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Who will the Leafs lose in the expansion draft?

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Pick who you’d be okay with losing.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Leafs are going to lose someone to Las Vegas in a few weeks.

As Katya has laid out, the expansion draft allows teams to either protect seven forwards, three defenders, and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. Many key Leaf players are exempt from the draft altogether (including Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov, and Nikita Zaitsev). The Leafs must also expose a certain number of players who meet games-played requirements, but they shouldn’t have much trouble doing this.

Vegas will take one, and only one, player from the Leafs. If Toronto were determined to keep more players than they could protect, they could also make a deal with Vegas to take or not take a specific player, but this would cost Toronto additional assets.

Let’s see who they might lose.

Forwards

Assuming they don’t trade any of them in the next few weeks, the Leafs are guaranteed to protect Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and Connor Brown. I view the chances of them exposing Leo Komarov as extremely low, although some people would like to lose his contract, so I will assume he’s the fifth forward they protect. If the Leafs run the expected 7-3-1 protection strategy, that will leave them with two more protection slots at forward, for six players who might plausibly be claimed.

The Leafs must expose two forwards who meet games played requirements. As things work out, this is unlikely to be a problem.

Matt Martin

Left Wing, 28 years old; $2.5M x 3 years remaining

I’m sure everyone’s eager to have the Matt Martin debate again. I’ll make this quick: Matt Martin is very good at throwing hits (second in the NHL this year) and very good at suppressing shots. He fights a lot (13 fights last season). He generates very little offence and has just come off the worst season of his career in points (5G, 4A, 9P in 82 games). He is a decent fourth-line winger at even strength. You can get decent fourth-line wingers for $1M and one year as opposed to what Martin is earning, and in a salary cap world, overpaying for depth impacts your ability to acquire players.

Martin seems like a genuinely very good dude, and he’s taken on an older brother role with some of the Leafs’ rookies. If you believe Matt Martin is working to protect Matthews, Marner and Nylander from bad hits, you may also think he’s more valuable than his numbers show. There’s no evidence of this—remember when Jake Dotchin kneed Matthews?—but people insist on it anyway.

If you think Matt Martin’s contract is a substantial overpay that will impair the Leafs to some degree down the line, you might hope Vegas takes the contract of their hands.

Should the Leafs expose him? Yes. His contract might dissuade Vegas even if he’s exposed.

Will they? Probably not.

Would Vegas take him? I wouldn’t think he’d be their first choice. But a lot of GMs like the sorts of things Matt Martin does, so it’s not out of the question.

Josh Leivo

Left/right wing, 24 years old; $612K x 1 year remaining

Josh Leivo was a regular scratch most of the year—allegedly for injury early on, and then later because he couldn’t kill penalties (according to Mike Babcock). When he did get into games in the middle of the year, he promptly produced points at a very impressive rate (10 in 13 GP.) This didn’t save him being superseded in the lineup by Kasperi Kapanen and (briefly) Eric Fehr.

Leivo has a heavy shot and has produced impressively at the AHL level. He’s not especially fast and is not famed for his defence, but points are good and Leivo can produce them. Given a regular spot and some powerplay time, it’s easy to envision him putting up a 20-goal/40-point season somewhere. Vegas is likely not going to have an excess of scoring forwards; Josh Leivo would make a lot of sense for them. On the other hand, if the Leafs are hoping to put some offensive talent at wing once some room opens up, Leivo is closer to proven than most of the alternatives.

Should the Leafs expose him? I wouldn’t. But Mike Babcock has consistently played other options over him and the Leafs have a logjam at wing. If he’s got no future here, maybe letting him go avoids losing someone we might actually use.

Will they? 50/50. The Leafs never put Leivo on waivers even though they barely played him, so they clearly value him somewhat. On the other hand, 13 NHL GP is not a huge vote of confidence, and the battle for wing spots has not gotten less crowded.

Would Vegas take him? He seems like their best bet. Unless McPhee is really scared away by Leivo’s limited NHL sample size and/or his being a scratch, Leivo is young-ish and has clear offensive ability.

Kerby Rychel

Left wing, 22; $863K x 1 year remaining

Another offensively impressive, defensively questionable left wing prospect. Kerby Rychel has had impressive production this season with the Marlies, especially on the powerplay, and he’s got some size. He also has a bit of a reputation, he’s bad defensively (probably worse than Leivo, by most accounts), and he takes a ton of penalties. His line of 19-33-52 in 73 GP is solid without being “you absolutely need to promote me” great.

People have been waiting on Rychel to make the leap to the bigs for a long time; the Columbus Blue Jackets lost patience with him last summer and dealt him to us for a pretty mediocre return. The question with Rychel is whether he can develop enough of a complete game that you aren’t overpaying on defence for his impressive shot. The jury is still out on that, and the clock is ticking.

Should the Leafs expose him? Yeah. I wouldn’t be happy to lose him, but ultimately I’d prefer it be him than Leivo or our next candidate.

Will they? I think so.

Would Vegas take him? Rychel is younger than Leivo, and teams have been attracted to his talents for a long time. It’s a possibility, but he would be more of a gamble than Leivo or Marincin if they’re exposed.

Brendan Leipsic

Left wing, 23; RFA

Starting to notice a theme? Leipsic impressed me in what I saw of him this year, as a belligerent agitator-and-scorer type, and he produced in bunches (18G, 33A, 51P in 48 GP). Sounds great, right?

Now here’s James Mirtle on Leipsic:

It was telling how blunt Keefe was about Leipsic in his post-playoff comments, calling him “careless or irresponsible with the puck” at times. That flaw, from a small winger, in an organization with many similar players, won’t fly under Mike Babcock. It’s why I think Leipsic may be exposed in the expansion draft next month or even traded beforehand. He obviously has some value given he had better than a point-a-game with the Marlies, but he is also now 23 years old. To still have such obvious defensive deficiencies isn’t a good sign.

Uh oh.

If Leipsic isn’t at least a consideration for a promotion at some point this year, you start to wonder when it’s going to happen. As with most of our forwards, there’s a log jam of wingers ahead of them until someone moves. But Leipsic has so much appealing talent that ultimately I’d like to see if he can make the leap. He produced impressively and he’s got some nice energy in his game.

Should the Leafs expose him? No.

Will they? Mirtle thinks it’s a possibility, and Mirtle is generally looped in. I would still be surprised, but less so now than I would have been three months ago.

Would Vegas claim him? I would think they’d take Leivo first, but if that’s off the table and they don’t want a defenceman, Leipsic vs. Rychel is a tight race.

Ben Smith

Centre, 28 years old; $650K x 1 year remaining

Ben Smith is a nice, hardworking AHL centre. He played too many games in the NHL this year because the Leafs have terrible C depth and because he is a right-shooting faceoff specialist. He played exactly enough games to meet exposure requirements this year (40) and almost certainly was re-signed with that in mind. We don’t really need to worry about him beyond that.

Should the Leafs expose him? Yes.

Will they? Yes.

Would Vegas claim him? No.

Eric Fehr

Right wing/centre, 31 years old; $2M x 1 year remaining

Eric Fehr is a veteran depth forward nearing the end of his career, and he’s also coming off an injury sustained in his first game as a Maple Leaf. Fehr came over as part of the Frank Corrado trade, and he seemed like an obvious exposure slot.

Fehr is no longer an especially effective forward—he used to have noteworthy goal production, but that’s largely dried up—but he’s still physical and he’s still 6’4”, and he still killed some penalties for the Pens this year. Intriguingly, there’s been some talk the Vegas Golden Knights might actually be interested in claiming Fehr; VGK GM George McPhee actually drafted Fehr in the first round for Washington way back in 2003. If the Knights want a known, physical vet who can help them reach the salary floor, you can see an argument for them claiming Fehr.

Should the Leafs expose him? Yes.

Will they? Yes.

Would Vegas claim him? They might! Which, to be honest, would be silly on their part, but it would mean the Leafs come out of the expansion draft in the best possible shape. Having said that, players of Fehr’s calibre (including Fehr himself) wind up on waivers often enough that McPhee really shouldn’t, so let’s not get carried away with this idea.

Defence

Assuming the Leafs go 7-3-1, and they will unless they make a major trade, they’re going to protect Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly (they don’t need to protect Nikita Zaitsev, who is exempt). That leaves essentially one decision for them: Connor Carrick vs. Martin Marincin.

The Leafs have to expose one defenceman who meets requirements, but that’s not going to be a problem.

Connor Carrick

Right defence, 23 years old; $750K x 1 year remaining

Connor Carrick is a feisty, energetic defenceman with some puck-moving skill. For most of this season, he formed an effective pairing with Corsi superstar Jake Gardiner. A few months ago, he looked like an absolute lock to be protected in the expansion draft, and I still would bet on it.

However, in in the playoffs, Connor Carrick almost disappeared from the ice, surpassed by Martin Marincin. Carrick is somewhat small for a defender, and he takes penalties; he also has very poor offensive numbers despite playing much of the year alongside a very productive offensive d-man. Considering RHD is the Leafs glaring weakness—the next guys up in the organization after Zaitsev and Carrick are Alexey Marchenko and career AHLer Justin Holl, and that’s it—it would still seem crazy for them to let him walk. But it’s not quite a sure thing.

Should the Leafs expose him? No.

Will they? Probably not...

Would Vegas claim him? They’d have to think about it pretty hard. Talented RHD are always valuable, and Carrick has talent. Even considering Vegas should be able to draft a number of decent defencemen, he would be a pretty nice addition to their team.

Martin Marincin

Left defence, 25 years old; $1.25M x 1 year remaining

Martin Marincin is beloved by nerds and fancy stats, and hated by the eye test (he sometimes makes sloppy giveaways). He seems like a classical defensive defenceman in that he’s big and doesn’t produce many points, but his style is effective as far as it goes. Mike Babcock liked him a lot as a penalty killer, and when Roman Polak went down in the playoffs, the coach leaned considerably on Marmar.

Having said that, Marincin struggled to get into the lineup most of the year, and while he played right side at times out of necessity, he shoots left. Babcock cares about handedness and the Leafs have reams of left-shooting defencemen. Even given his PK prowess, I don’t think Marincin has passed Carrick in value.

If the Leafs are much higher on Marincin and much lower on Leo Komarov than I think, they could theoretically run the eight-skater setup and protect both Carrick and Marincin. This seems very unlikely.

Should the Leafs expose him? With regret, yes, they should.

Will they? Probably.

Would Vegas claim him? My guess is that they would prefer Leivo if he’s available, but if he isn’t, Marincin would make a lot of sense. He’s a very useful third-pair defenceman. Also, if VGK has a strong analytics bent they’re going to find Marincin appealing.

Alexey Marchenko

Right defence, 25 years old; $1.45M x 1 year remaining

The Leafs claimed Marchenko on waivers midway through the year. He played 11 games for Toronto and did not impress anyone very much. Marchenko is a big sixth defenceman, and it’s fair to wonder if he would have made it past 100 NHL games if he shot left. Still, he’s not terrible for defence depth, albeit he’s a little overpaid.

Should the Leafs expose him? Yes.

Will they? Yes.

Would Vegas claim him? People get weird in evaluating defencemen. But almost certainly not.

Goalies

The Leafs will protect Frederik Andersen and Vegas has no good reason to take anyone else. The end.

Conclusion

My protection list:

Forwards: Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Connor Brown, Leo Komarov, Josh Leivo, Brendan Leipsic

Defencemen: Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Connor Carrick

Goaltenders: Frederik Andersen

Toronto’s likely protection list

Forwards: Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Connor Brown, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin, Brendan Leipsic

Defencemen: Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Connor Carrick

Goaltenders: Frederik Andersen

***

The best news about this, from the Leafs’ perspective: they can easily avoid losing a regular roster player in the expansion draft. Thanks to their many players on ELCs, they’re in better expansion draft shape than much of the league, and whoever they lose, it shouldn’t be a devastating subtraction.