Okay, we're going to do a trust exercise! Everyone! Grab your partner and – just kidding. I would never do that to you.
Yesterday I posted a thing about RFAs and it's not really a shopping list, because I don't think the Leafs can really afford to trade for RFAs, although some of the ideas are intriguing. And then I started writing about UFAs, and I know you've likely heard the UFA pool is bad this year, but well, surely you realize the Leafs aren't adding the sort of wow player that makes a UFA pool exciting to TV producers? You do know that, right?
Anyway, I wrote about some forwards, and said this at one point about three current or former Avs:
If you want a defensive forward, then Kerfoot is cheaper and as good. If you want a more balanced package in one player with some offensive production then Compher is good, but not in O'Reilly's class, although O'Reilly has less defensive value.
I carried on and wrote about Ivan Barbashev and found myself comparing him to Michael Bunting and looking at Barbashev's extreme negative defensive impact, and asked what the difference was beyond cap hit, and then frankly, the little light bulb went off and I realized why this was all so wishy-washy. I have no idea what type of team Brad Treliving is going to build.
While it seems like he's building that team with Sheldon Keefe, we have no idea what format it will take. There's some givens, and when I looked at cap space, I made up this hilarious roster:
Matthew Knies - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
??? - John Tavares - William Nylander
Calle Järnkrok - Sam Lafferty - ???
??? - ??? - ???
Sam Lafferty, Calle Järnkrok and Matt Knies are where they are because that's where they landed, so understanding they can move around – Lafferty maybe down, what sort of team is this?
There's two basic configurations the Leafs have had over the years. One has three "scoring" lines, who between them match up to the top lines on opponents, and the irrelevant fourth line barely plays. Mike Babcock liked this on the Leafs because he was bringing Mitch Marner along slowly, needed some place to park James Van Riemsdyk to get value out of him, and had some players like Matt Martin who were there for show, not playing hockey.
The other setup, which Sheldon Keefe was claimed to have coveted because of Tampa's success with it, was two scoring lines who were used carefully in terms of zone usage – Keefe likes to change the forward lines on the backcheck if they get in trouble – and a third line that was supposed to be able to shut down the top line of the opponent to allow the other two scoring lines to get an easier run at the net.
I think it's very clear the shutdown third line idea was the concept they were attempting to do as well as they could on the cheap while the cap was flat. This was reasonable, as defensive forwards are cheaper, and they did their best to find a set of six of them for this most recent playoffs, they could deal out in the bottom-six in any sort of order by health, need, whatever.
People hate both ideas in direct proportion to which is in use. If the Leafs roll three decently skilled scoring lines, the complaint rings out they don't have a shutdown line. If they go with a more clear distinction of top-six and bottom-six, the "depth has to chip in" truism gets trotted out and my dentist gets richer.
These are two broad categories, and there's another concept that's likely closer to what the Leafs can do with their current roster, and their ability to add more, and that's a Matthews line on one end, and irrelevant fourth line on the other, and a middle-six that consists of a mix of scoring specialists, defensive players, transition capable wingers, faceoff capable centres, and they try to be all things to all people.
To really pull this off – this is the old Boston model to some extent – they need a top line that is a little more souped-up that Michael Bunting or Calle Järnkrok can accomplish. They need a left wing who is primarily a support winger who generates offence. Now, I love Matt Knies more than you, but I think assuming that's him at 21 is a bit much.
And there's the trouble. You can mix up Tavares, Nylander, Knies, Järnkrok, a guy like Barbashev or Compher, or even Scott Laughton and have a good couple of lines. But that top line has to be great. Tavares or Nylander on LW great. And that makes it harder to deal with the next six players who need to be... whatever they're going to be.
Vegas used Barbashev as a bit of a fake – a very Vegas fake, actually – on the top line a lot, and, look, he's really amazingly bad defensively. He's what people think Nylander is. But he hits people! So of course that can't be true.
I don't know at all what the Leafs are shopping for. I don't know why there's this polite deep freeze between them and Ryan O'Reilly, but that's how I read it. I don't know who they will look for, if they want Barbashev or if they'd rather go for Acciari. That Kyle Dubas picked how he picked when he wanted both and couldn't afford it says all you need to know about the format he was acquiring players for.
I know what they aren't going to do. They aren't going the "roll four lines" of "skill guys" not unless they're going all out and hiring Patrick Roy as coach too.
Drafting tendencies won't tell you how the new boss is different from the old boss, because they seem to agree almost entirely on drafting strategy. But drafting isn't how you build a team. It's every other choice you make that decides who really plays, where and how – and how much.
My tendency is to want more versatility than the harsh line between the top-six and the shutdown players. I think you end up with a college kid as your best top line player when one goes down if you build a team like the Leafs did. But what I'd like might not fit within the budget, and to make this even more complex, Treliving is building a team today, and also working to the future when the cap goes up and key player salaries are going up, and he needs to, you know, get a goalie too.
If the type of assistant coach Treliving hires will tell a tale about how long the leash is on Keefe, so will the first major player acquisition tell a tale for us too.
Trouble is, it might not come until July 1. So buckle up, tomorrow is not Christmas morning, there's a lot more days to wait until we really know what kind of Leafs team this "run it back" squad is going to look like.