The Las Vegas Golden Knights revealed their name and branding on Tuesday night, reminding us that this thing is really happening and that the league is about to get a little bigger. With that in mind, I decided to take a crack at the potential implications for the Toronto Maple Leafs come the day of the Expansion Draft, where one player will be dragged away to the land of Gamblor while the rest sit and watch, whether they’re exempt, protected, or waiting in the balance. Let’s dive in!
The following players, due to their lack of significant North American pro experience (aka, AHL and NHL), are exempt from the expansion draft entirely, no matter what happens this season:
|Trevor Moore||Mitch Marner||Frederik Gauthier|
|Auston Matthews||William Nylander||Andreas Johnson|
|Zach Hyman||Kasperi Kapanen||Nikita Soshnikov|
|Tobias Lindberg||Nikita Zaitsev||Justin Holl|
|Dmytro Timashov||Travis Dermott||Andrew Nielsen|
|Stephane Robidas||Rinat Valiev||Kasimir Kaskisuo|
You’re reading this right; the entire big three are exempt. Zaitsev, Soshnikov, and Hyman, all on the regular Leafs roster already, are also exempt. Kapanen, Gauthier, Moore, Lindberg, Timashov, Dermott, Valiev, and Nielsen, who are basically the core of the Marlies, are all exempt. Justin Holl and Kasimir Kaskisuo aren’t vital, but they are exempt. Most importantly, the Leafs won’t lose Stephane Robidas two weeks before he officially retires. What a time to be alive.
Forced, But Not Really
On paper, the Leafs are forced to protect Nathan Horton, but the odds of them actually having to do so are pretty low. The league is looking into a way to give exemptions to players who are legitimately injured long-term, and even if that isn’t the case, there’s less than zero chance that the Golden Knights will take Horton, so I doubt he has any issue waiving his NMC before the draft. He’s the only player forced to be protected in the organization, so this realistically means that the team has free reign.
Who To Protect
This now leaves a very important question: If all the top kids are already protected, and Leafs aren’t forced to protect anybody, who do they hold close? For the sake of this exercise, we will go with the 7 forward, 3 defencemen, 1 goaltender model (teams can opt for 8 skaters and a goalie if they value their defence a lot, or not at all). No particular order as far as these guys go, but…
- Forward 1: Nazem Kadri. He’s getting better and better as his role shifts into an annoying shutdown forward with the occasional scoring opportunity, and now that his stick isn’t as ice-cold as it was last year, he’s a lock to have on the team moving forward.
- Forward 2: James van Riemsdyk. Officially a Top 100 Leaf of all time. Good at hockey. Good at being a good contract. Thanks again, Luke Schenn.
- Forward 3: Kerby Rychel. Hasn’t been overly amazing with the Marlies so far this year, but his bounces will come. Still a decently touted and young enough prospect. May as well.
- Forward 4: Connor Brown. He plays relentless hockey and he’s only getting better. AHL experience is the only reason he’s at a protectable stage, so lock him up.
- Forward 5: Brendan Leipsic. He’ll probably be playing heavy minutes with the Leafs next year and he’s ripping up the AHL. Again, keep the prospect pool as tight as you possibly can.
- Forward 6: Tyler Bozak. Maybe the right move is to sell high on him at some point, but for now, he’s having his best year of his career and he’s been a go-to vet in that room. He stays.
- Forward 7: Josh Leivo. I’ll explain this later, but he’s the second best remaining option.
- Defence 1: Morgan Rielly. About as much of a lock as you’re going to get; he’s young, he’s locked up, and he’s a leader for the team.
- Defence 2: Jake Gardiner. Signed to a great deal and drives the heck out of play when he’s on the ice. Another no-brainer.
- Defence 3: Connor Carrick. You can’t possibly make an argument for protecting either half of Polwick, Viktor Loov hasn’t been good enough to worry about protecting, Andrew Campbell is an AHL vet, and after that, you’re basically looking at Carrick, Marincin, and Corrado. Take the one actually getting ice time and performing well.
- Goaltender 1: Frederik Andersen. Again, another easy one; he’s bounced back after a slow start and he’s signed long-term. Unless Sparks or Bibeau dominate or the Penguins gift the team Matt Murray in exchange for Kyle Dubas never asking about an ex-Greyhound ever again, it’s Freddie.
Most of the players that are being exposed here are pretty par for the corse, as referenced before.
Polak, Hunwick, Marincin, Corrado, Loov, and Campbell are your defencemen. You don’t really want to lose players who have the underlying talents of Marincin and Corrado, but Marincin has had a rough year and Corrado has been a healthy scratch all season. Quick note on a misconception: the Leafs aren’t scratching Corrado to make him exempt. The “40/70” rule isn’t what makes you eligible for the draft; it’s a team requirement that you must have X amount of players that fit under 40/70, but a player doesn’t have to reach it to be draft it. Scratching him to make him less likely to be picked? Maybe, but the playoffs are more important than holding on to Frank Corrado, so I have to imagine they’re scratching him because of their own perception of performance, not anything else.
In goal, the Leafs leave Jhonas Enroth, Garret Sparks, and Antoine Bibeau up for grabs. Again, it would take a huge performance out of the kids for this to be considered a problem; there are much higher profile goalies about to be left up for grabs and only so many spots for Vegas to fill.
Up front, you’re allowing the Golden Knights a chance at Joffrey Lupul, Books Laich, Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Matt Martin, Peter Holland, Ben Smith, Byron Froese, and Leo Komarov.
Back to the 40/70 rule; that’s the reason why the Leafs are exposing Komarov in this theoretical situation. Toronto has to expose two players that land under it and are signed through 2018. The players that meet that stipulation are Kadri, Bozak, Komarov, and Matt Martin. James van Riemsdyk needs 10 games to reach it. No disrespect to Martin and Komarov, but they’re the two weak links here.
Cheating The System
If you would like to leave, say, Leivo exposed and protect Komarov instead, there is a way around this. You can either trade for an experienced forward who fits these requirements, call up Byron Froese to play on the fourth line for 14 games and then sign him to a 1-year extension, or my personal favourite idea, offer Brooks Laich an extension.
If Laich believes that he doesn’t have much time left in the National Hockey League but would like to stay around the organization, this may be a good way to go about things. The Leafs could sign him to a lower cost, 1-year extension. Then, the Leafs can protect Komarov instead and have Laich as one of their two exposed forwards. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if doing this led to the Golden Knights claiming him. His temporary 2016/17 cap hit can help them get to their necessary floor on draft day, and his history with team GM and former Capitals GM George McPhee might lead to him being chosen as a character add.
If the Leafs can turn Brooks Laich into an avoidance of the 40/70 curse, and use him to keep the Golden Knights away from your fancy stat darling defencemen, that trade just looks even better. If not, you’ll at least get the former, and he can be waived to either a new home or the Marlies in October.
Either way, we’ll have to see how things play out in the coming months. Toronto might make moves that render this projection obsolete, but it’s interesting to think about right now nonetheless.