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Will Nikita Soshnikov’s contract block Kasperi Kapanen from the NHL?

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If Soshnikov is called up soon, does that doom Kapanen to months in the AHL?

Detroit Red Wings v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Several days ago, Pierre LeBrun of TSN broke the news that Nikita Soshnikov has a KHL out clause in his contract that kicks in on November 15. Initially it was reported that the Leafs had to call him up before that date, or he could exercise it and demand a loan to a KHL team, assuming one was interested.

Now, as of Friday night’s Leafs game on TSN, the word is that this clause is not a one-time option, but is in fact something that runs for the rest of this season, so the Leafs need to call him up and keep him on the team, or he can opt to go to the KHL at any time. That clarification came from Bob McKenzie, and perhaps we were supposed to have always understood that to be the case, and I’m behind the curve.

McKenzie expressed the opinion that the Leafs will likely call up Soshnikov in the next few days. That doesn’t seem to be happening today, however, and the next game is played on the 16th, leaving a nice stretch of practice days to make adjustments to the lineup back at home in Toronto.

Soshnikov’s agent has made it clear this isn’t a thing they’re upset about or overly concerned with. But maintaining rights over Soshnikov is just a smart thing for the Leafs, and it does seem unlikely they won’t just do what needs to be done to maintain their claim on him. He has played 67 NHL games, and he’s proven to be capable of handling depth duties.

Assume he’ll get called up, but then what?

To add Soshnikov to the roster right now, the Leafs can simply send the waiver-exempt Frederik Gauthier back to the AHL. He was called up when Matthews was hurt as an insurance centre. His absence caused barely a ripple on the Marlies and simply provided the opportunity for Sheldon Keefe to try Adam Brooks on a scoring line as he is eased into a pro career. Gauthier’s return won’t change much. The Marlies have a nice depth at centre for the first time in a long time, due mostly to veterans.

Remember when they had a lot of wingers, though? That has changed. With Kasperi Kapanen back on the team, and Soshnikov off of it, they have eight wingers in total, and a couple of centres who can play wing. It’s not too tight a roster, but it’s not the overfilled crowd of players it used to be. One reason why is that most of the AHL-contracted players are in Orlando. Only Rich Clune and Mason Marchment are playing on the Marlies at forward without an NHL deal.

On the Leafs, the arrival of Soshnikov would repeat the situation with Kapanen from his brief call up during the California road trip. Soshnikov is equivalent to Josh Leivo in where he can reasonably play in the lineup. The Leafs can just alternate between them, but after he gets to 70 games played (three more games), Soshnikov’s waiver exemption disappears.

That would leave untouchable forwards or Andreas Borgman as the only waiver exempt players who could be sent down to make room for a necessary replacement. This isn’t a big problem, but it interferes with flexibility. Players with minor injuries might need to go on IR immediately to make room for a call-up, and then they have to stay out for a week. That’s tolerable. But never calling up Kapanen again until after the deadline when the 23-man roster limit is suspended seems less than ideal.

The way out of that conundrum is with a trade. So from one point of view — looking at the Marlies roster — the team isn’t oversupplied with players. From another, there’s a logjam.

LeBrun, in the video linked above, discussed the idea of a trade of some excess forwards to improve on defence, where the Leafs are weaker. I hear this all the time, and I keep shaking my head. The Leafs have an excess of sixth, seventh and lower-ranked defenders. They have so many in the AHL, the team struggles to get them all ice time. Where the Leafs are weak is in the top four.

Both Soshnikov and Leivo can play in the NHL, as they’ve proven, so they shouldn’t be given away for nothing, and Lou Lamoriello doesn’t generally do that anyway. A team like the Ducks, who took Eric Fehr on loan to fill out their AHL roster, is obviously looking for forwards of various qualities, but I don’t think they’re sending back Sami Vatanen in a deal for Leivo.

What the Leafs could hope for is a number seven better than Roman Polak, and why bother spending any assets to get that back now? The trade deadline will provide some kind of depth defender options if the Leafs think Calle Rosen and Martin Marincin aren’t enough.

A more likely scenario for a Leivo/Soshnikov deal is a younger, waiver-exempt player coming back from a team that needs NHL-ready help now.

This situation may persist for weeks or months. It is possible that Kapanen might be stuck behind Leivo and Soshnikov until February 26, but he isn’t the only young player in the AHL in that situation. Maybe one of them could fill a future need on the Leafs.