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Re-signing the Leafs’ Expired Forwards: How High Would You Go?

Imagine you’re negotiating these contracts.

NHL: FEB 28 Maple Leafs at Capitals Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rosters in the NHL aren’t constructed by looking at each player in isolation. You have to have fit — cost, cap hit, term, role, age, and a lot of other things as well. And the less cap wiggle room a team has, the less you can just zero in on one player.

But at the same time, you do only negotiate one contract at a time, and for all GMs have tried to handle multiple expiring contracts by trying to play one off against the other in the press — the agents only care about one player at a time.

Given all of that, this is a somewhat unfair question, but I won’t let that stop me. Where’s your line with the Leafs’ expiring forwards? How high would you go?

Ilya Mikheyev

Age: 28*
Position: LW
Career NHL Earnings: $4.215 million
Contract: Expiring 2-year deal at $1.645 AAV signed after arbitration filing, but before hearing

*ages listed here are the age they will be for most of next season

In 2021-22, Mikheyev had 21 goals and 11 assists in 53 regular season games and two goals and two assists in seven playoff games. His five-on-five G/60 was fourth on the team, his shooting % was 9.65, ninth on the team, and his P/60 was eighth on the team. All rankings are for forwards only.

His goal total is goosed by a 30% shooting percentage in less than 60 min. of power-play time that got him four goals. For context, Auston Matthews had 15 power-play goals in over 224 minutes while shooting 20%. One of those players is more likely than the other to repeat that feat.

Mikheyev’s Individual Expected Goals per 60 at five-on-five were fourth on the team at .95, which is a top-six forward level of personal shot quality. His shot rate (Individual Corsi per 60) was seventh at 14.91, a rate that’s low on the Leafs, where the top players tend to shoot over 15. Matthews shoots more than most players in the NHL, setting the tone for the offensive style of the team. Mikheyev played 12.22 minutes per game at five-on-five, eighth for forwards, making him primarily a third liner who moved up some of the time.

Entering free agency in the NHL for the first time at a later age than most UFAs, Mikheyev should rightly think he has some time to make up for. It’s fairly implausible to picture him wanting a short term deal. He’ll want a real contract that will run to more than five years and more than $4 million. $5 million is extremely plausible on the open market.

He’s had a season not dissimilar to Ryan Pulock in overall GAR values, and Pulock signed last year for 8 by $6.15 million, which is a typical Islanders overpay in term at least. Craig Smith of Boston has similar areas he excels in and he’s making $3.1 million for two more years at 33 next season. When he was in Mikheyev’s shoes, coming off his RFA deals, he signed for 5 by $4.25.

Where’s you line with Mikheyev?

Poll

How High Would You Go with Mikheyev?

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    I wouldn’t try to sign him at all
    (760 votes)
  • 47%
    Five by $3 million
    (1050 votes)
  • 15%
    Five by $4 million
    (333 votes)
  • 1%
    Four by $5 million
    (38 votes)
  • 0%
    Even more term at an AAV I will name in comment
    (9 votes)
2190 votes total Vote Now

Pierre Engvall

Age: 26
Position: LW
Career NHL Earnings: $3.395 million
Contract: Expiring 2-year deal at $1.25 AAV signed as an RFA with no arbitration rights

Engvall is an RFA with arbitration rights this summer. If he elects arbitration, the team picks the term of the deal (one or two years only). If the team elects it, he picks. He can also accept his Qualifying Offer, a tactic sometimes employed by RFAs one year out from UFA status. His is $1.25 million on a one-year one-way deal.

This season, Engvall had 15 goals and 20 assists in 78 regular season games and three assists in seven playoff games. His five-on-five G/60 was 10th on the team, his shooting % was 7.75 and 13th on the team, and his P/60 was ninth on the team.

Engvall’s ixG at five-on-five was .74 or 10th on the team, and an amount that says depth/defensive player. You need to be a distributor playmaker of serious talent to move above occasional third-line usage with that level of personal scoring. Engvall’s other stats imply that his personal scoring is his best offensive skill.

He played 11.51 per game at five-on-five which is such a tiny bit less than Mikheyev, it shows the difficulty in assigning line numbers for the Leafs’ peripheral forwards this year. He adds value defensively and on the PK, and his profile in GAR most resembles David Kämpf, just at a lower dose for each component. He’s not underused. He might well have been overused considering Kämpf was better at everything, including the PK, and Engvall didn’t make up for his deficits with scoring talent.

It’s hard to find contract comparables for Engvall because players whose individual offensive skills are not a positive usually don’t play much unless they have dramatic defensive value. He’s a bit like Brandon Tanev this season, who Jim Rutherford gave 6 by $3.5 million to, in what most would consider a dramatic overpay. He’s a lot like Colin Blackwell, who made 725,000 last year at 29, and he’s a lot like Nick Paul, who made $1.35 million on the second year of his first over-minimum contract at 27.

Engvall is UFA next summer, so any term deal is buying UFA years which should be factored into the cost.

Where’s your line with Engvall?

Poll

How High Would You Go with Engvall?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Pass entirely
    (215 votes)
  • 37%
    His QO
    (791 votes)
  • 29%
    One year at $2 million
    (632 votes)
  • 3%
    One year at $2.5 million
    (80 votes)
  • 18%
    More term as long as it’s less than $3 million
    (394 votes)
2112 votes total Vote Now

Ondřej Kaše

Age: 27
Position: RW
Career NHL Earnings: $10.393 million
Contract: Expired 1-year deal at $1.25 AAV signed as an RFA with no arbitration rights

Like Engvall, Kaše is still an RFA for one year and has arbitration rights. His Qualifying Offer is the same, and the same situation applies for arbitration elections, and the length of a contract he might get that way.

This season, Kaše had 14 goals and 13 assists in 50 regular season games and three assists in seven playoff games. His five-on-five G/60 was 6th on the team, his shooting % was 9.09 and 11th on the team, and his P/60 was seventh on the team.

His ixG was .95, the same as Mikheyev’s and means that at the point at which he shoots the puck, he looks like a top-six forward. He played 11.49 minutes per game, which makes him a middle-six player shading to bottom six.

His goal totals are also goosed by some power-play success, and he has an even higher shooting % on the power play than Mikheyev. When you look at Kaše’s GAR numbers, he’s all power play and PK, with a negative overall offensive value. He shoots from good locations, and his shot rate was second only to Matthews, so he has the bones of a good offensive game. However, his main value was on the second unit power play if you judge by either goals scored or the more complex metrics available.

The problem is that Kaše only played 50 games, and because of the kind of injury history he has, that seems to weigh on him more than Mikheyev’s similar number of appearances.

Poll

How High Wold You Go with Kaše?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    Pass
    (616 votes)
  • 42%
    His QO
    (872 votes)
  • 21%
    One year at $2 million
    (438 votes)
  • 4%
    One year at $2.5 million
    (83 votes)
  • 2%
    More term at an AAV I’ll explain in comments
    (41 votes)
2050 votes total Vote Now

It’s extremely difficult to separate out the usage of these three players. They more or less did the same job on the Leafs. They all played on the fourth line more than once. They all played on the third line a lot. They all played higher than that in more varying amounts. They all played special teams and appeared on the second unit power play. Their ice time is nearly identical.

If you just look at this season’s GAR results, Kaše and Engvall are each strong at the other’s weakest event. Put them together and you have a complete player — a really good third liner who can play some top six. Ilya Mikheyev, in other words. But neither of them are Mikheyev, most notably not in defensive impact. With the improvement in the components of offence Mikheyev showed this year, I think he’s better now than I used to.

Some team will pay Mikheyev top-six money because of his goosed goal totals, and on a team with the right linemates, he can prosper there. I can’t imagine that being the Leafs, and I would balk hard at the kind of term I think he’ll get on the open market. Meanwhile the two RFAs might return on deals like their Qualify Offers, but I’d really struggle to see them paid much closer to $2 million.

The Leafs really squeezed Mikheyev in arbitration, enough that he settled before the hearing for a low number. I thought it was a fair deal based on his sketchy experience at the time. Another reason I wouldn’t pay him what he’ll likely get is that his 62 games in his last KHL season was a career high. He’s got a gloss of a goal-scorer on him now, though. It covers over a lot of worrying signs that this season might not be growth, but just atypical success in another truncated season.

Kaše is a very interesting player to me because I think GAR sells him a little short this year, and he’s better offensively, as long as he’s not the guy doing the playmaking. It’s true his defensive ability is invisible, though. If all you did was say: what skills do the Leafs most need, you’d sign Kaše for a cheap deal and regretfully let Engvall go because Kaše has some ixG magic. I’d replace Engvall with Blackwell before I’d pay him much more than his QO. Engvall is essentially cut-price Kämpf — which he won’t be if you pay him any more than he gets now.

The impulse is to believe you must re-sign your RFAs, fit be damned. I think that’s half sunk cost fallacy and half comfortable familiarity. Several people have said over this last season that while the Leafs offence in general is outstanding, there’s a fairly large number of players who seldom finish it off with a goal. I think that should be front of mind when making choices at forward.