I had occasion to listen to Chris Johnston on a podcast recently, and I was struck by something he said. Not rumours or speculation or opinions about what the Leafs should do or will do, but a comment about how he has to be cognizant of the fact that the Leafs will lie right now if it suits them. He didn’t come right out and use that word, he talked around it because calling Dubas a liar upsets people.
Dubas is a really good liar.
I tracked the media rumours and Dubas’s own statements prior to the 2019 draft and free agency, and the media had a perfect truth score while Dubas had lied about everything. And he did it well enough to fool people. Okay, me, he fooled me.
This isn’t an insult, it’s a key attribute of a GM. While the Leafs’ needs are pretty obvious right now, there’s no reason to be giving off a whiff of desperation to anyone by being too honest.
I also had occasion to read a writeup of how much cap space the Leafs could theoretically bank between now and the deadline, and I was struck by something maybe a little surprising. The Leafs aren’t actually doing the things the article said they could be doing. They haven’t had much opportunity, and they did bank space in January, but once they went into LTIR there were only a few days where they had the exempt players to move around to bank space in the non-LTIR segment of their cap usage.
Since they came out of LTIR on March 19 when Wayne Simmonds rejoined the team, they’ve made no effort to bank extra space at all. The fluctuations have come from exchanging Alex Galchenyuk’s higher salary for a lower one, but that produces couch-cushion change levels of space, not what they’d get by just shifting Galchenyuk off and having 20 players on the books for a day.
They took a full Taxi Squad on the road trip west, full of players they aren’t using, and added two extra practice goalies. They actively chose to spend the entire period of this road trip forced to have 21 on the roster at all times (Hutchinson is free under the emergency rules) banking less cap space than they could have just by leaving one player behind to make a spot on the squad to shunt off a player on off days.
If that’s what they’re actually doing, what are they and the reporters saying?
Dubas’s line in at least two interviews has been very direct. He wants the best forward he can get, and he’s willing to trade top prospects for a deal that’s good enough. The Leafs have said, largely through Sheldon Keefe and by reports from reporters with access like Johnston, that Frederik Andersen is progressing, and will return when he’s ready. Meanwhile Jack Campbell is fine, and they’re just being cautious with his health.
While there’s been reports from Elliotte Friedman that the Leafs at least discussed the theory of acquiring Linus Ullmark from Buffalo, Pierre LeBrun stated the exact opposite. The only other serious report that isn’t just speculation about what the Leafs should do is that they have real interest in Mikael Granlund.
With the change to the quarantine for players coming to Canada, the Leafs sense of urgency to trade early has to have faded, so it isn’t telling of anything that no trade has happened yet. But while all this talking and not trading has been going on, what have the Leafs been doing beyond not banking space?
On March 14, Frederik Andersen got beat by Ottawa and Joey Daccord, a rookie goalie, who is now hurt and done for the year. Andersen was pulled from the game and Michael Hutchinson played six minutes, and everyone was really mad at Andersen for being bad. They wanted him gone.
On March 19, after four days off, Andersen was worse against Calgary, and something had to be done.
Jack Campbell came back, miraculously healed from his injury, just in time to play the next night, and Frederik Andersen was finally gone. Because the natural reaction to his bad performances is to be happy he’s not there still doing it every game, no one has really considered the full implications of what it means to be missing a starter. The Leafs have helped that obliviousness along by playing up the nice Jack Campbell, who works hard and if he has one flaw, it’s that he’s too hard on himself.
Campbell has helped this process immensely by playing very well and looking fully healthy just as long as you shut your eyes for key moments in every other game.
In the March 27 game vs the Oilers, Campbell seemed to be favouring his leg again, and there was a great deal of concern. Suddenly, he was taking a maintenance day at practice, Michael Hutchinson started the next game, and a few doubts crept in about what the Leafs were really facing in net.
Campbell came back, played two against the Jets and looked great, as long as you ignore the bit in the Friday night game where he limped over to the bench late in the game, took another maintenance day on Saturday and Veini Vehvilainen was the backup to Michael Hutchinson the Sunday game, the first of a back-to-back.
Meanwhile that Taxi Squad is really interesting. The Leafs very quietly put Ian Scott back on the squad before they left for Winnipeg. So quietly that multiple people have wondered why he’s not getting a start with the Marlies. With Vehvilainen there as well, they have two extra goalies for practices and to work out with the large number of extra skaters.
Fans can sometimes get tunnel vision in ways good GMs have to avoid. And cap space is one thing they get hyperfocused on. Cap space manipulation becomes their primary concern in ways it never is for a team. GMs juggle player needs, salary concerns and always have to manage risks in advance, not scoff with perfect hindsight. But it is worth taking a hard look at the choice to give up five or six days of the ability to bank extra space all in the name of carrying Adam Brooks, Timothy Liljegren, Martin Marincin, Scott Sabourin (really), Alex Barabanov and all these extra goalies on a trip to two western cities. It’s not like they’re re-enacting the Franklin Expedition. So this decision to downgrade the urgency of banking some cap space, and upgrade concerns about the roster seems very contrary to their stated goals.
The official timeline of Andersen being “day-to-day” then “seven-ten days” has turned into an unstated week-to-week. Beam him up to the Enterprise and fix whatever is wrong and he would still be a couple of weeks away from starting a game because putting a goalie in cold is how you end up with an injured goalie. He’s not going to start starting anytime soon.
So why don’t the Leafs just put him on LTIR, cleverly make sure he stays out until the playoffs, and prosper with all that cap space! There’s a list of reasons why they aren’t doing that, either as a clever scheme or out of necessity. Yet.
First, and foremost, claiming he’s that injured has to pass the sniff test with the NHL, has to be agreeable to the player, and has to have some foundation in truth. Andersen might fail to progress any more, and they will have to use LTIR, but the most important reason not to do that unless absolutely necessary is cap space.
As soon as the Leafs put Andersen on LTIR, they have two separate, yet related problems. Cap space can only be banked if they keep the players not using the LTIR pool below whatever their total cap hit was on the day they put him on LTIR. Which you want to be as close to the ceiling as possible. They aren’t banking much now, and with Andersen on LTIR that becomes harder over the next week.
If he’s going to be on LTIR all the rest of the season, all that banking that did take place might be moot. Any expensive player in trade — I’ll use the Hall at 50% retained scenario to give me a $4 million example — has the cap hit prorated to $1.something depending on the day he’s traded to a non-LTIR team. If the Leafs could wiggle around and have enough non-LTIR space to fit that number into, they could go ahead and make that trade. But if they can’t, and they have to use the LTIR pool, banking goes out the window, and it’s dollar-for-dollar into the pool. $4 million into $5 million leaves not much left over, and then the question is this:
Who is your goalie?
If the expectation is that Andersen is magically transformed back to himself uninjured exactly when needed, that’s movie logic. And the Leafs have already manufactured too much fantastical timing for their goalies this season that may well have made their various ailments worse.
Is Jack Campbell going to play all of the playoffs? For sure? Without wobbling out at some point leaving Hutchinson to carry the team? Ask the Avs how that went.
Andersen on LTIR would signal the Leafs needed to get a goalie of some note, someone who can at least be considered a tandem partner to Campbell to help him the next time he limps to the bench.
And even if Andersen does progress in a more realistic, unpredictable way than this clever plot requires, shouldn’t the Leafs get a goalie anyway? Johnston thought so on that podcast, and I have to agree. Hutchinson was a great choice as the backup to the backup to the actual backup, Jack Campbell. Hutchinson as your number two is not how a contender goes into the playoffs, and it’s past absurd that anyone would think they would do that.
I don’t think they are doing that. Everything the Leafs are actually doing says this:
They don’t know if they will end up with Andersen on LTIR or not.
They don’t know if Jack Campbell would be able to start most of the remaining games and all of their playoff games. They don’t know if they’ll want that.
They don’t trust Michael Hutchinson as the third goalie even with a healthy Andersen, and they very much don’t want him as their number two.
There are no other legitimate goalie options under contract to the Leafs.
They will trade for some kind of goalie, but they don’t know yet what sort they’re shopping for. Their options are limited, and other GMs will be holding Dubas’s feet to the fire on any deal.
Adding a forward is still a secondary goal, but it may absolutely require a trade of a contract out to do it, and banking space becomes less crucial to the plan. They’ve realized this for some time, and haven’t bothered to worry about nickels and dimes.
And, as always, all things are possible if a team is willing to make the sacrifices to get the players they want. Kyle Dubas has traded away four players he liked just fine to get to this point: Connor Brown, Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. He’ll do what he has to do to make the team playoff ready.