I’ve written three big articles about the Leafs’ endless quest for defencemen over the years. I keep trying to get my head around the concept of just how much value there is in adding a defender to the team, and how good he has to be to make it worth it. I keep not publishing them because the answers are always unsatisfying.
I had one where I said: What if the Archangel Gabriel came to earth and waved his right hand — he shoots right (get it?) — and said, “I want to be human now, and I want to be a defenceman on the Maple Leafs.” It had some good jokes in it at least, and then Kyle traded for Jake Muzzin, and I nodded and said, “He’s no angel, but he’s about the best that was available.”
Then I sort of went off the rails when Jake Gardiner left and I carried on about Dougie Hamilton, and you know, I meant that. Sort of. I meant this bit:
Here’s the bottom line: You don’t sign John Tavares and then piss away his peak years. You don’t give Auston Matthews all the money you gave Tavares and piss away his too young to know better years. You do not take any steps back while you fiddle around managing assets. If I wanted to watch that, I’d be a damn Yotes fan. You make this team better.
And then Dubas (I ain’t calling him Kyle right now) went and got Tyson Barrie, which for me was like a personal attack, and also, hilariously a chance to see if everything I’d said about him and Morgan Rielly was correct. I’m sorry to report I undersold the value gap.
But looking back on my unhinged ravings from the summer of 2019, something jumps out at me: Everyone wanted Dubas to trade away half the team, and now this offseason, when the team fared worse in the playoffs, everyone wants Dubas to take zero risks. Sign a nice young man totally indistinguishable from Justin Holl and carry on. Keep grinding, just like Babcock used to say.
I’ve got an article sitting here all neat and tidy that proves with numbers and stuff why cloning Justin Holl just won’t cut it. That Mr. At Least (as good as Holl) is not worth the trouble, and let’s skip the math and go for the money quote:
Mr. At Least is not improving the team in a meaningful way. This isn’t “the answer” or a move that will make the difference in the future. It’s barely treading water, and I’d rather re-sign Cody Ceci than pay a significant asset for Mr. At Least.
This is the kernel of truth that I keep uncovering, as if I didn’t know it was there all along: The Leafs have made all the improvements they can with small moves. Hunwick, Polak and Marincin are gone... wait, I’m being told Marincin is in fact not gone. And yet, he’s not “the problem” any more than adding this year’s hyped up third-pairing darling off some bad team is a prescription for improvement.
So if Dougie is busy, and a Holl clone isn’t enough, what about this truly bonkers Pietrangelo idea?
Make No Mistake, This Idea is Bonkers
People keep telling me that signing Pietrangelo is a huge risk, like that’s something that isn’t obvious from space. Signing Pietrangelo is such a huge risk that I actually wrote a damn article outlining why the St. Louis Blues shouldn’t do it, and it sure looks like they agree with me.
I’m tired of hearing about how the Depth Will be Ruined™ to the point it’s stopped meaning anything and just become code for This Scares Me!! But it’s not exaggerating to say you have to really believe hard in the idea that the top 10 players on the team are the ones who matter, and the rest of them can be any basic quality player not currently under term to the Boston Bruins and busy providing proof of concept.
You might not enjoy the fourth line on the Pietrangelo Leafs, and worse, much, much worse, you might not find anyone in the press box to knit yellow ribbons for.
This idea is so bonkers that no GM in the NHL would ever do it. NHL GMs do things like sign some tall fellow who grows a good playoff beard and finishes his checks to 7 by 5 deals when they’re 30. They don’t sign actually skilled players to huge deals unless they’re already on the team, the captain and beloved by the fans.
You Know Why You Throw a Hail Mary, Right?
Okay, to be honest, I hate football, but the metaphor is clear even if you’ve never seen a football game. Sorta like other cultural memes we all understand without having read the book like a “white whale” ... wait, forget that one. Anyway, you throw a Hail Mary when all other hope is lost, when it’s your last chance, when the phrase, “go big or go home” means you will actually be going home without a job if this fails.
The implication here is that if Dubas doesn’t throw this pass, he’s going home without a job.
Do you remember the rumours last summer that Dubas tried to trade for P.K. Subban? I do. I think he’s been trying to throw this damn football since the day he became GM instead of Mark Hunter, because his runway was always short, his need to prove he can build a winner was urgent, and he played the fire the coach card and the result was...
Pietrangelo is Not Going to Be Any Good at Age 37
You don’t say? What about age 38?
On TSN last night Pierre LeBrun floated one of his (and every media person’s) favourite clever schemes. What if the Leafs trade for Pietrangelo’s rights and sign him to eight years? He said that they discussed the idea with John Tavares’s agent, but Lou wouldn’t play ball, so nothing came of it. (LeBrun has realized belatedly what I should have immediately: this has to be a sign and trade, not a rights trade. Only St. Louis can sign him to 8 years, which is why this is hard to make happen.)
How does that make a bad deal better? It helps because Kyle Dubas already knows this is a bad deal. Look, you think you’ve got qualms? Dubas has to listen to the qualms of the people who will write the paycheques. He has to listen to Brandon Pridham moan on. He has to listen to Brendan Shanahan at two in the morning when he’s realized his job isn’t safe either.
They know the team isn’t good enough. They are supposed to be building a powerhouse contender, and they know they’ve failed so far:
In the end, the standings don’t really lie. We were, at the time of the pause, the third best team in our division and the eighth-seeded team in our Conference, which I would say is well below what our potential should be. That was from October 2nd through to March 11th — that was what we were.
I think you can point to the highs and the lows and you largely end up somewhere in the middle. The middle isn’t good enough. We’ve already started working here today. It is stuff we have to improve upon. As I view it, that starts with me and the job I do in continuing to work to improve the club and everything that we do.
Anyone who signs Pietrangelo on October 9, when they don’t even know the date of the next season, not even the year, knows the scale of the gamble they’re undertaking. They have to be rich enough to not be terrified by the prospect of committing to something north of $75 million when their income is zero.
They also know they’re eating the last x number of years of the deal because that’s how big UFA deals work in the NHL. Stars get compensated for their ELCs on the back end of their last contract. End of Story.
So why not eat x + 1 years, if it lowers the AAV?
No one is fooling themselves here. At best, Pietrangelo will be Andy Greene at the end of this deal, pottering around, looking like he used to be someone. At worst he’ll be collecting his buyout money for a few more years while he tries to figure out what you do when you retire before you’re 40.
This is All a Bit of an Illusion
“We can and we will” didn’t have an open end on it. No promises were made forever and ever, forsaking all other UFAs. If Kyle signs Pietrangelo, and the “five guys — $50 million” seems a bit precarious and like maybe the offence is embodied in too few bodies, he is allowed to make other deals to adjust that.
He might well be assuming he’ll need to. And he doesn’t know if the cap will go up or down or never change for five years. He might have a very long period to think that over, too because there is no guarantee he’ll need a cap compliant roster by December 1.
If the intent for this coming season is to keep the band together (but totally dump the drummer and the second bass player and the roadies — those guys have to go) training camp might bring changes, the trade deadline might bring changes, and year-two of the Pietrangelo era might look very different to year-one.
Dubas Knows Something We Don’t
By now, and with that first-round pick in hand, Dubas knows what his other options are, and we just don’t. I think he knows how good a defenceman he can get in a trade, and what it will cost. Can we just remember again that he tried to get (from credible reports) P.K. Subban, because I think that’s very telling.
The pool of players the Leafs would need to choose from to find a meaningful addition on defence is extremely small, extremely expensive, and rarely on the market. There are less than 50 players in the NHL at least equal to Muzzin and Rielly in value and good enough to really improve the team. Most of them are locked up to term deals by GMs who aren’t confused about what they have. Alex Pietrangelo is in the top 10 of that group, and the only one Dubas can get for free.
If this really is Hail Mary time, Dubas knows that better than anyone else.
So, here we are. Waiting to see if Dubas will throw the ball or not. Would you?
Should Dubas sign Pietrangelo?
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