In this Sunday edition of Leafs Musings, we’ll talk a look at the shot in the arm Trevor Moore is providing down the stretch, the plan for the playoff lines, and the decision to make on Andreas Johnsson’s contract.
We’ll also take a look at Jeremy Bracco’s standout production on the Marlies.
Trevor Moore’s Outstanding Start
It’s safe to say that Trevor Moore‘s NHL career is off to a great start. He developed into a dominant possession player with the Marlies, as he’s elite in terms of generating takeaways and protects the puck well on the cycle. His tenacity allows him to go to the net and win battles and he fits in well as a player who can help to win the puck back for skilled linemates.
He’s perfectly capable in terms of creating zone entries and his ability to play either wing provides Mike Babcock with flexibility. Mitch Marner is outstanding at getting back and getting into passing lanes, and Moore carries a similar skill set in this regard. He’s also relentless on the back-check; while some players with this skillset are always out of position, that’s not the case with Moore. I see him as an underrated defensive forward who will be an above-average penalty killer.
Moore is under contract for $775k for each of the next two years, which is quietly one of the best contracts in hockey for a non-star player. I’m not sure if he will ever be quite as good as Andreas Johnsson, but he’s a well-rounded player in his own right and can play just about anywhere in the lineup. He’s not a high-end playmaker, but his speed and ability to win the puck back is critical as it means that he can complement skilled forwards.
Connor Brown and Patrick Marleau are no longer very good in terms of getting the puck back and “driving play”. You need players like Moore if you want to be a high-end possession team, and his line would regularly have the puck for entire shifts back in the AHL. I don’t think that Moore has the offensive upside to be a star, but he’s a good complementary player on a team-friendly contract and both Mike Babcock and Leafs fans are going to love him.
Re-uniting Auston Matthews and William Nylander
We have multiple years of evidence that tells us Auston Matthews and William Nylander are really effective when paired together. Kasperi Kapanen is a good player in his own right, but he’s not the same level of playmaker that Nylander is and he’s less equipped to take advantage of Matthews’ elite shot. Now that Nazem Kadri is back in the lineup, Nylander has returned to the wing and it should only be a matter of time before he moves up next to Matthews.
The Johnsson-Matthews-Kapanen line was quite good against the Edmonton Oilers last night, but one game shouldn’t sway anyone’s opinion of the optimal lineup. Kapanen carries the perfect skill set to play lower in the lineup as his speed makes him a constant breakaway threat, even when his line is struggling.
This isn’t meant to be a knock on Kapanen and his playmaking ability. He’s a talented forward, and he’s going to put up fine results when playing with Matthews because he’s on a line full of high-end players. Johnsson-Matthews-Kapanen is a good line, but Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander has the potential to be a great line, and the Leafs need to give Matthews every opportunity to be successful come playoff time.
Andreas Johnsson’s Trade Value
Let’s start by saying that Andreas Johnsson is a very valuable player. He’s a hard-nosed forward who complements Toronto’s best players quite well, and he’s the best player on the team at his position. He wins plenty of battles, is strong enough defensively to play in a shutdown role if needed, and he makes the most of his scoring chances.
It’s going to be difficult to pay him what he’s worth. If you have to choose between him and Kapanen, you probably choose Kapanen, as he’s two years younger, and his speed should make him an impact NHL player for longer than Johnsson. I consider Kapanen to be a high-end penalty killer, and while I would prefer to have a left-wing over a right-wing, handedness is not an important enough factor to sway this decision.
Fortunately, if the Leafs can’t afford Johnsson, he’s going to have a ton of trade value. Rebuilding teams will have plenty of interest in acquiring one of the NHL’s best rookies and so will contenders, so there’s a huge market for him. He currently owns an 18.3% shooting percentage and he could end the season with close to 50 points if he continues to play in the top six. It would be tough to lose him, but this offseason might be the perfect time to trade him for a haul.
In a perfect world, if you can find a team that views Zaitsev as a second pairing guy, you could try to add in Johnsson and have a shot at acquiring a high-end defenseman. I’d be calling Anaheim about Josh Manson and Minnesota about Jared Spurgeon. In a one-for-one trade, you would probably be looking for a similarly impactful player who has a more affordable contract for next season. Again, I’m a huge fan of Johnsson’s game, but it’s a little easier to justify trading a player the summer after an 18.3% shooting percentage season. You don’t move him unless you get a haul in return, but it’s an option.
Jeremy Bracco’s Rapid Development
Jeremy Bracco is underrated as a prospect for two reasons: he’s small and he plays right-wing. He’s the best forward in the Marlies lineup by a wide margin right now, and he’s truly special as a passer. Given his size, it’s tough to see the Leafs getting fair value for him in a trade, so I expect him to remain with the organization through next season.
Bracco has scored at every level. He led the U.S. National U18 Team in assists back in the 2014-2015 season, on a team that also featured Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, Jack Roslovic, Christian Fischer, Colin White, Luke Kunin, Troy Terry, Jordan Greenway, and Charlie McAvoy. He was then one of the best playmakers in the OHL and is now leading the AHL in assists. While he will have to get used to a faster pace of play once he reaches the NHL level, his passing will play at any level.
He’s one of the best powerplay quarterbacks in the AHL and I expect him to be running the second unit for the Leafs at some point next season. He’s quite talented at creating high-danger scoring chances for his teammates, and he’s going to bring a lot to the table offensively for a cheap price. You wonder if the Leafs look to extend him before he establishes himself as an NHL regular, just like they did with Moore.
Bracco was playing with Chris Mueller for most of the season and I gave most of the credit to Mueller for their line’s success. Now, Bracco is the best player on his line by a wide-margin, Mueller is out injured, and he’s still finding the scoresheet every night. He has his weaknesses, but if you can play him with a goal-scoring center and a heavy left-winger, he will rack up plenty of assists. I expect him to be in the playoff lineup next year.