The Maple Leafs completed their first trade of the season with something expected: Moving out a couple of pending UFAs they were in tough to retain.

There are essentially two ways to view the move. You can say this as an indictment on the Leafs for not locking up Cody Franson long-term earlier, or that he is not worth the money he is about to get and they cut bait at the right time.

Turning 28 this year, most know the story on Cody Franson by now. He’s a big, right-handed defenseman who can score and struggles to skate. Since 2012, he is 20th among all defensemen in scoring, and he has strong possession and WOWY numbers. That means Franson is in for a huge payday, potentially close to $6M per year based on the Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik deals of last season. From the Leafs end, that would have meant yet another big contract for a player that is more of a top-4 D option than a top 2, which is what helped get them into the situation they are in now; paying a guy a notch above where he really slots on a contender. Think something along the lines of the James Wisniewski or Dennis Wideman deals.

For a team in transition, trading Franson represented an opportunity to kick start change in the right direction, as I showed last week by looking at the return defensemen yield. In that piece I wrote:

[pull_quote_center]Can they get creative with these deals and get even more in return? Perhaps packaging players together to drive up the price, as Buffalo did when they added Cody McCormick to Matt Moulson and took back a salary?[/pull_quote_center]
Ultimately, it is exactly what ended up happening. The market on top 9 forwards is never strong, and there are more than a few teams selling these players (Florida alone could sell at least four between Upshall, Bergenheim, Kopecky and Fleischmann). He wouldn’t net a solid prospect such as Brandon Leipsic on his own, nor would Franson net a 1st round pick and Leipsic on his own, but together, and with the taking back of salary in the form of Olli Jokinen, they got the type of return that should logically excite a fan.

Halfway developed and contributing in the AHL at a strong clip in his first year, Leipsic has progressed far enough to give him a good shot at being an NHLer. Compare that to this study on TSN last week that found 44% of 2nd rounders became decent NHLers between 2000-2009 and 30% of 3rd rounders did. Maybe Leipsic won’t become an NHLer, but at this point his body of work suggests he has a higher chance than 44% of becoming a decent NHLer.

It was always reasonable to expect a late 1st rounder in return for Franson, but a solid prospect who could potentially play in the NHL next year was not in the cards. We’ve seen this before, as Brian Burke once acquired Luca Caputi for Alex Ponikarovsky, which shows it’s no sure-thing, but cutting the required development time in half helps you find your answer a lot sooner, which is invaluable in and of itself.

The other important factor to consider is finally adding some assets. The Leafs still don’t have a second round pick this year and wouldn’t have drafted again until 60 picks after their first selection without the 1st they just added. That’s not good enough for a team retooling. But it doesn’t just hurt when it comes to drafting players; it also hurts you when trying to acquire players, because you have no pieces to play with and exchange. As we saw and I discussed earlier when it came to the availability of Evander Kane, the Leafs sat by without the assets to ever truly get involved.

Most of the Leafs big contracts won’t be able to be moved until the draft, but the more picks the Leafs are able to acquire between now and then, the more flexibility they will have to either move up in the draft somewhere, or add picks to a package to yield a greater return on a bad contract.

The draft represents the greatest opportunity for the Leafs to improve. Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas will have first-handed knowledge of players going back to their bantam AAA years, and right now the Leafs have a top 10 pick in the making, a late 1st, and their 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th rounders. That’s not nearly good enough to have a huge draft. This trade was a solid start, but the work is far from over.

Notes

  • The game against Montreal provided a strong example of the type of offense the Leafs will look to generate move forward, as opposed to blowing the zone and throwing Hail Mary’s. You see Kessel backchecking and covering his man, so he’s starting low on the transition of defense to offense. When Bozak chips the puck up the wall to JVR and the defenseman pinches on him, he’s not trying to go off the glass to a player standing or shooting through the neutral zone; he has a chip pass to make to Kessel going full stride in his own zone still. From there, Phil rips up the ice and drives the net for a scoring opportunity. There has been talk that this system reduces the Leafs speed advantage, but it is really about generating speed through different methods. Attacks like these help you open up the ice and are a safer, more sustainable way of generating offense against good teams.
  • Interesting that William Nylander has primarily played LW for the Marlies thus far. Left wingers under contract for next season include: JVR, Lupul and Komarov, with Panik an RFA. Even if one of them is traded, it’s still clouded unless the Leafs really want to play a bunch of players on their off-wing.
  • I asked Dave Morrison in the summer about William Nylander playing C or wing and this is what he said: “Ideally, you’d love it if he became your top line center. That’d be the optimal situation. But I think at some point you have to let his development take its course right. I think if we can we will, but it’s just hard at this point because he’s such a young guy, so you want to let the development take its natural course and where he fits in.” So far, that course is on the wing, on maybe the Leafs most crowded side of the roster. This is something to keep an eye on.

Quotes

[quote_box_center]“I know how much he cares about Toronto because in the summertime when we have dinner, we get into beaking matches about the team. I tell him Toronto is my city (it’s Subban’s hometown) and he’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no! He’s passionate about it. He’s a great player, he’s a world-class player, he’s among the top guys in the league for goals for the past, I don’t know, five, six, seven years? I know he’s an elite player in this league. I thought he was working hard today. He worked his bag off to try to make the difference for their team. The last battle at the end of the game, I gave him a tap because he’s been working hard. I think he should be appreciated for that. I think there’s a sense of (media) class here, a sense of professionalism here. That’s not to bad-mouth the Toronto media. I’ve never been a player there so I can’t comment. But some of the things I’ve seen happen in Toronto I haven’t seen happen here and I don’t think they would ever happen here.”[/quote_box_center]
– PK Subban, on Phil Kessel and the Toronto media.

Two things here: First off, make no mistake, a lot of players avoid Toronto because of the media. They see what’s going on, players talk around the league and tell them the stories, and they see the team will not be good for a few years. Some players relish the challenge, but most don’t. The second is that Phil Kessel’s abilities are not respected enough. If he gets traded, he’s going to light it up where ever he goes. Imagine him in St. Louis with Steen and Backes, for example? He’s getting such a bad reputation right now around the town, the expectation almost feels like he’s going to go elsewhere and fall flat on his face, proving people “right” about his character/deficiencies/whatever. That could not be further from the truth. He’d go to a contender and tear it up, perhaps being the final piece on the way to a Cup. People say they can handle that, but I have my doubts. Do not trade this guy for pennies on the dollar because it will haunt you for years.

[quote_box_center]“Peter’s been great. He hasn’t given up. He’s trying to get whatever he can out of the group. There have been some positive developments with him behind the bench in certain areas, but we haven’t had the success. When we made the change we headed out to California and played three really good games, and kept those teams – three of the top teams in the League – we kept he scoring chances to a minimum and had a lot ourselves, but we didn’t get a point. I think, from that point on, the players’ confidence was definitely waning at that point. But Pete’s worked hard, he hasn’t given up, he’s made a lot of changes to try to develop certain people and we’ve seen some positive elements in our game. Guys like Richard Panik I think have really improved and come a long way under Pete.”[/quote_box_center]
– Dave Nonis, on Peter Horachek.

Some of you will think I’m nuts, but if the Leafs can’t bring in any big ticket coach (Babcock, McLellan, whoever), I think they could do a lot worse than keeping Peter Horachek. Some will focus on the improved possession numbers, which is certainly nice, but for me it was two things: scratching Clarkson, and sitting Kessel. If you are rebuilding, you need a coach that is going to keep players accountable and teach them winning hockey, and I think Horachek is doing that to a decent degree considering the situation he walked into in the middle of the season. Unless the team improves rapidly roster-wise, I could envision a scenario where the Leafs bring in a good coach that washes out before the team is actually good because of all the scrutiny and daily beatings from the fans and media, a la Ron Wilson. If they can’t bring in a big name, I would at least entertain the idea of keeping Horachek in charge for another year or two until the roster is actually ready.

[quote_box_center]”He’s young and it takes time for young guys to realize how big & strong they are & he’s come into his own recently.”[/quote_box_center]
– Daniel Winnik, on Richard Panik

We often hear about how big players take longer to develop, but rarely do we actually see a team follow through on that developmental note. Panik is not an exception as this is his second NHL team. On Saturday he played primarily with Nazem Kadri and it was an interesting combination of two of the Leafs younger players. Kadri is feisty, but he is small and light, and Panik who is listed at 6’1 and 208 pounds (my guess is he’s heavier than that), added a different dimension to his line along with some skill. In OT they had some nice offensive pressure in particular. Considering they are building for next year, that’s an interesting combination to keep an eye for the rest of the year.

5 Things I Think I’d Do

    1. I think I’d be weary of looking too deep into anything until the trade deadline passes. For example, Korbinian Holzer is playing right now because they want to trade him. It’s unfortunate that young players aren’t in the line-up because of it, but that’s part of this business. Wondering why players such as Leivo, Percy and whoever else aren’t up right now simply isn’t fair because the Leafs are trying to play these fringe players in order to ship them out. If, after the deadline, a bunch of these kids aren’t up, then we can question them.
    2. I think Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly should get as much time together on the top power play unit as humanly possible until Dion Phaneuf returns. I don’t think either are true shooters nor am I sure they will be good together, but they might be the two best defensemen on the team next year and it needs to begin being explored now. I’d like to see them each take a turn playing LD and RD on the unit, too. Who the leader is with the puck on PP breakouts and entries will also be interesting.
    3. I still think I’d recall Matt Frattin. If he wasn’t signed for next season I get him keeping him down, but he is, and he has 15 goals in 32 games in the AHL this year. His last call-up with the Leafs he was effective, physical, and flashed some speed. I highly doubt every forward currently on the Leafs is better than Frattin, and he has always flashed the ability to play a solid cycling, possession game.
    4. I think the prime candidate to move right now with term on his contract is Tyler Bozak. He’s only going to play less and less with Kessel moving forward which will only further tank his numbers, he had a career season last year and has reasonable production this season, but you can easily envision that sinking next year. Bozak is turning 29 this year and has two more years left on his deal, and you’re selling relatively high still. Now is the time to do it. Other players like Joffrey Lupul (been hurt, has low value), Phaneuf and Kessel (getting shredded through the media, teams are trying to buy low), and younger players like JVR and Kadri (relatively cheap youngish producers that aren’t primed aged), can all be moved for the right price, but each gives you pause to move. Bozak is the guy with term, a high-ish stock that’s only going to diminish moving forward (educated guess here), and should be able to bring value back in return.
    5. I think the organization should not be afraid of acquiring good young players that can help the team now. They had little interest in Evander Kane, and ROR is being connected to the Leafs less and less. Between Nylander, Rielly, JVR, Kadri, Percy, a potential top 5 pick this year, two players that are young for goalies, and a few periphery promising Marlies, there is a decent underlying core here. It’s not completely bare. It’s crucial to hit the pick this year out of the park, but if they do and add that to Morgan Rielly as the building block on defense, they can grow it out from there. Don’t be afraid to add good young players who can help move this process forward for the right prices.

    Photo by Tara Walton/Toronto Star via Getty Images

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