With Rick Nash being traded to the Boston Bruins earlier today, the market for UFA wingers has been set... and it looks quite tasty. For Nash (and cap space), the Rangers got a decent prospect (D Ryan Lindgren), a first round pick, and a seventh round pick in 2019, along with Ryan Spooner, a capable middle-six player who is a restricted free agent this offseason. They can potentially flip Spooner or keep him as part of a re-tool.

Of course, the most important question following this trade is.... what does this mean for the Leafs?

Toronto has their own high-end winger on an expiring deal in James van Riemsdyk. Unlike Nash, he doesn’t have a history as a top 5 scorer in the league. Also unlike Nash, he has been putting up numbers this season. His 25 goals are just barely behind Nash’s point total. van Riemsdyk has been excellent this season.  In spite of his defensive flaws, he’s been able to capitalize on friendly usage en route to a season where he will likely clear 30 goals again.

Beyond that, his shot results at even strength are excellent. For much of the season, his line with Mitch Marner and Tyler Bozak was the Leafs’ most successful by shot attempts, and created forward depth that is almost impossible to match around the league.

If you’re confused about how to read the chart above, check out the explainer here. The gist of it is that this year, JvR has scored like a first liner at even strength, like an elite player in the power play, and has had a very positive impact on shots for the Leafs. He’s taken too many penalties, but when he’s on the ice, the Leafs get dangerous shots in the slot and net front area.

In short, JvR is the type of player teams dream of adding at the trade deadline. He would get a significant return. How significant? Well, according to Darren Dreger, he would be at the top of the rental market (skip to the 46 minute mark here). So potentially, that would see the Leafs get a return of a first rounder, high level prospect, and maybe a later pick as a throw in. Any team that lost out on Nash and doesn’t want to deal with the on and off-ice character of Evander Kane would be in on van Riemsdyk.

So should the Leafs move him?

The Argument For

Fact: The Leafs are a good team, but not a great team. Their defensive execution is still terrible, and they concede too many shots, resulting in merely average possession stats, with strong goaltending, special teams, and shooting talent moving them away from mediocrity.

Fact: Two of the best teams in the league are in the Leafs’ division. Tampa Bay and Boston  would represent Round 1 and (likely) Round 2 opponents in the playoffs, diminishing the Leafs chances further. Both of these teams are Going For It.

Fact: The Leafs’ best forward is 20. Their second and third best are 21 and 20. Their best defenceman is 23. Boston and Tampa have notably older cores that will probably not be as good in the future as they are now.

Fact: The Leafs have a plethora of winger prospects.  While none may replace JvR in full, they might be able reasonably approximate his production with someone like Andreas Johnsson

Isn’t this a perfect time to sell high? JvR is great, and by losing him, you are getting worse. However, you’re getting worse in a year where you probably aren’t going to contend anyways. In return, you can restock your cupboards with a strong prospect and valuable picks. Don’t look now, but the Leafs’ prospect cupboards are emptying as they continue to promote players into the league. Their only elite prospect right now is Timothy Liljegren. Everyone else is a different shade of promising (Johnsson, Jeremy Bracco), unlikely but tantalizing (Adam Brooks, Eemeli Rasanen), or a longshot (everyone else). The Leafs will need this pipeline coming through in the future as their NHL players get more expensive.

By keeping JvR, you are incurring a first rounder and high end prospect as an opportunity cost. If you’re unwilling to trade Kapanen and a 1st now for defense help, you should similarly be unwilling to let JvR expire as an asset that you don’t fully get to take advantage of.

The concern is that you hurt the morale of the team when you trade a strong player while in a playoff spot, but St. Louis did that last year, made the second round, and haven’t really missed Kevin Shattenkirk since.

By trading JvR, you’re taking the long view. The Leafs aren’t a contender now. Keep your eyes on the prize: not a first round exit now, but a deep playoff run in the future.

The Argument Against

Fact: Hockey players aren’t assets. The message you send to your team when you sell off a key part of your top nine ahead of the playoffs is that you don’t think they have it. That’s not how you attract free agents or retain talent and motivate development.

Fact: The Maple Leafs power play is not okay with van Riemsdyk out and Josh Leivo in.  They’re already playing Connor Brown too much on the power play, why are we nerfing it more?

Fact: Speculation about the NHL prowess of Andreas Johnsson is just that. He might be ready. He also might not. And good teams don’t assume that an untested player can hold an NHL job.

Fact: The Leafs are not as deep as we like to think they are. One winger injury and Leivo is a full time player. One more and there’s an AHLer on the roster or else Matt Martin.  You don’t go into the playoffs with the minimum number of players who can play.

Theory: Fans like the idea of the Leafs trading their UFAs because they are hedging their emotional bets. We all know the Leafs can’t have nice things and they will always fail, so just keep the rebuild going. Getting stuff is fun, and the imaginary awesomeness of a draft pick you haven’t even used yet is boundless.

Consolation: The Leafs are doing fairly well at amassing picks. Don’t be jealous of the Rangers, they’ll be golfing in May.

Given the Rick Nash trade, should the Maple Leafs trade James van Riemsdyk?

Yes, he’s replaceable and the return is worth it1926
No, you don’t sell when you’re playoff bound1360