Will Roman Polak Play For The Marlies This Season?

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Photo Credit: Kim Klement/USA TODAY SPORTS

When the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Roman Polak to a $2.25M contract last month, did they do it with the intention of having him play some or all of the 2016-17 NHL season with the Toronto Marlies?  The question seems silly.  Why would you sign a player to a $2.25M NHL contract if you wanted him to play for your minor league affiliate?  I admit that it is not the most likely scenario.  No team that I can think of has ever done something like it.  The Leafs probably intend for him to be an NHL player.  And yet there are a few pieces of evidence that hint at the possibility that the question might not be as bizarre as it initially seems. 

SHANAHAN ON POLAK

Shortly after the Leafs signed Roman Polak back in early July, Brendan Shanahan was on TSN 1050 to discuss the state of the Leafs.  He was asked about the Leafs summer moves, and had this to say about Roman Polak (around the 8:00 mark):

A couple of years ago he was coming to us as a number five or six. Now
he’s coming to us as a bit more of a depth guy to support some of our
young players.

There isn’t much lower to go on an NHL’s team’s depth chart than being a bottom pair defenceman, but Shanahan says that’s what they intend for Polak to do, and he says that Polak understands that’s his role.  Most teams carry seven defencemen, and the Leafs even carried eight for much of last season, so it’s possible that Polak is being brought in to fill in one of those roles.  However, $2.25M is an awful lot of money to pay a guy you expect to be a healthy scratch most games, especially for a team like the Leafs that has a cap crunch.  So why would the Leafs do that?  I’ve got a theory that I’ll get to in a bit.

BABCOCK ON POLAK

What really got me thinking about the possibility of Polak playing for the Marlies was an answer Mike Babcock gave in a press conference on July 9.  When asked about the addition of Roman Polak, he had this to say:

We’ve got some kids in Valiev, Nielsen, and guys like that need to be around good people and learn how to play.

That struck me as kind of a weird remark because Valiev and Neilsen are going to be playing for the Marlies this season, not the Leafs.  With eight NHL defencemen already under contract for next season (Gardiner, Rielly, Hunwick, Marincin, Carrick, Zaitsev, Corrado, Polak) and other Marlies like Viktor Loov knocking on the door, it’s hard to see a situation where someone like Andrew Nielsen sees much time on the Leafs roster this season.  That would suggest that, if the Leafs want Polak to be around those guys on a day-to-day basis, teaching them how to be good pros, he’s going to have to be playing for the Marlies.

It’s certainly possible that Babcock just meant that they want guys like Polak in the organization in general as an example, and not that they want him working with the young Marlies every day, but it struck me as a kind of strange remark.

BUT WHY?

Let’s get back to my earlier question: why would the Leafs give a $2.25M contract to a player they expect to be a healthy scratch for most of the season?  Well, if that’s what they expected it would be very strange.  But what if that’s not the plan?  What if the plan is for him to play for the Marlies?

In that case, the $2.25M kind of makes sense.  In order to play for the Marlies, Roman Polak would have to pass through waivers.  At a low contract value (say, $1M) there’s a reasonable chance that a team would claim him.  By the beginning of the NHL season, there will almost certainly be some NHL team that has injuries on defence and could use a cheap replacement.  But $2.25M is a very high cap hit for a waiver claim, especially if it’s a player who you only see as a temporary injury replacement.  So by giving Polak a higher cap hit than his roster spot would seem to suggest he should have, you can protect him from waiver claims.

Because the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement got rid of re-entry waivers, the Leafs wouldn’t have to worry about someone taking Polak at half-price if they want to recall him later, as they would have under the previous CBA.  And that could have been part of the pitch to Roman: We’ll pay you a higher salary than you’ll get elsewhere to be a mentor to our kids on the Marlies, and you’ll be our first call-up if one of our right-handed defencemen like Connor Carrick or Nikita Zaitsev gets injured.  Polak would continue to be able to be an NHL player at least part of the time, while the Leafs would get the veteran leader they want on the Marlies as an example for the kids.

If that’s the plan, it does still come at a cost to the Leafs.  If a player on a 1-way contract is sent to the minors, the amount of salary cap relief the NHL team receives is only $950,000; the rest of the cap hit remains.  In Roman Polak’s case, that means the Leafs would still have a $1.3M cap hit to deal with even when he was on the Marlies.  That does sound like a lot, but maybe the team thinks that’s a good investment to make in the development of their young players.

IS THAT REALLY THE PLAN?

I’ve tried to explain why the Leafs might want Polak to play for the Marlies, and I’ve given a bit of evidence to back it up, but the question remains as to whether any NHL team would really sign a player to a contract with such a high cap hit, fully intending to send that player to the minors.  And I have to admit that the answer is most likely “no”.  Babcock and Shanahan were speaking off the cuff and probably weren’t dropping hints about Polak’s future.  The case I’ve laid out here is based on two fairly minor remarks, and while I find them a bit strange, the most likely explanation is that they don’t mean much.

And yet it does make a certain amount of sense.  The Leafs already had seven NHL defencemen under contract when they signed Polak, including some young right-handed defencemen who deserve ice time, like Zaitsev and Carrick.  It makes no sense to take away ice time from those guys and give it to Roman Polak.  The Leafs also still have Frank Corrado on a very team-friendly contract, and he would figure to matter more to the team’s future than Polak.  If Corrado winds up on waivers the Leafs would certainly lose him; Vancouver would surely put in a claim, even if no other team did.

So maybe the plan really is for Roman Polak to play at least some of this season for the Toronto Marlies, acting as a mentor to the younger players, providing a good example of the kind of work ethic, training regimen, and professionalism that it takes to have a successful career in the NHL.  It seems like a long shot, but I think it’s at least worth considering.

  • elseldo

    god i hope so. rielly, gardiner, zaitsev, carrick, marincin, corrado with hunwick alternating as 7d should be the defence. tbh hunwick could be put on the marlies as we may be able to trade polak for a decent return again like winnik. i don’t see polak agreeing to that. maybe he agrees to being in the press box from time to time but to the ahl? i don’t see it.

  • Brent Wisken

    Eagerly awaiting a similar article about Bozak… you guys are incredible.

    With Dion gone Polak is the only guy in the organization that can clear guys in front of the net and stop the cycle on the boards. Also, he’s the only guy on the back end that can fight. He just finished a season with the 2nd best team in the league. He will be first PK unit all year or at least until the trade deadline and get us another pick.

    • Gary Empey

      There is more chance of “Valiev, Nielsen, and guys like that” making the Leafs and playing beside Polak than Polak going to the Marlies to play with them.

      I listened to this crap about Polak all last year, Babcock played him 22 minutes a game.

      The skill set of a bottom six defenceman is different than a top four.

      Corrado and Marincin are not in the Leaf future. I doubt either of them make the Leafs after training camp. I really don’t understand the constant praise they get from our writers. Have you guys not watched them play? For God’s sake, Corrado was unable to place one shot on net last year. Even when Rielly consantly set him up. Marincin doesn’t have a clue what to do with the puck when he has it.

      Wake up you guys. Get off twitter for 5 friggin’ minutes.

  • magesticRAGE

    I could buy that argument, if Campbell wasn’t already a Marlie and the captain. Holl is an AHL vet by now and a right shot too. Polak could just be a well paid insurance policy, if some of the kids filter too much and need to be sent down, not sure. I would love to play Lööv and Marincin together at the third pairing, can be just as physical as Polak.

  • Brent Wisken

    Although i often disagree with Jeff, Shawn and Ryan, and they sometimes annoy me, nevertheless i enjoy reading their articles, along with the others on The Leafs Nation. I often have a very different opinion. For instance, i’m not much of an analytics fan, although i see a bit of value in it. Nevertheless, i enjoy reading their articles and have a good time commenting, even if they sometimes tick me off and i think that they are way off base. I confess that sometimes i am a bit rude back. Often Leafs Nation is one of the first to report on issues, reporting the news here before other outlets.

  • Trevor5555

    I dont think Polak or Carrado would pass through waivers without being claimed. 2.25M isnt a deterent for a team to claim him. Polak got us a 2nd rounder from SJ more or less so a guy worth that is almost 100% getting claimed.

    He is just a good depth d-man that will be ready if Carrado or Carrick struggle or get hurt or for games where we need extra physicality.

    Hrabarenka is likely to play for the Marlies and hes a right shot. We also signed Maggio who is a tough right shot d-man/RW so we have plenty of depth on the Marlies now.

    We had a Russian RHD at prospect camp named Lisov who looked like hes pretty good in the KHL, maybe he gets signed if we need more depth.

    In one year we got pretty damn mean by adding Martin, Polak, Maggio and maybe Prust and Hraberenka. That a lot of angry beef…mmmm angus beef….goes to make a burger!

    • Kanuunankuula

      What’s the harm then? You just unloaded a overpayed D to a competitor for free? Let them claim him. He’s not getting the same price this deadline as the last. People did see how terrible he was for SJ.

    • Kanuunankuula

      What’s the harm then? You just unloaded a overpayed D to a competitor for free? Let them claim him. He’s not getting the same price this deadline. People did see how terrible he was for SJ.

  • magesticRAGE

    This is one the few signings I didn’t understand why people were irate about.
    At the end of the it’s a 1 year contract to a guy that knows the system and is at best a #5. What do people expect from 5/6 dmen? They play there for reason they’re not that good and Polak’s actually decent he works hard,play’s to his strengths eg hits and grinds and doesn’t try skate or deke his way out because he knows he can’t.
    Model professional and could be flipped for extra assets midseason.

      • Gary Empey

        Drag used this Babcock quote as evidence Polak is going to the Marlies.

        “We’ve got some kids in Valiev, Nielsen, and guys like that need to be around good people and learn how to play.”

        The main reason Polak was re-signed is none of our other 7 D have much of a physical presence.

  • Brent Wisken

    Jeez, the comment section of this site is so salty lately. This author isn’t trying to insult Roman Polak or say he’s not an NHL player. It’s just a theory (an unlikely theory, as he saysin the article) on what could happen with the crowded blue line that the leafs have right now. And something is likely to happen, since the leafs have 8 defencemen right now

  • Trevor5555

    Marincin and Carrado are 23 and 24. They are still learning the NHL game. I think that they will be a good 3rd pair for us with Hunwick and Polak getting in lots of games too. These guys performed pretty well last year with Hunwick having the weakest numbers but the toughest deployment. All 4 are capable 3rd pair guys.

    Theres no reason to believe the Leafs wont carry 8 d-men on the active roster. They can split games between the depth guys to keep everyone fresh and im not sure how drills work in practice but having 8 guys you can have 4 established pairs if you want.

    If Hunwick and Polak get 20-25 games by the trade deadline they might be good trade bait as teams always need depth d-men heading into the stretch run and playoffs. Polak pretty much got us a 2nd rounder and Hunwick should fetch a similar return.

    So theres some positives to having those 4 guys on the roster.

    I dont think im being salty just pointing out flaws in his theory. No way they signed Polak for the Marlies and I highly doubt they risk losing an asset to waivers when they just signed another Marlies d-man Maggio and have a big 23 year old RHD Hrabarenka on PTO who Lou is familiar with. They no longer even need RHD on the Marlies, which is the only real argument for trying to send Polak down.