM are pretty clear in suggesting that, on a Muzzin-Holl pairing, Muzzin is the one doing the heavy lifting:
Thinking about the Expansion Draft and how maybe it's not the worst thing in the world to leave Justin Holl exposed pic.twitter.com/9d05md3vxK— big time fan of hockey, the least stupid of sports (@mostlyleafies) July 3, 2021
There is a risk, of course, in breaking up a pairing that has, historically, been great for the Leafs. The question that I would suggest the team should consider is, first, how big of a gap or downgrade is it from Muzzin-Holl to Muzzin-Dermott, and second, do the benefits that the team can extract from this Expansion Draft scenario outweigh that gap or downgrade?
A secondary benefit of forcing Seattle to pick one of two NHL-calibre defencemen is that it clears up a bit of the logjam in front of the Leafs' defensive prospects, Sandin and Liljegren. Both players are entering the final year of their ELCs. Sandin, especially, should be playing in the NHL, and likely would have played if he didn't suffer a broken bone in his foot last year in his only game with the Marlies. Ideally for me, the team has a top-4 of Rielly, Brodie, Muzzin, and one of Holl or Dermott; Sandin plays 3LD and the 3RD position can be rotated through Liljegren and a Bogosian-esque 6/7D signing this offseason. (As an aside, the team should also probably at least explore trade scenarios for Morgan Rielly, but that's a separate FanPost.)
Leveraging the 7-3-1 Protection Scheme
These are some reasons why, devoid of any grand plan beyond keeping the team in the best possible position in the present, I think 7-3-1 is the scenario the Leafs should use for the Expansion Draft. But now comes the fun part. If you scroll up to the list of forwards who the Leafs can protect on top of Kerfoot, you will probably notice something: they're not that great! If I'm the Leafs, I leave Simmonds and Spezza exposed to meet the exposure requirements. I don't think Seattle takes either player over Holl or Dermott anyways. Additionally, Spezza has made it clear he'll retire if taken on waivers or forced onto another team; Simmonds is in a similar position, signing a low-cost deal to stay home and speaking at length about wanting to raise his family here. I don't think either of them are at risk of being taken. I protect Engvall, and then I guess.. one of Brooks or Anderson?
This is where the opportunity for Toronto emerges: is it possible to trade for a quality forward from a team that will have to leave them exposed and slot them in to your 7-3-1 protection scheme? The Viktor Arvidsson trade is an example of a move like this:
TRADE ALERT The LA Kings have acquired forward Viktor Arvidsson from the Nashville Predators in exchange for their second-round selection in the 2021 NHL Draft and third-round selection in the 2022 NHL Draft.— LA Kings (@LAKings) July 1, 2021
Player Moves flown by @FlyONT ✈️
According to Adam Vingan of The Athletic, Predators GM David Poile said that the looming Expansion Draft was a "huge factor" in this deal (this article is paywalled). Vingan quotes a radio hit from Poile where he says: "In my conversations with Seattle, if Viktor Arvidsson was not protected, he would have been taken by Seattle, so that's who we would have lost. We now have (extra second- and third-round picks). That's pretty good compensation."
Opting for a 7-3-1 protection scheme is, in the opinion of this anonymous online Leafs fan, not only the right choice in terms of maintaining flexibility in your roster construction; it also provides you with an opportunity to try to extract good forwards from teams that would otherwise risk losing them for nothing. And wouldn't that be more fun than just re-signing Bogosian and immediately exposing him?
One thing you may be thinking about this proposition: Why would teams trade a guy on top of losing another guy in the Expansion Draft? Haven't they just lost two players instead of one? The answer here is: I guess so! Part of the calculus for Poile is that Nashville is arriving at a moment where they need to re-tool (a nicer term than the dreaded rebuild). This was a team that was rumoured to be selling everybody before Juuse Saros dragged them into the playoffs down the stretch. Can we identify other teams in similar positions, who would be willing to part with valuable assets in a tear-down/re-build anyways, and who might be pressed to sell them at a lower cost because of the risk of losing them for nothing?
At this point, let me flag that I am by no means an expert when it comes to identifying talent or trade targets on other teams, never mind other teams' Expansion Draft situations. This list that I've compiled is non-exhaustive and meant only as a starting point or spur for discussion. It's based on looking through The Athletic's Mock Drafts (a great, albeit paywalled resource) as well as rumours about players potentially on the move. The list is divided fairly evenly between players who could slot into the top-six as offensive threats and players who could provide value in a third line role.
Conor Garland (ARI): According to Frank Seravalli, Garland, 25, who needs a new contract this summer, is being stonewalled by the Arizona Coyotes. Seravalli reports Garland's camp submitted two contract proposals on May 20th, as requested by the Coyotes, and haven't been in contact since. Garland is a right-shooting winger, so while he's not a perfect fit for the Leafs' needs, he's a talented player who has piled up GAR (Goals Above Replacement) in the 92nd percentile over the last two seasons. The Leafs could try him on his off side, or play Nylander on the left. For the record, I wasn't a fan of this when they tried it earlier this year. I felt it limited Nylander's transition ability and made it more difficult for him to work with Tavares, as they were moving up the ice together on their backhands. Evolving-Hockey's Contract Projection Tool (also a paywalled resource) estimates a range of new contracts for Garland, signing as an RFA with a new team: 3-4 years at 4.8M, 5-7 years at 5.5M.
Warren Foegele (CAR): Similarly to Garland, Elliotte Friedman has reported "there are trade talks" around Foegele, 25. The story is he wants a larger role. The Leafs might take a chance on plugging Foegele into one of the top two LW spots as a Hyman replacement, but he would also work on the third line. He's a great forechecker who drives offence by measures like RAPM, while lacking in finishing ability--sounds like a pretty apt Hyman replacement to me! He's also in need of a contract this summer; Evolving-Hockey estimates 3x3M.
Jason Dickinson (DAL): Dickinson, 25, is one of the first names that I found when looking through the Seattle Mock Drafts. Dallas had a difficult season, disrupted by COVID as well as the snow and ice storms that impacted much of the Sun Belt in February. Early projections have them finishing out of the playoff picture again next year. They're at a point where the team's core is aging, and it may be worthwhile for them to try to recoup assets for whatever players they can sell. Dickinson is a defensive centre who could push Kerfoot onto the wing, and who'd be more suited to giving Keefe a shutdown/match-up third line. He's also in need of a contract; Evolving-Hockey estimates 3x2.6M.
Tyler Bertuzzi (DET): My inclusion of Bertuzzi, 26, is based on nothing but speculation and conjecture. He missed most of last season and underwent back surgery in April. That obviously comes with some risk, but it might also already depress his trade value slightly. I'm not sure that Detroit would be tied to Bertuzzi in their rebuild; last season they traded Anthony Mantha, who was in the first year of a brand new 4-year contract, at the deadline. Mantha is only six months older than Bertuzzi, so this isn't a case of one player aging out of the rebuild's trajectory. Detroit is at no risk of losing Bertuzzi in the Expansion Draft, but this would be a case of acquiring a player to leverage the extra slot the Leafs have in the hypothetical 7-3-1 scenario. Bertuzzi is an RFA looking for a new contract. Given this past season, Evolving-Hockey expects Bertuzzi would get a 1-year, 2.7M deal that would walk him to UFA. Their model thinks it's extremely unlikely that Bertuzzi signs long-term this summer.
Zach Aston-Reese (PIT): There are a lot of useful forwards left unprotected on Pittsburgh's Mock Draft. Aston-Reese, known affectionately as ZAR, turning 27 in August, is a bit of an analytics darling/meme. He's consistently been one of the best defensive forwards in the game. There's been some great deep dives into how ZAR accomplishes this: the answer seems to be forechecking and playing keepaway. At the same time, the conclusion to the piece linked above sounds like something the Leafs should try to inject into their lineup: "[ZAR] does exactly what you would ask of a shut-down bottom-six forward, especially one playing on a team that has so many offensive weapons. The Penguins can deploy ZAR against other teams' best players, knowing that in all likelihood what they're gonna see is 30-40 seconds of forechecking, board-battling, and puck-ragging." ZAR is an RFA looking for a new contract; most likely according to Evolving-Hockey is 3x2M.
Jason Zucker (PIT): Zucker, 29, is a buy-low option to play up the lineup on the left wing. He had a pretty abysmal 2021 season, and Rob Rossi of The Athletic suggests the Penguins might hope for Seattle to take him off their hands, given he has two years left at 5.5M. A peek through his RAPM impacts suggests Zucker is pretty clearly in decline. But maybe we ought to take this pandemic year with a grain of salt? Just 18 months ago, Micah McCurdy's Isolated Threat had Zucker as an incredibly strong driver of shot differentials. There are definitely sexier targets, but Zucker is out there as a potential Expansion Draft casualty and someone the Penguins may be hoping to move.
Timo Meier (SJS): I'm including Meier, turning 25 in October, because he was the subject of a great piece from PPP's own KatyaKnappe: When is an RFA really a UFA? That article details the ways "scorpion" RFA bridge deals, which have the highest salary in the final year in order to secure a large qualifying offer upon the deal's expiry, might be a problem for teams given the pandemic-induced flat cap. Katya's argument is that San Jose might not want to pay Meier his qualifying offer of 10M in 2023. The new cap landscape might cause teams to treat these players as UFAs; put differently, teams will simply refuse to qualify these players so that they aren't on the hook at the deal's conclusion. Meier has two years left on a deal with a 6M AAV, but he would be a huge boost to the top six. The Sharks, like the Stars, are aging out of relevance and risk being caught in the league's mushy middle of mediocrity. It should be said that Meier is a huge swing, and would likely command a much larger ask than, well, everybody else on this list--but that top six would look nice.
The Tampa Bay Lightning: I know what you think: stop helping the Lightning out of their salary cap problems. Well, yes, I agree, but I also think if the Leafs don't step in, someone else will, so why let good players go to waste. There's also the caveat here of Tampa doing business with a team in their division, but I think those kinds of qualms are sometimes overstated, and teams should look to improve in whatever way they can, whether or not that also benefits teams they see marginally more often than others. With that said: the Lightning are currently over 5M over the cap for next year. Most mock drafts have Seattle taking local boy Tyler Johnson. But the Lightning will need to shed more than Johnson's 5M salary to get cap compliant while also icing a complete roster.
Once the Lightning win the Cup in the coming days, could the Leafs take on one of Ondrej Palat (30 years old, 1x5.3M) or Alex Killorn (32 in September, 2x4.45M)? The Athletic's most recent mock has the team exposing Yanni Gourde (30 in December, 4x5.16M); do they have enough trust in someone like Ross Colton to move up to third line duties to agree to move him?
Mason Appleton (WPG): Appleton, 25, has been left exposed in The Athletic's Winnipeg Mock Draft. Trading him likely means the team will lose Logan Stanley on top of Appleton; those two seem to be the major consideration Seattle will have to make. This feels like a situation where the smart move might just be to sit tight and live with losing one player. Nevertheless, Appleton is an intriguing player: he has 1 year left on a 900k cap hit, is an RFA on expiry, and has demonstrated an ability to suppress shots and chances. He could be solid, and cheap, third line depth. I'd be interested in poking around on him just to gauge Winnipeg's feelings going into their Expansion Draft.
The Leafs should go 7-3-1 in the Seattle Expansion Draft, exposing Holl and protecting Kerfoot because this improves their roster flexibility and makes more sense based on internal replacement options. But they don't have that many forwards beyond Kerfoot (and, in my opinion, Engvall) worth protecting, which means they are in a unique position to add a forward in trade prior to the Expansion Draft, and who they can easily fit into their 7-3-1 protection scheme. They should be looking at teams that are in awkward positions and are at risk of losing players for nothing to Seattle (Dallas, Pittsburgh, Tampa, Winnipeg). They should also engage teams that have stated they are looking to trade forwards (Arizona, Carolina). And they could accelerate trade discussion with teams around impact forwards, like Bertuzzi in Detroit or Meier in San Jose, given that completing those trades prior to the Expansion Draft would benefit the other team in the creation of an extra protection slot.
This year ended in the worst Leafs collapse out of all of the Leafs collapses in recent memory. What better way for Dubas and Co. to jolt this exhausted and devastated fan base out of their hockey malaise than a big swing?