Okay, let’s get this out of the way right from the start. Did I write this article just because of the headline? Yes. I saw the quote from Sheldon Keefe and the headline popped into my head, and because I’m no coward I came up with an actual article to go with it.
So last year, Maple Leafs fans enjoyed watching Michael Bunting have a breakout season. After not playing in a full NHL season at any point in his career, Bunting signed with his hometown team for less than $1 million per season. After starting the season in the bottom six, he came out of the gate hot even during the pre-season and earned a spot on the top line.
The Leafs have a history of finding value in cheap, short term contracts to fill out their depth. Bunting arguably is the most successful, along with Jason Spezza who was at the other end of his career. They also had a good deal of success with David Kämpf, who had one of his best offensive seasons but who was mostly successful as a purely defensive center.
Yesterday, during the first media day of the pre-season, Sheldon said something interesting for a couple of reasons:
Sheldon Keefe: “We need some guys to come in and pop, not unlike the way Bunting did. We see Adam Gaudette as a candidate who could do that."— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) September 22, 2022
On Murray: "As far day 1 of camp goes for a veteran goalie, he looked really dialed in and focused."
This off-season, the Leafs signed a whole lot of new depth: Calle Järnkrok, Adam Gaudette, Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, Zach Aston-Reese (PTO), and Denis Malgin. Obviously, Toronto would love if one of their depth signings turns into someone capable of playing in their top six and become a 60+ point forward. Keefe named Adam Gaudette specifically, which I’ll go into more below.
It’s worth noting that Toronto signed a whole bunch of depth forwards last year too, and Bunting was just one of many. They also signed Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, and David Kämpf. They were varying degrees of success, but none “popped” like Bunting did. Nick Ritchie is a guy who didn’t get nearly the results that were hoped of him, and he wound up traded to Arizona.
So in honour of Keefe’s quote, which allowed me to come up with this headline that was funny enough for me to build a whole article around it, let’s look at each of the potential options among Toronto’s new depth and who has the best chances to POP as fantastic debuts.
Setting a Baseline for Metrics
First, I want to set a baseline of metrics to compare each player against. I’ll use Michael Bunting as an obvious one, but I’ll also use Kerfoot and Järnkrok as the two players who will compete for the one top six winger spot. Järnkrok is more of a known commodity in his career, and to start the pre-season he’s lining up with Matthews. He seems like the most obvious one to compete with Kerfoot for the other top six winger spot — assuming Kerfoot isn’t traded.
I will use per 60 rates to neutralize differences in ice time. I’ll also specifically use offensive metrics (5v5 only) since we’re talking about offensive potential, and will pull from either Natural Stat Trick or HockeyViz.
So here are how Bunting, Kerfoot and Järnkrok shape up as far as last season’s metrics go:
- Bunting: 3.18
- Kerfoot: 2.44
- Järnkrok: 1.78 with Seattle, 0.63 with Calgary/
- Bunting: 1.11
- Kerfoot: 0.55
- Järnkrok: 0.49 with Seattle, 0.54 with Calgary/
- Bunting: 14.57
- Kerfoot: 9.72
- Järnkrok: 10.28 with Seattle, 9.45 with Calgary/
- Bunting: -1%
- Kerfoot: -0.4%
- Järnkrok: -0.4%/
- Bunting: +6%
- Kerfoot: +6%
- Järnkrok: -1%/
Even-Strength Offensive Impact
- Bunting: +10%
- Kerfoot: -8%
- Järnkrok: -9%/
Looking at the three, it’s clear Bunting is the better offensive force by far. Kerfoot is next, and Järnkrok can do okay but his strength is more in his balance as a two-way winger who can play good defense.
If there is one new player that the Leafs themselves seem to have the biggest hope for, it seems to be the guy that Keefe name dropped above. To start in this pre-season he’s being lined up with Tavares and Marner, which is about as good a chance as you can be given.
Gaudette is turning 26 on October 26, so expecting a sudden improvement from him would be asking a lot. But he will be the same age this season as Michael Bunting was last year, and he turned out pretty great. coming off a breakout season in the NHL — sometimes, not having points is more to do with a lack of opportunity than it has to do with actual ability.
Gaudette does have some signs of being a decent producer. He was a 5th round draft pick, but he had a big breakout in the NCAA. In his sophomore season, he had 26 goals and 52 points in 37 games in the NCAA. (Side note: the leader in the whole NCAA that season was Gaudette’s linemate, and current all-defense, no-offense winger Zach Aston-Reese, so that’s really funny). Gaudette followed that by leading the entire NCAA with a 30 goal, 60 point season, after which he turned pro.
And he basically jumped right to the NHL for Vancouver. He has played in only 16 AHL games in his whole career. He’s basically played as a bottom six center his whole NHL career, with a career best 33 points in 59 games — a season where his individual shooting percentage was 16%, his on-ice shooting percentage as 12.3%, and he had the most powerplay time in his career. Let’s look at those baseline metrics to see how Gaudette’s previous season compares:
- Points/60 — 1.3
- iCF/60 — 13.8
- ixG/60 — 0.62
- Finishing Impact — -3%
- Setting Impact — +1%
- Even-Strength Offensive Impact — -10%/
So aside from two great seasons in the NCAA and one shooting % bender of a season in the NHL, Gaudette doesn’t seem to have much history as an offensive threat. He profiles more as a grinding forward more suited to the bottom six. This isn’t inspiring much confidence that he is hiding an offensive breakout. He is not in the same situation as Michael Bunting, who did have a mini-breakout for Arizona in limited games the previous season.
The one thing that actually did happen recently that could hint at something for Gaudette’s potential is this past summer during the World Hockey Championships. Gaudette played a pretty big role for a young, not deep Team USA, and led the team in goals (6) and tied for the lead in points (8) in 10 games. But that is, once again, a shooting percentage spike (6 goals on 27 shots = 22%). Some of his goals, however, are of the type that does elicit a slight resemblance to Mr Bunting.
Here's Adam Gaudette outmuscling his defender to get past the goalie for a goal at the 2022 WHC pic.twitter.com/MzFi4X1L3K— Michael (@TheLeafsIMO) July 16, 2022
But it’s important to know that Toronto isn’t exactly looking for a top six winger to be a pure offensive player. What was so great about Bunting isn’t just his ability to produce points, but to play a particular role with Matthews and Marner. Do the heavy lifting physically, throw some hits, grind it out on cycles, go to the dirty areas, all those lovely buzzwords coaches love.
That is something Gaudette can do. Could he also play with Tavares and Marner/Nylander in that role, and also have enough skill to pitch in offensively? His most common teammates the past few years have been Antoine Roussel, Jake Virtanen, Brandon Sutter, a rookie Tim Stützle, Alex Formenton, and Chris Tierney. Not exactly top offensive talents.
But that is something to keep in mind. Guadette has had a lot of opportunity in the NHL on not great teams, with not great linemates in a bottom six/depth role, and he has shown he cannot carry a line and drive offense. In the times he has been playing higher in the lineup, potentially with better players to carry most of the offensive workload, he has shown he has some skill and finish to play well with them. That would be the hope for him in a top six role for Toronto.
Malgin is probably the other interesting offensive forward, and he is starting the pre-season on a line with Nylander. So he seems to be given a good opportunity to see what he can do as well. In fact, Keefe said as much — although you may note he said something similar about Gaudette and Järnkrok too:
Keefe: [Malgin] is another guy who is in a similar situation to Gaudette. He has played a similar amount of time in the NHL. He went away from the league for a while and did extremely well back home. He is a very talented guy. I thought he looked really good today.
For me, with him, I am really just going to watch. We are going to put him in a good spot as well and he is going to play with good players. Right now, he is with Willy. We are just going to watch him.
He has had success in the league before. It didn’t go well for him in his first go-around with us. He’s gone back home, did really well, has come back here, and he wants to play in the NHL. We will give him a chance to prove he belongs.
Malgin was a 4th round pick by Florida, and only three months younger than Gaudette. Where Gaudette is bigger and can play physical, Malgin is 5’9” and plays more of a smart, skilled and fast game. He jumped to the NHL in his D+2 season as a 19 year old for Florida, but his career point production is pretty much the same as Gaudette’s. His career best was 22 points (11 goals and 11 assists) in 51 games,
The difference is, Malgin has spent the past two seasons in Switzerland rather than the NHL. So the most recent data we have to compare to Gaudette was when Malgin was still only 23:
- Points/60 — 1.1
- iCF/60 — 11.17
- ixG/60 — 0.59
- Finishing Impact — -3%
- Setting Impact — 0%
- Even-Strength Offensive Impact — -2%/
But, like Gaudette, Malgin had a fantastic World Championship as a leading forward for his country. He had 5 goals and 12 points in only 8 games. He finished 5th in the whole tournament, and third by points per game. All of Malgin’s metrics may look worse due to being younger at the time, but that same season was Gaudette’s career best.
And getting back to the idea of the winger for Tavares needing to have a certain kind of role, Malgin doesn’t really fit that type. I could see him being more of a depth offensive contributor in the bottom six, which is something they could really use. That said, just because he’s smaller doesn’t mean he can’t hang physically. He can muck it up at times, and you can’t fault him for his efforts.
Denis Malgin gets in on the forecheck and sets up Nylander pic.twitter.com/SF8dbryXEZ— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 23, 2020
Aubé-Kubel is arguably the most interesting of the three. He was a higher draft pick than both (48th overall), albeit a year older. He is 5’11” so between Malgin and Gaudette size-wise, but he plays a pretty physical style like Gaudette. In the QMJHL, Aubé-Kubel had point production on par with a former Maple Leafs prospect, Dmytro Timashov, but with a pretty even balance of goals and assists.
Aubé-Kubel also took longer to get to the NHL compared to the other two. He spent two full seasons in the AHL after finishing his junior career, averaging around 0.5 points per game by the time his AHL career was done. When he made the Flyers, he played mostly in the bottom six averaging around 11 minutes per game. Last year, he was picked up by the Colorado Avalanche off waivers and had a solid season playing just under 10 minutes per game.
HM: Nicolas Aube-Kubel (January 26th vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) pic.twitter.com/xEbHCYu7OF— Flyers Prospects (@futureofphilly) August 31, 2018
His 22 points in 67 games doesn’t seem great, and he had no points in their 14 playoff games. Aubé-Kubel had the benefit of playing on an extremely good offensive team, but his rate stats and impacts rate out better than all three. There’s also a big difference producing in limited minutes in a more sheltered role and doing it in a top six role with heavy minutes. Michael Bunting was a surprise emergence for a reason.
- Points/60 — 2.03
- iCF/60 — 12.75
- ixG/60 — 0.68
- Finishing Impact — +2%
- Setting Impact — +3%
- Even-Strength Offensive Impact — +1%/
Stylistically, Aubé-Kubel has played mostly bottom six minutes as an aggressive forechecker, with an emphasis on checker. He plays physical, despite not being the biggest guy. But he is another who seems to flash more offensive skill than he’s displayed, but that may be partly to due with him being given a different role in more limited minutes. In the pre-season he is being slotted on a line with Kerfoot and Robertson. That would seem to put him near the bottom of the totem pole for these depth forwards, but I think Leafs fans may come to like him in the bottom six.
If at first you don't succeed... Nicolas Aube-Kubel tries again. pic.twitter.com/SH6ODdenI1— NHL (@NHL) November 25, 2021
Maybe one of Gaudette, Malgin or Aubé-Kubel eventually earns a top 6 spot, but I’m guessing not. They have two other more proven options in Kerfoot and Järnkrok already there. I know a lot of people have been talking about Robertson winning that spot as well, though I’ll believe that when I see it. But the three of them do represent the best potential for generating offensive pop, whether they do it in the top six or together in the bottom.
Honestly a line of Aubé-Kubel - Gaudette - Malgin could be an interesting complement to the more defensively focused Engvall - Kämpf - Aston-Reese line. But if you do the math you’ll notice that it leaves only one forward spot in the top six for Kerfoot and Järnkrok. It also leaves no spot in the lineup at all for Simmonds and Clifford. It also really stacks the deck against Robertson making the starting roster out of pre-season.
Some forwards may come to be hurt, and there may be a trade or two coming, but more likely what will happen is the Leafs will once again try and sneak a couple of players through waivers and lose one or both and then we all have to put up with Leafs fans with a martyr complex whining about a conspiracy against Toronto because other teams always take the good, NHL depth players Dubas tries to hoard and sneak through waivers.
But hey, say this for Dubas... he does know how to find quality depth. And maybe one of these guys can follow in Bunting’s footsteps and turn into something more.
Who do you think will ultimately win the top six winger spot?