The saying goes that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, so let’s rewind to last year’s trade deadline — GM Kyle Dubas’ first one fully in charge — and see what we learned.
The first thing is obvious: Dubas wanted to acquire a player with term on his deal and paid a premium to do so. We have already heard that the Leafs prefer term on their potential acquisitions again this year.
They also did their shopping early by acquiring Jake Muzzin on January 28. Now it’s already February — so it won’t be that early — but it also wouldn’t be shocking if the Leafs try to get their shopping done before the actual trade deadline day.
Unlike in years past, the Leafs did not do much as far as hunting for added depth, ending what was becoming an annual tradition of acquiring depth players (Brian Boyle, Tomas Plekanec). There was rumoured interest in Luke Glendening (a Babcock favourite, likely driving the interest). With the Leafs forwards getting healthy and a number of Marlies coming up to fill in roles well, it would be surprising if the Leafs made a depth move; perhaps they’d consider trading for a different style of forward who is more physical, but they don’t seem interested in paying a premium, making that kind of trade unlikely.
On the deadline day itself, they also made a few minor moves, trading Par Lindholm for Nic Petan and acquiring Nicholas Baptiste. The Marlies currently sit 11th in the Eastern Conference (10th in points percentage) and have been funneling a number of players the Leafs lately. It would be surprising if they don’t acquire some help for their minor league team.
The parameters and needs of a deal seem fairly clear: An impact player with term is the preferred route, and it likely won’t be a forward. A backup goalie was considered a need, but Michael Hutchinson is making a legitimate claim for that to no longer be an in-season conversation at this point (more on that below). That really leaves the Leafs where they were after last season ended: looking for another impact defenseman.
We’ve had a great series going here at MLHS, with a few defensemen already profiled among the options with term remaining on their deals:
Two other defensemen with term that I’d add to the list are Jeff Petry and Alec Martinez. Other than Dumba, you can trust the rest of the group to do at least reasonably well against top competition.
What kind of players would the Leafs have to trade to get them, though? The popular names of note being thrown out are Andreas Johnsson, Alex Kerfoot, and Kasperi Kapanen. It is understandable as they are all quality top-nine forwards, but teams rarely have to actually part with a quality top-nine forward to acquire a solid top-four defenseman who isn’t considered a true top-pairing blueliner. Jake Muzzin, for example, cost the Leafs a first-round pick and two prospects.
Last season, Vegas didn’t even give up a full-time roster player to get Mark Stone (!).
However, things aren’t that straightforward for the Leafs due to the fact that they don’t have their first-round pick for this year as trade currency. If they trade next year’s first, that would (potentially) be three straight years of not drafting in the first round. On the prospect front, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are highly desirable, but it’s unlikely the Leafs give up either – they have very few defensemen under contract for next season and both are not only good but cheap. The Leafs have to be cap conscious.
Here is where matters become more intriguing:
I want to note though that even with Mikheyev on LTIR the Leafs cannot afford both Engvall and Sandin on the roster when activating Rielly.
— Earl Schwartz (@EarlSchwartz27) January 29, 2020
The Leafs might need to shed salary and potentially entice a team by adding sweeteners to the deal. The obvious candidate is Cody Ceci, who has been moved to more of a third-pairing role under Sheldon Keefe despite making $4.5 million.
With Morgan Rielly out, he’s currently the Leafs’ highest-paid defenseman. Everyone else on the Leafs that is getting paid a salary of consequence is either not being traded (Matthews, Tavares, Marner, etc.), or is on a reasonable enough deal where it would be difficult to shed their money and, at minimum, keep the Leafs just as good as they are now (Johnsson, Kapanen). You could make a case for trading Alexander Kerfoot — who is making $3.5 million and playing to a 37-point pace in a fairly undefined role — especially with Pierre Engvall showing he can play center. It seems unlikely they’d move him after just acquiring him last July, though.
It’s clear the team needs some help on defense, but in order to make the move they want, they might need another move to clear space first.
- It’s been a bit of an up and down year for Kasperi Kapanen, who is playing at roughly the same points pace as last season (45 this year, 44 last year) but is on pace to fall short of the 20 goals he scored last season (he’s on pace for 16). The Leafs have tried him in the top six a number of times so far this season and he’s failed to stick or even look comfortable there. In fairness, it has often been on the left-wing because of the Leafs’ right-handed options ahead of him on the depth chart. Now comes a one-game suspension from the team. At least so far, it hasn’t really been a season of improvement, but he also hasn’t digressed and he’s only 23. There’s a reason anytime the Leafs come up in trade rumours his name is thrown out – he’s good, young, and teams want him. He’s also one of the only Leafs forwards that legitimately mixes it up physically.
- Another player falling under that good-but-young-and-not-having-a-great-season category is Travis Dermott. It is important to note that he missed training camp. Look at William Nylander‘s last season compared to this one. It can matter for players. Defensemen also take time – he’s 23 and has yet to play even 150 games in the league. He hasn’t taken a step, and it’s very unclear what type of role he is ultimately going to fill (is he a true top four, is he a really good number five, is he worse than that?). He’s a pending RFA, and it would be hard to argue he deserves anything but a bridge deal at this point. The Leafs could try to bargain for a long-term deal, but that could go really wrong for either party. It was a shame that he was out after the Dallas game – the 21:47 he played that night was a season-high — and rightfully so, as I thought he was excellent. The game before in Nashville, he also played over 21 minutes. It would be a huge boost to the team if he can start stringing together good games.
- I watched the Leafs warm up at one point last season, and when it ended, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner hung back to sauce passes to each other, take one-timers, and go on 2-on-0 rushes while attempting ridiculous passing plays. It made no sense to me that they could not play together in actual games. I mean, if nothing else, one is a passer and one is a shooter. That should work, in theory. It took some time, but they clearly have some magic together and have figured out. Let this be a two-part lesson – one is that good players generally figure out how to play together. The second is more important: It can take time for players to figure out how to play together. You can’t always watch something for one game and decide it doesn’t work. There was a lot of that type of rhetoric over the past few seasons, but until you see something over a notable period of time (let’s say, 10 or so games), how can you conclude with certainty whether players are a fit?
- It was nice to see Auston Matthews and Cody Ceci step in after Blake Comeau ran Rasmus Sandin. It wasn’t much, but it is important to show some team support and to stand up for each other. Those things are appreciated in the room and build team cohesion. This is something even Kyle Dubas felt the need to address and call for earlier in the season, and the team has been doing a better job of responding of late.
- That was a nice breakaway goal by William Nylander in Nashville – you can tell by how deep Rinne was in his net and how he reacted to it that he was not expecting him to shoot. We’ve talked about his breakaway moves before (and you can’t score on every single breakaway), so it is nice to see Nylander mixing up his move a bit more this season. He loves to go forehand-backhand, but goalies have been catching on. Against Ottawa, he tried to go backhand-forehand-five hole and it was unsuccessful, but he’s mixing it up. That move might have been impacted by the pressure and his timing was way off on it. He’s trying to change it up, though.
“In Willy’s case, it was including him on the first power-play unit, which I think is more than just being on the unit and the production that might come from that. It is a little extra time on the power play. It is a little more inclusion when you are a part of it. That was the intent.”
– Sheldon Keefe on the increased production for his top players (which included comments on increasing ice time)
While I don’t necessarily think William Nylander is maximized in the high-slot role on the top power-play unit, I do think there’s something to be said for being included with the top players. That is important. He didn’t feel part of the core at times – first he was benched, then firmly entrenched on PP2, and so on. Having skin in the game matters.
I don’t think really anyone thinks I’m going to shoot that. The first two I got, I looked at the net and saw a little bit of a lane, and then the third one came back and decided to try and get it to the net with JT crossing in front. lLckily, it went in.”
– Mitch Marner on his OT goal
We have talked about this quite a lot over the years in this space – sometimes you just have to shoot to keep teams honest. If you don’t, they will continue to cheat and collapse.
“He uses his feet differently than most guys do, which I’ve found being around him daily. It’s something I’ve added to how I’m shooting the puck off the half-wall a little bit … he’s one of the best at creating deception that way. It’s a weight shift thing that he does and it’s something that makes his shot even more deceptive. It’s not just the fact that he slings it with his hands; his feet are always in motion, too.”
– Jason Spezza on Auston Matthews’ shot
This is some very good insight from Spezza on Auston Matthews’ shot. It is really difficult to pick up exactly when he’s going to shoot (in terms of literally releasing the puck off his stick) because he can do it on the move off of different feet and at basically every angle. He can also shimmy his body in certain ways where he makes it look like he’s shooting high or low, and then does the exact opposite. One element he’s added a bit more this season is the ability to shoot low and beat goalies along the ice. Just an elite goal scorer through and through.
Tweets of the Week
Something flying under the radar right now: Michael Hutchinson is now up to a 0.902 SV% since the coaching change, and his two worst appearances were in relief for Frederik Andersen in blowouts. In starts, Hutchinson is a 0.927 under Keefe, and 0.948 in his last four starts.
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) February 2, 2020
You could argue – pretty easily – that Michael Hutchinson has quite literally saved his career with this stretch. It was maddening seeing him only get the second half of back-to-backs with little chance to succeed. Of course, he wasn’t the first Leafs backup goalie to experience this over the past few years. This is becoming even more important with Andersen’s recent up-and-down play. Getting some momentum and confidence can do wonders. The Leafs might have played low-ranking Ottawa, but he legitimately earned them that win in a very good outing.
After decades of being forced to endure of mediocre rosters, there are people in our fan base and on our airwaves that will still try to convince you that this was somehow a bad idea. You should not take the hockey opinion of those people seriously. pic.twitter.com/GomcgEcZAy
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) February 2, 2020
Watching these four get trotted out was bordering on silly and cruel for their opponents. I thought it was interesting that Mitch Marner was stationed at the top – he’s not exactly the one you think of as the shooter between Nylander and Matthews, and yet it was his one-timer that scored the goal. Also of interest was that Auston Matthews and William Nylander were on their strong sides. We haven’t seen them connect for a through-pass strong-side goal in some time.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 27, 2020
I would be remiss if I didn’t say anything whatsoever about the tragic helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people, including Kobe Bryant. What I admired more than anything was his competitive spirit. It did not always play well with teammates (nor was he always the consummate teammate), but he could will you to victory. When it seemed he had nothing left to give, he could find another level. I always admired his will to win.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- I think Andreas Johnsson is still working his way back into the lineup, but I’d try to push him up the lineup to see how he does. He’s only played over 15 minutes once in his seven-game since returning and he only has points in one game since returning (he had two against Dallas; one was an empty netter). Johnsson is a handy player for the Leafs and one of the only true “pests” on the team that genuinely angers opponents with his tenacity. At the end of the day, he’s better than Alexander Kerfoot as a top-six left winger – I’d wager he has the potential to pot a 25-goal season or two. I don’t think Kerfoot has that in him, though. In the same way they have gotten other players going by giving them an opportunity, I’d be trying the same with Johnsson.
- While I do think Rasmus Sandin is making a legitimate case to stay, if they are fully healthy, I just don’t see how it happens. The team has Muzzin – Rielly – Dermott on the left and he’s not passing any of them. I highly doubt Ceci would be a $4.5 million healthy scratch, either. It kind of is what it is. He should make everyone feel good about him stepping into a decent role for next season, though.
- I seem to be in the minority here, but I think I still like Dmytro Timashov. He’s a little spark plug on the ice and has absolutely no problem throwing his weight around. I know he’s on the block and I’m sure he wants to go somewhere where he’s going to get more of an opportunity to show what he can do (especially offensively), but I wouldn’t just give up on him. I think he can be a decent contributor in this league.
- I think I’d start Michael Hutchinson Friday against the Ducks and give Frederik Andersen the Saturday game against the Habs. Division points aside, Andersen should be playing Monday and Wednesday so he gets an extra day of rest. It’s also an important game against the Habs, who have somewhat had the Leafs’ number. It seems fairly straightforward to me.
- If there’s one trade item we haven’t talked about anywhere here yet, I think it would be this: You can make the case for trading Tyson Barrie. I’m just not sure what you can reasonably expect to get back. It would almost certainly be future assets that you would then look to repackage. He hasn’t been the horse people were hoping he’d be, and while his point totals and underlying numbers have been relatively solid under Keefe, there’s a lot of noise in them. He’s not driving play or playing against top competition, and most of his points are quite literally from passing it to the half-wall on the power play and benefitting from the Marner/Matthews magic. Any number of Leafs defensemen can pick up points that way (Rielly, Dermott, probably Sandin, even Muzzin with his bomb of a shot). I can see why it’s a conversation. I’m just not sure it’s a move in isolation that actually makes them better – it’s probably a move that would have to lead to another one to make sense, and that’s a scary game to play.