In the latest Leafs Musings, I’ll take a look at some individual performances on the Toronto Marlies as they continue their strong playoff run before getting into some late-May speculation on possible trade scenarios for the upcoming offseason.
Toronto Marlies Update
Off to a great run so far in the Calder Cup playoffs, there’s bound to be more eyes on the Toronto Marlies as a result for the second straight Spring. Knowing the Leafs will need cheap young talent as they enter into a cap crunch, fans will be looking to see who is close to NHL-ready. Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, and Jeremy Bracco will remain the main players to watch, but it’s also nice to get a look at prospects such as Egor Korshkov and Mac Hollowell against top AHL teams.
This team has been led all year by the duo of Chris Mueller and Jeremy Bracco. Mueller, 33, is an AHL all-star calibre player year after year, but playing with Bracco has allowed him to set a new career-high in goals. He’s basically the Auston Matthews of the Marlies in terms of goals per game and he’s been a James van Riemsdyk clone on the power play this year.
Bracco has been a major point producer at every level, but he’s small, and it seems like that’s all anyone can ever talk about. The truth is he’s rather one-dimensional, but he is a truly elite passer and Leafs‘ second power-play unit could sure use some help.
While he could certainly take a small step forward defensively, I think he’s pretty close to what he’s going to be at this point. Playing another season in the AHL won’t suddenly make him 6’3″ and 220 pounds.
I don’t see Bracco as a player who will excel in terms of statistics such as corsi, expected goals, or RAPM. I do see Bracco as a player who will be more valuable than his shot-attempt differential suggests, as he creates plenty of can’t-miss chances for his linemates and he can be a legitimate difference-maker on any power play. His vision constantly puts his team in a position to succeed, so if you can cover for him from a puck-retrieval and defensive perspective, you can rely on him to make magic happen offensively.
While I do want the Leafs to get heavier up front, I’d still give Bracco a good opportunity in preseason and look to get heavier elsewhere. His vision is a clear asset on the power play, but it also helps him to be effective in transition. He’s not overly fast and he relies on his footwork to elude defenders and enter the zone, but his linemates always seem to have extra time and space to create zone entries, as Bracco is constantly able to find them with a pass and put them in positions to succeed.
Trevor Moore is looking a lot like the 2018 version of Andreas Johnsson, and I think Moore can be a decent third-line player rather than simply a fourth-line player.
Pierre Engvall has effectively transitioned from a low-scoring winger to a smart two-way center and he looks like a future fourth-line center someday. Although Engvall does not have a ton of offensive talent, his size and speed combination allows him to cover a ton of ground and he often tilts the ice in his team’s favour. Engvall is also a competent penalty killer and his hard wrist shot allows him to provide secondary scoring from time to time.
Michael Carcone is one of the fastest players in the organization, an asset that allows him to be effective both as a puck carrier and forechecker. I see him as a potential injury call-up next year, although he will likely be limited to the bottom of a NHL lineup.
Egor Korshkov is off to a bit of a slow start with just one point in five games. He’s thrown his weight around and has completed a few nifty passes, but he needs to get a step quicker if he wants to challenge for a NHL job. I would love to have a power winger who can help to tilt the ice in Toronto’s favour, but if he can’t get from point A to point B in time, he’s not going to be a high-end forechecker.
Speaking of power wingers, Mason Marchment is a huge pain in the ass to play against. He plays a physical style and is constantly getting on his opponents’ nerves. He also possesses good hands around the net and uses his long-reach to generate takeaways. I could see him playing games for the Leafs next year, as the Leafs could use a physical player of this type in their lineup as well as someone who could help them draw more penalties. I think he would be close to a replacement-level player and likely limited to the fourth line, but he does bring a different playing style to the table and there is value in that.
Dmytro Timashov, meanwhile, is quietly scoring at a point-per-game rate in the playoffs, largely due to Toronto’s red-hot power play. He wins his fair share of puck battles for a smaller player and he’s a talented playmaker, but his speed could prevent him from reaching the next level. If he can continue to build on this next year, he could at least put himself in the picture for a NHL job down the road, but he’ll have plenty of competition.
Finally, Adam Brooks is the team’s most improved player from last year and is logging major minutes. He is a regular penalty killer and Sheldon Keefe also seems to trust him in any situation at 5-on-5. He could take another step forward next year if he can earn a spot on the top power-play unit, but Engvall is likely ahead of him for me as the top fourth-line center prospect.
The Marlies Defense
Calle Rosen is not far off of a lock for the Leafs next year for my money as he’s grown into one of the best defensemen in the AHL. I’m not a huge fan of his work on the power play, but he’s a competent puck mover with the speed to keep up with just about anyone. He’s a trusted penalty killer for Keefe and he logs major shutdown minutes at 5-on-5. I expect him to be a solid depth defender for the Leafs over the next two years and his $750k cap hit is just what the team is looking for.
Rasmus Sandin is scoring at a point-per-game rate in the playoffs, but that’s largely due to a hot power play. I’m more impressed with his performance during Rosen’s absence, as he played 26:53 when I tracked his ice-time back on April 20th and carried the team as a rookie defenceman. His vision, ability to elude forecheckers and patience with the puck is constantly putting his forwards in a position to succeed in transition. He’s their best option on the power play, is strong enough to penalty kill, and looks bound to be a top-four defenseman at the NHL level. I doubt he makes the team out of camp as a 19-year-old, but he’s certainly in the conversation to play in some NHL games next year.
After a slow start to the season, Timothy Liljegren has elevated his game to the point where he does not look out of place on the top-pairing. His speed allows him to cut off opposing forwards in transition and the team tends to play well when he is paired with Rosen. Continuing to get stronger will help his defensive game and it could also allow him to protect the puck and bring more to the table offensively. Unfortunately, a nice stretch pass every now and then has caused many Leafs fans to overrate his current ability as a puck mover. He’s not going to get power play minutes on a team with Rosen and Sandin, but he should have a bigger role next season and I’d also like to see him drive his pairing at 5v5 rather than being the secondary puck-mover.
Mac Hollowell is off to a great start. He has the speed to survive as an undersized defender and he’s talented enough as a puck-mover to move up the depth chart next year. He has a long road ahead, especially when you consider his size, but it’s nice to see him impress in the early stages of his pro career.
Meanwhile, Vincent LoVerde continues to be the veteran defensive defenseman that he was brought here to be, while Andreas Borgman remains a perfectly competent player in his own right.
On Auston Matthews Taking a Step Forward
The Leafs do not have a ton of flexibility to make additions this offseason, so the majority of their improvements are going to have to come internally. Auston Matthews is incredible, and he might be the best even strength goal-scorer on the planet, but I’m still looking at him to help take this team a step further.
One of the best things that could happen to the Leafs is for Matthews to take a big step forward defensively. We’ve seen stars like Sidney Crosby, and even John Tavares as recently as this season, take major strides in terms of their two-way play over the years. Matthews is 6’3″, talented in transition and a takeaway king, so there’s no reason that he can’t continue to make strides in this area.
I’d like to eventually be indifferent in terms of whether it is Tavares or Matthews out against the other team’s top lines. If he can become an above-average center in his own end, the Leafs will have a true superstar on their hands. I don’t think he’s a top-five player in the league right now, but given that he’s only 21, he certainly has that potential.
Off-Season Trade Ideas
I’m the president of the Colin Miller fan club. Given Toronto’s lack of depth in terms of right-shooting defensemen, he should be their top target.
I see Miller as one of the most underrated players in hockey with a perfectly-reasonable $3.875 million cap hit. He’s one year removed from a 41 point season and is young enough to extend beyond his current three-year contract.
Vegas, who have cap issues of their own, could be interested in cheap young talent like Trevor Moore or Jeremy Bracco. The Leafs could also part ways with their 2020 2nd round pick or one of their goalie prospects in Joseph Woll or Ian Scott.
Another team that is worth calling is the Minnesota Wild, as the Nino Niederreiter for Viktor Rask trade showcased some questionable player-evaluation methods. Jared Spurgeon is an established and effective top-pairing defenceman and the Wild are not likely to contend during the final year of his contract. I assume that the Leafs would happily make Johnsson available in that type of move, but Greg Pateryn could represent a much-cheaper alternative.
Another type of move that might be worth exploring would resemble the Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev trade. The Lightning were tight up against the cap and traded certainty in exchange for a younger player on an entry-level contract. The Leafs could entertain offers for either Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen while targetting young defenders like Dante Fabbro or Rasmus Andersson.
Connor Brown still seems like a near-lock to get dealt as the Leafs simply can’t afford the luxury of having a $2.1 million player on their fourth line. The other big name to watch for is, of course, Nikita Zaitsev, as the Leafs could certainly use an extra $4.5 million to make improvements elsewhere. His strong playoff performance should help to boost his trade value, so I’d be calling teams like the Canucks, Senators, Ducks, Jets, Stars, Wild, and Islanders to try to dump that contract.
Zaitsev is owed a $3 million signing bonus as part of his $4.5 total salary next season, but his 10-team no-trade list will also be kicking in. If the Leafs pay the signing bonus, the other team could have him for five years at $3.9 million per year. At the very least, it’s something to watch for.