The holidays are upon us, the roster freeze is live, and the Maple Leafs are rolling with points in nine of their last 13 games.
As optimistic as Leafs fans are feeling, and there is plenty of reason to, it is also worth noting this year’s Leafs team has two more points than they did through 32 games last season.
That makes something that Elliotte Friedman wrote in 30 Thoughts this week quite interesting from the Toronto perspective:
The Holiday Trade Freeze is now in effect, and lasts until next Wednesday. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trade market as paralyzed as this one. With so little cap room, so many teams chasing the playoffs and the expansion draft looming, the market is squeezed tighter than a theatre showing Rogue One.
“It’s so quiet out there,” was the common refrain. We can only hope—for excitement’s sake—they are lying through their teeth, but it doesn’t seem like it.
As a young, growing team that is currently in sixth place in the Atlantic — albeit it with games in hand on the teams in fourth and fifth, as well as the third best goal differential in the division — the Leafs are not yet ready to be buyers. But they do have the ability to be power brokers this deadline, and that potentially benefits the club in more than one way.
We are already seeing Frederik Gauthier receive some time up with the big club, and the hope is this experience will help him grow into the NHL checking center the organization wants him to become. Still in the AHL, Brendan Leipsic and Kasperi Kapanen are having fantastic seasons at forward and won’t get a look unless major injuries hit or players are moved off the NHL roster, to say nothing of Josh Leivo. On defense, the same goes for Andrew Nielsen, not to mention some of the defensemen the team looked at last season and seemed intrigued by in Rinat Valiev and Viktor Loov.
With very few clear sellers throughout the league due to the congestion in the standings, Toronto is in a unique spot to sell off more veterans, acquire more assets, and take good long looks at more prospects in the NHL all at once in the second half of the season.
So, who can the Leafs put on the block?
James van Riemsdyk – I already wrote about trading JVR earlier in the year, and then of course he went and scored a hat trick later that night. Now all the major media outlets are discussing it and suggesting that the Leafs are open to a move if they can get a big-time defenseman in return. It makes sense. He’s on a great contract for one more season, he is a legitimate 30 goal – 30 assist threat every season, and he is their best asset to move in terms of adding more talent to their backend.
Tyler Bozak – Like JVR, he too has another year on his deal. His salary drops to $4M next year compared to $4.5M this season. He’s 30 years old, has 19 points in 30 games, he can help a powerplay, and he’s good in the faceoff circle. Teams are always looking for scoring and center depth at the deadline, and Bozak fits that bill. It’s tough to decipher what he could bring back in return because we pretty well never see centers with term get moved. Lars Eller, who is quite different as a player, brought back two second round picks in the summer. That was the closest I could find.
Leo Komarov – Leafs fans won’t like to hear this name out there, but he’d have big time value as a versatile forward with affordable term left (one more year at a $2.9M cap hit). He can play in a checking role, serve on the penalty kill and the powerplay, and contribute offensively. Toronto has graduated three young grinding wingers to varying degrees this season in Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov and Connor Brown, they signed Matt Martin for four years, and they have Brendan Leipsic waiting in the wings. Komarov is the type of player teams would love to bring in at the deadline while gearing up for a playoff run. He might be able to bring back a sneaky big return due to his contract.
Josh Leivo – It’s strange to see his name here considering one reason to move off a few veterans is to make space for him to play. Ottawa traded Shane Prince and a seventh round pick to get a third rounder back last deadline, and Toronto might cut bait for that kind of return as well. I think Leivo can play in the NHL and score in the right situation, and I’d prefer to give him a long look. But if he’s not going to get his chance here, there might be some interest from teams who are looking to get younger and would like a player that can contribute immediately on the cheap.
Matt Hunwick – He’s a pending UFA, has the experience of going to the Cup Final with the Rangers, and is playing a lot on one of the league’s better PK units so far this season. Last season, Buffalo fetched a third round pick for Mike Weber, and Matt Hunwick is a better player than Weber. If the market remains at something of a standstill, Hunwick is going to have some real value.
Roman Polak – We’ve been here before, as Polak — along with Nick Spaling — netted Toronto two second round picks last deadline. He was then a regular for San Jose as they went to the Cup Final. Can Toronto pull it off again?
This has already been a successful season in terms of introducing a tonne of quality young talent to the lineup in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, and so on. Now Toronto is in a position to capitalize on a seller’s market to stockpile more assets and use them to either draft more players or package them in the summer for a big-time acquisition (hopefully on the blue line).
We have heard a lot of talk about how the Leafs have changed philosophies as an organization — that they are now more patient and no longer interested in sacrificing youth for short-term success — but this will be a test. We’ll see how they handle it over the next few months.
– We’re about to hit the Christmas break and Frederik Andersen is establishing himself in as ‘The Guy’ in Toronto. Unlike all of Toronto’s failed goaltending experiments, save for Jonathan Bernier, none of them were this good at any point (Vesa Toskala, Andrew Raycroft, JS Giguere). They all had subpar numbers throughout their time in Toronto, with the odd good start mixed in. Of goalies with over 20 starts, Andersen is eighth in save percentage and tenth in even strength save percentage. It’s still early, but he’s looking like the real deal so far.
– It’s interesting that management and staff elected to call-up Frederik Gauthier first over Byron Froese. Both players have drawn some criticism for different reasons, but Froese is out-producing Gauthier significantly in the AHL (.65PPG vs. .25).
The thinking might be that Gauthier is better in the NHL than the AHL and is an exception to the rule that says a player must be productive in the AHL in order to become a full-time NHL contributor. Years ago, Tyler Dellow’s work showed a player needs to be at least .5 PPG in the AHL to become an NHLer. In 72 AHL games so far, Gauthier has 22 points, which is .31 PPG. For a point of reference, Dave Steckel, a player who is comparable in size and perceived ability, put up 30 goals and 61 points in 71 games in his last AHL season before making the jump to the NHL full-time.
– There has been a lot of talk regarding Auston Matthews and rookie scoring, but rather quietly, he’s third in goals among NHL centers with 16, behind only Jeff Carter and Sidney Crosby. The dominant, two-way center has come as advertised, but the goal scoring might have been undersold. He also leads all centers in shots on goal. The goal that really demonstrated his release and shot above the others so far was his catch and release snipe against Tuukka Rask, who is an elite goaltender. He just blasted it by him.
– Matthews is leading the charge for a team that creates a tonne of offense. Some interesting team stats about the Leafs from SportsLogIQ: second in scoring chances per game (18.7), third in shot attempts in the slot per game (10.6), and second in successful passes to the slot per game (11.4).
– Against Colorado, Connor Carrick caught Joe Colborne with his head down and landed a pretty punishing open-ice hit. You wouldn’t know it because it is rarely talked about (maybe because there are so many young players on the team), but Carrick is only 5’10. According to the NHL.com height listings (take it with a grain of salt), that makes him tied for the 16th shortest defensemen along with 16 other players in the league. He has played primarily with Jake Gardiner this season and they are just shy of 56 CF% together. The question will be if his offense ever comes around. In his one full AHL season, Carrick put up 42 points in 73 games. In the following season when the Leafs traded for him, he posted 26 in 47, not to mention his 18 points in 15 playoff games. So far this season, Carrick has three points in 28 games, which is the lowest total of any Leafs defenseman not named Frank Corrado. He is fourth in shots on goal, though.
“Everyone on our backend gets a chance to play except me. I’d love to play. I had a good camp. I put on ten pounds in the summer. I sacrificed a lot to earn a job here when there might not have been one for me. I’m sure Holly’s situation was similar in ways, but for me, it’s really frustrating right now. I talked to Lou and he’s been supportive with me. He told me he likes me, and he wants me here. It does make me feel better about the situation, but at the end of the day, the coach is the one who makes the lineup and if the coach doesn’t like you, then you’re not going to play. And that’s where I’m at right now.”
– Frank Corrado, voicing his frustrations on not playing
I thought he had a good preseason, too, and he played reasonably well at the end of the last season. He’s the eighth defenseman on a Leafs blue line group that isn’t very good. With Marincin injured, it does not make much sense to trade him now, but when Marincin gets healthy — provided the rest of the defence group is also still healthy — the Leafs should do right by Corrado and move him along.
“There is a bunch of ways to look at the game. Corsi is one way, right? But who turns the video on and rewinds to see if those shots actually hit the net? Because our math and theirs don’t add up. So what I do is say, “did the puck go in, or did they get scoring chances against?” What I find is the puck doesn’t go in and they don’t give up a lot of scoring chances. And they’re my best penalty killers. So that’s a good game for them.”
– Mike Babcock, on the Hunwick-Polak pairing
I thought this was lip service terms of how the Hunwick-Polak pairing performs at 5v5. From what we know about the Leafs staff, they can’t actually believe that giving up a lot of shots — which they do — won’t eventually translate to goals against. The bigger thing here was the “they’re my best penalty killers” part. Babcock doesn’t trust the rest of the group, including Corrado, to perform those duties. Marincin gets to play fairly regularly because they also trust him in that role.
“Obviously, you don’t want to get sent down, but in some way, I think it was good that it happened if I can put it that way. I started to feel better about myself and I had fun playing that game (with the Marlies.) That was the most important thing. It felt good.”
– Jhonas Enroth, on being sent down to the Marlies
I’m not really sure what the plan is here or if Enroth is going to play another NHL game for the Leafs. The Leafs do need a competent backup, though, and it would be a boost if Enroth were to rediscover his previous form that made him a respectable NHL goalie.
Video Tidbit of the Week
This is a quick play, but it highlights something that has been happening in Toronto often: The team blows the zone. When Ryan Getzlaf dumps the puck in and forechecks, the Leafs have a good puck retrieval between Zaitsev taking the body and Matthews providing help on defense. When the puck goes across the defensive zone to Rielly, we can see Hyman in the frame. Instead of heading to the wall for a controlled breakout, he immediately shoots up the ice for a longer pass, which is deflected by Anaheim and retrieved. SportslogIQ pointed out that Toronto has the sixth highest dump-out rate in the NHL (20.7%). I’m not sure if this would qualify as a dump-out (I’m guessing it wouldn’t), but this is the reason why. They blow the zone all the time.
5 Things on my Holiday Wish List
1) A top four, preferably right-handed, defenseman. The Leafs have made long-term commitments to Rielly and Gardiner, and Zaitsev is off to a very good start to his NHL career. They need an experienced guy to lean on for this unit, and I’m sure management is aware of it. They need a defenseman who can free up Rielly for a few additional offensive opportunities each night, who they can pair with Gardiner and give Gardiner a high-end player to pair with (for once). He could also soak up some PK time so that the team does not have to rely on Hunwick and Polak so much.
2) For Frederik Gauthier to develop into the checking, PK and faceoff specialist 4C the Leafs are hoping he can be. At forward, the Leafs biggest hole is 4C right now, and it would be nice if they can fill that hole without having to spend assets to acquire one or overpay in free agency (Brian Boyle is a UFA this summer, for example). Ben Smith is simply not an NHL player at 5v5. It kills the line and has a negative effect on a good player like Soshnikov. The Goat handled himself pretty well in the preseason this Fall, but four points in 16 AHL games just isn’t good enough, regardless of what his role will be at the next level.
3) On that note, added centre depth throughout the organization as a whole. The Leafs are set up well down middle with Matthew, Kadri, Bozak and Nylander (who is on the wing but can play center). Meanwhile, the Marlies are running Froese, Smith, Cliché and Laich at center. Prospects wise, the Leafs only have Adam Brooks to write home about. Sure, Matthews and Nylander are young, and Kadri is locked up long-term, but good organizations have depth and continuity down the middle. The organization needs to keep adding at center. You also want to keep the option open of pairing Nylander with Matthews and having them dominate together.
4) The other position to add to? Goaltending. Frederik Andersen is proving worthy of his acquisition cost and contract so far, but there are a bunch of question marks after that. The current backup, Jhonas Enroth, has already cleared waivers and pretty clearly does not have the trust of the coaching staff. Antoine Bibeau fared well in his NHL debut, but has below average numbers in the AHL the last two seasons, as does Garret Sparks. Maybe Joseph Woll is that guy – he’s having an impressive rookie season for Boston College – but goaltending is a crapshoot and I’d keep adding to this position.
5) Finally, I’d just like to wish everyone and their families a safe and happy holidays. Thank you for taking the time to read and leave comments. I read every single one of them and really do appreciate them all. Buon Natale to all that celebrate.