July Deep Dive: An imperfect, but acceptable month

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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

I don’t think this was the summer that many people expected. Some expected massive, foundation-shaking moves, while others expected radio silence. What we got was somewhere in between, and it left a lot of questions to be asked. But looking strictly at July, how did the Leafs do?

Free Agency

In Case You Missed It…

It’s been a few weeks, and now that the dust has settled, I’m still in an “I get it, but I don’t” mindset towards Toronto’s signings. I truly believe that Matt Martin is a serviceable bottom line player, both from a play structure perspective and a data perspective. The salary is stomachable in the present I still don’t believe in giving four years of term to players you know are fourth liners, though.

The Polak signing is a bit easier to justify because it’s a one-year throw-away deal. Even if it contributes to other players’ rookie bonuses sending the team over the deep end next year, the Leafs are in very reasonable cap shape in 2017/18. Now, as much as I love watching Polak block shots with his face, I still feel there many have been better options for the price and the name of the game is to maximize every dollar you have to make the best team that you can, and I don’t think he really helps in either regard. But this won’t be a “regret for years to come” situation.

Finally, while Justin Holl is spiritually more of a re-signing than he is an acquisition, I like the idea of locking him up to an NHL deal. Despite what some might say, he was a stabilizing, dependable force on the Marlies last year, will start the year as their main right-handed shot, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he could play some decent hockey under the right situations if called up.

As well, while we don’t know if Trevor Moore is ever going to be an impact player, he appears to be a very logical risk to take on an ELC. His numbers in the NCAA are impressive, he’s reasonably young, and he’ll get to strut his stuff with the Marlies before the Leafs need to start making serious decisions.

Ultimately, you’re probably lying to yourself if you think that these were the best signings they could’ve made. There’s a case to be made, in fact, that not making any at all may have been better. But there are worse things to have than a play disruptor, a promising if low-profile prospect and a couple of familiar temporary soldiers. At least they didn’t respond to missing out on Steven Stamkos by signing Franz Nielsen or Kyle Okposo until eternity like certain divisional rivals…

RFA Management

In Case You Missed It…

If the Leafs hit a home run with the Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly deals in April, this was a solid RBI triple. Locking up your restricted free agents is already a game where you hold most of the power, but it’s hard to argue that any player on this list came out ahead in negotiations. 

All six players have the talent to be on an NHL roster next year and are all probably being paid less than the performance they can output. Half of them even signed two-year deals! Best of all, though, they managed to settle outside of arbitration with Holland, Corrado, and Marincin, preventing a name-calling fight that could’ve strained relations.

Top Level Roster Management

In Case You Missed It…

It’s hard to fuss much about the Bernier trade. All of us saw it coming once Andersen was acquired, though some were surprised to see him end up with the Ducks. The conditions could have been a bit better, in the sense that they could’ve given the Leafs greater than a 5% chance at actually getting something back, but dumping the cap hit was the top priority of the team and they achieved it.

Matthews was a gimmie put in theory, but it ended up turning into a PR roller coaster. Some people wonder if it really was a “ten-minute process”. Others wonder why the team waited out public drama if it was such an easy process. It’s hard to know for sure what was going on behind the scenes, and if it was really ‘that easy’, it’s not front office’s responsibility to maintain all of our heart rates, so getting it done without any visible signs of drama that actually matters is good enough in the long-run.

Minor League Depth Management

In Case You Missed It…

The Leafs don’t ever want their minor league cupboards to be empty ever again, and it’s more obvious now than ever. While they lost Mark Arcobello to Europe and TJ Brennan to Philadelphia, they’ve brought back a couple of their most impactful forwards in Smith and Clune, bolstered their call-up and injury depth in Hohmann, Faille, Cameranesi, Corrin, and Findlay, added another veteran presence in Cliche, and have Watling around to sign up to another level if need be.

Maintaining minor-league depth is good, as long as you either believe the players have futures, or they can be placed on deals that don’t effect the big club’s roster limit. The Leafs did a great job of doing both here, with a few of their minor-league signings appearing to have outside chances at a brighter future. That does mean that they run the risk of losing those players to other NHL teams if they work out, but it’s presumed that their data and video will lead them in the direction of locking them up before another team catches on to their success.

Looking Ahead

As you may know, we’ve shown our skepticisms towards a lot of the moves the Leafs have made over the course of the offseason. And there are still a lot of questions to be asked in the coming months. How will management sort out an overflowing roster of NHL-ready players? How will they navigate the salary cap heading into the start of the season? Who is backing up Frederik Andersen? Will the team lose players to waivers? Will they name a captain? How will the lines look? The jersey numbers? Will they sign Jimmy Vesey?

There are a lot of micro-concerns to be had here. But there are micro-concerns to be had with pretty much every move a team makes. At the end of the day, you don’t win the Stanley Cup by doing a good enough job, you do it by severely undercutting your competition in resource development, management and acquisition (and getting some luck along the way, obviously). Teams should always be in pursuit of a more perfect solution, and until that day comes (probably never), looking for the next step or the ways to improve upon your steps that you’ve just taken, is always the right call.

So despite the skepticism, when you look at the month as a whole, I still see a pretty decent picture. Toronto’s signings could have been better, but they could have been a whole lot worse. They did an excellent job with their restricted free agents, got out of having Bernier on the books unscathed, and bolstered the Marlies up to maintain a competitive environment for their current prospects and perhaps unearth some new ones.

To say that the Leafs did the best job the could have this offseason would be overly optimistic, but saying it was a total bust would be too far in the other direction; the end result, ultimately, is still quite decent.

    • Tommy Cat

      Not at the reported cost and term. Sensible cap management is critical in today’s NHL. Look at some of the dead weight we have / had. Bad contracts are a burden and difficult to get rid of. Buyouts nail the team for years. Retained salary is just as bad. Do it right up front.

  • Gary Empey

    @ Jeff – Your take is far too pessimistic.

    Leafs needed a #1 goalie. Lou went out and got a young one early before he was gone.

    Leafs needed a top four defenceman. Lou signed KHL first-team all-star Nikita Zaitsev.

    Leafs needed a #1 center – Matthews taken in the draft.

    The Leafs did not go out and sign the overrated top free agents to long term contracts like Detroit, Montreal, Buffalo did.

    Name me one other NHL team that was able to acquire a #1 Center, a Top four defenceman, and a young # one goalie in this off season.

    The Leafs are greatly improved over last year. We still have our top prospects, Marner, Nylander, Dermott, Kapanen, Brown, Hyman, Soshnikov, etc. under contract

    • This is a post about their performance in June. Calling it too pessimistic because it doesn’t include their actions in May and June is a little backwards.

      Not to mention, the Andersen trade is a polarizing one in the community, Zaitsev unofficially chose the Leafs in early 2015, and there was no way that they weren’t taking Matthews.

      • Gary Empey

        I was referring to your closing comment.

        “To say that the Leafs did the best job the could have this offseason would be overly optimistic”

        I think they did a terrific job in the off season.

        I think the Leafs management feel they are ready to get some playoff experience.

        The Andersen trade is not polarizing at the ACC.

        I understand we have a lot of new faces the community has not yet seen in a Leaf jersey. All of the new guys are young and come with glowing resumes. I don’t expect them to forget how to play hockey as soon as they get here.

        At the end of last season Babcock had a long shopping list. Lou and team management picked up most of the supplies. I expect they will now wait to see how our younger prospects progress this year then decide if we need to sign some top free agents next year.

  • Gary Empey

    The World Junior Summer Showcase is being played now. There are about six leaf prospects playing. TSN coverage and some NHL network as well.

    Canada – Finland – 3 August – (Friendly Match)

    USA – Sweden – 3 August at(Friendly Match)

    I have some hot links to the games if anyone needs them.

    • The whole point of the post is that the sum of the nitpicking’s parts is a relatively decent month overall, to say that I don’t think it’s as bad as people think I think it is.

      Is everything that isn’t “THIS IS PERFECT” considered negative?

      • Gary Empey

        As “G2” points out your whole article seems to be negative. It questions every move the Leafs made. Inferring they could of and should have, made better choices. Perhaps you are only playing “Devils Advocate”.

        “July Deep Dive: An imperfect, but acceptable month”

        “it left a lot of questions to be asked.”

        I’m still in an “I get it, but I don’t”

        Matt Martin – salary is stomachable – I still don’t believe in giving four years of term to players you know are fourth liners.

        (Why not? The guy is 27 years old, a good skater, throws a lot of hard checks, tenacious forechecker and back checker, plays the same style as Wendel Clark (I am not suggesting he is quite as good). He scored more goals than 85% of last years Leaf’s, while playing a fourth line role for NYI.) He is the epitome of a Babcock style player. Opposition teams will be looking to see if he is in the lineup before every game.

        “The Polak signing is a one-year throw-away deal.”

        If Babcock didn’t feel Polak was better then anyone in the system to fill that bottom six spot, there is no way in a million years he would be back on this team.

        “we don’t know if Trevor Moore is ever going to be an impact player”

        Seriously is every player signed expected to be an impact player.

        “There’s a case to be made, in fact, that not making any (signing) at all may have been better.”

        There is no case for that whatsoever. We were a 30th overall team last year. The Shanaplan was and still is: “rebuild through the draft”.

        This is exactly what the Leafs have stayed with. Signing the young core players to value contracts. Making room available for the prospects to take a roster spot, if they show they can. They signed a few new players for less the $3 million per season. There is a case to say there were better players available. That would only defeat the plan by attempting to rebuild through signing high priced, free agents who rarely, if ever, live up to there billing when they arrive. We have been down that rocky road many times before. I believe the Leafs are more than pleased with their draft picks and expect at lot of them to have solid NHL careers in the very near future.

        I repeat once more. We acquired a #1 goalie, a #1 center, a top pairing defenceman. Added a couple of low cost, specialty players. I see nothing to question how management has approached the off-season. We are way ahead of expectations. We have tons of good prospects developing. A huge cap space next year. They didn’t panic this July and try to take short cuts like others have. The Leafs were tough to play against last year. They will be even tougher to play against this year.

        • Kanuunankuula

          I have faith in this management as much as most people. However I do not believe just because they have made many great moves before the off-season started that any subsequent moves should be immune from any criticism.

          The leafs draft strategy this year was questionable, it may pay off and make everyone look stupid but to not question it at all is simply an appeal to authority. The #1 centre was a no brainer, any GM would have been smart to take Matthew’s first overall, so thats not an accomplishment. As Jeff pointed out Zaitsev was a done deal from before pretty much .

          Giving a guy a like matt martin 4 years does not make any sense. You dont need to lock up a player of his calibre. There are players like him available almost every year on 1 year deals. Leafs also have many veterans on the team already.

          Overall im happy where the leafs are, but to act like never questioning management at all seems short sighted. They have made some good moves, some questionable ones, like most teams. I dont know how Jeff’s article is overly pessimistic. It seems this offseason any criticism at all is flooded with people saying “you’re so negative”. The management has done a good-great job so far overall but lets not act like they have won the leafs a cup.

          • Kanuunankuula

            Exactly this. There are shades of management from Nonis-bad to perfect. This is not perfect. And to call it that is being naive. Pessimistic and not blindly optimistic are different things.

            Matt Martin is not something special. He is a fourth liner, not a bad one. Possibly even a great one. But still a fourth liner, the easiest of players to replace. Giving him term was not needed, nor frugal. I don’t care if there was competition for his services. We were also outbid on Bolland, do you think we should’ve coughed up 6 mil for him just because Tallon was willing to go to 5? We had better players on 1 year deals last year, and at a lower AAV as well. Polak I don’t really care about because of the term.

          • Gary Empey

            and at Kanuunankuula

            Kadri (one year younger) (just signed for 6 years at $4.5 million) scored 7 more goals than Matt Martin last year while playing top minutes, on the first line. Yet everyone is saying that his signing was a great move.

            Bozak scored two more goals than him. Winnik 6 less, etc., etc.

            I don’t understand how you guys can question his signing at $2.5 million, before he has even put a Leaf jersey on.

            Komarov (19 goals) was used as a fourth liner before Babcock came along.

            I am not suggesting no one should question Leaf management. I am suggesting they have made nothing but good moves since the season ended. I will wait for the first ten games to see how our new faces turn out before I critique them.

            Zaitsev deal was done just like Stamkos and Vesey’s deals.

            As for July all those free agents that signed big 6/7 years contracts I wouldn’t want any of them.

          • Matt Martin, traditionally a “pucks in deep” shooter who had a career SH% of about 7 before last year, shot at 11.6 last year. I’m not betting on him having a career high every season. Kadri, on the other hand, shot at half his career average; a lot of Leafs did.

            Komarov being used as a fourth liner and then becoming good doesn’t mean that Mike Babcock has a magic potion that turns grinders into gold. Leo was used in top six roles on pro teams from the time he was 20. He was the captain of a World Junior team. He led a KHL team in scoring and made an Olympic team based on the merits of his ability, not just being a “glue guy”.

            Matt Martin is not Leo Komarov. Martin is 27 years old and hasn’t scored 20 points in the NHL yet. 27-year-old pre-Babcock Komarov had 26 points in a season where he missed 20 games and got called up to his second consecutive World Championship.

            Again, Martin is a good hockey player, and I don’t think having him or paying him $2.5M is the problem there. Term is the bigger concern; given the Leafs’ cap situation next year, I would’ve probably been happier at 3.5×2 than I am at 2.5×4. The point at hand is that if the skilled core progresses, they’ll be breathing on Stanley’s neck in four years and any bit of extra cap space helps, and it’s not that a 31-year-old Matt Martin in 2020 is going to be worth his weight.

            As I said in the post, not turning around and trying to sign an Okposo, Nielsen, Ladd etc was the right move by the team, I don’t think anybody is questioning that.

          • Doesn’t matter much next year, (hence why I would’ve given him more for shorter term), but might start mattering in years 3 and 4.

            Toronto sheds some contracts next year, but obviously needs to pick up or call up replacement players to fill those roster spots. As well, Zaitsev, Corrado, and if they get real NHL time, Hyman, Brown and Leipsic will likely all be due raises heading into next year. Also, either a Holland raise or a replacement.

            Not the apocalypse, though Zaitsev might ask for some money.

            The next year, you’ve got JVR, Komarov, and Bozak as UFA’s, so you either have to re-up with raises for the first two or replace with outside talent (probably what happens with Bozak). Nylander and Marincin are RFAs. The younger guys we mentioned in the last year, if they didn’t get their raises then, will have likely signed 1-years, played their actual season of significance by then, and be up for something resembling real money now. You also have Carrick, Rychel, Soshnikov, and maybe Johnson, Valiev, and/or Gauthier knocking on the door for meaningful second contracts.

            After year 3, Martin still has a season left to be paid for and is now 31. He probably isn’t worth $2.5 million at this point, unless he’s magically improved his game (from a talent perspective, not a given minutes perspective). You’ve got Matthews, Marner, Gardiner, and maybe Kapanen, Timashov, Nielsen and/or Dermott to worry about too.

            By 2020, the Leafs’ core should have hit their stride and the team should be in the mix. You want to be prepared to be able to take on skilled salary in a trade at this point, or be able to grab the right free agent on a short-term deal.

            Will Matt Martin’s likely odds of making 1.5M too much in a couple years break the entire project? No. But does it make it a little bit harder? Yeah. The point of the salary cap is to create parity, and the only way to cheat parity and build a better team under it is to beat the market as often as you can. The beginning of Martin’s contract is a wash to the market and the tail, based on what we know right now, is projectable to be a loss to the market.

            He’s a nice player to have on the roster right now. But if he makes getting a missing piece a bit more difficult in a few years, he’s not helping.

          • silentbob

            But does it?

            Almost all the guys you mentioned with expiring contracts in the next 2-3 seasons are RFA’s, not UFA’s. They can’t leave unless the Leafs let them.

            You’ve also mentioned 23 players they need to resign. Thats a full team. If all those players become NHL regulars and require contracts, they won’t have any roster spots to add “skilled salary”, unless of course they subtract from that group, which opens up space.

            You’re right a team can’t be competitive if they over pay players. If its a given that Martin is over paid (given the role he MIGHT play, he might not be), its during a 4 years when it doesn’t matter. A 4 years when the Leafs best, core players are either locked up or too young to earn big money contracts. By the time they have to give out big money deals to the important players, Martin will/can be gone. Your issue with the contract is valid, but its valid in 2019 or 2020. Today paying a player 1-1.5 million more for 4 years isn’t going to hurt them.

            Now if they do the samething next year and the year after and the year after etc…. that would be a problem.

  • @Jeff

    The days of winning free agency are over. July is a clear example of the management team sticking to their philosophy to build through the draft and internal development.

    of course there are exceptions to almost all rules and stamkos would have been it. But really we had no chance at that signing.

  • silentbob

    Just on Martin.

    We need to remember that Babcock likes playing 1 grinder (3-4 player) on each of his top 3 lines – thats why Komarov played almost 18 minutes a night last year. Spaling played over 15. Winnik played more then 14 minutes etc…

    Last year, on the Islanders 4th lien, Martin played 10:30 minutes a night last year. I think its likely we see him playing 14-16 minutes a night on the 2nd or 3rd line, probably with players like Matthews, Marner, Michalek, Lupul, JVR etc… If he ends up being an important part of the 2nd or 3rd line, that deal could look like a steal.

  • silentbob

    Hello all,

    anyone who makes a comparison to Martin Vs Bolland or Martin Vs Clarkson is officially a troll.

    ps. you will eat your words (I guess I am a troll too)

  • Stan Smith

    Do you really think the Leafs signed Martin to play on the fourth line? I’m guessing you probably also thought them signing Komarov to the contract they did was a bad idea, and were probably shocked that they would play him on the first line. That has turned out pretty good to this point. I am sure this is a Babcock signing, and that Martin will play a significantly bigger role than just a fourth line player.

    As for your comment in regards to their RFA’s that all of them “have the talent to be on an NHL roster next year.” If you were to say “have the talent, and potential, to become NHL regulars” I would agree, but NHL regulars right now? No.

    In regards to the Bernier deal, I think it is pretty obvious he was part of the deal to acquire Andersen, and the only reason why it was done when it was done was due to the $2M bonus.

    • “Love the signing. 2.95×4 is fine. Leo can play, they just need to give him the minutes”

      Me on Komarov on July 1st, 2014, the moment it was signed.

      The difference between Komarov and Martin is that the only coach to ever put Leo Komarov in a bottom-six role was Randy Carlyle and Matt Martin is a 27-year-old who’s only season outside of the bottom six since he was in high school was as a Draft+1 on a team with no other full-time NHL graduates after they lost Steven Stamkos.

      Leo Komarov has been called up to the Finnish National team in 10 of the last 12 years and has 5 medals. Matt Martin has never been called up to Team Canada.

      Komarov should’ve been the primary forechecker on a scoring line from the second he crossed the ocean and it took the Leafs three years to figure that out. There is no evidence whatsoever that Matt Martin has ever been anything more than what we’ve seen.

      Which is fine, if you want a non-burdon bottom six forechecker who can drop the gloves, Martin’s your guy. But you can like that signing without comparing him to Komarov, who is and has consistently been an obviously better player.

      • silentbob

        I don’t think anyone is saying Martin is greater then or equal to Komarov, just that he could be used the same way on the 2nd or 3rd line, the way Spaling and Winnik were last year (both played over 14 minutes a night, both played and produced well for them, neither is as good as Komarov).

        if Martin ends up being the physical guy and puck chaser on Matthew’s line (I think the top line to start the year will be Komarov – Kadri – Nylander) or Bozak’s line, gets a couple more goals and doubles his assists from last year, I don’t think it will be that hard considering the talent jump he’ll get…..he could be an important player for them.

        He isn’t going to become an offense driving, centeral point of the line or anything – but if thats how Babcock uses him, and he plays that role well….

        I think you’re getting push back on this Martin stuff because you seem so…….decided on the issue before he’s stepped on the ice for the team when 1) There is a pretty logical explaintion for why Babcock would want him and how he might use him, and if he is used that way and does well in that roll its not a bad contract at all and 2) The core players of this team are either locked up for 6 years or won’t be UFA’s for another 6/7 years. Complaining that 2.5 million is going to cause cap issues for a team that has no big pay days looming for the length of his contract seems….panic-ie.

        Worst case, if Martin either fails at the 2/3 line role, or is cast since day one on the 4th line AND Matthews, Marner, Zaitsev, Corrado, Hyman, Brown, Leipsic, JVR, Komarov, Nylander, Marincin Carrick, Rychel, Soshnikov, Johnson, Valiev, Gauthier, Gardiner, Kapanen, Timashov, Nielsen and/or Dermott all need new contracts all with raises in the next 3 years, to the point that the 2.5 million for Martin is an issue, they’ll be in an AMAZING position and it will be no big deal to give up a 5th or 4th or 3rd round pick to get someone to take him off their hands for the 2019-2020 season.

        • Gary Empey

          You can add there will be no problem moving Martin if the situation arises. He can be exposed in the upcoming expansion draft. If taken then we can hang on to the likes of Brown. He can be placed and claimed on waivers anytime. He is the type of player teams are looking for to make some noise in the playoffs. His four year deal at two and a half is nothing like a Lupul type contract.
          After trading away Phaneuf, Polak, Winnik, the Leafs were very lacking in players that enjoy playing a physical game. You only have to think of those scrums in front of the net where opposing teams will try to intimidate all our young guys after the whistle. Do we really want Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Kadri etc., dropping the gloves to protect themselves.

          • silentbob

            I agree, moving him if his contract becomes an issue won’t be a problem. I also agree that while a team needs skilled players in order to compete you also need some toughness in the line up (just look at how the Habs had to change from the mid-2000’s to now), though “dropping the gloves to protect themselves” is a meaningless statement.

  • Trevor5555

    Toronto got good deals on the RFA.

    Polak is a solid 3rd pair d-man who plays physical and is good defensively. He had the best +/- on our team before he was traded and just plays hard every night. There are not many better UFA options for our defence. Russel is a similar level but wants 4 million apparently. If we could get Russel for 2.8-3 million for 1-2 years and trade Hunwick Id be happy with Russel – Polak as our 3rd pair.

    Martin scored almost 10 goals as a 4th liner for 4 straight years now. Skates well. Plays physical hitting everything and can fight if need be. Your typical 4th liner gets about 1 million a year. However, guys with special skills are worth more. Martin fights so that adds value. Think of what we paid Colton Orr. He skates well, chips in goals and is pretty good defensively. When you look at the whole package he is definately worth 2.5 million. Babcock seemed to think he has more to offer as well. With the goals, hitting, fighting and skating and being a decent defensive player he gives us a great value for 2.5M. If he expands and can play the PK or play on the 3rd line regularly he could be one of the best value signings of the summer. At 27 he has no risk of falling off significantly during his contract. Teams can afford to pay a few bottom 6 guys 2-3 million without hurting the cap situation. He fills the bottom 6 enforcer role perfectly as he is a new age enforcer, one whose fighting isnt his best asset. Lots of bottom 6 guys get paid in this range, I think he will be a fan favorite like Komarov before christmas.