The first big trade of what is sure to be a busy Toronto Maple Leafs offseason is now in the books.
Yesterday’s Kasperi Kapanen trade felt a little weird at first knowing most of us were in the mindset for a few years now that a Kapanen deal would be a hockey trade to immediately improve a weakness (i.e. defense) on the current roster, but it could well prove to be a good bit of creativity by Kyle Dubas to get this type of trade done as early as he got it done.
At least in my view, the 15th overall draft pick and some cap flexibility — they still need more of the latter, to be sure — is almost certainly going to carry more value than Kasperi Kapanen at $3.2 million when the offseason really kicks off (this is to say nothing of the prospect they fetched in the deal as well). There are too many teams that are going to be feeling the squeeze and will be shedding salary to deal with the flat cap ceiling and tightened internal budgets. The draft also has the reputation of being deep.
If you’re the deep-pocketed, in-a-Cup-window Leafs and you’re looking to make use of what little space and futures you do have to upgrade the roster with an eye towards a deep playoff run in 2020-21, Dubas’ urgency to jump into the trade waters early and set the table makes a lot of sense. In any offseason, I’m pretty convinced a 15th overall, a B or B+ prospect, and a little cap space to manoeuvre carries more value than a $3.2 million 15-20 goal middle-six winger. This offseason especially, I am fully convinced it will. That’s why you pull the trigger on this deal now, particularly knowing the Leafs have William Nylander and Mitch Marner installed long term at right wing.
The alternative would have been to sit around and try to swing a hockey trade that might never materialize involving some of the team’s second-tier forwards — Kapanen, Johnsson, Kerfoot — for defense help, or to flip one or two of these pieces for futures at the draft to open space ahead of free agency. All 31 teams will be in offseason mode by then and the trade market would have heated up, with a lot more of the unknowns known around who is available among the league’s 31 teams. The timing of this move, and capitalizing on Jim Rutherford’s urgent desire for a shakeup after a second straight underwhelming playoff exit from the Penguins, makes a lot of sense for that reason.
Frederik Andersen’s $1 million salary and $5 million cap hit could have a certain appeal — but the Leafs may have have to wait and see what shakes out with all of the goalies in this year’s free agency class while sorting out their own replacement first if they choose to go that route, and I don’t necessarily see teams handing over a good defenseman or centerman for one year of Andersen coming off of the year he just had. As much as I believe Andersen is in the upper half of the league’s 31 starters, goaltending is just too weird to be forfeiting significant roster (or even non-roster) assets for a 31-year-old goalie who isn’t signed past this season, who posted a .909 last season, and who has a mixed playoff history.
Of all of Dubas’ offseason challenges, the decision on Andersen is the one I envy the least. He could be fairly described as the team’s best regular-season goaltender since Curtis Joseph, and I wouldn’t blame Dubas for betting on Andersen’s career body of work and punting on this decision for a year. With the cross-hairs firmly on Dubas’ back coming off of a non-playoff season (essentially) — with the bad contracts cleared and his coaching change made — it would be a spectacularly ballsy move to attempt a goalie shuffle now. Many suggest that Dubas’ boldness belies his understated public demeanour — the Nazem Kadri trade was certainly a big swing (and miss) — but there is a certain humility required when it comes to betting on goaltenders. That said, Dubas’ eyes and ears certainly have to be open to the possibilities here.
Now, improving flexibility and storing some gun powder for later is not the same thing as acquiring — via trade or free agency — a defenseman that can play tough minutes for you capably. That’s where the really hard part comes in. It has to be the first of many instances of creativity from Dubas if he’s going to achieve his goal of improving the overall roster.
The Leafs’ depth up front (and on the backend) has been outmatched several years running in the playoffs, and offloading Kapanen certainly does not help in that regard. There is reason for hope with both Nick Robertson and Alex Barabanov arriving, but hope is not a plan. Dubas needs to address the bottom six by adding some proven players who can bring some variety to the team’s composition and who can make the team tougher to play against. And that’s not going to be done with the Lindholm-for-Petan, Marchment-for-Malgin-style swaps around the edges of the roster. He has to substantially address the team’s bottom six.
The table has been set, but Dubas still has a number of challenging needles to thread in order to upgrade the current roster.