What the Grabner deal tells us about the Maple Leafs’ radical approach to team building

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Photo Credit: Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

Last week the Toronto Maple Leafs completed one of the weirdest hockey trades in recent memory, dealing an enormous amount of high-yield prospect wealth in exchange for New York Islanders forward Michael Grabner – a decent-enough middle-six winger on a strange contract. It’s a trade that, in some respects, broke conventional hockey-trade analysis. 

Acquiring a player like Grabner, an effective penalty killer who has high-end wheels and has generally scored at an auspicious rate at 5-on-5 but isn’t really a first-line caliber forward, fits in with Toronto’s recent modus operandi. He’s a veteran forward on an expiring deal, after all, and he can be flipped at the deadline. 

Where Grabner differs from the myriad veterans whom Toronto has brought to training camp for a professional tryout, or from the likes of PA Parenteau and Shawn Matthias who were signed on the cheap in free agency, is that he wasn’t ‘free’ – at least in terms of the acquisition cost. Instead, he cost the Maple Leafs four prospects including Matt Finn, Carter Verhaeghe, Cristopher Gibson and Tom Nillson, and an NHL player in Taylor Beck. 

It’s facile to declare that the Maple Leafs exchanged nothing of value for Grabner, but that isn’t quite right. 

Beck will play games this season, and the four additional prospects have some upside – even if they were all falling down the club’s prospect depth chart (only Verhaeghe and Finn cracked TLN’s Top-20 Leafs prospects this August, and neither player was ranked higher than 15th). It’s why I’d describe the prospects whom the Maple Leafs sent to Brooklyn as ‘high-yield’. 

The always spending-conscious Islanders essentially purchased the hockey equivalent of junk bonds, in bulk, from the Maple Leafs and also netted themselves some not insignificant savings for the upcoming year (Grabner, though he’ll only cost $3 million against the salary cap this upcoming season, is due $5 million in actual salary). As a straight salary dump (Beck for Grabner), this works for the Islanders, and if they receive any additional NHL games played from the bevy of prospects they received, that’ll be akin to found money. It’s a low cost bet. In fact, it’s a money saving bet.

What the Maple Leafs are playing at is altogether different, but this is the most radical expression yet of their increasingly obvious plan to leverage their incomparable budget to supplement a program of short-term trade market speculation, using veteran assets. In addition to Grabner – who as previously mentioned, fits the bill – the club now has additional standard player contract (SPC) slots with which to sign one of Brad Boyes or tanking talisman Curtis Glencross. 

It comes down, likely, to an organizational judgement concerning how to most efficiently use their 50 SPC slots. And the club has now indicated clearly – and very radically, considering the way we’re used to seeing NHL teams operate – that they’d rather use those slots on potentially useful veteran pieces that can be swapped for additional futures when the price of short-term help gets bloated at the trade deadline, as opposed to saving those slots for fringe prospects who may (or more likely will not) develop into NHL players.

The key then will be pro-scouting accurately, drafting well, and netting decent-enough deadline returns for the useful – or at least credible – NHL pieces that the Maple Leafs will possibly use these additional SPC slots on. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, what with the way the club has operated over the past 14 months, that the Maple Leafs have launched this program of shorting veteran assets and taking advantage of valuation spikes at the annual NHL trade deadline to supplement their rebuilding efforts. What’s perhaps more remarkable, and more novel, is what the Grabner deal illustrates about how far the organization is willing to stretch this internal logic.

  • Bill-Burford

    I enjoyed this piece. This strategy, though, is likely to be a short term one. The Leafs are a lot more likely to be churning through C+ prospects when they’re guys drafted by the old regime. I imagine they’ll want to hang on to the guys they draft a bit longer, especially if they’ll be using the Solar Bears as a big part of the development system.

  • Bill-Burford

    I’d rather they go with KISS here. Basically this is an opportunity cost trade off between
    – Grabner’s deadline return and the
    – return on how they use those 4 SPCs slots minus the cost of the assets traded

    They might win with this move or they might lose this but more likely come out in about the same spot. This move is no slam dunk. In fact, with so many moving parts it may not really be worth the risk.

  • Bill-Burford

    I think that the leafs are basically trying to buy the draft +1,2,3 years of as many high upside offensive prospects as possible, and cut them loose as quickly as possible if they aren’t developing well. They should continue this strategy indefinitely and NOTt use it as a stop gap until this regimes drafts picks fill the ranks. When a team becomes competitive it is still very important to have a steady flow of cheap young players to contribute on the team.

    • Davwud

      Give it a few years and this type of deal may become more common. With the number of picks they’re talking about having over the next few (plus last) years they’ll start having a number of kids graduate (no longer eligible for Jr or NCAA etc) to them may be upwards of 10. They’ll need spots for those guys. So every year they may have 5 – 10 guys they’ve looked at for 3 or so years and if they don’t project to top 6/top 4 they’ll be out the door.
      Also, I would expect at some point in time they’ll need a goalie prospect. Swap a couple 20 or 21 YO for a 22 or so goalie prospect that’s ready to jump into full time.
      If this all works out they way they want it to, this could be a very good franchise for a very long time.
      They key is, they have to draft well.

  • Davwud

    Excellent post, Thomas. The approach described leverages the deep pockets of MLSE. It allows them to have an advantage on non-controlled spending areas even in the cap era.You are unveiling a key component of the Shanahan plan?

    This is not a radical approach. It hails back to the good old days when Montreal, Toronto and Detroit controlled the player assets via their depth and farm/development systems. I see the new approach as being very Sam Pollock of Montreal. Provide proven vets (higher calbre than Leaf’s current assets) for futures which was recycled over and over. Many successful products are actually adaptations rather than radical innovations. Recognizing the importance of timing in maximizing assets is key.

    Leafs seem to be saying that “he who has the top 50 assets will be the winner”. The steps to a minor league system emulating baseball should turn out to be a key component. While it is unlikely to show on the ice this year, the fact that the Leaf prospect system is ranked number two is encouraging. The fact that this large jump occurred in one year is even more encouraging.

  • Gary Empey

    The only flaw I see in the master plan of the GM’s here at TLN, is they all seem to think the Leafs will move about 15 roster players at the trade deadline.