Bob McKenzie joined Leafs Lunch on Friday afternoon to discuss the Leafs’ options on defence, the expansion draft situation in Anaheim, and James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak’s situations entering the final year of their contracts.

Thoughts below the quotes.


Anaheim, the Expansion Draft and the Leafs’ defence

I’d be totally shocked if Hampus Lindholm was ever in play. I look at Fowler and Lindholm as the two lynchpins of that defence. I think Vatanan is a guy that might be expendable depending on how the expansion draft… everyone is talking about the expansion draft and how Bieksa has to be protected, but maybe Bieksa is going to waive his no-move clause. If he doesn’t, maybe they’re going to buy them out, which is not a preferred route for any of these teams with players with No Move clauses but that’s going to be the playbook. Will you waive your No Move clause? If the guys says no, it’s, “okay then, we’re going to buy you out.” It’s not ideal because there are obviously cap implications that go with a buy out.

I wouldn’t get too, too hung up on the expansion draft. I’m not sure Sami Vatanen would be the primary target for the Leafs or Tampa Bay or any of these teams that are necessarily looking at defencemen. Then it becomes, “Will you trade us Brandon Montour?”

“No we won’t, or maybe we will, depending on what we get back.”

“Will you trade us Josh Manson?”

“Maybe we will, maybe we won’t,” because Josh Manson is a guy that you’re going to lose in the expansion draft.

Maybe Shea Theodore. I don’t know.

I think there is a pretty big canvas there for Bob Murray and any of the teams that are looking to deal with them. I think there are multiple options for the Ducks and I think there are multiple options for the teams that are interested in prying one of those defencemen out of there.

Does the Vatanen [injury] complicate things a little bit? Sure it does, but I don’t think it prohibits or ties Bob Murray’s hands to any great degree.

The main takeaway here is that McKenzie sees Sami Vatanen as the most expendable blueliner in Anaheim but doesn’t necessarily foresee interest from the Leafs (Of course, that the Ducks would prefer to move Vatanen before the others — which makes a lot of sense for cap reasons — doesn’t necessarily mean that Vatanen is the one that gets traded… and the injury situation doesn’t help).

We’ve talked extensively about Josh Manson here at the site recently. The question with regards to Vatanen is whether he would be a luxury more than a need filler for the Leafs given the current dynamic of their blue line. The Leafs finished last season as the most high-event even-strength team in the league — fifth in Goals For per 60 and third in Corsi For per 60; 24th in Goals Against Per 60 and 28th in Corsi Against per 60.

The Leafs’ top-four defencemen at 5v5 in the regular season — Gardiner, Carrick, Rielly, Zaitsev — all finished inside the top 35 among NHL defencemen in Shot Attempts Per 60 (minimum 500 minutes played). All of Gardiner, Rielly and Zaitsev also finished 135th (of 197) or lower in Shot Attempts Against per 60. A similar pattern holds for Goals For/Against per 60.

Some of that could improve as the Leafs’ young forward group matures defensively, but the Leafs probably aren’t getting to where they need to go without a fairly significant upgrade on the blue line.

If we stretch the sample to include the last three seasons (minimum 1,500 minutes played), Rielly ranks 179 of 191 in Corsi Against per 60 and Gardiner ranks 101st. Sami Vatanen is 107th of 191. In Goals Against per 60, Rielly is 190th of 191, Gardiner is 119th, and Vatanen is 83rd.

The question is whether the Leafs would be wise to commit $18.5 million (if we add in Vatanen’s $4.875 million) to a top-four of Rielly, Gardiner, Zaitsev and Vatanen, with Gardiner also due up for a raise in two years. That would be a very mobile group that can move the puck and all four of those defencemen can quarterback a power play, but is it a foursome capable of pushing the Leafs into the top half of the league in goals and shots against?

“The Tampa Bay window – I’m not saying it’s closing, but there is probably more urgency on the Tampa Bay Lightning than the Toronto Maple Leafs to get a top-pairing defenceman. The Leafs can easily rationalize coming back next year with exactly what they’ve got right now. To be quite honest, they signed the two Swedish kids and I don’t know where they’ll fit in or if they fit in immediately. If the Leafs come back with the defence as is currently constructed, I wouldn’t be shocked.”

In addition to the team’s poor defensive numbers, Leafs brass seems keenly aware that injury luck broke their way big time this season and they were a bad month from (or an injury to) Frederik Andersen away from the draft lottery instead of an eight-seed playoff berth. Improving the quality of their depth defensively is part of the solution, but if the Leafs come back next season with the same defensive group (perhaps re-signing Roman Polak given the lack of right-side options, or adding an FA or two on the cheap) plus the two Swedes, it won’t be because of inaction. It’ll be that the prices in the trade market were far too high. Given the draft/prospect capital they’ve built up, and their depth up front, they’re even in a position where a bit of an overpay for defensive help wouldn’t kill them. They’re also now entering their prime era of cap flexibility for the next two seasons. The Leafs will be aggressive on all fronts when it comes to improving their blue line this summer, but anything involving The Big 3 obviously constitutes the walk-away point.

JVR & Bozak

“Could van Riemsdyk be traded? Sure he could be. Could he be extended? Yeah, he could also be extended. I’ve said for a while that the critical issues this summer that the Leafs have to get their head around — and maybe they already have their head around it but we haven’t figured it out yet – is will they re-up with van Riemsdyk and will they re-up with Bozak? Will it be both of them? Will it be one of them? What are they looking for? Does van Riemsdyk expect to hit a huge homerun in terms of term and dollars? If he does, then the clock is ticking on him. Same thing with Bozak.

I think in the very short term they probably need Bozak more than they need van Riemsdyk, but not to the point where they need either one so desperately that if they get the right offer for either one they wouldn’t consider it. I think they probably want to come back next year with Matthews, Kadri and Bozak as their top three centers. If Bozak wants to do a shorter-term extension for a couple of years, then maybe they would look fondly on that. Bozak might not. He might want more, or he might want to stay. I think there are a lot of variables and I don’t think the Leafs are locked into anything. They’re wide open in terms of what they could do. If the right guy comes along for either one of those guys, they trade them in a heartbeat because they’re both on the clock until such time as you know what their cost is going to be and how long they’re going to be obliged to pay it for going forward.”

It’s certainly nice to now be talking about JVR and Bozak as non-critical players on the Leafs roster, and both can be moved tomorrow if the right trade comes along, but their value has to be properly recognized as well. With Mike Babcock pencilling Nylander in on the wing next season in recent interviews, McKenzie is probably right about Bozak for the time being; he gives the Leafs a third quality top-nine center who can play the power play, win faceoffs and chip in 40-50 points at an affordable price.

As for JVR, it’s faulty thinking to suggest a team can easily replace a reliable 30-goal scorer with a couple of 10-15 goal scorers. 30-goal scorers are difference makers; they can go out and get you a goal when it matters in critical situations against good players (and JVR scored some big ones down the stretch this season). Since 2012-13, JVR is 27th in the NHL in points per game and 23rd in goals per game.

That said, if you can move JVR for defensive help — or, minimally, some good assets that can help you acquire defensive help — while replacing a solid chunk of his offensive production on the wing with either an FA signing or an internal option, the net result is the Leafs are a better hockey team. Ultimately, the Leafs probably can’t afford to pay their seventh-highest played forward at even strength — who will be 29-year-old when the contract expires and isn’t well-regarded defensively — something in the neighbourhood of $6 million on a new long-term contract.