Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SPORTS
The transformation of the Leafs farm system is one of the most incredible things we’ve witnessed in a long time. In 2013 the talent pool was essentially “some guy we drafted in the first round, and I guess Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, and Andreas Johnsson all don’t look awful.” Since then, the team has hired an elite talent evaluator in Mark Hunter, scoured the world for free agents, and used their cap space and resources to take on players so their team can get out from a contract. There have also been possibly useful prospects included in larger deals, like the Dion Phaneuf trade. Every kind of opportunity has been exploited.
Look at the players added since then. Focus on the guys who look like they have a reasonable shot at being NHL contributors. They’ve drafted William Nylander, Rinat Valiev, Mitch Marner, Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco, Andrew Nielsen, Martins Dzierkals, Jesper Lindgren, Dmytro Timashov, Auston Matthews, Yegor Korshkov, Carl Grundstom, and Adam Brooks. In trades, they’ve brought in Kasperi Kapanen, Kerby Rychel, Connor Carrick, Zach Hyman, Brendan Leipsic, Tobias Lindberg, and if you’d like to count him, Martin Marincin. Via free agency, they’ve added Nikita Zaitsev, Nikita Soshnikov, and Trevor Moore. There are more, but those are just the guys who, to my eyes and with a bit of data, look like they could be players.
Many of them will not pan out, as we must always note when discussing prospects. The thing is, that’s still a lot of players. There are 12 forward spots and six defense spots in a lineup, and some receive little ice time. They’ve got several players already who are good players under long-term deals, and who should take up some of those spots. Many of them are not ever going to play for the Leafs. You’re used to hearing about Brad Boyes, Alex Steen, Freddy Modin, and Kenny Jonsson. Now at some point, the Leafs will have to move away from good young players because there isn’t room. Any given draft brings with it another seven shots at a player who might take another of those roster spots.
The lede is buried under three layers of inane prospect hype, but it’s something to consider. Another thing to consider is that if you’re drafting well, by definition you’re taking players other teams didn’t want. If other teams thought Adam Brooks was as good as the Leafs believe he is, they would’ve taken him. This means that getting something back for a lot of these kids is going to be impossible. Sure, we’ve all sat and watched Q games and browsed Youtube to see Dmytro Timashov move, but most teams decided against him four times. Hell, most teams took two or three guys who will never play in the NHL over him.
This is why it’s important to identify not just the undervalued players, but your own overvalued ones. I’ve thought for a while now that James van Riemsdyk will probably leave Toronto after his contract ends. It’s a shame because I like him, but why pay that money when he’s 30 when you have Timashov, Leipsic, or Johnsson to take his spot? Two years in advance, we see a glut of 21 to 23-year-old players who have earned a shot at playing in the NHL but are punished because of the depth in the organization. It’s about time the Leafs try to decide who is going to have to be sacrificed.
That brings me to Kasperi Kapanen. In his professional career, Kapanen hasn’t done a whole heck of a lot. Granted, he’s only 20, and the AHL is hard. Once you factor in how many minutes he lost on a loaded team, and his injuries, 25 points in 44 games isn’t so bad. But he’s not a can’t-miss star on the level of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander. Other than his draft position, there’s not much reason to assume he’s any better than Brown, Leipsic, Johnsson, or any of a bunch of other kids. But thanks to that draft position, and possibly his tournament-winning goal for Finland at the World Juniors, he carries a much greater reputation.
Now, I like Kapanen, even if it’s mostly because I liked his dad. It’s hard not to remember, though, that he was the most valued asset in a package for an elite winger just over a year ago. That was a complicated situation, and we can’t expect to trade Kapanen, a first, and a slow defenseman for say, Max Pacioretty. But as people underrate this Leafs team (as they have) and overrate Kapanen, it makes one wonder what the first round pick and a top prospect could bring back.
Star players are mostly traded only during extenuating circumstances. These are often things like a difficult salary cap situation, a trade demand, or the gross incompetence of a General Manager. The options are limited, but it’s easy to imagine that the next time a star player becomes available, the Leafs could offer the most enticing package. While we all might like Kapanen, and see him as a part of the future, trading that package for someone like Jacob Trouba or Nikita Kucherov makes a lot more sense than waking up to realize that it’s time to cash in and grab a third round pick for Connor Brown. It doesn’t make sense to hoard the value of the third best right winger in the organization that can’t drink on road trips.
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