Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS
As the Toronto Maple Leafs prove to the mass of skeptics that they are, indeed, actually good, that same group has desperately searched for what the next step will be. Many in the mainstream media have agreed that acquiring a big-minute defenceman is important, and that the cost is likely going to be very steep.
Mark Spector of Sportsnet was the latest to weigh in yesterday.
From his article, “How the Hall-Larsson swap has impacted the NHL trade market”
Today, when the Toronto Maple Leafs consider trading a winger like James van Riemsdyk for a much-needed defenceman, they won’t be looking at the Subban for Weber deal as a comparable.
The deal that set the bar for the Leafs — and any other team that is rich in forwards but desperate to shore up an Achilles heel blue-line — was the Taylor Hall-for-Adam Larsson trade between the New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers.
It’s worth noting that Spector is an Oilers-focused writer and has a history of not being overly fond with the Leafs. He’s often quick to the chirp on the subject of local players signing here (covering Connor McDavid might influence this), jokes about watching the team being a form of abuse, believes we’re about 5-7 years away from knowing what the Leafs are, and believed that the Leafs, who were predicted to finish 29th by USA Today, 8th in the Atlantic by Yahoo, 28th by Bleacher Report, 28th by our own NHLNumbers, 30th by ESPN, and considered to be a basement team with next to no immediate hope by every major outlet, would be the be the team “most likely to disappoint” in the National Hockey League this season.
Carrying that over, he’s got a bit of an old school slant to his approach as well. He believes that platforms like this one ruined Randy Carlyle by forcing him to play Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin more, openly celebrated Martin Marincin being scratched in November, and continues to be an advocate of the idea that Kris Russell isn’t getting a bit of extra luck this year, but is defying the numbers because of how good he is. That he’d pump Larsson up so high right now isn’t shocking; he has the Oilers as a contender like team, paving their way through “size, battle, edge, grit, fight, nastiness..“, and believes them, after years of failure to be a model for other teams.
There’s more I can dig through, I’m sure. At the same time, Spector obviously puts in the hours and also has his fair share of solid and respectable reporting, as any veteran in the industry does. But it’s pretty clear that there’s a slant, potentially subconscious, that drives him away from the Leafs’ blueprint and towards the specific things he likes about the team he covers most. He has full right to that perspective, but this is the context of it. Anyway, this article isn’t about Mark, so back to the meat.
If Leafs fans thought Chiarelli got fleeced in the Hall deal, at least one scout we spoke with said Toronto won’t get a player as good as Larsson in return for the older van Riemsdyk, who has a modified no-trade clause and is one season away from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
“There’s no comparison between Hall and JVR,” said the scout, who thinks the Leafs will have to sweeten the pot. “You’re not trading (Mitch) Marner, so (William) Nylander has got to be the guy. He’s skilled, but how good?”
The Leafs are exactly where Edmonton was a year ago: Stocked with young talent up front, but with a blue-line corps that needs at least two quality NHL defencemen. Chiarelli knew he could deal from strength, though even he must have been surprised when he found himself trading a 70-point winger for a 15-point defenceman.
So, to summarize: once again, the Leafs desperately need a defenceman, because they are not good defensively. The Edmonton Oilers traded one of the five best left-wingers on earth (arguments to be made as high as #2) for the fifth-best defenceman on their roster (6th in offensive metrics, 7th in play dirving metrics) in one of the most lopsided 1-for-1 trades in the history of the game.
But because they have one of the best prospects in the history of hockey chasing an Art Ross Trophy and managed to replace Hall with a worse winger on a worse deal through free agency, they are good, and that makes the trade good. They also clearly won the trade because the New Jersey Devils are bad, despite the fact that they were already bad and play in a division that has four of the top six teams in the NHL standings.
Because the Oilers are good, which makes the Larsson trade good, the price is now set for a defenceman who doesn’t score and gives up a lot of shots at a superstar forward on a sweetheart contract. As such, James van Riemsdyk and William Nylander would be lucky to draw somebody as good as Adam Larsson, who is good because we thought he would be really good years ago and, now that he’s been traded to a team that has started winning in spite of him, we are right.
Here’s the situation, when you give it more than a “they did it, so we should too” level of thought:
- William Nylander and James van Riemsdyk, in this season, have been more likely to positively influence the flow of play than their teammates. This is true of shot attempts, it’s true of shots on goal, it’s true of expected goals. In Nylander’s case, it’s also true of unblocked attempts and scoring chances as well. At the day, when you’re trying to outscore the other team, it’s not necessarily about limiting opportunities, so much as it is about having more opportunities than the other team; especially if your team is the more lethal one.
- Even if you buy into them having to be better defensively, Nylander has above-the-curve (or teetering on the edge) “against” numbers in almost all of these metrics; statistically speaking, he hasn’t been a defensive detriment to the team. Van Riemsdyk doesn’t fare quite as well, but we know this, and we know the same of his centre in Tyler Bozak. Their line with Mitch Marner is designed with that in mind, with the hope that their raw offensive talent will lead to a better rate of conversion.
- William Nylander is a 20-year-old, playing a non-natural position, bouncing across four different lines, and still on pace to put up 55 points (clear top six) as a rookie. On almost every team in the league, he’d be their best prospect and identified as an untouchable. Toronto having a Big Three instead of having a Big One or Two, which gives them a gigantic head start on 90% of rebuilds in this era, doesn’t mean they have to get rid of an already great player just because.
- The Toronto Maple Leafs thrive on a high-octane offensive game. Getting a guy who is good at “staying home” would slow down the pace of this game and stifle them when they’re in the offensive zone. The team’s biggest concern right now is coughing up leads, when, in most cases, Toronto’s daggering against goals have come when they’ve collapsed into their own zone late in the third period, which is exactly what you’d be bringing in this mystery player in to do.
It’s baffling that we’re talking about this in the manner that we are. I have no qualms of the idea of moving on from van Riemsdyk (eventually); he’ll need a long-term raise at a prime-closing age that probably won’t be worth discussing in July of 2018. I don’t think any player is untradable, so I’m not wholly against the idea of Nylander moving if Toronto were to be blown away with an offer, but for an elite rookie to be consistently brought up as a trade chip (and not to mention, repeatedly mentioned as being a tier below Mitch Marner despite them being on very similar trajectories) is absurd.
Especially when you consider that we’re talking about overpaying in player value, using players who are underpaid in contract value, to fill a hole in a position that the market is currently overvaluing. In a cut-throat, 30 (soon to be 31) team, salary cap environment, building your roster is about more than the types of players you have; it’s consistently undercutting what the rest of the league believes to be market value. Any form of intentional overpayment, in assets or finances, is an open acknowledgment that you’re not maximizing the potential of your afforded opportunity. A team that treads the average will forever be stuck in the middle. A team that consistently overpays will find a way to crash to the bottom.
So why jump in? If you know you’re going to get stiffed, doesn’t it make more sense to try to find cost-efficient ways to work around the hole than it does to try to address it in the same way that everybody else has? If hockey is fluid, inconsistent, and unpredictable, why sacrifice to take the same traditional approach to filling the spot?
Hell, maybe go the opposite way. If middling stay at home defencemen are worth a premium right now, maybe trade Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick for skilled forwards or a top backup goaltender or draft picks. They might not be Adam Larsson, but hey, teams gotta pay the price, right?
Of course, the same people who are so invested in trading Toronto’s top forwards for minute eating defencemen will scoff at this and remind you that they believe that the aforementioned pair are the ones doing the right things for the Leafs, and shouldn’t be messed with, as they have for months. Which probably means their end game here is to actually replace Connor Carrick, who is one-half of a pair that has been Top-5 in the league in relative shot differential this season.
What I’m basically saying here, is don’t buy into this hype. The narrative that Toronto should get a “Top-4 steady defenceman” at all costs is going to remain for a while, but it probably shouldn’t, and it definitely shouldn’t always involve the same prime assets. Just because one team made an indefensively bad trade doesn’t mean that others should follow, doesn’t mean that you have to follow their lead.
Improving the defence would be awesome, but we’re probably looking at the wrong spot, the wrong type of player to put there, and overestimating the necessity of investment. If the Leafs the trade route, it should only happen when the Leafs are capable of winning one; not when they’re merely capable of making one.
PS: If you’re looking for a game to watch on the last day of this bye week, the Devils face the Oilers tonight. I hope Taylor Hall scores a hat trick.