There are two main options the Toronto Maple Leafs can choose when approaching the expansion draft. They can either produce the best protection list they can and gamble on the outcome, or they can make a deal with Vegas to either leave certain players alone, or to take a specific one.
Plan A: make a list and roll the dice
If there’s no deal, the Leafs have to expose all their goalies but Frederik Andersen. They also have to expose all the defenders but Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner barring one other. Nikita Zaitsev is exempt, so he doesn’t factor into the decision making here.
Most people assume that one other would be Connor Carrick. While Martin Marincin seemed to take over for Carrick in the playoffs, Carrick is younger. The only way I see the Leafs choosing Marinicin over Carrick is if Carrick is the man they hope Vegas takes.
The only reason they might do that is to keep Vegas away from unprotected forwards, but that seems unlikely. The forwards are where the tough decisions are. This post shows all the forwards that are exposed. The Leafs can protect seven of them.
There are five forwards on the exposed list 24 or younger, and most of them will stay exposed. If you think that protecting a potential future asset over an older player is a good bet, you could protect them all and leave all the 30 and over set exposed. Vegas can only take one. This would be a bold move. And if the Leafs were where the Arizona Coyotes are in the rebuild process, it’s what I’d expect to happen.
The Leafs are a functioning team, however, with a core of players who succeeded at getting to the playoffs.
Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin are all regulars on the team. It seems very unlikely that the Leafs would expose most of these players to the risk of losing them for nothing. If they want rid of them, they can be traded for a return of some kind. There is lots of time before the expansion draft to get that done.
Martin could be exposed if a more attractive player (to Vegas, not you) needs to be protected. It could come down to which young prospect they want to protect over the other. In that scenario, I can see the Leafs risking Martin on the theory he’s not likely to be taken. That makes five or six forwards protected, just to cover the main roster players.
Left open is Brian Boyle, who is a UFA and will decide for himself if he wants to play in Vegas. If he says yes, he counts as their choice from Toronto, and all of this is irrelevant.
The players with potential but unproven NHL value left open are: Kerby Rychel, Josh Leivo, Seth Griffith and Brendan Leipsic. Since Griffith is an RFA, he would have to do a deal with Vegas in their discussion period before they’d take him.
If you decide to risk Martin, you can protect two of those four, otherwise it’s one. Add Marincin, Alexey Marchenko, Garret Sparks, Antoine Bibeau and Curtis McElhinney, and you have a long list of choices before you ever get to the unlikely choice: Eric Fehr. Some of those players are also free agents of one sort or another and would need to agree to a deal first.
Vegas could find a decent NHL-capable player there, but none are stars. And you only lose one. That’s the dice roll. Would you cry over any of them? And if I were rolling the dice, I’d either move Leipsic out or protect him over Martin. I don’t think the Leafs will expose Martin, however. It looks bad.
But then, I don’t think Lou Lamoriello rolls dice.
Plan B: Eliminate the guesswork with a trade
This kind of deal involves trading a player, a draft pick, or both to Vegas to either get them to leave certain players alone or to take a specific one.
What that would cost depends on the player to be taken. I assume it costs more to get Vegas to take Eric Fehr than Josh Leivo. I don’t choose Leivo’s name at random either. In Miro Aaltonen, the Leafs signed a player who is waiver exempt and fills Leivo’s exact niche on the team. The team may now consider Leivo the most expendable despite his NHL record, simply because his replacement is right there and doesn’t need to sit in the press box all year.
The downside to this plan is that it would likely cost the Leafs two players, but they would be players they chose to give up.
Plan C: The way I’d do it
Out of all those young forwards that will be exposed, Connor Brown is the one I would automatically protect, and then, to be blunt, I’d not bother with the rest. The Leafs’ future is not harmed substantially with any one of those players in Vegas instead of in the Leafs’ system.
Many people rate Brendan Leipsic and Josh Leivo as locks for top six forward spots somewhere on some team in some possible future, but I don’t see them on the Leafs. I don’t see either as a realistic replacement for James van Riemsdyk. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d let either go. Or Kerby Rychel or Seth Griffith.
I’d let them all go. All four of them. And I’d issue a protection list that showed all of my current NHL regulars as protected and none of the prospects. I’d want those regulars to see that I value them by protecting them. I want them to know they are the core of my team. (Even if the core is really that triumvirate of exempt rookies.) Because, I’m not leaving this to chance.
I’d trade to Vegas right now, before the draft, any number of those young nearly, but not quite, NHLers that they want. In return I’d want them to take Joffrey Lupul. If the price isn’t too high, and Vegas values a floor-clearing contract, I’d make that deal, clear the cap space (for real, not just with LTIR, so the bonuses don’t roll over again), clear the crowded SPC list and give up some marginal prospects who are all without waiver exemption anyway.
If Vegas won’t bite on Lupul, or the price is too high, I’d pay the lower price to get them to take Fehr, and clear a little less space off the cap and SPC list.
Then, once Vegas has all the protection lists, they’re public, and I know who is exposed on other teams, I’d phone them up and try to make another deal for the best centre, legitimate backup goalie, and/or quality defender that is available on those lists. And any of those four young forwards I’ve still got left are who I’d start with in making a deal. I’d keep going with a few selected exempt prospects as well if the prize was worth it.
Draft and develop is a great plan, but it’s not your end game. You don’t win the Stanley Cup because you have the best prospects. You win it because you had the right ones in the right place at the right time, which means poised to hit the NHL right when you’re poised to contend and your better players are getting hurt. Freddie Hockey is this year’s poster child for that technique.
The Leafs aren’t there yet.
It’s time to make cuts on the depth chart. And anybody not waiver exempt is where I’d start. Vegas is hungry for players. And this draft won’t sate them. They will snatch any young player with a chance at NHL-level play who is put on waivers. This is the year it becomes really tough to sneak someone through at the end of training camp, so you can’t count on getting your tweeners worth keeping in the AHL unless they are exempt, and there are only so many seats in the press box.
Hey, you don’t suppose that’s why the Leafs signed all those European free agents who are exempt from this draft as well as waiver exempt, do you?
That’s my scheme for dealing with this. What’s yours?