Is Big Change Finally On The Way?

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This tweet seems to have Leafs Nation talking:

Which is hilarious to me because nobody seemed to pay attention when I said this exact same thing 5 months ago. They didn’t pay attention when I said it every 2-3 days since then either, but big shot Chris “hey look at me and my hipster beard” Johnston says it and now everybody seems to think it could be true.

I’m not bitter though. Johnston has 202K followers on Twitter and I have 83…. not thousand, just 83. Of course they’ll listen to him. If anything I’m surprised that many people follow me. My sarcasm and arrogant attitude must finally be paying off. Either way, I’m right and that’s enough for me.

This is the final year of the “Big 4” in Toronto.

The thing is, it was never going to matter how any of the big cheques at forward played. There are raises coming elsewhere on the roster and you can only avoid paying the rest of the team for so long. Every team needs depth and versatility and having a few top end offensive players just doesn’t win you much in this league.

For reference, the Leafs have 10 pending free agents that have, or will have played, a significant number of games for them this year. They are:
UFA: Mark Giordano, Ilya Mikheyev, Jack Campbell, Ilya Lyubushkin, Jason Spezza, Colin Blackwell
RFA: Ondrej Kase, Pierre Engvall, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren

While some of these players will most assuredly walk into free agency and onto other teams (Mikheyev? Blackwell?), some will stay and are guaranteed raises (Sandin, Liljegren). Others could be back, but due to health or performance are questionable (Campbell, Kase). It can be tough to agree on a number for a goaltender that played at a Vezina level to start the season, only to nose dive into the gutters of hell just a few months later, for example. Also, while we could all see the chemistry between Kase and Tavares, how do you bring back a player that took such a soft hit to the head a few weeks ago and hasn’t been seen since? Always wondering if your 2nd line RWer is one insignificant hit away from being on LTIR permanently isn’t a great direction to go.

For those wondering, it was also never going to matter how the team did in the playoffs. The deeper they go the more value their players will have, as they’ll have proven that they can do something (anything!!) in the post season. If they perform to their usual standard (1st round exit) the acquiring team would likely play hardball a little more, but would have to believe in their own roster and it’s ability to elevate whichever player they’re acquiring into a playoff performer, essentially pinning the continued struggles of the Leafs onto the chest of the organization, rather than the individual player they’re trading for.

Lastly, for those that want to tinker with the numbers and will tell me that they can still build a pretty good team without trading a bigger name, but instead going their usual route and trading the mid-level contracts (Petr Mrazek, Alex Kerfoot) you’re right. That’s absolutely an option and one that I believe will be taken if the Leafs can’t get a decent return for whoever they’re selling.

They should get a good return though and the return could really give this team an entirely new look.

The thing we need to realize is that this could be the Leafs year. They need a lot of things to go their way, but they have a better defensive group on paper than they have in years prior and, if Jack Campbell can return from injury and play to his early season level, they can continue to play their pond-hockey style, while relying on their goaltender to bail them out.

With all of that in mind, it’s the expected depth that’s about to be added that has more than a few people excited. Matthew Knies and Nick Abruzzese are finishing and finished their NCAA seasons, respectively, and will join the Maple Leafs as early as this week. It’s yet to be seen if they’ll get any playing time, but not only do most think they will, but think they’ll have an impact immediately.

I disagree, but that has more to do with the fact that I don’t agree with placing unfair expectations on young, unproven prospects and less to do with having actual knowledge on how they’ll fare in the NHL. With that said, if one or the other can manage to fit onto a line with Jason Spezza and Colin Blackwell, it could form a solid line that can contribute some depth scoring. Something that is always required in order to advance in the playoffs. The bonus, unfortunately, would be removing Wayne Simmonds from the playoff roster, as he hasn’t been providing much as of late.

If neither one of Knies or Abruzzese can make the jump this season, it’s possible that they could be ready after a summer of NHL level training, but they’d join a few other prospects that are looking to crack the Leafs roster. Nick Robertson is probably the most likely player to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL next year. He hasn’t been able to put it all together at the NHL thus far, but his skating and shot are above AHL level, so it could be a matter of giving him NHL ice and hoping he figures it out.

All of Joey Anderson, Alex Steeves, Kristians Rubins and Pontus Holmberg will also push for depth spots on the roster, while Curtis Douglas has an outside shot and, if they do eventually sign him to an NHL deal, Josh Ho-Sang will also fight for playing time.

Not all of those players will make it, but the hope is that one to three of them can and that at least one can turn into a significant piece moving forward.

The same was probably the hope from management this year when they recalled Joseph Woll and Erik Kallgren. With Petr Mrazek failing to live up to his 3.8M contract and Jack Campbell being inconsistent, it would be nice to see a younger option add some stability to the crease, but neither seem ready to take the reins. Now the hope has shifted. If Mrazek can manage to string some wins and solid play together down the stretch then maybe he’ll earn himself a ticket out of town. Likewise (and as I stated previously), if Jack Campbell can return from injury and play well then maybe they will be confident enough in his ability and offer him a contract to stay in Toronto. If neither of those things happen then the #1 task this summer will be to find a legitimate solution to the goaltending problem on this team.

With the potential for a complete overhaul in net, one thing I do know is that we might see little change to the blueline group.

All of Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie and Jake Muzzin are locked onto the roster with full No-Move and/or No-Trade Clauses. While it’s easy, in theory, to ask a guy like Jake Muzzin to waive his NTC, it’s generally not an accepted practice for a team to ask a useful player to do so. Instead, that tends to be a move reserved for teams that are looking to stock up on draft capital as they’re entering a rebuild, or ones that have won a cup or two and have a veteran that’s been relegated to bottom line/pair duty and/or has passed through waivers at least once. The latter being when a player knows their best days are behind them and are willing to move on for the sake of keeping the group competitive.

Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie don’t fit into either scheme, but there is a bit of a silver lining for anybody that wants to say goodbye to either one of the veteran defenders.

While both of Muzzin and Brodie have full no-trades right now, those are lifted at the end of next season. While this doesn’t help the cap situation immediately, it at least allows the organization to make future plans that may or may not involve them. So, for example, if Rasmus Sandin steps up next season and starts taking minutes from Jake Muzzin, they know they’ll be ready to move on the following year and will only have a 3rd pair hole to fill on the left side. Likewise, if Timothy Liljegren takes a leap ahead and finds himself paired with Morgan Rielly regularly, then maybe you consider moving on without Brodie the year following.

In the immediate future those two young players need fresh contracts though and you have to do it while retaining the services of Muzzin and Brodie.

Assuming they’re all on the roster next season, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be, the Leafs will have all of Rielly, Muzzin, Brodie, Sandin and Liljegren playing minutes, while Justin Holl is also under contract for one more year. How much cap space the team really needs will be linked into how much term and money the two young Swedes will want on their next contracts. On bridge deals I assume they will be fairly cheap to retain, but, again, there will be raises.

All of that is leaving out the possibility of other defenders being added into the mix, or even for the return of Ilya Lyubushkin or Mark Giordano. Both seem to have fit into the Leafs blueline with relative ease and, especially in Lyubushkin’s case, bring a different skill set to the mix. This makes me believe that Justin Holl should also be on his way out of Toronto, but that’s a story for another day.

One thing the Leafs have long been missing is a big, steady defender that can play top 4 minutes. While Lyubushkin has been playing with Rielly at 5v5, he is still playing just 16 minutes a night for the Leafs. While I’d love to see him back and playing on the 3rd pair, with the defenders they already have they may be better off chasing a bigger fish, such as Josh Manson, or trying to trade for the solution to their problems.

It’s the trading parts that makes people think about the possibilities and that’s what brings us back to moving one of the big 4.

One possibility is making a pure hockey deal. Top 4 defender for top 6 forward. Sounds tempting, right? The problem is just how hard it is to make a hockey deal of this magnitude in today’s NHL. Top 4 defenders rarely move and when they do it’s often from teams that are mired in a rebuild. Josh Manson and Hampus Lindholm, for example, were just traded by the Anaheim Ducks, who own a flurry of picks in the next couple of drafts.

Jakub Chychrun could be on the move from the Phoenix Coyotes, but I would find it strange if they made a trade for any of the Leafs’ big 4, considering that would make them older and, in the case’s of William Nylander or Auston Matthews, would bring them one year closer to having a big ticket player head to unrestricted free agency. Instead, I expect them to cash in on picks and prospects for the young defender.

The fact is, if you do find a team that is moving a top 4 defender it would be nearly impossible to imagine it being one that you would do a 1-for-1 swap for. If you consider age, contract length, cap hit and role, you’re asking for a lot.

There’s an easier way and that way is to scout players and make a move for futures that you’re (almost) sure are going to hit. You can never be 100%, but they should be as close to it as possible. Yes, for me, the answer would be to target near-ready NHL prospects, draft picks and depth NHL players in order to pad your own depth.

Teams that are on the cusp of being through a rebuild would be my best friends right about now, because they’re the ones that will be most tempted by a mid 20’s, high skill player with a couple of years left on his contract.

Which brings us to the “Who?” and “Where?” of it all.

For me, and I know I’m not alone on this, the “Who?” is pretty clearly William Nylander. Simply put, John Tavares has a full no-move clause in his contract, the team won’t ask him to waive it and nor should they. Is he living up to his 11M per season bill? I don’t think so. But he’s one of the best 2nd line centres in the league and that’s because he’s a 1st line centre on a team that has Auston Matthews. He’s the teams captain and a major part of the puzzle here and if you move him you’d have a major hole to fill.

This also eliminates Auston Matthews, because if you take him out of the lineup you’re left with much the same problem as if you traded John Tavares. Besides, you simply don’t trade a player like Matthews. That many goals from a player that can pick pockets on the backcheck like he does is far too valuable to any team.

Which leaves Mitch Marner and William Nylander, which leaves you with an easy choice to make. Mitch Marner produces more points, plays in more situations and can elevate the play of those around him. He’s one of the best wingers in the game and fits far too well on Auston Matthews’ wing, which is all you really need in order to keep him.

William Nylander is an incredible talent and is enjoying a career year on the score sheet. He has 2 more seasons left on his contract with a cap hit that’s just under 7M per season. At just 25 years old (26 by the time the draft comes around) he’s young enough to fit into the future plans of any team that trades for him and good enough to demand a healthy return.

The point of it all isn’t that William Nylander simply needs to go because he isn’t good. It’s that this team has been far too off balance for years now, with high end forwards, little depth and no defense and that is what needs to change. The fact that I think Nylander needs to be the one to move isn’t a slight to him, but a testament to the other high end forwards in Toronto.

Which leaves the question of what teams might be interested in his services.

The New York Rangers

I’ll include the Rangers in every piece like this one. It always seems like they’re involved when a big name is on the market, so why not this time?

With a solid core in place that includes Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers have made quick work of rebuilding their roster and are back in the playoffs. This doesn’t mean the job is done, as they have had some misses in the draft as well (Kaapo Kakko, especially). They’re deep on the left side with Panarin, Kreider and Lafreniere, but not so much at right wing. They also have a lot of pieces that I believe the Leafs would covet, including the 19th pick of the 1st round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Braden Schneider. The big defender has been getting his toes wet in the NHL already and could be the ideal future partner for Morgan Rielly. There’s no flash to his game, but that’s not what the Leafs need in that spot. That, combined with their obvious willingness to trade picks right now and having a flurry of other young players they could potentially move makes them a solid fit as trade partners for the Leafs.

The one thing I see that makes me think this is a bad fit is their lack of centre depth. If think if the Rangers were going to make a big swing it could be for another centreman, but crazier things have happened.

The Los Angeles Kings

I know, I know, you’re all sick of hearing about the Los Angeles Kings from me, but I still believe they’re the perfect fit if you’re looking to make a deal.

With Anze Kopitar (34) and Drew Doughty (32) drifting further and further away from 30 years old, the time may be now for the team to push for another Stanley Cup run. They have good young players on ELCs (Michael Anderson, Sean Durzi, Quinton Byfield, Gabe Vilardi, Carl Grundstrom, etc), good centre depth (Kopitar, Danault, Byfield) and good defensive depth, althought they do have some pending UFAs to tend to. Their goaltending is questionable, but not atrocious. One thing they’re missing is high end wingers and that’s one thing the Leafs have to deal.

With Sean Durzi finding a permanent place on the blueline, that could make Sean Walker available. He’d be a good depth addition to the team if he can get healthy again. Likewise, skilled prospects such as Gabe Vilardi or Alex Turcotte would be high end additions to the roster, with defensive prospects Brandt Clarke or Brock Faber also being possibilities. I think I’d have a ton of interest in Jaret Anderson-Dolan if I were the Leafs as well, as he could be the ideal 3rd line energy player for years to come.

The standard 1st, prospect and player could be an easy deal to make here, with the only question being which prospect is the right one and does that prospect represent enough value to the Leafs to make trading a player that is currently on pace for 30 goals and 75pts worth it.

New York Islanders

The Isles aren’t a rebuilding team but they probably should be. Former Leafs GM, Lou Lamoriello, has really shat the bed in Long Island and if I’m alive long enough after saying that, I’ll tell you how.

Here are a few of Lamoriello’s most expensive forward additions and re-signing’s and their offensive production this season:

Anders Lee: 7 years, 7M cap hit, 25 goals, 38pts, 58GP
Kyle Palmieri: 4 years, 5M cap hit, 11 goals, 23pts, 51GP
Jean-Gabriel Pageau: 6 years, 5M cap hit, 10 goals, 28pts, 62GP
Semyon Varlamov: 4 years, 5M cap hit, 2.87GAA, 0.913SV%, 6-13-2 record

Other players, such as Josh Bailey (5M cap hit, 31pts) aren’t living up to their contracts either, but he was signed before Lamoriello came on board. From Lamoriello alone, there is over 20M, or 25% of their capspace tied up in players that simply aren’t producing up to expectation.

This means that Lou needs some offense in his lineup and is a little thin at LD as well. The Leafs could potentially help in both areas, with the difference being the Isles don’t have the assets that the previous two teams I mentioned would. They could deal players such as Oliver Wahlstrom, but they don’t really have the prospects to pair with him that would move the proverbial needle. If they are willing to move a package of draft picks it would make a lot of sense for the Leafs, but not so much for the Islanders as they are already tied into enough players with large cap hits.

This could be one of the few hockey trades to be made, with Ryan Pulock being a player that has fallen out of favour on the island. If the Leafs think he isn’t done then maybe there’s a deal to be made, but at the moment I would have to assume that Lou would have to add to Pulock in order to land Nylander.

Nashville Predators

With an abundance of cap space, many of their own picks and a few decent prospects to deal from, the Predators could make a move for Nylander without even sending any roster players back.

With that said, if Philip Myers, who was waived by Nashville before the deadline, cleared waivers and was then assigned to the Toronto Marlies, was part of a package, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. Myers wouldn’t be the main piece coming back though. That would have to be a more significant prospect such as goaltender Yaroslav Askarov. I think if I’m the Leafs I would have a lot of interest in defensive prospect Luke Prokop as well as a few others.

Suffice to say, they have the pieces to deal, I’m just not sure if they have the want.

I know there are a lot of people that don’t want to see Nylander (or any of the Big 4) go, but I do believe it could revive the Leafs chances within the next couple of years. With Nick Robertson, Matthew Knies and a few depth options pushing for roster spots (Joey Anderson, Alex Steeves, Nick Abruzzese, to name a few), as well as young players such as Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren on the roster, they Leafs could set themselves up to have 4-6 young, impactful players on the roster at the same time, leaving enough cap space to add big deadline additions and to allow contracts of veterans to expire on their own, without having to push them out (Muzzin, Brodie). They could add depth, skill, grit and edge to their roster, while maintaining their lethal offense, which, if we’re being honest, mostly runs through Matthews and Marner anyway.

I believe it’s time to move in another direction with this team. They need to get away from their run-and-gun style and start playing two-way hockey and that doesn’t appear to be a strength of William Nylander. If they could add a little cap space, a young piece or two, some veteran depth and some picks, to begin restocking the cupboards that will most assurdely go bare if they continue to pick just 3 times in the draft each year, then the future of the Leafs could remain bright.

At the moment, it’s kind of vanilla.