What an active week — and offseason overall — it’s been for Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In: T.J. Brodie (RD), Wayne Simmonds (RW), Zach Bogosian (RD), Joe Thornton (C), Jimmy Vesey (LW), Joey Anderson (RW), Travis Boyd (C/LW), Aaron Dell (G), Fillip Hallander (C/LW), David Warsofsky (LD)
Out: Kasperi Kapanen (RW), Andreas Johnsson (LW), Cody Ceci (RD), Tyson Barrie (RD), Frederik Gauthier (C), Jeremy Bracco (RW), Kasimir Kaskisuo (G), Jesper Lindgren (RD), Pontus Aberg (LW/RW)
To say nothing of the 12 draft selections or the Alexander Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen signings out of the KHL back in the Spring.
Let’s jump right into the musings.
The Joe Thornton Signing
Frederik Gauthier was Toronto’s fourth-line center for 61 games last season and 70 the year before. Even if Joe Thornton looks like a shell of his former self, at the very least, he should be able to replace Gauthier as Toronto’s big left-handed faceoff specialist plus all the intangible value he brings. At the league minimum salary, there’s very little risk here, and it’s tough to hate this signing as a result.
Thornton is one of the best playmakers of all time. He should help Toronto’s second power-play unit, and he’ll certainly bring some veteran leadership to the locker room. Like Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza, it’s going to be really cool to watch him play at home in Toronto. A strong play-driver in the 2018-2019 season, he still looked like a perfectly respectable NHL player last season. If he has a bounce-back season at the age of 41, the Leafs have themselves a good third-line center. If he doesn’t, they should still have a perfectly fine fourth-line player at the league-minimum salary.
If you evaluate each individual signing in a vacuum, there is little risk in signing Thornton, Spezza, or Simmonds. However, there is at least some risk here collectively, as Toronto’s bottom six is going to be quite slow, and it’s not going to be easy to scratch any of them even if they end up struggling. Ideally, all three of them should be the slowest player on their line, but it seems like two of them are bound to play together.
It’s not perfect, and if it’s not working, you’re trusting your coach to make a difficult decision. I still think Thornton and Spezza are valuable NHL contributors — and I also think there’s a reasonable chance for Simmonds to have a bounce-back season — but it’s worth acknowledging that there’s at least a chance that this doesn’t work out perfectly.
It sure seems like we’re going to see plenty of back-to-backs next season, as the league will likely look to minimize travel as much as possible. As a result, don’t be surprised if they give Thornton, Spezza, or Simmonds the occasional night off. Rotating 13 forwards and 7 defensemen in and out of the lineup should not be a major problem. I’d rather give these players a breather now and then rather than have a 2018-19 Justin Holl situation, where someone lives in the press box and plays only 11 games. As long as the coaching staff is up front with the players and emphasizes the importance of keeping them fresh for the playoffs, I don’t see it being a major problem if they come out of the lineup once every 10 or 15 games.
Leafs fans saw Patrick Marleau take a pretty significant step back following his first season in Toronto. He’s still a fine skater to this day, but I do think he lost a step. It’s trickier to evaluate when Thornton will decline further; like Spezza, he was never a great skater to begin with. He’s still big, strong, and a wicked passer. As I said above, I’ll certainly take my chances that he can at least improve on Gauthier’s value.
I also wonder if Thornton could end up on the wing, where played there during the World Cup of Hockey back in 2016. Given his lack of speed, this could help him to extend his career as a top-nine player. The Sharks weren’t going to do this in 2018-19, as he still graded out as a terrific play-driver at center. They weren’t going to do this last season when they had their fair share of injuries and were limited in terms of depth.
Thornton can still take faceoffs if he plays on the wing, and while I don’t think he’s a great fit with the pass-first Kerfoot, I wouldn’t mind experimenting early on. Since Thornton never shoots the puck, look for him to play with good shooters.
I mentioned the Thornton rumours in my last article, where I stated that he was worth a shot for a bottom-six role. I get that having a 37-year old Spezza as the team’s second-oldest forward is not for everyone, but I think both players have enough left in the tank.
I like this addition and I’m pumped to watch Thornton play for the Leafs.
The Odd Man Out
The Leafs have five clear top-six forwards: Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Zach Hyman. Alex Kerfoot can either be a solid third-line center, or the third-best player on the second line. Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Ilya Mikheyev, and Wayne Simmonds are all locks to be in the lineup as well, so that’s 10 spots accounted for.
I fully expect Jimmy Vesey to be on the roster. He’s a decent bet to score 15 goals, and he could fit with either Kerfoot or Thornton. There’s at least a chance that he’s the 13th forward, but he’ll be on the roster in some capacity.
The remaining two spots are up for grabs. Alexander Barabanov is likely a favourite for an NHL job, but he scored under half-a-point per game in the KHL last season, a threshold he’s only surpassed once. I think the Leafs will give him an opportunity to make the team, but he’s going to have to earn his spot in the lineup. Vadim Shipachyov was the biggest thing since sliced bread a few years back, and he only ended up playing three NHL games. In Toronto, Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman, and Igor Ozhiganov also never fully stuck in the NHL after coming overseas. While I think they’ll give Barabanov a good chance to play, he’s going to have to earn a spot in the lineup.
Pierre Engvall can be sent to the Marlies without going through waivers. Nick Robertson, barring an unexpected rule change, is not eligible to play in the AHL. Faced with a similar decision during their play-in series, the Leafs ended up playing Robertson in game one over Engvall. Of course, Robertson ended up being scratched in Game 5 when Andreas Johnsson returned and Engvall took over Gauthier’s spot, so this lineup decision is far from a lock.
Adding another layer of uncertainty, we don’t know if there’s going to be an OHL season at this point or what one will look like. Assuming the old rules are intact, you either play Robertson in the NHL all year, or you don’t play him in the NHL at all. If the Leafs think he can make an impact come playoff time, they’ll keep him in the NHL. If they don’t think he’s ready, they’ll send him down. He would certainly be a great fit with the past-first Thornton. If anything, I think that signing Thornton helps more than hurts Robertson’s chances. Ultimately, he’ll control his own destiny. If looks good enough in preseason (assuming there is a preseason), the Leafs will make a spot for him.
I think Engvall is a bit underrated right now, as he’s good in transition and good defensively. He played well at center in the play-in series against Columbus, and he covers a ton of ice. He’s not amazing offensively, but the Leafs could use another good two-way forward, and he’s certainly good on the penalty kill. I’d send him to the Marlies before I traded him for nothing. That being said, I’m not sure that he fully controls his own destiny — if Robertson and Barabanov both look like solid NHL players, I think they’ll both stay on the roster. They can always call Engvall up if needed, but as mentioned, barring a rule change for this year, they can’t do that with Robertson.
All of Denis Malgin, Travis Boyd, Nic Petan, Adam Brooks, and Yegor Korshkov will be in tough to make the team. Kenny Agostino played in 63 NHL games in 2018-19 and scored at close to a point-per-game with the Marlies last season, but he is a major long-shot. It doesn’t hurt to have depth, but I’d consider trading a player or two at some point, as I’d like to see someone like Agostino given a better chance of making an NHL team. I think Joey Anderson is also likely on the outside looking in considering he fits best on the right side, where Simmonds and probably Spezza have the final right-wing spots locked down.
The Next Steps For Toronto’s Offseason
The Leafs look pretty much set. Unless something falls into their lap, I don’t see many more moves happening. Their forward depth is matched on the back-end: One of Mikko Lehtonen or Zach Bogosian will be their seventh defenseman, and then there’s Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren behind them. Half the outrage I see on Twitter these days is basically “this player shouldn’t be scratched!” That’s probably a good sign. Between injuries and back-to-backs, who gets scratched is the least of my concerns at this point.
Other than maybe Engvall, the two players that seem like they could potentially be dealt are Alex Kerfoot and Justin Holl. I don’t think it’s overly likely that either player is traded, but if one does get moved, you need to get a player who is just as good if not better in return. The Muzzin-Holl pairing was the lone bright spot on Toronto’s blue-line last season, and I’ve been dying to see Morgan Rielly play with a partner like TJ Brodie for years, so I don’t know why you’d break that up. I think Travis Dermott could potentially play in the top four, but I’d rather keep him on the third-pairing to start and ensure that I have great depth. Unless someone like MacKenzie Weegar is added, I doubt Holl is going anywhere.
You also can’t trade Alex Kerfoot without getting another quality center back in the deal. He was one of Toronto’s better players in the play-in series, and the third line was terrible when he wasn’t there. You could play him on the wing and give Thornton a chance to start the season as the third-line center, but you certainly need a backup plan ready in case Thornton’s play declines further. Having too much center depth is always a good problem to have. It’s not having enough that becomes a major issue.
While I didn’t want to trade the first-round pick they acquired in the Kasperi Kapanen trade — having the 15th pick in a deep draft class is tough to pass up — I’m more open to the team trading its 2021 first-round pick. Rather than trade for a rental, I’d rather do what the Tampa Bay Lightning did and trade for cheap players with control. For example, I know he’s small, but I’d give up a good haul for Conor Garland, who carries just a $775k cap hit this season.
I’m not expecting much else to happen with the Leafs for the remainder of the offseason, but they have some flexibility if something does come up, and Kyle Dubas has stated his desire to keep enough maneuverability under the cap to be able to add mid-season or at the deadline.